Boundaries of the Soul: Failure to Acknowledge the Separateness of Others as a Sign of Evil in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Vera B. Profit
August 6, 2011
Before the 1983 publication of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie, the diagnosis of evil had never entered the psychiatric lexicon. To allow for this designation within the medical sphere, Dr. Peck’s case histories illustrate the salient characteristics of both individual and group evil. From these findings, the eight signs of an evil individual can be deduced. They are: victimization of body and/or spirit, failure to recognize the separateness of others, depersonalization of others, unmitigated narcissism, the unsubordinated use of power, scapegoating, lying, and the total inability to tolerate legitimate criticism. The creation of victims constitutes the first and most blatant characteristic; the second and third signs follow logically from the first: failure to recognize the separateness of and subsequent depersonalization of others. This essay focuses exclusively on these latter two behavioral consequences while examining some of Dorian Gray’s major decisions from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).
Prior to the 1983 publication of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, the diagnosis of evil had never entered the psychiatric lexicon. To allow for this designation within the medical sphere, Dr. Peck’s case histories illustrate the salient characteristics of both individual and group evil. From his clinical findings, I extrapolated the signs identifying an evil individual as well as an evil group and subsequently enumerated them. For the purposes of this essay only the eight signs of an evil individual require referencing. They are: victimization of body and/or spirit, failure to recognize the separateness of others, depersonalization of others, unmitigated narcissism, the unsubordinated use of power, scapegoating, lying, and the total inability to tolerate legitimate criticism.
The creation of victims constitutes the first and most blatant characteristic. The second and third signs follow logically: failure to respect the autonomy of others and its frequent result, their depersonalization. This inquiry focuses exclusively on these latter two behavioral consequences, while examining Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). (At the risk of trying the patience of those only too familiar with the narrative, suffice it so say that Wilde tells the story of a nobleman accorded the tandem privileges of wealth and good looks. Upon first seeing his resplendent full-length portrait, Dorian utters a fateful wish. It is granted. Consequently, while the image on the canvas records not only the ravages of time, but also those of his increasingly serious transgressions, he continues to appear young as well as unsullied.) Though Dorian Gray victimized four major figures in addition to himself, these remarks concern only the denigration of Sibyl Vane, Basil Hallward and Alan Campbell.
Sibyl Vane. Whether speaking of the fledging actress before or after her final and disastrous performance, Dorian only focuses on the roles she plays on stage or in his life and never on her essential self. For instance, when Lord Henry invites Dorian to join him for dinner, he refuses his offer by reminding Henry that this evening Sibyl will be assuming the role of Imogen and tomorrow that of Juliet. Henry quickly asks: “‘When is she Sibyl Vane?’” And Dorian replies: “‘Never.’” (47) The next evening, while conversing with both his friends, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry, he continues in the same vein: “‘Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth.’” (62)
Once Sibyl performs poorly, he frames his disappointment by enumerating all that she had done for him, but in his eyes does no longer. Furthermore, he places the entire blame for the relationship’s failure on her and begins virtually every sentence with “you.” “‘You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect.’” (70) He openly admits that he had loved her because of all she could do for him. “‘I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art.’” (70) This verbal assault continues for some moments with the force of the proverbial hammer blows. “‘You have spoiled the romance of my life. [. . .] Without your art you are nothing.’” (70) Finally Sibyl understands that Dorian means every word and has rendered her abasement complete.
Not once during this incessant volley of insults, as she attempts to explain why she acted as she did, why her craft no longer means anything to her, how her perceived love for Dorian preempts every other consideration, does he deign to listen, let alone endeavor to comprehend. (69-70) Even when Sibyl, whom he had supposedly loved and agreed to marry, begs his forgiveness, he does not relent. (71) Acknowledging the autonomy of another—in that regard Dorian Gray epitomizes an absolute failure.
