The Splitting of Dorian Gray: Sources of Pleasure in Wilde’s Novel

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The Splitting of Dorian Gray: Sources of Pleasure in Wilde’s Novel

by Jon Crylen


The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes in his essay “Looking at Obstacles” that it is “impossible to imagine desire without obstacles, and wherever we find something to be an obstacle we are at the same time desiring” (Phillips 83). This is a sensible assertion. After all, how do we know for sure that we desire something unless another something stands in our way? Just so we need not grasp at empty air with rhetorical questions, Phillips writes: “The desire does not reveal the obstacle; the obstacle reveals the desire” (82). Indeed, we always know what is in the way of what we want before we begin to want it.

The idea of obstacles also brings up that of splits. The obstacles between us and our objects of desire effectively keep us split apart. These splits can be pleasurable, Phillips indicates, making a sort of game out of our ability to circumvent obstacles in order to attain what we desire. Without those obstacles, though, there can be no game, no pleasure, and so we may actually seek out the obstacles: “[T]here is always an ironic sense in which the search for obstacles is also the search for pleasure,” Phillips writes (86). And finally, because of these ideas, we can surmise that we desire the obstacle just as much as the object, for it is a necessity to the pleasure we gain in seeking the object. Using these concepts, I would like to explore some of the splits and obstacles in that most hedonistic of novels, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray—the notion of performance, the fabled picture itself, our potential boredom with the text—and the ways they contribute to both our and the characters’ pleasure.

Dominating Wilde's novel is the idea of performance. The concept creates splits in that the performer, by performing, must to a certain degree abandon the self in favor of the role. (I say to a certain degree because the converse element of performance is that of channeling oneself into a role, disappearing into it, a la method acting and Keatsian negative capability in writing—both applicable to the Shakespearian goings-on in Dorian Gray.) The better the performance, presumably, the greater the split. Furthermore, a performance creates a split between the performer and his or her audience in that the role obscures the performer’s self. There is an inherent pleasure in both of these splits, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the generic sense that Wilde has written a novel and we are reading it. Certainly, we read in hopes of finding the book pleasurable, even if that pleasure is incidental to a greater obligation to read it (as a school assignment, for instance), and if we finish the book not having found it satisfactorily pleasing, we are disappointed. The author similarly writes for his or her own pleasure, “performing” the text, and if this needs to be justified with respect to Dorian Gray, let us turn to Wilde himself: “I wrote this book entirely for my own pleasure, and it gave me very great pleasure to write it. Whether it becomes popular or not is a matter of absolute indifference to me” (“To the Editor…” 336). The connection between the author’s pleasure and our pleasure is, of course, the performance, the text itself; and a prerequisite of our pleasure is the author’s. As Roland Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text, “If I read this sentence, this story, or this word with pleasure, it is because they were written in pleasure” (4). Barthes writes that the reverse is not always true, that we may not find a text pleasurable even though the author does. Indeed, the author cannot write and presume to know all his or her readers; the author must find the reader “without knowing where he is,” and create a “site of bliss” from which the reader can potentially draw his or her pleasure (4).

Within the novel, the most obvious sense of performance arises in Dorian’s relationship with the actress Sibyl Vane. He is attracted to her stage roles and overall talent; not the person separate from the roles, even in an environment as close to the stage as the dressing room, where they have the quarrel that leads to her suicide. Just as the author potentially does for the reader with his or her text, Sibyl creates “sites of bliss” for Dorian with her performances, and he claims to fall in love with her. Yet, while we may also think ourselves in love with certain authors or actresses because we have read all their books, seen all their performances, or happen to like the way they dress, it is not necessarily true. We are in love with illusions in those cases, what the other person’s performance means to us; the performer is only necessary inasmuch as he or she continues to provide those pleasurable illusions. If we are to phrase this in terms of obstacles and objects of desire, it is to say we crave the obstacle just as much as the object. In Dorian’s case, because of an absence of carnal desire (“women are a decorative sex,” Lord Henry reminds him) and a need for someone only to “stir [his] imagination,” he craves the obstacle, Sibyl’s performances, the most, claiming desire for Sibyl only because her performances require her existence (DG 42, 70). Dorian is unaware that he is attracted to the obstacle, as we often are in similar circumstances in our own lives, and so is the performer/object Sibyl, who is misled into believing that she is necessary to his pleasure and happiness, her performances notwithstanding. The attraction is a tacit, subconscious lie. As Lord Henry tells Dorian upon learning of his love for Sibyl: “When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, and one always ends by deceiving others” (45).

