Critical Thinking

Wilde’s complete contrast, represents the personalities internalised sense

Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ is a
story immensely useful in painting a moral lesson. It is a representation of
the potential consequences of having an unbalanced personality, which can be
best read through the principles of the psychologist Sigmund Freud and his
theories on the id, ego and superego. The id, which is the primitive part of
our personality, operates on the pleasure principle and is entirely selfish
–demanding instant gratification of its needs. It is manifested in ‘The Picture
of Dorian Grey’ through Lord Henry, who ‘represents to Dorian all the sins
he has never had the courage to commit.’ The Superego, by complete contrast,
represents the personalities internalised sense of right and wrong and is based
on the morality principle. It is embodied in the character of Basil Hallward,
who symbolises the novels only moral figure who is destroyed at the end of the
story for presenting a threat to the pleasure principle of the id.  The ego, which works on the reality principle
and behaves as the mediator between the other two parts of personality, has the
role of reducing the conflict between the demands of the id and the superego.

It does this by employing defence mechanisms. Perhaps the tragedy of ‘Dorian
Grey’ lies in the titular characters inability to embody the ego and mediate
between the id and superego, which results in an unbalanced personality. The
story exposes how the willing allowance of the id to override the superego
–which culminates in an unhealthy devotion to the pleasure principle –can only
end with destruction, and consequently, be ended by the destruction of the
self. This is embodied in Dorian’s suicide at the end of the novel. @

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Freud believed that raising one of the
triarchies of personality above the others in importance would be destructive.

This is significant because Lord Henry leads Dorian and the reader into
believing that an imbalance of the id, ego and superego is desirable. This is shown
in the way Lord Henry states that “nowadays most people die of a sort of
creeping common sense.” This suggests that he believes that the superego, which
is mankind’s inhibitor of the id’s unreasonable elevation is, in fact, the
cause of destruction, rather than an imbalance of the three parts. At the
beginning of the novel, Basil, the superego, pleads with Lord Henry, “who has a
very bad influence on all of his friends” to not impact Dorian negatively.

However, Wilde presents the superego as being weak compared to the id in this
novel, and this is presented in the way that the corruption of Dorian begins
almost immediately with Lord Henry’s corrosion of Dorian’s ignorance into
making him believe his beauty is a curse rather than a blessing. Doing this, he
instils in him an irreparable existentialist perspective that drives him to
worship the pleasure principle. In this way, Dorian’s moral demise can be seen
as having been catalysed by Lord Henry, and his sadistic cynicism. Basil, on
the other hand, completely represents the superego. He confesses to Lord Henry
that his painting of Dorian means too much to him, implying a homosexual
undertone, which is plausible when considering that ‘The Picture of Dorian
Grey’ was used as incriminating evidence of Wilde’s own homosexuality in court
which resulted in his imprisonment. However, Basil vows to never exhibit his
painting anywhere, and refuses to give it to Lord Henry, suggesting perhaps
that, aware of how socially unacceptable his feelings were in late 1800’s
London, he desired to hide them and abide to the social norms of his time –
depicting his superego overriding his pleasure principle to maintain his


Lastly, Dorian presents, by default, the
figure of the ego. Rather than mediating, however, he is seduced by Lord
Henry’s impulsive character and is turned, from a piece of “art” into a
mentally unstable and destructive presence in the novel. When thinking about
the portrait, Dorian speaks with the “madness of pride” and his perception of
the portrait changes as a product of ‘that tiny scarlet speck that makes men
mad.’ P146 For Dorian, this explanation allows him to avoid confronting his
superego and its consequences. To the reader, however, this 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) Because
Dorian is essentially admitting here that his desire for an imbalance in his id
ego and superego has made him mentally ill, it causes the reader to cease
expecting Dorian to acknowledge the reality principle, leaving him with the id
and pleasure principle and their destructive qualities. Thus, Dorian becomes
inescapably destructive to others. COMPARE His drive for personal pleasure leads
to the deaths of the people around him, and ultimately, his own. His failure to
sympathise with the needs of others is presented in his lack of qualms about
leaving Sibyl in her grief at his rejection, and her ensuing suicide comes not
as a surprise, but rather as an obvious result of the encounter with the
unbalanced Dorian. Dorian’s destructive qualities are also seen when Basil
confronts Dorian with a list of his 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, 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?’


This presents how Dorian has a corruptive
influence on all his friends, just like Lord Henry does, which conveys how
Dorian’s id has overridden his superego.

However, the reader knows by this point
that Basil’s pleas for Dorian to acknowledge the reality principle are futile,
and that because they come as a threat to Dorian’s id, they must be
extinguished. Consequently, Dorian’s murder of Basil displays a show of
fanatical devotion towards the pleasure principle, which in turn, claims
another victim. Remaining unchecked, the id drives Dorian to more destruction,
which must eventually culminate in his own demise. Because Basil fails to
influence Dorian, and later due to his death, Basil’s painting debatably represents
the embodiment of the superego more than Basil himself does. Its visual
corruption indicates the severity of Dorian’s unbalanced mind. Whereas the id
is manifested vocally through Lord Henry, Dorian only has the absent Basil and
the painting to represent his superego. To add to this, Dorian also locks up
the painting, therefore removing it from the story and the attention of the
reader. Without the superego being immediately present, the reader only sees
the id and the pleasure principle in Dorian’s life, save for the few occasions
Dorian goes to the room to look at the portrait. In these moments, Dorian is
able to observe the grotesque transformations of the painting, which
non-vocally urge him to recognise the destructive consequences of his actions.

Therefore, the painting, as well as being a moral compass for Dorian, also
represents his severe psychological un-heath due to the imbalance of Freud’s
tripartite of personality.


The struggle for Dorian as the ego to
mediate between the superego and the id is also apparent throughout the novel.

This is because Dorian is seduced by Lord Henry’s impulsive behaviour, but he
also recognises and feels a sense of guilt when he acts in a socially immoral
way. After Sybils death, he calls her suicide a “marvellous experience” and
wonders if “life has still in store for him anything as marvellous” which
depicts his unsympathetic and pleasure seeking personality. On the other hand,
seeing his corruption on the portrait impacts him greatly, and he vows to “never
again tempt innocence.” However, his promise to temper his pleasure principle
appears shallow to the reader who knows he will not be successful as change for
Dorian is not possible – his id dominates his personality. At the end of the
novel, in his final attempt to “be good” Dorian ends up killing himself along
side his id and its desires. The portrait is returned to its original and
beautiful state, no longer portraying a man whose unrestrained id resulted in
destruction. It can be interpreted that, by returning the painting to its image
of a man both psychologically and physically healthy –that of a man who allows
his superego to temper his id – Dorian manages to finally embody the ego by
enabling the superego to balance the id, understanding that suicide would be
the only way to accomplish this.


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