The novel The Picture of Dorian Gray published in 1891 is the only novel of Oscar Wilde. Due to its relevance in the contemporary literature, it has never run out of bookshops. Oscar sets the story in London at the end of 19th century. The story starts with Basil Hallward painting a portrait of a very handsome and young man named Dorian Gray. The beauty of the painting prompts the young man to wish that he remained that young for the rest of his life. The wish of staying young forever is so strong that he even gives up his soul. The portrait reflects his evil behavior as he pursues his wishes and it starts to reflect a very corrupt personality, but physically Dorian remains young. Towards the climax, he meets the portrait painter and kills him because of hatred. Later, as the story ends, Dorian continues with his immoral life, but his conscious torments him. Out of frustrations, he stabs the portrait only to kill himself. The novel reveals the connection of the theory of mind by Sigmund Freud and the personalities of Wilde’s three main characters: Basil, Henry, and Dorian. Current paper presents an analysis of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray by using Sigmund Freud’s theory of mind (the id, ego and superego). Thus it will offer an understanding of psychic motives of the main characters (Dorian Gray, Lord Henry and Basil) according to Freud’s theory.
The Main Idea of "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
Wild’s major characters can best be understood through Freud’s theory of the mind. In his theory, he portrays the mind as being in conflict with itself; conflict between the id, the ego and the super ego. Id is the impulsive part of the psyche concerned with direct and immediate unconscious response to our instincts. The Id requires immediate satisfaction that leads to one experiencing pleasure. However, if the satisfaction is not met, then the obvious outcome will be an incidence of agony or un-pleasure. Logic, reality or the happenings of everyday’s world do not affect the id of a person. Id purely operates on the un-pleasure or pleasure principle, which in psychoanalysis, is the immediate mental tendency or drives to always achieve pleasure and avoid pain as a key force that motivates a particular behavior regardless of the practical or social consequences. In summary, id involves basic process of thinking that is irrational, illogical, primitive and fantasy oriented (Freud 1961, p. 45).
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Contrary to id, Freud (1961, p. 49) explains, the ego is a sub-section of id that the external environment modifies through direct influence. Ego develops, essentially to moderate between the reality and unreality. It is a component of personality that is concerned with making decisions. While id is unrealistic and illogical, ego works by reason. Ego operates by the principle of reality in attempting to satisfy the demand of id by postponing or even compromising pleasure to escape the negative social and practical consequences of the world. Freud (1961, p.49) further elaborates that ego puts into consideration the norms, realities, etiquette, and rules of the society before deciding on an action. In ego, there is no element of wrong or right so long as the result of the behavior is desirable without causing pain to id. Ego engages the secondary process thinking that is realistic, oriented towards solving a problem, and rational (Freud 1961, p. 49).
Unlike id and ego, superego integrates the morals and values of a society that a person learns from parents, guardians and others. Its major role is to check on the impulses of id, particularly the ones that the society has forbidden such as aggression and sex. It influences the ego of a person to not only be realistic but also aim at moralistic goals and strive for perfection. It involves the ideal self and the conscience of a person. The ideal self is simply an arbitrary picture of how one ought to be representing things such as career aspirations, how to interact well with people, and even how to behave well as a noble member of the society. Superego tends to punish behaviors that are not in tandem with the ideal self through guilt. Similarly, superego rewards good behaviors through the ideal self by making a person feel proud. Nevertheless, if the ideal self of an individual is too high to attain, that person probably will feel to be a failure in the society (Freud 1961, p. 60).
The novel depicts Dorian Gray as a radiantly handsome, extremely rich, and impressionable young man who follows the leads of Henry’s aunt to take part in her charitable endeavors. Henry Wotton makes Dorian angry when he tells him that he would have nothing once he gets old and he is no longer beautiful. Basil paints the portrait of this man. Through his friend, Lord Henry Wotton’s influence, Dorian becomes bothered with the transience of his own beauty and starts to focus and follow his own pleasure. He devotes himself to quench his lust whether immoral, moral, sordid or elegant. From his reaction, it is clear that his aristocratic society (superego) dictates him his moralities and rules barring him from discovering and expressing the actual person he would have liked to be in life through creation of his own code of moral (Wilde 2010, p. 102).