Once the illusion is dropped, as it is when Sibyl obstructs Dorian’s pleasure with a bad performance (embarrassing him in front of Basil and Lord Henry, no less, thus thwarting his desire to impress them with his discovery of a talented actress)—precisely because she thinks that Dorian loves her, and that, as she says, there is no longer need “to mimic a passion that I do not feel” on the stage when she feels it in life, off the stage—obstacle and object trade places (70). Their quarrel ensues precisely because Dorian cannot bear for the performer to obscure the coveted performance; his vanity cannot handle the object-obstacle reversal because what he desires is essentially taken away from him, put out of reach. He seems ready to adjust to the change afterwards, claiming that it “has taught me to know myself better” and preparing to make amends by asking Sibyl to marry him. But these statements are more or less rationalizations to spare his vanity, as he professes not to care about Sibyl as he probably should after she dies (77). “[W]hy is it that I cannot feel this tragedy as much as I want to?” he asks Lord Henry, “I don’t think I am heartless.” Perhaps he is not heartless, but vain enough to allow Henry to convince him, as if an objet d’art himself, that his feelings of detachment are proper, even tasteful:

It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style…. Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. (80)


Indeed, her death is too artistic for Dorian to take it harshly, and perhaps even for the reader to. The broken-heart circumstances of Sibyl’s suicide and the overarching notion that it is a tragedy are neatly bound to the theatre, the performance, the role—namely Shakespeare’s Juliet, whom, ironically, Sibyl plays on the night Dorian rejects her. This artistic coincidence (or not, for Wilde has created it and it is merely artifice) affects the significance of both object and obstacle. Although Sibyl, by way of a bad stage performance, briefly becomes the obstacle to the pleasurable illusions she creates, obstacle and object, performer and performance become a single entity upon her death. Once there are no obstacles to the object desired, there is nothing to reinforce desire, and thus desire dies. The pleasure of the hunt ends with the capture, and Dorian can put Sybil safely in the past. Any possible guilt is absolved, his vanity bolstered, and he is allowed to proceed wickedly through the remainder of the novel, unbitten by remorse. Even the hovering threat of James Vane only haunts Dorian with an irrational fear of being killed—irrational since the painting has made him immortal—and his teary-eyed gratitude at Vane’s death confirms that lack of any real compunction.

Of course, we cannot neglect the painting in all this. It is the source of the most significant split in the novel, Dorian’s body and “the face of [his] soul,” and this split gives us another instance of objects and obstacles (DG 122). The object, in this case, is the soul, the picture itself, whose rotting away Dorian watches, watches with grim fascination and distaste, for it wounds his vanity. The obstacle, it would seem, is the painter, Basil, whose possession over the living portrait is in essence an exercise of power over Dorian himself: Dorian’s soul is a piece of art, a performance, and the performer is Basil. At least Dorian thinks so: “Have you noticed in the picture something curious?—something that probably at first did not strike you, but that revealed itself to you suddenly?” Basil asks him at one point, after Dorian has noticed the first flaws appear on the canvas, raising the lad’s suspicions (at least until Basil confesses to Dorian that the boy has been his muse, at which point Dorian flushes, always glad to be idolized—but the thought of Basil’s responsibility remains, resurfacing once Dorian shows him the mutated portrait, clearly with accusation in mind) (89-90). When he murders Basil, the logic seems to be that if he kills the artist, the performer, he can reclaim the role of himself and no longer be tortured by the other’s possession of it. Hence, shortly before he does kill Basil, he asks him: “Can’t you see your ideal in it?” and though Basil cannot—he only recognizes superficialities: his brush-work, the frame of his own design, a surface as undisturbed as he had left it—there is no alternative but unthinkable self-criticism, and Dorian kills him anyway (121-2).