It is then not startling that as Sibyl pleads with him not to leave her, sobbing as she creeps on the floor towards him, he regards her as an object. “She crouched on the floor like a wounded thing [. . .].” (71) But even when he was still infatuated with her, still extolling her virtues to Basil and Lord Henry, he reified her. “‘I cannot understand how any one can wish to shame the thing he loves. I love Sibyl Vane.’” (63)
Invariably Michel’s words from Gide’s The Immoralist come to mind. Marceline miscarries. And her husband assesses her deteriorating health in these words: “Disease had entered Marceline, from now on it would inhabit her, mark her, stain her. She was damaged goods.” Had Scott Peck observed that marriage, he would not have been surprised that the couple experienced profound difficulties. Perhaps on a rational level—he is exceedingly intelligent—Michel recognizes Marceline as an individual separate from himself, but on an emotional, a subconscious level he does not. He lacks empathy. In other words, he lacks “the capacity to feel what another is feeling.” The other’s emotions, needs, desires, plans do not merit his attention, are not even considered. Michel would have been like a member of Peck’s therapy group for couples, who, when asked to define the purpose and function of their spouses, did so only “in reference to themselves; all of them failed to perceive that their mates might have an existence basically separate from their own [. . .].” Successful interpersonal relationships, whether marital or otherwise, are based upon the recognition, the championing, even the celebration of the others’ individuality, their basic aloneness, their unique character.
Or as Scott Peck maintains: “There are boundaries to the individual soul. And in our dealings with each other we generally respect these boundaries. It is characteristic of—and prerequisite for—mental health that our own ego boundaries should be clear and that we should clearly recognize the boundaries of others. We must know where we end and others begin.”
In his relationship with Sibyl Vane, obviously Dorian does not recognize, let alone respect her boundaries. He regards her only as an appendage. How she could fulfill his aspirations, make manifest his imaginings, that’s all that matters.
Basil Hallward. Dorian’s treatment of Hallward just before the murder underscores this same attitude. Even prior to forcing the painter to look upon the havoc wrecked upon his former masterpiece, Dorian incessantly tries to guide the conversation in the direction he wishes it to take, coercing Basil and thwarting his stated intentions at every opportunity. Dorian begins by attempting to make the artist insecure; he criticizes his travel accessories (116). Then suggests by word, tone of voice or demeanor what he would or would not discuss. Throughout the exchange Dorian interjects such phrases as: “‘And mind you don’t talk about anything serious.’” (116) Or: “‘What is it all about?’ cried Dorian, in his petulant way, flinging himself down on the sofa. ‘I hope it is not about myself. I am tired of myself to-night.’” (116) And “‘I love scandals about other people, but scandals about myself don’t interest me.’” (117) Or he simply expresses outrage that Basil intends to detain him for half an hour. (116) When all of his diversionary tactics ultimately fail, he bluntly tells Basil to cease. “‘Stop, Basil. You are talking about things of which you know nothing,’ said Dorian Gray biting his lip, and with a note of infinite contempt in his voice [. . .].” (118)
When Basil finally sees the desecrated portrait and, marshaling every persuasive argument at his disposal, pleads with his friend to repent, Dorian casts aside his final chance at redemption with the dismissive words: “‘It is too late [. . .].’” (122) In essence he walks away from the painter as he had from Sibyl. He deliberately severs the connection Basil attempted so assiduously to establish as well as maintain.
As indicated earlier, Dorian attains that hardness of heart which does not yield in the face of even the gravest circumstances. Gerald Vann describes the condition perfectly: “[. . .] there can be a state of soul against which Love itself is powerless because it has hardened itself against Love. [. . .] the hate which is so blind, so dark, that love only makes it the more violent [. . .].” Dorian arrives at that point.
Just prior to murdering Hallward, a feeling of profound hatred towards his former friend engulfs him. To state the obvious: hatred and murder in and of themselves are indisputable signs of disregarding another’s autonomy. Dorian admits despising the individual, who has just seen the evidence of his transgressions, “more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything.” (123) This depersonalization continues once Basil is dead. At least twice on that same evening, Dorian refers to Basil as the thing (123, 124). In his rather one-sided exchange with Alan Campbell—another former friend, whose case will be discussed at length later—multiple examples of reification can be enumerated. “‘What you have got to do is to destroy the thing that is upstairs—to destroy it so that not a vestige of it will be left.’” (130) In that uncomplicated sentence alone, three examples can be found. Whether in using a noun or pronoun, Dorian reduces Basil to an object. Though many more such examples abound, two additional citations should suffice to prove the point. While Campbell disposes of Basil’s remains, Dorian recoils at the sight of his disfigured portrait.
