The Notion of Monstrous Doubling in The Picture of Dorian Gray
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When the word “gothic” is pronounced, it usually evokes a whole range of associations and references. At the beginning of the twenty-first century it is time to recognize that gothic has gone far beyond the limits of literary genre and beyond the limits of any particular epoch. Instead, it is characterized by concepts and archetypes, which can be present in any art works and give a gothic touch to them. For this reason it is important to have an idea of major gothic notions and symbols and be able to identify them. The current paper explores one of the key concepts of gothic style, the notion of monstrous doubling. Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the best implementations of this concept in world literature. The concept of monstrous doubling can be interpreted in different ways including Freudian contraposition of narcissism and moralism, Jungian persona and shadow, and traditional symbolic literary interpretation of the notion.
Speaking of doubling, it is necessary to point out that the concept of the book is built on oppositions. The way, in which characters interact with each other, is often based on contrasts and polarities. Thus, for instance, the first polarity that we encounter is the one between young and innocent Dorian and satiated and experienced Lord Henry. Another contraposition is between life and art, which is actually one of the major concerns of Wilde’s works. Dorian believes that there is "a delightful contrast “between Basil and Lord Henry (Wilde 40). There is also a contrast, not as delightful, between Dorian at the beginning of the novel and him at the end of it. These minor polarities, which can be found in the book, serve to anticipate the major concept of doubling that is embodied in the portrait that starts living instead of his master.
The relationship between Dorian and his monstrous double can be treated in different ways, including literary references and Freudian and Jungian theory. Speaking of Freud and his impact on the interpretation of gothic motifs, his essay “The Uncanny” should be mentioned. In his essay, he develops a theory that explains the origin of doubling in a human being. According to this theory, the early stage of narcissism is changed by the developing of conscience which makes a person behave according to certain moral norms. However, a conflict happens in the process of maturing: while for a child doubling is a way of survival, it is different for an adult:
'From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death' (Freud 357) – as we become aware of the morally constricting and finite adult world. The uncanny is thus closely associated with images of death, and Freud states that 'Many people experience the feeling in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts' (364). (Smith 14)
This Freudian concept of direct relation between doubling and dying lies at the core of gothic concepts’ interpretation. In terms of Freud’s theory, the relationship between Dorian and the portrait reflect the gap that is created due to the conflict, which was described above.
The discontent created by the clash of moral norms and narcissism is what happens to Dorian when he observes how doubling progresses. He has mixed feelings for the picture as a reflection of this internal conflict between the good and the evil. He feels disgust because he sees his own moral ugliness and corruption but, on the other hand, he feels that he is so closely attached to the portrait that the only way out is death of either of the doubles. So, as can be seen, based on the above described Freud’s concept, fear of death and aspiration for death is a key element that accounts for doubling.
Jungian vision of “shadow” and “persona” is close to Freud because it underlines the fact that “goodness” is often a social mask that is worn for society, while the evil can be inherent. As Lord Henry claims in a form of a typical Wilde’s paradox, “To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self,” he replied, touching the thin stem of his glass with his pale, fine-pointed fingers. “Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others” (Wilde 65). From this point of view, the angelic appearance can be treated as persona, while the rotten essence reflected in the picture is a shadow in this case. However, due to the change between the surface and the depth, the reader can observe how this doubling works.
Finally, one can treat the concept of monstrous doubling in a conventional way of literary research. From a traditional standpoint, doubling is a split of one personality in two ones, one of them being evil, another one good. The conflict between the two doubles is inevitable because of the created polarity. However, the conflict cannot be resolved by violence for one reason: the two parts of one character are like communicating vessels that exist due to the energy of one another. So, when one part of personality attempts to fight or oppress the other one, it reinforces the polarity instead. Thus, as can be seen at the example of Dorian Gray and his portrait, the split progresses throughout the novel. Whenever Dorian tries to be good, this attempt of him is not reflected in a picture in a good way. The more disgusting the portrait looks, the more inclined Dorian is to hating it and the more he is inclined to committing more crime. He feeds monstrosity with his own fuel of emotions and oppression to what he is. In fact, strange as it might seem, Dorian’s hate for the portrait in some way reflects his reluctance to accept the evil part of his personality. As a paradox, this leads to reinforcement of the monstrous identity in him. An important aspects of doubling is the idea that it cannot last forever, the conflict is resolved sooner or later by the death of one part, either metaphoric or real. So, the end of the novel is no exception:
As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter's work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and, without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it. There was a cry heard, and a crash( Wilde 183)
Overall, the concept of monstrous doubling is one of the most widely used in gothic literature. The conflict between the good and the evil inside a human soul has always been of interest to researchers. For this reason, Freud suggests the idea of deathly conflict between narcissist and moral part, while Jung speaks of persona and shadow. In a simpler way, the same doubling into the good and the evil is reflected in traditional literary research. The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most demonstrative books in terms of doubling because the whole plot is based on the clash between the good and the evil, between art and reality. In the end, the good wins through the art.