Carroll 1 Jonathan Carroll. A Portrait of Psychosis: Freudian Thought in The Picture of Dorian Gray

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1 Carroll 1 Jonathan Carroll ENGL 305 Psychoanalytic Essay October 10, 2014 A Portrait of Psychosis: Freudian Thought in The Picture of Dorian Gray All art is quite useless, claims Oscar Wilde as an introduction to his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (2). Contrary to this radical claim, however, Wilde s ensuing story, a work of art, is immensely useful in painting a moral lesson: an example of the potentially fatal consequences of an unblanaced personality. Reading such a personality is most facilitated through the principles of psychologist Sigmund Freud and his theories on the id, ego and superego. Most notably, the story of Dorian Gray exposes how the willing allowance of the id to supercede the superego, resulting in devotion to the pleasure principle, can only end in destruction and can only be ended by the destruction of self. Characters in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and likewise the reader, are led to believe by the character of Lord Henry that an imbalance of the id, ego and superego is desirable. With the ideal harmony between instictual desires, the control of those desires, and the recognition of the consequences which those desires will have in a society the id, ego, and superego, respectively a person is able to please him- or herself in ways which do not detriment the society or self, i.e. ways which are not destructive. Raise one of the triarchy to greater import than the others, though, and there will be destructive results to either others, self or both parties. Lord Henry suggests that Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, instigating in the reader s mind the notion that the ego and superego the human s natural inhibitions to elevating

2 Carroll 2 the id unreasonably are in fact the cause of destruction, rather than an imbalance of the three parts (Wilde 40). This is a twisted and untrue idea, but it is enough to have Dorian consider the abandonment of the ego and superego to allow his id to run free. Furthermore, it allows the reader to conceive how Dorian changes from a harmonious individual to a selfish, destructive man. The push that catalyzes the change itself lie in Lord Henry s words I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit, thereby giving both Dorian and the reader a manifestation of the id: Lord Henry Wotton (Wilde 76). With no one stepping forward to vocalize for either the ego or superego, Dorian submits himself entirely to the id and disenfranchises both of its checks and balances. The prominence of Dorian Gray s id over his ego and superego creates in him an unbalanced personality, which the reader observes manifested in his interminable devotion to the pleasure principle. Whereas the id has received a vocal representation, the ego and superego share representation by Basil Hallward s titular portrait of Dorian just as Mark Edmundson interprets Freud s theories in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego: we want to sink back into easy pleasures... by letting a masterly object take the place of the superego (Edmundson 28). However, not only is this masterly object a non-vocal source, Gray actually locks the portrait away, thus removing it from the story and consequently the reader s attention. With neither ego nor superego immediately present, the reader loses sight of the reality principle in Dorian s life save for the occassions when Dorian returns to the uppermost room and confronts his portrait. However, these confrontations do not serve well to reinforce the existence of the reality principle, as the narrator points out that Dorian, when thinking of the portrait, speaks with the madness of pride, and furthermore the man himself attributes his perception of

3 Carroll 3 the portrait s changes as a product of that tiny scarlet speck that makes men mad (Wilde 146, 88). Although to Dorian this explanation saves him from confronting his ego and superego and their implicit consequences, to the reader the explanation serves as an example of the delusions or hallucinations... [which] have their origins primarily in the fears and wishes within [the mentally ill] (Brenner 2). As Dorian essentially admits that his desire for an imbalance in his id, ego and superego has made him mentally ill, the reader no longer even expects him to acknowledge the reality principle, leaving him solely with the id and pleasure principle and their destructive ends. The reader finds in the imbalanced, mad antihero a life which, due to its subscription to the pleasure principle, is thus inescapably destructive to others and self alike. With the reality principle s general absence from the novel, Dorian s devotion to the pleasure principle leads to the deaths of his friends and acquaintances and ultimately Dorian himself. Since the mentally ill Dorian has no drive but for pleasure, he fails to sympathize with the needs of others and only cares for the immediate satisfaction of himself. When Sibyl admits that I have not pleased you, Dorian has no qualms about leaving his unpleasurable fiancé in her grief, and though after reflection he believes that reconciliation with her is possible, the reader knows by now that Dorian cannot be sincere about indefinite, committed relationships, only immediate gratification (Wilde 85). Hence, Sibyl s suicide comes not as a surprise but rather as the obvious resolution of an encounter with the unbalanced Dorian and his formidable pleasure principle. After some time, Basil confronts Dorian with an entire list of victims: Why is your friendship so fatal to young men? There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide. You were his great friend. There was Sir Henry Ashton,

4 Carroll 4 who had to leave England with a tarnished name. You and he were inseparable. What about Adrian Singleton and his dreadful end? What about Lord Kent s only son, and his career?... What about the young Duke of Perth? (Wilde 144) The reader knows by now that Basil s plea for Dorian to recognize the reality principle that he needs to moderate his pleasure-seeking to avoid claiming more victims comes as a threat to Dorian s id and consequently must be snuffed out; just so, Dorian murders Basil in a show of fanatical devotion to the pleasure principle, which thusly claims another victim through its acolyte. Still unchecked, the id drives Dorian to further destruction which eventually must culminate in his own demise. Dorian Gray can only stop his pleasure principle s destructive rampage by allowing it to claim his own life. Dorian himself never realizes this; however, his necessary sacrifice is apparent to the reader after he continuously resolves to change his pleasure-seeking ways before reconsideration and rejoicing in the tragedies which he sows, such as calling his brief escapade with Sibyl a marvellous experience and wondering if life has still in store for me anything as marvellous (Wilde 100). Indubitably, when the narrator begins to expose Dorian s thoughts, claiming that he would never again tempt innocence. He would be good, the reader recognizes not an impending change but rather more destruction (Wilde 212). Dorian s subsequent attempt to temper his pleasure principle once and for all cannot be successful, just as all other efforts conceived from his alleged changes of heart have not succeeded; with neither the ego nor superego to influence him, Dorian cannot truly abandon his idish desires. Because change is impossible for the story s main character, the story s only possible resolution is the death of

5 Carroll 5 Dorian. Just so, in his final attempt to be good, Dorian ends up killing himself along with his id and its desires, and too finally the destruction which accompanied them. Though the ruin of Dorian Gray may seem to the reader too harsh given his efforts to change his hedonistic ways, he or she understands that the once-innocent man s death is necessarily tragic in order to make the useless art piece s moral lesson impactful. Whether coincidence or more probably principle, Wilde s sole novel provides a legitimizing study for a psychoanalytic reading of literature, and Freud s theories place Dorian Gray in an illuminating psychological context. Through psychoanalysis, the reader finds him- or herself within the troubled mind of a young man instead of an implausible fantasy. Once acknowledged, the troubling story of this troubled, id-dominated mind leads the reader to the conclusion that the quest for unrestricted pleasures ends only in destruction, and consequently warns against treating others humanity as a means to self-serving pleasure instead of an immutable reality to avoid a fate such as Dorian s.. Works Cited: Brenner, Charles. Chapter IV. The Psychic Apparatus (Continued). An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis. Madison: International Universities Press, PDF file. Edmundson, Mark. Introduction: Freud in Love. Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings Scribd. Web. October 25, Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York City: Barnes & Noble, Print.

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