The Picture of Dorian Gray begins with Basil describing his fascination with Dorian, and ends with his masterpiece reverting to its original splendour. He describes his reaction to Dorian in these words:

"When our eyes met, I felt I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself." [6]

Such a reaction is not a reaction to another human being. It signals an intimation of something super-human. The word "fascinating" comes from fascinum, which means "spell." A fascination is caused by unconscious factors. It grips us; it holds us in its power; it acts upon us. The expression "face to face" suggests an image of a "god" — cf. Jacob's experience at Peniel (Gen. 32.30) or Moses in the Tabernacle (Ex. 33.11). Dorian as both Dionysos and Apollo corresponds to both Jung's definitions of the Self: "a god-image in the psyche," and a "complexio oppositorum" (Vol. 9.ii; par. 73; also CW 11.283). For Jung held that a god-image must be a mixture of opposites "if it is to represent any kind of totality" (CW 13.289).

According to Jung, the Self is an autonomous archetypal image, which symbolizes something towards which the individual is striving. An experience of the Self thus represents an intimation of a meaning which the individual has not yet assimilated. The individual's task is to integrate the meaning implicit in his or her particular experience, but not to identify with it, for this would signal psychological inflation.

Basil lives only for his art (56). He is afraid of life, because it is capable of exerting an influence over him which he feels as threatening. He is afraid of Dorian, because Dorian personifies the Dionysian side of his own personality which he has repressed. Thus he needs Dorian, because only through Dorian can he feel that he is alive. The contrast between them is suggestive. Basil is fascinated by what he himself is not. The attributes which he finds so fascinating stand in "compensatory" relation to him. But, instead of seeing his fascination as symbolic of a need to develop the Dionysian side of his own personality, he seeks to perpetuate his experience through art. His ambition signals the same kind of inflation as Marsyas: artistic inflation. He is punished by Dorian-Dionysos for not giving expression to his Dionysian side, and by Dorian-Apollo for thinking too highly of his art. The novel traces the consequence of his "artistic idolatry."

The novel may begin in Basil's studio, but its story is triggered by Lord Henry, who is equally — albeit differently — fascinated by Dorian. Lord Henry is a dandy who has elaborated a theory of Individualism. He advises Dorian to enjoy life to the full, to give way to every temptation, to realize his every fantasy — but not to allow any experience to arrest the pursuit of his pleasure. He watches Dorian's progress closely, half aware that he is experimenting on himself (59). Dorian has what he values most, and feels he has lost: youth. In other words, Lord Henry is also fascinated by what he is not. He is captivated by Dorian, because Dorian lives the life he would like to live. Instead of seeing Dorian as symbolizing his need to involve himself in life, he contents himself with "philosophic contemplation" (40). He too represses his Dionysian side. He feels it sufficient to experience this through Dorian. The novel traces the consequences of his desire to follow his "experiment" to its end (59).

Basil and Lord Henry personify two different aspects of Wilde's personality. Basil's fascination with Dorian anticipates Wilde's fascination with Lord Alfred Douglas. For example, in the novel, Basil says that Dorian is "absolutely necessary" to him (9): "my life as an artist depends on him" (14). And he tells Dorian "You became to me the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal whose memory haunts us artists like an exquisite dream" (114). A few years after writing this, Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas "I can't live without you", and "you are the atmosphere of beauty through which I see life. You are the incarnation of all lovely things" (Letters, 358 and 363). Basil confesses his idolatry of Dorian (114). Similarly, Wilde, in a letter to Douglas, writes "I shall be eternally grateful to you for having always inspired me with adoration and love" (Letters, 397). The fact that the fiction antedates life suggests that the unconscious perceives more than consciousness. Similarly, Lord Henry never says a moral thing, and never does a wrong thing (4). He lives only through his conversation. He is too concerned with the promotion of his own views to be able to respond to those of any one else. His relationship with his wife ends in divorce — as Wilde's did. He is also the carrier of Wilde's extravagant personality and wit. Basil is an artist whose best work stems from a passion for a young man whom he sees as a "Prince of Life." Lord Henry is a conversationalist who cuts life to pieces with his epigrams (97).

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 October 2002

Last modified 8 June 2007