Small 2600 word essay looking at the portrayal of narcissism through Wilde and Banks
Compare and contrast the presentation of narcissism in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory (1984) through the protagonists.
Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Wasp Factory have plots that centre on protagonists that are the author in disguise. Oscar Wilde puts forward three personas of himself: 'Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be- in other ages, perhaps.'(1) Three separate characters with differing ideologies and interchanging story arcs are presented; themes such as power and self-indulgence run deep between the characters. Power, not political power or the power to move an object but the kind of power that one intelligent, unrighteous monster might exercise over another, lesser, more unsuspecting prey. The soul and the mind are indulged until an ego can grow large and consume more than it has the right to consume. There are clear similarities between the characters that Oscar Wilde presents and Iain Bank's Frank Cauldhame - a deeply troubled young adult representing the author's own narcissistic tendencies. I will expand on ideas of hedonism (the pursuit to minimise pain while maximising pleasure and self-indulgence) and animalism (behaving with the characteristics of an animal, especially physically and instinctively), then explore their relationship with the author. Aesthetics shall be cast in a looking glass, jealousy brought to light, ego shall take the stage and be exposed as the ravenous property of desperate men creating fictional characters to fight the outside world, while the authors fight internal wars over their own character. This is the exploration of how the most formidable of character traits can be the most self-destructive. The following is a brief study of some of the more poignant aspects of narcissism, observed in one of the greatest writers of the late nineteenth century through Oscar Wilde's Magnum Opus and one of the best writers of the late twentieth century, Iain Banks through one of his crowning achievements.
Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Wasp Factory pertain to overwhelming self-obsession among the protagonists. It is my belief that this is what makes the characters and the books not only so popular but so relatable in this modern age. During the very early stages of the book, the character Dorian Gray is confronted with the beautiful portrait of himself and observes 'How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young.'(p24) It is a stark parable with the Greek story of Narcissus, the man who fell madly in love with his own reflection. Just like Narcissus, Dorian Gray's 'cheeks flushed for a moment with pleasure' (p23) upon recognising himself. However, Dorian in the second instant is confronted with the reality that he cannot stay this beautiful for eternity. He becomes judiciously aware that upon even an instant passing, that he has grown less than the picture and becomes insanely jealous of it. Dorian is terrified of the prospect of losing his beauty, it is apparent in the use of adjectives in this section; 'old', 'horrible', 'dreadful' is Dorian's lamenting appreciation of him. Dorian is so self-obsessed that even a picture of himself that 'will remain always young' is enough for him to throw away all eternity. To maintain his youthful appearance is his desire and he admits 'I would give my soul for that'(p24). This nature of adoring and adhering to the pleasure of aesthetics was as much a focal point of personality for Dorian Gray as it was for Oscar Wilde. 'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all' (p1) Here Wilde asserts the philosophy that when it comes to art, moral judgement is irrelevant and social and political boundaries should not only be crossed but ignored altogether in the pursuit of creating beauty. However, this martyrdom of the soul-sacrificing inner peace for an ideal- is what lead to the character Dorian Gray's and the author's demise. Both the character and the author have homosexual tendencies, this would have been ill-advised in society at the time. There is still some debate over the extent of Wilde's homosexuality, the book's depiction of love between a man and woman is very genuine and is written as if the author knew the love of a woman well, not to mention he fathered two children. If his faith in hedonism were to be believed then he would have looked at the homosexual tendencies of the ancient Greeks to which had such a heavy influence on his reading(7), the Greeks being proprietors of homosexual activity (especially with children). Wilde would have seen homosexuality as not only appealing but a vital part of his self-indulgent countenance. However, especially when looking at the author's narcissism, it is important to note the possibility that his homosexual indulgencies could have come from his incessant demand for love, self-indulgence and intense experiences, it is possinle that Wilde wanted love and he didn't care where or who it came from. During the time period the country was deeply Christian and neither the protestant nor catholic faith was accepting of homosexuality, the least in a married man. This leaves the character a social shadow and the author being put in prison in reality. It was as if Oscar Wilde predicted and orchestrated his own demise.
