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The part played by the unconscious in shaping Wilde's novel can scarcely be doubted, in spite of his conviction that he knew what he was about. For, as Lord Henry says:

It was the passions about whose origin we deceived ourselves that tyrannized most strongly over us. Our weakest motives were those of whose nature we were conscious. It often happened that when we thought we were experimenting on others we were really experimenting on ourselves. (p. 59)

If Basil is Wilde's persona, his fear of showing Dorian's portrait in public is well-founded: "The reason I will not exhibit the picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul" (p. 5). Between 1888 and 1891, much of Wilde's work is concerned with a young man of great beauty: e.g. "The Happy Prince" (May 1888), "The Young King" (Christmas 1888), The Portrait of Mr W.H. (1889/1894) and, of course, his novel. This "image" appeared in his imagination before it "projected" itself onto Lord Alfred Douglas. Their friendship not only led directly to his humiliation and imprisonment, but it also strained his marriage to breaking-point.

The relation of my argument to Wilde may be illustrated by a letter he wrote to Lily Langtry in late November 1883: "I am going to be married to a beautiful girl called Constance Lloyd, a grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair which make her flower-like head droop like a blossom, and wonderful ivory hands which draw music from the piano so sweet that the birds stop singing to listen to her" (1962, p. 154). This was written more than six years before The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Sibyl is described in almost identical terms (see p. 50). Inevitably, Wilde's changing way of life in the late 1880s caused her to become more demanding: see Bentley (1983) and Amor (1983).

The importance of Sibyl in this novel cannot be exaggerated. Not only does Dorian's relation with her form the basis of a considerable part of the narrative, but it also constitutes the psychological pivot. At the heart of The Picture of Dorian Gray, there lies a translation of an "authentic" experience of the feminine into an "inauthentic" experience of the masculine. This stems not only from the author's unconscious fear of the feminine, but also from a fear of his own acknowledged desires vis-à-vis the feminine.Lord Henry tells Gladys: "We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible" (197). Wilde endeavoured to do so, but was cruelly punished for his misplaced obsession with a young man. The fact that the fiction antedates "real life" suggests not only that the unconscious perceives more than consciousness, but also that, if its warnings are not heeded, it will anticipate life — even to its tragic conclusion.


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Last modified 7 March 2002