Killing Basil does not give Dorian any more control over the painting or restore his soul to himself. This is simply because the death of the performer does not change the fact of the performance’s creation; the art/performance is the artist/performer immortalized. Witness the creation of Hamlet, Willy Loman, the Karamazovs, or even Dorian Gray. Even the non-artist’s attempt to destroy the artist’s art as a way of exerting control over it cannot eliminate the fact of its immortality, only temporarily spoil it—like Sibyl’s tarnishing of Juliet. Hence, when Dorian tries to destroy the painting, he dies and the painting is restored to its initial beauty, its state before Dorian sells his soul. Beauty lives on and wretchedness dies: just as Dorian manages to prolong the aesthetic pleasure of Sybil’s good performances through her death, the aesthetic pleasure of the painting is restored when he perishes. (It certainly seems a form of comeuppance.) Yet at the same time, he is unable to make the painting’s deterioration, like Sibyl, another artistic tragedy from which he is calmly detached and which he can easily forget about by calling both object and obstacle another instance of performance. This inability plays into story’s moral, when Dorian kills himself trying to feed his vanity. The object, the painting, has power over him; or as we could alternately say, Dorian is the object of the painting.

We also need to mention that Dorian is rather enamored by the painting, and the other obstacles he creates—the satin coverlet he drapes over the painting and later, the secret room where he stores it—to further separate it from himself, to hide his distaste for it, only amplify his obsession with it. Though he wants to put the painting out of sight, so as prevent others from seeing what has happened to it, to him—and so that, at first, his own vanity is not damaged by what becomes of it—he is curious, and the obstructions make the painting all the more tantalizing, to both him and ourselves. “No one could see it. He himself would not see it,” he thinks, when the painting is behind the curtain (DG 95). But when it is covered, how is one to know how it changes? “Perhaps, some day, the cruel look would have passed away….No; that was impossible. Hour by hour, and week by week, the thing upon the canvas was growing old” (95). Thus does he vacillate, and he must continually peek behind the curtain or sneak in the secret room to see how the painting changes. Obviously, his fascination with the painting is narcissistic—he gazes at it, gazes at it, obsesses over his beauty lost—but it is a matter of more than simply staring at his reflection. He is permitted to see more of himself than Narcissus could; he can see his own soul, a power only God should have (“So you think that it is only God who sees the soul, Basil?” he asks; Dorian is aware of this power, too) (121). He becomes the artist as God and the soul becomes his artwork, his performance; by watching the painting evolve, it is as if he is both the performer and the spectator watching himself act. The split here, the sense of being both God and himself, himself and his soul, as well as the immortal power that the split provides, gives him immense pleasure:

[T]here would be a real pleasure in watching [the painting]. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. The portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. And when winter came upon it…[n]ot one pulse of his life would ever weaken. Like the gods of the Greeks, he would be strong, fleet, and joyous. What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas? He would be safe. (84)
Of course, he is not safe; he destroys the painting and himself when his vanity can no longer tolerate the deterioration of the canvas. Like the gods of the Greeks, though, he is strong, fleet, and joyous—until, like the Greek gods, he is annihilated by a Christian moral.

