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Studies of comedy in the light of Jung's ideas have explored very few archetypal figures. The most frequently discussed are the fool and the trickster. For example, William Willeford, The Fool and His Scepter: A study in Clowns and Jesters and their Audience. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969. Other studies include: David L. Miller. "Achelous and the Butterfly: Towards an Archetypal Psychology of Humour" Spring (1973), pp. 1-23; and Alexander Duddington. "Humour: The Non-Material Alexipharmic" Harvest, 20 (1974), pp. 23-36. Both these figures are associated with comic "inversion."

Cover of Lippincotts magazine, in which Wilde's novel first appeared, courtesy of Leeds University Library.

In this paper, which is based on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), I shall explore a quite different literary figure: the dandy. The aim is threefold. Firstly, to show how the dandy is related to two of the most potent archetypal images: those of Dionysos and Apollo. Secondly, to demonstrate that the Wildean dandy is profoundly afraid of life, and that his interest in form and aesthetic proportion rests on a principle of "evasion." Thirdly, to contend that the humour in this novel, and by extension also in Wilde's plays, is a symptom of the author's fascination with an archetypal "dandy."

The Picture of Dorian Gray revolves around Dorian's dual nature. On the one hand, he is the young hero whose adventures the novel records; on the other, he is a painted image of "extraordinary personal beauty." When Lord Henry tells him that his exceptional looks will not last, the young man prays that he be allowed to remain as he is in Basil's portrait of him. Dorian wants to enjoy his youth for ever. His "mad wish" is a key to the archetypal factors which condition the novel, for the quality of "eternal youth" is a primary attribute of Dionysos. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid uses the phrase "eternal youth" to describe an aspect of Bacchus (= Dionysos):

For thine is unending youth, eternal boyhood (puer aeternus),
Thou art the most lovely in the lofty sky;
Thy face is virgin-seeming ...
[Book IV, lines 17 ff.]

It is extraordinary how many of these epithets, such Ovid's puer aeternus, also describe Dorian, and Dorian, but these parallels are unlikely to have been intended. That Dorian is invested with the attributes of Dionysos is, however, corroborated in the novel. The morning after he cold-bloodedly turns his back on Sibyl Vane, he checks to see whether Basil's portrait has really altered. It has — and he immediately understands what this signifies for him:

Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins — he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all. [105]

The young man who realizes this has known only the passions of an adolescent's dreams. In other words, he believes that, under normal circumstances, such pleasures would stain him, not only morally, but physically. And so he prays that he may enjoy every pleasure which life can offer him, and yet remain unmarked by his experience. Such passions as those he wants to enjoy are associated with Dionysos. This is confirmed toward the end of the novel, when Lord Henry, following their discussion of Basil's murder, says to Dorian:

"You have drunk deeply of everything. You have crushed the grapes against your palate. Nothing has been hidden from you." [216]

The vine belongs to Dionysos. Dorian as eternal youth incarnates Dionysian life. It is for this reason that Sibyl calls him "Prince of life !" (86).

The novel begins with Dorian praying that he be granted the "eternal youth" proper only to a god. To seek to appropriate a god's attributes signals psychological inflation. Not coincidentally, central to the novel is another myth whose subject is psychological inflation. It is introduced in an analogy toward the end of the novel, while Dorian is playing the piano. Lord Henry remarks:

"What a blessing it is that there is one art left to us that is not imitative! Don't stop. I want music tonight. It seems to me that you are the young Apollo, and that I am Marsyas listening to you." (216)

Not only Lord Henry, but Dorian too can be likened to Marsyas. For his portrait gradually assumes the aspect of a "hideous old satyr" (157). When he tries to destroy it, he (unwittingly ?) kills himself, and the portrait reverts to its original Apollonian perfection.

By virtue of his "mad prayer," Dorian thus appropriates the attributes of both Dionysos and Apollo. He is a symbolic personification of both Dionysian intoxication and Apollonian form; of Dionysian involvement and Apollonian unapproachability. He is able to enjoy the Dionysian pleasures to which he wants to abandon himself, but at an Apollonian distance.

Related Material


Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Isobel Murray. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. R. Hart-Davis. London: Hart-Davis, 1962.

Jung, C.G. The Collected Works. Ed. Sir Herbert Read etc. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953-1976. Vol. 9.ii; par. 73. Also CW 11.283.

Last modified 7 March 2002