Corrupting the Ideal: Hermeneutic Approach to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

In Georges Poulet’s work Phenomenology of Reading, a hermeneutic structure emerges encircling the author, the reader, and the text, and through this tripartite relationship, objectivity is transformed into subjectivity – a subjectivity that continually influences and is in turn influenced. Murray Rothbard, in his article The Hermeneutical Invasion of Philosophy and Economics, commented on the hermeneutic process so inherent in Poulet’s work:

The essential message of deconstructionism and hermeneutics can be variously summed up as nihilism, relativism, and solipsism. That is, either there is no objective truth or, if there is, we can never discover it. With each person being bound to his own subjective views, feelings, history, and so on, there is no method of discovering objective truth.[1]

Rothbard’s words are reminiscent of several theorists, not just Poulet. Murray’s mention of relativity, for instance, conjures up the argument made by Walter Pater in his work The Renaissance. In addition, Murray’s concluding sentence parallel’s Neumann’s claim that the “archetype an sich is an irrepresentable factor”[2] as well as Louis Althusser’s absent cause, Sigmund Freud’s conditions of representability, and Jacques Lacan’s the Real. Though many of these critics argue within different theoretical frameworks, they all hermeneutically come to the same conclusion – objective truth cannot exist because it is continually interrupted and altered by subjectivity. Abstract ideas like beauty then possess no universal definition. So when individuals purport their subjective opinion of beauty as a universal truth, they in actuality corrupt and destroy beauty, which, when looked through a hermeneutical lens, is clearly seen in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray with Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray.

To start, Dorian’s own consciousness is not yet fully formed; he is a preconscious entity, whose only identity marker is beauty, and with his beauty he is deemed righteous because morality and beauty are inextricably linked within his society. Since Dorian encompasses all that society admires, he is, in essence, the primordial archetype, and as the primordial manifestation of society’s aesthetic ideology, Dorian elicits dynamic responses from society – both negative and positive – evident by his influence over Basil Hallward. Like those who worship Jesus as the primordial archetype of Christianity, Basil “worships”[3] Dorian’s primordial aestheticism that moves him to paint Dorian’s portrait – the ultimate act of worship for an artist. However, though Dorian positively influences Basil to create “the best work of [his] life,”[4] he also contrastingly evokes erotic thoughts from Basil’s unconscious deemed inappropriate by society. So when Basil paints Dorian’s portrait, he adopts Freudian dream work so as to censor his latent homosexual desires that are a perversion of the innocent beauty that society upholds, which results in the manifest content of the portrait – the primordial image that is “described as the instinct’s perception of itself, or as the self-portrait of the instinct.”[5] Additionally, the archetype of beauty an sich that exists in Dorian’s preconscious, thus untainted by external influences, “direct[s] the unconscious behavior of [Basil’s] personality through the pattern of behavior set up by the instincts; it also operates as a pattern of vision in the consciousness, ordering the psychic material into symbolic images.”[6] Therefore, it is Dorian, as the primordial archetype, that sets in motion the hermeneutical process, which forms and transforms subjectivity, starting with Basil.

Before falling prey to Dorian’s physical perfection, Basil is an exceedingly moral character and a highly respected artist within society as he managed to maintain the “true function of the artist” by painting Dorian within an “imaginative reality”[7] as Paris and Adonis, but he can no longer repress his desires for Dorian as they finally emerge within his final, fatal portrait. So once Dorian unlocks Basil’s unconscious, Basil becomes the next influential cog in the hermeneutical machine that corrupts the ideal by creating art with “excessive self-consciousness [and] selfish desires,”[8] which drastically affects Dorian’s fragile psyche. As aforementioned, the text is the “manifest visibility of the archetype, corresponding to its latent invisibility,”[9] and as the manifest content of homosexual latency, the portrait seduces Dorian with its imperfect perfection and induces an interpretation. Dorian, living at once a preconscious existence, begins to develop his own subjectivity because the portrait “impel[s] [Dorian’s] psyche to assimilate the unconscious content or contents contained in the symbol.”[10] Then once Dorian internalizes all that the portrait contains, he “culminates in the formation of views, orientations, and concepts by consciousness.”[11] In other words, Dorian now possesses a fully formed consciousness, which distances him from his once primordial status. Yet despite the distance, he still adopts the primordial image, which is the collective unconscious of all those in the novel who uphold Dorian’s beauty as the mirror reflection of his internal and external perfection. By assimilating this idealized view of himself as well as the socially repugnant homoerotic latency painted into the portrait, Dorian’s manipulative and narcissistic personality emerges as he consciously uses his beauty to destroy people’s reputations.