All this is quite suspenseful. Sibyl’s ready selflessness in thinking that Dorian actually loves her; the sense of Dorian’s inherent vanity setting the wheels of tragedy in motion; our awareness that however much he seemingly tries to make amends for his flaws at certain points in the story, he only accommodates his vanity; all the business with the painting; the fact that we can identify the story’s human conflicts in our own lives—all these splits, obstacles, and objects fulfill the desires for pleasure and stimulation we bring to the novel. It seems appropriate, then, that we compare this suspense with the utter languidness that permeates and drives (or perhaps holds back) so much of the rest of text. As Jeff Nunokawa writes in his essay “The Importance of Being Bored”: “long stretches of the story are almost unbearably uninteresting….If the engrossing rumor of covert desires attached to Dorian Gray distracts us for a while from our boredom with the novel, it is finally no more to be denied than the more pressing urges that everyone knows nothing can stop” (Nunokawa 71). He cites innumerable instances of boredom in the novel as a way of saying that “as ours goes without saying, [the characters’ boredom] is a matter deemed worthy of remark”; but for the most part, his argument is related to the boredom of the characters and not the bored reader. The phenomenon of our boredom, or lack thereof, is important because it plays into what we desire from the text—again, our hopes of finding the text pleasurable, the reason we read in the first place.

This assertion is not to single out Dorian Gray as a specifically boring work or condemn it as such—many books are boring in some way—but to say how our boredom is perhaps a function of pleasure. Both our pleasure and our boredom when we read are dependent on many factors, not the least being our mood when we approach the text. Why do we read? One reason is that we are bored, that we lack stimulation. Boredom is the obstacle, and we try to overcome it when we approach the text. We engage ourselves precisely to defeat that boredom, and, hopefully, are rewarded with a pleasurable text that allows us to overcome more obstacles. Sometimes the book is not pleasurable to us quickly enough, and our boredom continues. The book that never fails to captivate us when we sit down to read it, on the other hand, can hardly be called boring; but such a book is exceedingly rare and, well, is it not kind of boring to always pick up the same book that never fails to captivate? Another reason we read is because we are in a mood to energetically conquer the obstacles of a certain text—say, Finnegans Wake. But the danger of that energy is that when it wears away with concentration, perhaps frustration, or when the text does not meet our energetic expectations, we are disappointed, and perhaps fall into boredom. This is similar to what we have quoted Nunokawa as saying about the “engrossing rumor” that temporarily distracts us from inevitable boredom with Dorian Gray.

A few of the ways in which Dorian Gray is boring—or as Barthes would say, “prattles”—might be enumerated as follows: conventional prose, too much never-ending dialogue, the sea of artifice of the characters and their languid actions (Barthes 4). The first two symptoms of boringness can largely be attributed to the fact that Wilde was a playwright and Dorian Gray his only novel (he did write many short stories, however), though we should hasten to add that the conventional prosodic form is also a trait of pre-modernist writing. The dazzling prose of a Joyce or Woolf may have taken the same story and turned it into a whirlwind of bliss, both in terms of its style and its themes, without sacrificing the moral terror of it all. We cannot hold literary evolutions against a novel that predates them, but we should note that a conventional form and language are rigid, legalistic, and hardly complement the novel’s androgynous, pleasure-bent themes the way an inverted, experimental language packed with portmanteau words might (as in Woolf’s Orlando). (By no means are we accusing Wilde of a lack of style; rather, his language is often very sensual and decadent, but only within the confines of strict, standard English.) Applicably, Barthes defines a prattling text as:

merely that foam of language which forms by effect of a simple need of writing. Here we are not dealing with perversion but with demand. The writer of this text employs an unweaned language: imperative, automatic, unaffectionate, a minor disaster of static…: these are the motions of ungratified sucking, of an undifferentiated orality, intersecting the orality which produces the pleasures of gastrosophy and of language. (5)

