The Picture of Dorian Gray


Dorian Gray

In 1990, I read The Talking Cure. Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis by Jeffrey Berman (New York University Press, 1987). It transformed me. I was training as a psychodynamic psychotherapist at the time and was given permission to write my final dissertation on a literary subject. I chose The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel. I wrote my dissertation and published a shortened version in an article in the journal, Changes.

(The Picture of Dorian Gray: The narcissistic quest for immortality. Changes. 1990, Vol 8, 162-172).



Extracts from the article


A look of joy came into his eyes…

“The crucial moment (in the book) occurs when Dorian looks at the picture. Like Narcissus gazing into the silvery pool, he is entranced by his own beauty: “A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognised himself for the first time…The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation.” But, stimulated by Lord Henry’s words, he is aware that his beauty will fade and he will grow old and wrinkled. He is struck by feelings of fear and terror. In this way Dorian’s reaction to the picture encapsulates the conflict that Rank (1941) attributed to all self-conscious beings, that between the desire for immortality (epitomised in the portrait) and the awareness of reality (that bodily forms, however beautiful, must age and die). Dorian’s response is a narcissistic one. He attacks Basil for creating the painting, now seen as a rival and immutable source of idolatry (Green, 1979). He makes his Faustian pledge: “If it were I who was always to be young and the picture was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything. Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”


A child of Love and Death

“Wilde provides only a brief sketch of Dorian’s upbringing and it would be unwise to read too much into it. Yet it is at least consistent with Kohut’s (1977) ideas about the genesis of narcissistic disorder in which parental failure to respond empathically to the child’s natural grandiosity and idealisation is a central feature. Dorian is the son of Lord Kelso’s beautiful daughter, who had run off with a penniless subaltern. Her father arranged for her husband to be killed in a contrived duel and she died shortly thereafter. Thus, in Lord Henry’s words, Dorian is a “child of Love and Death.” Dorian spent a lonely and loveless childhood with his stern grandfather and we may presume that his natural grandiosity was never allowed to flower. Dorian refers to the “dead days” of his childhood and “the stainless purity of his boyish life,” indicating a life in which true feelings were locked away. It is these deeply repressed feelings that are stirred at the moment of Dorian’s psychological awakening when the portrait is completed.”


Dorian’s dark secret

“The picture now becomes Dorian’s dark secret. It exerts a morbid fascination so that he returns from country visits early just to see it. He experiences the seductive attraction of observing the evil side of his character: “For there would be real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into secret places. The portrait would be the most magical of mirrors. As it has revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.” However, shame and fear drive him to hide the portrait: he cannot tolerate others seeing his awful secret and eventually he too finds it too horrible to contemplate. In this way the perversity of the experience is brought out (Gold, 1985). Dorian is attracted to the evil aspects of himself (projected into the picture) and at the same time ashamed and fearful. Mollon (1984) has pointed out how shame is the central emotional component of narcissistic disturbances of the self since shame essentially concerns identity. While Dorian is fascinated by his true identity, he cannot bear others to look at it. He locks the picture away in his attic, in the room that had been his playroom, in which he spent his lonely childhood. The attic, a remote and rarely used room in the house, symbolises the unconscious into which Dorian represses his true self. The associations with his childhood underline the deep dynamics of repression, bringing out the links to his early loveless experiences in his grandfather’s home.”


Oscar Wilde




Photos by mtlin and DPM shared under a Creative Commons licence.