The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is a novel published in the late 1800’s and gained much notoriety in the public eye. It details the life of a young man, Dorian Gray, in upper middle class, or bourgeois, society. Throughout his life, and the novel, Dorian’s pleasant and handsome exterior causes people to assume he is just as pleasant and appealing on the inside. While initially true, a distinct change occurs and is often attributed to and marked by Dorian’s introduction to Lord Henry Wotton and his, “very bad influence” (Wilde 18). At this point, Dorian’s handsome likeness, conveyed in a portrait, begins to have its attractive qualities deteriorate. Dorian soon realizes that the painting ages and becomes increasingly horrid because of his various sins in place of his physical body. In analysis of the text, frequently Lord Henry’s influences are held responsible for Dorian’s transition and thus the distortion of the painting; however, further analysis of Dorian’s rearing shows abuse to be another, more prominent, reason for Dorian’s deterioration of character. Utilizing a secondary source, quotations from the novel and introducing relevant psychological theory, comprehension of the true motivations and catalyst for Dorian’s actions are uncovered.
Dorian’s background and rearing play a central role to his deterioration. It is these insights into Dorian’s past, and its history of abuse, that should be analyzed thoroughly by the reader for better comprehension. It is revealed to the reader that Dorian was orphaned since birth due to the cruelty and manipulation of his grandfather (his mother’s father). Dorian’s grandfather, Lord Kelso, proves to be a mean and cruel old man through characterizations given by Dorian as well as third parties, such as Lord Henry’s Uncle George. In his account of Lord Kelso, Lord Henry’s uncle details the plot Kelso formed to have Dorian’s father, described as, “a penniless fellow” (Wilde 31), killed in a duel. Making his own daughter into a widow, Kelso forced her to come back and live with him. Fully aware of her father’s role in the death of her husband, Dorian’s mother, Margaret Devereux, never spoke to her father again and died within a year. Leaving behind her orphaned son to be raised in a hostile environment, under Lord Kelso’s care. Lord Henry summarizes the tale of Dorian’s past as, “A beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion. A few wild weeks of happiness cut short by a hideous, treacherous crime. Months of voiceless agony, the boy left to solitude and the tyranny of an old and loveless man” (Wilde 33). These portrayals from a third-party outsider give an indirect characterization of Dorian’s grandfather and allow for the reader to realize the extent to which Kelso was such a “mean dog”. Moreover, they contribute to the readers understanding of the kind of environment in which Dorian was forced to grow up; one devoid of all love and companionship (Rashkin). The concept of Dorian’s abandonment and abuse in his early life having negative repercussions in his adulthood is not an innovative idea, however. Ester Rashkin has written an article on this notion and its effects on the plots development throughout the novel. In her article, Rashkin strengthens these ideas by stating, “The implication that Dorian was unloved and in some way mistreated by his grandfather is reinforced later when Dorian decides to hide the cruelly altered portrait upstairs in the old schoolroom, a room built by his now dead grandfather…” (Rashkin 4). Rashkin goes on to quote the novel’s description of the room Dorian was housed while under his grandfather’s care, the same room Dorian uses to house the increasingly less attractive picture of himself. Wilde explains on page 104 that Lord Kelso had the room built especially, “for the use of the little grandson whom, for his strange likeness to his mother, and also for other reasons, he had always hated and desired to keep at a distance”. An indication of origins of Dorian’s emotional and potentially physical abuse has been fully revealed to the reader at this point. His grandfather purposely kept Dorian at arm’s length physically and emotionally to avoid the guilt he felt and the constant remind of his deeds. Hence forth, the dastardliness of Dorian’s deeds increase exponentially while his reputation plummets proportionally. All because of his grandfather’s coldness and abuse?
Yes, modern psychology has done much research on the topic of abuse, especially that beginning at an early age, like Dorian’s. An article published in Behavioral Neurology examines the effects of emotional and physical abuse on young children between the ages of 2 and 5, approximately when Dorian would have been left in the care of his grandfather. The study found, “a cognitive impairment in the institutionalized children in several measures of attention, memory and executive functions” (Cardona et al. 291). Note that the study refers to children who have been placed into the institution of orphanages as institutionalized. The effects damaged the children with lasting results, most prominently on executive functioning. Meaning, the children’s ability to function mentally as well as have self-restraint and control over themselves was damaged.
