Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ is astory immensely useful in painting a moral lesson. It is a representation ofthe potential consequences of having an unbalanced personality, which can bebest read through the principles of the psychologist Sigmund Freud and histheories on the id, ego and superego. The id, which is the primitive part ofour personality, operates on the pleasure principle and is entirely selfish–demanding instant gratification of its needs. It is manifested in ‘The Pictureof Dorian Grey’ through Lord Henry, who ‘represents to Dorian all the sinshe has never had the courage to commit.’ The Superego, by complete contrast,represents the personalities internalised sense of right and wrong and is basedon 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 thestory for presenting a threat to the pleasure principle of the id. The ego, which works on the reality principleand behaves as the mediator between the other two parts of personality, has therole of reducing the conflict between the demands of the id and the superego.It does this by employing defence mechanisms. Perhaps the tragedy of ‘DorianGrey’ lies in the titular characters inability to embody the ego and mediatebetween the id and superego, which results in an unbalanced personality.
Thestory exposes how the willing allowance of the id to override the superego–which culminates in an unhealthy devotion to the pleasure principle –can onlyend with destruction, and consequently, be ended by the destruction of theself. This is embodied in Dorian’s suicide at the end of the novel. @ Freud believed that raising one of thetriarchies of personality above the others in importance would be destructive.This is significant because Lord Henry leads Dorian and the reader intobelieving that an imbalance of the id, ego and superego is desirable. This is shownin the way Lord Henry states that “nowadays most people die of a sort ofcreeping common sense.” This suggests that he believes that the superego, whichis mankind’s inhibitor of the id’s unreasonable elevation is, in fact, thecause of destruction, rather than an imbalance of the three parts.
At thebeginning of the novel, Basil, the superego, pleads with Lord Henry, “who has avery 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 thisnovel, and this is presented in the way that the corruption of Dorian beginsalmost immediately with Lord Henry’s corrosion of Dorian’s ignorance intomaking him believe his beauty is a curse rather than a blessing. Doing this, heinstils in him an irreparable existentialist perspective that drives him toworship the pleasure principle. In this way, Dorian’s moral demise can be seenas having been catalysed by Lord Henry, and his sadistic cynicism. Basil, onthe other hand, completely represents the superego. He confesses to Lord Henrythat his painting of Dorian means too much to him, implying a homosexualundertone, which is plausible when considering that ‘The Picture of DorianGrey’ was used as incriminating evidence of Wilde’s own homosexuality in courtwhich resulted in his imprisonment.
However, Basil vows to never exhibit hispainting anywhere, and refuses to give it to Lord Henry, suggesting perhapsthat, aware of how socially unacceptable his feelings were in late 1800’sLondon, he desired to hide them and abide to the social norms of his time –depicting his superego overriding his pleasure principle to maintain hismorality. Lastly, Dorian presents, by default, thefigure of the ego. Rather than mediating, however, he is seduced by LordHenry’s impulsive character and is turned, from a piece of “art” into amentally unstable and destructive presence in the novel. When thinking aboutthe portrait, Dorian speaks with the “madness of pride” and his perception ofthe portrait changes as a product of ‘that tiny scarlet speck that makes menmad.’ P146 For Dorian, this explanation allows him to avoid confronting hissuperego and its consequences. To the reader, however, this explanation servesas an example of the “delusions or hallucinations..
.which have their originsprimarily in the fears and wishes within the mentally ill.” (Brenner) BecauseDorian is essentially admitting here that his desire for an imbalance in his idego and superego has made him mentally ill, it causes the reader to ceaseexpecting Dorian to acknowledge the reality principle, leaving him with the idand pleasure principle and their destructive qualities. Thus, Dorian becomesinescapably destructive to others. COMPARE His drive for personal pleasure leadsto the deaths of the people around him, and ultimately, his own. His failure tosympathise with the needs of others is presented in his lack of qualms aboutleaving Sibyl in her grief at his rejection, and her ensuing suicide comes notas a surprise, but rather as an obvious result of the encounter with theunbalanced Dorian.
Dorian’s destructive qualities are also seen when Basilconfronts Dorian with a list of his victims: ‘Why is your friendship so fatal to youngmen? There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide. You werehis great friend. There was Sir Henry Ashton, who had to leave England with atarnished name. You and he were inseparable. What about Adrian Singleton andhis dreadful end? What about Lord Kent’s only son, and his career?..
. Whatabout the young Duke of Perth?’ This presents how Dorian has a corruptiveinfluence on all his friends, just like Lord Henry does, which conveys howDorian’s id has overridden his superego.However, the reader knows by this pointthat 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 beextinguished.
Consequently, Dorian’s murder of Basil displays a show offanatical devotion towards the pleasure principle, which in turn, claimsanother victim. Remaining unchecked, the id drives Dorian to more destruction,which must eventually culminate in his own demise. Because Basil fails toinfluence Dorian, and later due to his death, Basil’s painting debatably representsthe embodiment of the superego more than Basil himself does. Its visualcorruption indicates the severity of Dorian’s unbalanced mind.
Whereas the idis manifested vocally through Lord Henry, Dorian only has the absent Basil andthe painting to represent his superego. To add to this, Dorian also locks upthe painting, therefore removing it from the story and the attention of thereader. Without the superego being immediately present, the reader only seesthe id and the pleasure principle in Dorian’s life, save for the few occasionsDorian goes to the room to look at the portrait. In these moments, Dorian isable to observe the grotesque transformations of the painting, whichnon-vocally urge him to recognise the destructive consequences of his actions.Therefore, the painting, as well as being a moral compass for Dorian, alsorepresents his severe psychological un-heath due to the imbalance of Freud’stripartite of personality.
The struggle for Dorian as the ego tomediate 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 healso recognises and feels a sense of guilt when he acts in a socially immoralway. After Sybils death, he calls her suicide a “marvellous experience” andwonders if “life has still in store for him anything as marvellous” whichdepicts his unsympathetic and pleasure seeking personality. On the other hand,seeing his corruption on the portrait impacts him greatly, and he vows to “neveragain tempt innocence.” However, his promise to temper his pleasure principleappears shallow to the reader who knows he will not be successful as change forDorian is not possible – his id dominates his personality. At the end of thenovel, in his final attempt to “be good” Dorian ends up killing himself alongside his id and its desires. The portrait is returned to its original andbeautiful state, no longer portraying a man whose unrestrained id resulted indestruction.
It can be interpreted that, by returning the painting to its imageof a man both psychologically and physically healthy –that of a man who allowshis superego to temper his id – Dorian manages to finally embody the ego byenabling the superego to balance the id, understanding that suicide would bethe only way to accomplish this.