“How horrible it was!—more horrible, [. . .] than the silent thing that he knew was stretched across the table, the thing whose grotesque misshapen shadow on the spotted carpet showed him that it had not stirred, but was still there, as he had left it.” (134)
His work completed, Alan leaves Gray’s home. Dorian reenters the old schoolroom and comments on the noxious smell. “But the thing that had been sitting at the table was gone.” (135)
Alan Campbell. As already intimated in the earlier section concerning Basil’s murder, Dorian also disregards Campbell’s autonomy step by lethal step. He sees in Alan only someone who will serve him, who will carry out his designs. This strategy succeeds for two reasons. Due to his past failings, Alan remains in Dorian’s debt and the chemist possesses the skills the nobleman requires at the moment. If serving as yet another appendage to Dorian’s ego obliterates Alan’s humanity, it will not matter to Dorian.
The mere fact that Alan enters the nobleman’s residence upon his request already constitutes the initial encroachment upon Alan’s desire not to cooperate with Dorian in any way. The chemist had resolved never to frequent Dorian’s home again. (130) As with Basil, Dorian uses word, tone and gesture to bend his former friend to his will. The ingratiating preliminaries over, the by now thoroughly desperate aristocrat begins dismantling Alan’s reservations in earnest.
“After a strained moment of silence, he leaned across and said, very quietly, but watching the effect of each word upon the face of him he had sent for, ‘Alan, in a locked room at the top of this house [. . .] a dead man is seated at a table. [. . .] Don’t stir, and don’t look at me like that. [. . .] What you have to do is this—.’” (130)
Dorian cannot complete the last thought for Alan asks him to cease speaking. In one way or another, Alan objects to each and every one of Dorian’s statements or outright demands. He calls him a mad man, suspects he occasioned Basil’s alleged suicide, assures him he will face arrest. (131) How many more ways are there to say no? But Dorian persists, finds the chemist’s weakest link and threatens him with blackmail. (132) Alan succumbs. When he asks to leave the premises to fetch some necessary items from his laboratory, Dorian refuses his request. Dorian’s valet will bring the required tools. (133) Alan becomes heartsick. “He was shivering with a kind of ague.” (133) That he is fully conscious of his impending degradation only exacerbates his already considerable pain. When Dorian admits that the chemist will manage to save his life, Alan’s reply speaks volumes: “‘Your life? Good heavens! What a life that is! You have gone from corruption to corruption, and now you have culminated in crime. In doing what I am going to do, what you force me to do, it is not of your life that I am thinking.’” (133) Within a matter of weeks, rumors of Alan’s suicide begin circulating. (161)
To disregard utterly the legitimate wishes of others, to coerce them into betraying their better selves, to so dominate others that they are eviscerated emotionally and morally, that would be synonymous with violating their autonomy, to leave them less than fully human. Such is the face of evil. Repeatedly Dorian Gray treats Sibyl Vane, Basil Hallward and Alan Campbell so wretchedly that, until Dorian’s suicide and despite all appearances to the contrary, his becomes the face of evil. Wilde expresses it best in his only novel’s final scene. The servants find their master, “Lying on the floor [. . .] in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the ring that they recognized who it was.” (281)
 M[organ], Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (New York: Simon, 1983).
 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Donald L. Lawler (New York: Norton, 1988). All quotes or paraphrases followed by page numbers refer to this edition.
 André Gide, “L’immoraliste,” Oeuvres Complètes, ed. L[ouis] Martin-Chauffier, IV (Paris: NRF, 1933), 119. “La maladie était entrée en Marceline, l’habitait désormais, la marquait, la tachait. C’était une chose abîmée.” Translation of this quote is my own.
 M[organ], Scott Peck, The Road less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (New York: Touchstone, 1978), 163.
 Ibid., 166.
 Ibid., 161, 168.
 Peck, People of the Lie, 137.
 Gerald Vann, The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God, 1947 (Springfield, Il: Templegate, 1954), 54.
Received: July 4, 2011, Published: August 6, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Vera B. Profit