Extrapolating these psychological theories to Dorian, they provide an explanation for his actions and thus show the significance of his abuse in propelling the plot of the novel. Without proper functioning of his executive faculties Dorian is doomed to make rash decisions. For example, his proposal to Sibyl Vane. Initially infatuated with the girl, he soon regrets his decision upon seeing her poor performance the next night. Showcasing his immature faculties and launching himself into a commitment without fully considering its implications affirms the above study’s results. Dorian can be seen saying, “… you have killed my love… My God! how mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been! You are nothing to me now” (Wilde 75). Dorian completely disregards all his emotion for Sibyl on the basis that she is no longer a good actress. In the same scene, Dorian then reciprocates the abuse he experienced from his grandfather. He begins to verbally abuse Sibyl, calling her worthless, leaving her crying on the ground while she, “…lay there like a trampled flower” (Wilde 76). Acting as a singular case study, if one overlays the proven theory from Cardona et al onto Dorian, a clear support for the study’s results is recognized.
While it is notable that abuse has a significant impact on its recipient, its cyclical nature is also of cause for concern and is recognizable in the case of this novel. The consultation of outside sources provides additive support by stating, “Abuse is identifiable as being cyclical in two ways; it is both generational and episodic. Generational cycles of abuse are passed down, by example and exposure, from parents to children” (allaboutlifechallenges.org). Dorian uses these learned behaviors from his grandfather and replicates them later in his own adult life. Notably with the Sibyl, as mentioned above, he begins the cycle of abuse once again. However, Dorian more closely replicates the abuse of his grandfather in his dealings with the painting. Dorian, a constant reminder of Lord Kelso’s horrendous actions, is stashed away upstairs to keep out of sight. So too is the increasingly unsightly portrait of Dorian stashed away in the same room (Rashkin 70). Being exposed to a similar style of dealing with issues, Dorian replicates his grandfather’s behavior in his dealings with the painting. This generational abuse, while not as drastic as Dorian abusing a child or Sibyl, explains Dorian’s action and showcases his motivations behind the behavior, although not excusing it, providing a significant source of plot development.
With the cyclical nature of the abuse completing its revolution and being utilized as impetus for Dorian’s criminal actions, a focus on the effects of the abuse received by Dorian from his grandfather shall be analyzed. Within the novel Lord Henry is the first to take note of the deep seeded anger and desires present within Dorian. Lord Henry says, “You, Mr. Gray, you yourself, with your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood, you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame—” (Wilde 19). This is the beginning of Harry’s hold on Dorian, however, what is seen superficially by most as Harry’s control can be further analyzed to be Harry’s release of something deeper within Dorian. That is what Harry is trying to tap into with the prior quotation, the already rooted darkness within Dorian.
Wilde carefully organizes the plot to allow it to develop from Dorian’s abuse in his childhood. Through analysis of psychological studies, it can be noted that not only is Dorian more likely to have poor executive function, but also have a propensity towards criminal action. The anger and emotion Lord Henry releases within Dorian are expressed in his societal actions. Dorian develops a reputation for shady and criminal actions. Dorian’s once close friend describes the life Dorian has led thus far by saying, “You have gone from corruption to corruption, and now you have culminated in crime” (Wilde 145). This distinct shift to crime that is mentioned refers to the murder that Dorian had just recently committed. This crime and subsequent ones are not without their proper motivation.
A modern study shows that researched the effects of emotional or physical abuse occurring in childhood on criminality in adulthood. The study found that physical abuse alone was not as strong an influencer on criminality in adulthood compared to emotional abuses effect. Moreover, if the assumption that Lord Kelso abused Dorian physical is incorrect then the evident emotional abuse is adequate in causing this criminality effect. The study states in its results, “…physical and emotional abuse predicted childhood antisocial behavior…which, in turn, predicted later adult crime… Furthermore, emotional abuse predicted adult crime directly as well…” (Jung et al.). The results of the study show that psychologically Dorian maintains a potential for crime since an early age. His potential is actualized throughout the novel stemming from the abuse he received at an early age.
Having now analyzed the effects of abuse on Dorian’s mental faculties and identifying his psychological propensity towards crime, their effects on perpetuating the plot is clear. Still, Lord Henry’s influences on Dorian should not be overlooked within the novel. However, they are not the singular cause of Dorian’s actions. Dorian has been abused emotional and potentially physically as well, trapping him in a cycle of abuse. With the utilization of modern psychological research and studies, the psychological turmoil within Dorian is evident to the reader. This turmoil should be held more so responsible for Dorian’s actions than Lord Henry’s influences routinely are in the analysis of the novel. Abuse and its cyclical nature forces Dorian to fight an uphill battle against his psyche. Accounting for, but not excusing, Dorian’s abysmal behavior towards Sibyl, his poor decision making process when tempted by Lord Henry, and developing from an innocent boy to dying in a life of crime.