The Principles On The Id, Ego, And Superego In The Picture Of Dorian Gray By Oscar Wilde

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Oscar Wilde asserts “all art is quite useless” as the opening to his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Contrary to this drastic claim, however, Wilde’s ensuing story, a work of art, is immensely useful in painting a moral lesson: an illustration of the grave consequences of an uneven psyche. Study of this unbalanced personality is best comprehended through the principles on the id, ego, and superego of psychologists Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. Most notably, The Picture of Dorian Gray displays how allowing the id to supersede the superego, resulting in devotion to the pleasure principle, can only end in destruction and be ended by the destruction of self.

Under Lord Henry’s influence, characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray and the reader are led to believe that a disparity between the id, ego, and superego is advantageous. Lord Henry, in elaborately constructed, persuasive arguments, expounds on ideas that run counter to societal norms of steadfast reality, opting instead for those of desire. His departure from the real into the symbolic order marks the elevation of the id, representing desire, above the ego and superego, representing reality. Lord Henry proposes that “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense,” prompting the notion that the ego and superego – inhibitions to the id – are in fact the cause of destruction rather than an imbalance of the three parts. In fact, according to Lacanian theory, even Lord Henry’s mode of persuasion, speech, suggests desire within the symbolic order, from which narcissism and pleasure stem.

Lord Henry’s ideas drive Dorian to abandon the ego and superego for his id to run free and facilitate Dorian’s transformation from a harmonious character to an egocentric, destructive man. The force that initiates the change lies in Lord Henry’s words “I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit,” thereby giving a manifestation of the id: Lord Henry Wotton. With no one to articulate the ego or superego, Dorian submits himself completely to the id and neglects its balancing forces. Thus, the ego and superego share representation in Basil Hallward’s portrait of Dorian. In line with Freud’s theory, the portrait takes the place of the superego and ego as an introjected object for Dorian to achieve pleasure. Not only is the object a voiceless source, Dorian locks the portrait away, eliminating it from the narrative and consequently the reader’s attention. Dorian’s id-prominent psyche is manifested in his perpetual adherence to the pleasure principle away from reality. His exploits in the search for pleasure lead him to “dreadful houses” and “foulest dens in London”. Even Basil, the story’s moral compass, tells him “Dorian, Dorian, your reputation is infamous”. Clearly, with neither ego nor superego immediately present, Dorian distances from the reality principle. After every pleasure-seeking experience, he seems to see it detachedly with “an unreality of a dream”. Dorian only glimpses reality when he returns to the attic and faces his portrait. However, these confrontations do not reinforce the reality principle since Dorian, when thinking of the portrait, speaks with “the madness of pride,” and Dorian ascribes his perception of the portrait’s changes as a product of “that tiny scarlet speck that makes men mad”. Although to Dorian this explanation saves him from confronting his ego and superego and their implicit consequences, the delusions highlight his deteriorating, imbalanced psyche.

Dorian’s lack of reality principle and devotion to the pleasure principle causes the deaths of his friend and ultimately Dorian himself. He develops an interminable narcissism with Lacan’s imaginary order, demanding more from others to satisfy his needs. When Sibyl acknowledges to Dorian “I have not pleased you,” he spurns his undesirable fiancé in her grief. Although he believes he can reconcile with Sibyl, it is clear that, for Dorian, each relationship is a fleeting, dream-like escapade. Soon, his narcissistic neuroses are so dominant that Dorian no longer feels remorse or pain at his cruel actions. Hence, Sibyl’s suicide comes as the clear outcome of an encounter with Dorian and his formidable pleasure principle. Later, Basil confronts Dorian with an entire list of 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?”. Basil’s questioning comes as a plea to realize the reality principle to avoid claiming more victims. However, the thought that Dorian needs to moderate his pleasure-seeking threatens his id, causing Dorian to murder Basil in a show of zealous devotion to the pleasure principle, claiming another victim. Unrestrained, the id drives Dorian to further destruction which culminates in his demise.

Despite his repeated attempts, Dorian cannot change his pleasure principle’s destructive rampage; he can only stop by allowing these tendencies to claim his life. His necessary sacrifice is evident after he continually resolves to change his ways before delighting in the tragedies which he sows, such as describing his experience with Sibyl as a “marvellous experience” and musing “if life has still in store for me anything as marvellous”. His narcissism colors his view where everyone else is shallow and unworthy, simply characters in a Shakespearean play. Therefore, when Dorian claims that “he would never again tempt innocence. He would be good,” his declarations are difficult to believe. Dorian’s final attempt to temper his pleasure principle cannot be successful, just as all other efforts conceived from his alleged changes of heart have not succeeded; with neither the ego nor superego, Dorian cannot truly abandon his id desires. Because redemption is impossible for Dorian, the story’s only possible resolution is his death, when he kills himself along with his id and its desires. Though the ruin of Dorian Gray may seem to the reader too harsh given his efforts to change his hedonistic ways, the once-innocent man’s death provides an insightful commentary on the result of raising the id above other components of the psyche in pursuit of narcissistic pleasure.


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