With the formation of Dorian’s subjectivity, Poulet’s theory of phenomenology begins to emerge, evident by the foreign space that forms to intervene between the subject, i.e. Dorian, and the “mimetic apparatus that returns this subject to himself,”[12] but the subject returns as an altered other. The portrait, though it replicates Dorian convincingly, turns him from a subject to an object, thus “derealizing”[13] him from himself. Much like the dynamism Dorian possessed as the primordial archetype, the portrait possesses the positive and negative dynamic; the portrait positively forms Dorian’s individuality whereas before he existed only as a representation of societal values, but negatively, the portrait, corrupted by Basil’s sexuality, corrupts Dorian by introducing him to sexual deviancy. This conflict erupts within Dorian; he wants to remain beautiful so as to maintain his value to society but also explore his deepest desires, and because beauty and morality are interconnected, Dorian wishes that the portrait, rather than himself, would carry the external consequences of immorality.

As soon as Dorian infuses his soul into the portrait, the phenomenological triangle fully forms because once Dorian’s consciousness merges with Basil’s consciousness already existing within the portrait, the collision of two varying subjectivities catalyzes the “temporary mental substance”[14] to erupt in the portrait, creating in it its own consciousness. Now no longer an object, the portrait transcends its materiality to become its own subject, and like Dorian, who influenced Basil, or like Basil, who through the portrait influenced Dorian, who then with his newly formed consciousness transformed the portrait, the portrait now possesses the power to influence Dorian. So when Dorian condemns the portrait to carry the physical burden of his soul in order that he may act upon his unconscious urges, the portrait begins to change and reveal the ugliness of worldly sin to Dorian, who upon seeing the ugliness of his own soul fears the eternal implications – a fear propelling him further into moral chaos, ultimately compelling him to kill Basil. Because Basil’s painting initially formed Dorian’s psyche using subjective, idealized male beauty perverted by homosexuality, Dorian cannot transcend the devious and manipulative components inherent of his personality, which causes him to lash out at Basil – the one who first corrupted him. Moreover, since he cannot reverse the corrupted appearance of the portrait by returning to his once innocent self, Dorian in a moment of anger and hopelessness stabs the portrait. However, whenever Dorian changes the portrait, it in turn changes him. So by plunging a knife into the portrait, Dorian imbues his murderous impulses into the portrait, but the portrait, now altered, yet still its own subject, redirects those impulses towards Dorian, ultimately killing him. As Dorian dies, the portrait is once again transformed and returned to its original form as a material object thus breaking the phenomenological connection because “art…can regain its purity only when the corrupting influence has been destroyed.”[15]

The hermeneutic paradigm of phenomenology within Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray illuminates the dire consequences of using one’s personal truth to influence others, which is evident by Basil’s negative influence over Dorian that, in the end, led to both their deaths. So rather than purport aesthetic values as falsely objective like Basil or to internalize another’s opinion of beauty like Dorian, people should adhere to Walter Pater’s theory on beauty, which argues that beauty manifests itself differently within every individual and is therefore relative.

Works Cited

[1]. Murray Rothbard, “The Hermeneutical Invasion of Philosophy and Economics,” Review of Austrian Economics 3.1 (1989): 46.

[2]. Erich Neumann, “The Structure of the Archetype,” in The Great Mother; An Analysis of the Archetype (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955), 6.

[3]. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library, 1993), 13.

[4]. Ibid., 14.

[5]. Neumann, The Great Mother, 6.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Houston Jr. Baker, “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 353.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Neumann, The Great Mother, 7.

[10]. Ibid., 8.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Christopher Craft, “Come See About Me: Enchantment of the Double in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’” Representations 91, no. 1 (2005): 114, accessed December 13, 2015, 10.1525/rep.2005.91.1.109.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. Georges Poulet, “Phenomenology of Reading,” New Literary History 1, no. 1 (1969): 59, accessed December 12, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/468372.

[15]. Baker, “A Tragedy of the Artist,” 354-5.

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Published by: andreahektner

I am Texan - born and raised - whose passions lie in praising Jesus Christ and making my family proud. These passions have led me to getting an English degree from the University of Texas at Arlington, where I am a recent graduate. Over the course of my undergraduate, I've enjoyed analyzing the human condition whether it's through literature, film/television, and art with a philosophical, theoretical, and theological lens, and it is with this blog that I hope to share some of my past work and future writings.

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