By looking at him, Dorian seemed to be very pure and innocent just like his portrait when it first appeared. Yet, on flashing back at his childhood life history, it is quite clear that he had been living through strife and at some point had experienced some dark past. However, none of his immoral past deeds traumatizes Dorian. He successfully conceals all these immoral past within him. On outward appearances, one could easily be deceived that Dorian is very pure and beautiful, which is short less of perfection. On the contrary, he is struggling to shape his identity and concurrently cope with his dark past, which further exposes his soft side of the mind to manipulation. His id is so strong that he wants to do everything to remain young forever. Upon realizing that this is not possible, he is frustrated to the point of stabbing the portrait and killing the painter (Wilde 2010, p. 115).
In relation to Sigmund Freud’s theory of mind, Dorian’s personality extensively clicks with the description of the id. Just like id, Dorian appears to be unconscious about his behavior. Pleasure and the urge to satisfy his immediate needs are the only factors that drive him. His behavior fits in the definition of a moral society as unrealistic, which is very similar to id. His personality and immoral behaviors share the same characteristic with id of being immortal and no personal identity as described above. For this reason, pleasures and wishes of satisfaction manipulate Dorian and he behaves weirdly regardless of whether the outcome of his actions causes him harm or good. As brought out in the book, his personality is a perfect portrayal of id because he tries to lead a life of utmost pleasure. He becomes obsessed with living a life in the absence of worries or moralities, which is also peculiar with id (Wilde 2010, p. 56).
In contradiction to the character traits of Dorian, the novel describes Lord Henry Wotton as a nobleman, wise, and urbane. His wit makes him criticize readily the hypocrisy and morals of the Victorian society by his well-phrased epigrams. His philosophy of seeking pleasure referred to as new Hedonism that entails gathering experiences, which stimulates the senses notwithstanding the conventional morality, plays a very vital role in the development of Dorian’s personality. Henry Wotton is a clever intellect who preaches unconventional theories about the appropriate ways of life. However, he does not essentially live the words that he speaks. He believed that all people should not only have a life of pleasure but also be themselves. He insists on the fact that what other people perceive to be right should never be taken to be absolutely right and applicable to all. Finally, Henry’s teachings hit Dorian making him have no alternative apart from changing his way of life. In fact, Henry could be the influence of change in Dorian’s life (Wilde 2010, p. 158)
In a sense, Lord Henry Wotton is the ego of Dorian. Ideally, ego is concerned with the moral codes and the beliefs that a society perceives to be good or bad. Therefore, ego should allow people to make decisions based on their feelings and consciences of the general perception of what is right and wrong in a given society. However, Lord Henry Wotton does not consider what the society dictates to be right but rather claims that the only real way to live is through the life of pleasure. Since Dorian initially has no morals at all, the theories relating to life that Henry advanced, which encouraged people to live a life of being actual self and pursuing one’s own pleasures, literally turns to be Dorian’s moral. In reality, the theories that Henry wittily preaches end up strengthening the id within Dorian because the theories are cheering him to be live his own life in whichever way he deems right. With the absence of ego to demarcate what is good or bad, Dorian is convinced that he can do whatever he wants to do, including even murder (Wilde 2010 p. 56; Freud1961 p. 45).
Basil Hallward is an artist and a close friend of Henry Wotton. He becomes obsessed with Dorian’s beauty after they meet at a party. Basil, amazed by the beauty of Dorian, says that his beauty that is so scarce. He claims that Dorian’s beauty has assisted him in realizing a new kind of art and states that through Dorian, he finds “the lines of a fresh school” (Wilde 2010, p. 101). In addition, Dorian makes Basil discover his artistic capability through the perfect portrait that he paints. Throughout the entire novel, he strives to maintain Dorian as pure as he was in his initial painting. He advises Dorian not to heed to the teachings of Henry as an attempt to guard him from such misleading theories (Wilde 2010, p. 101).
Though he fails to convince Dorian, his character traits symbolize the superego. Johnson (2008, p. 527) points out that superego majorly mediates between id and ego in shaping the pleasure met in a practical manner. In a number of times, Hallward attempts to keep Dorian in check and discredit theories of Henry. Dorian does exactly the opposite and embraces the teachings of Henry. Basil continues to offer him pieces of advice even after they stopped being friends.
In conclusion, this novel displays the perfect character traits that one can easily map on the Sigmund Freud theory of mind. The three characters: Dorian, Henry, and Basil are clear illustrations of id, ego and superego as put forth by Sigmund.