Though perhaps not as severely—for Dorian Gray’s prose, unexceptional as it may seem by current standards, is well honed by the hands of a great writer—this is how we might feel about the lingering, languorous prose of Dorian Gray as opposed to a more modernized style that would seem invariably better suited to the book’s themes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the inventory-like lists of artifacts to which the novel’s lengthy eleventh chapter is devoted. The section is complete stasis, a sand trap in the center of the narrative, a lengthy meditation on the significance of fetish-like objects that serve to perpetrate Dorian’s immortal charade; we backpedal into ancient history, as if walking slowly down an endless corridor of glass cases teeming with art objects we are forbidden to touch, listening all the while to a tour guide who lingers on the finery of it all without bringing any of it to life for his audience. At the risk of creating a stagnating sand trap within my own paper, I quote:

[Dorian] would often spend a whole day settling and resettling in their cases the various stones that he had collected, such as the olive-green chrysoberyl that turns red by lamplight, the cymophane with its wire-like line of silver, the pistachio-coloured peridot, rose-pink and wine-yellow topazes, carbuncles of fiery…. (DG 105)

And another two pages of jewels. To be fair, these descriptions are seductive up to a point—a credit to Wilde’s adroitness with words—but someone else’s chrysoberyl can only be so entertaining. When Nunokawa wrote of “unbearably uninteresting” stretches of the novel, surely he had this chapter in mind. If indeed Wilde found this a joy to write, then we might feel that a prerequisite for enjoying the novel is to be dandies ourselves, reclined on a couch, smoking, and enjoying doing nothing whatsoever, much like the illustrious Lord Henry, maybe even Oscar Wilde.

Naturally, we should not let such harshness on our part go unchecked. There is pleasure in this languor, too, if we are as patient with it or dandyish about it as Wilde seemingly expects us to be; and the inventory section becomes slightly more palatable if we relate it to our similar desire to investigate old and classic texts—the novel at hand, for instance. The pleasurable languor has also to do with Lord Henry. He has that witty, fluid, absolutely perfect way of speaking; not once does he stutter or slip when he talks, and talks, and his dialogue alone is so incessant that it might constitute a tenth of the novel’s length. His speech is charming in its way, adding to the soporific prose a layer of unreality from which the ghost-story element of a painting-come-to-life can spring freely and without seeming out of place. And maybe it is even heroic, as Nunokawa suggests, exerting through its insouciance “an apprehension…of the awful truths that others take nervous pains to mask under the opiate of optimism” (Nunokawa 77). Indeed, we cannot deny the almost transcendent acuity required for the dandy or anyone else to churn out witty epigram after witty epigram.

Nevertheless, perhaps Henry’s witticisms as a whole are also plain and boring, generating minimal suspense in our quiet hopes that he might turn just one phrase less than gracefully. But if they are plain and boring, then they constitute another obstacle in the way of the fancier splits we desire in the text (that is, those pertaining to the painting and performance), and are therefore necessary to amplify the effect those splits have on us. Besides, the split between the novel’s plain relatively plain language and such utter unrealities as Lord Henry (then again, he may only be as much of an unreality as Wilde himself, who was known to be as perfectly spoken, and always as droll, and must have taken special pleasure in penning this performance of his flawless self) is a pleasurable one. Though these languid aspects of the novel may put us to close to a dandyish sleep, they are obstacles to the real pleasures of the novel, necessary obstacles that intensify those real pleasures. Our boredom is of the essence to our desire for pleasure in the novel; and in being bored by certain of the novel’s attributes we may find ourselves more impelled to circumvent our boredom, and be pleasantly surprised at the splits and obstacles in Dorian Gray that finally do give us pleasure—those relating to the phantom picture, the sense of performance, and perhaps boredom itself.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.


Nunokawa, Jeff. Tame Passions of Wilde: The Styles of Manageable Desire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Phillips, Adam. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Lawler, Donald L., ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.*
Wilde, Oscar. “To the Editor of the St. James’s Gazette, 25 June 1890.” Lawler 336.

*The Picture of Dorian Gray is cited throughout as simply DG.





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