This compares to Frank Cauldhame's character in the Wasp Factory in his belief that the world has an ego and is warring against him 'the outward urge consumed him, as it does any real man, and it took him away from me, to the outside world'(p182). This passage comes towards the end of the book, in one of several moments of reflection; the way in which someone self-obsessed would believe that his story is of great importance and needs to be relayed. It is imperative for Frank to make the reader understand why he has the feelings that he does towards his brother. The author uses the personal pronoun 'me', putting himself at the focal point of, not just the line, but the lives of the people around him. He is scornful of 'outward urges', an invader, a foreigner to himself and his brother Eric, taking what he considers to be rightfully his. Hateful towards the things that he has no control over. This is a characteristic that Iain Banks has professed in himself 'I am a deeply selfish man, being nice to the world is just my way of making up for it' (2). It is not just Iain Bank's admission of his own selfishness that relates directly to this quote here; it is the explanation of the quote that is reminiscent of the character Frank. Iain Banks, though the interview was thirty years later, still has the self-confessed narcissistic and self-obsessed need to make people understand why he has done a certain thing and why he has thought or acted a certain way. It is his and the character's mode of justifying his morals to relieve himself of responsibility. Interestingly, this is a writhe contrast between Iain Banks and Oscar Wilde. Where Iain Banks would contradict himself and prove himself pragmatic or even conceited without articulate thought, Oscar Wilde would have stuck to his ravenous ideology, his aesthetics ,hedonism and bent the world to make sense in accordance to what he believes; 'I have a loaded revolver and I will shoot you'(3).
The craving of power is vitally important when discussing narcissism. In The Picture of Dorian Gray power is often represented by the manipulation of people. It is most prominent in the power that Lord Henry Wotton's character exercises over the character of Dorian Gray. The potential for this kind of behaviour, Basil Hallward forewarns Henry Wooton even before Dorian Gray is introduced, 'Don't spoil him. Don't try to influence him'(p15), Basil Hallward warns his friend Lord Henry Wotton. It is clear from the outset of the book that Basil and Henry are friends and have been for a considerable amount of time. However, Basil has a negative view of Henry and the 'influence' that he has on people. Basil reveres Lord Henry's ability for manipulation so decidedly that he uses the verb spoil; suggesting Dorian were a ripe and sweet piece of fruit. This is not the only time that Dorian is referred to as a piece of fruit by Basil, he also describes his as 'made out of ivory and rose leaves'(p6) connoting the image of an apple. Basil is not only suggesting that Dorian is sweet but that he is unblemished, unbruised but conjuring slightly darker tones as an apple is often devoured. Perhaps it was Basil Hallward's intention to devour Dorian and it was never part of his plan for Lord Henry to be the man to 'spoil' Dorian. Or perhaps Wilde is making a broader point about youth and its inevitability to be either bruised or eaten. Basil's warning to Lord Henry makes the reader instantly mistrustful of Lord Henry, worried but no doubt curious of his power, just like Dorian. It is interesting that Oscar Wilde would create a character as reserved as Basil Hallward, 'I really can't exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it'(6), a character that would go to great lengths to avoid an 'exhibit' of his inner self to esteem a relationship with a deceiver. He prizes his gentle, genial nature and yet he is eternally wound with Henry, a man that would seek to 'influence' and 'spoil'. Oscar Wilde was alluding to the nature and importance of hedonism and animalism. In Oscar Wilde's ideological mind and life, even if he were the most delicate and fragile of person (and the closed moral ending of the story would suggest that he was), he would seek out art whatever person it may reside in. This is another example of Wilde following his beliefs in hedonism and he will ignore all social and moral boundaries in order to gain what would bring him the maximum amount of pleasure. It is not the only time in the author's life that he saw fit to ignore social boundaries and even put his own desire for pleasure and the aforementioned sexual self-indulgence ahead of even his family's needs and safety. Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde started a relationship in 1894, three years after they first met in 1891. The nature of the relationship was intense and highly sexual, the kind of characteristics in a relationship that Oscar would have sought after in desperate paroxysms of self-validation. All of this happened while the author was married with two children(6), something that came out as evidence in court through love letters that Wilde sent to Douglas. The public scandal left his family and their name in ruin. Given this tendency to indulge in walks of life that others would not dream, it is unsurprising that the character of Lord Henry Wotton is written to be the 'fruit of forbidden knowledge' and in a world of people pertaining to the ideas aforementioned, Henry Wotton would be considered an intellectual without equal as others would not dare to learn what he has learnt. New and old, wisened and unblemished should ignore all morals to eat of the fruit of 'art for art's sake'(4). The relationship also suggests a lonely existence for Basil; to have to stoop so low morally to find another person possessing the same level of genius. Something, I have no doubt, plagued Oscar Wilde continually throughout his life.
The portrayal of power is less over people and more implemented to nature in The Wasp Factory. Frank Cauldhame is obsessed with the power that he holds over the small island that he almost ceaselessly habituates. He is paranoid and doesn't like anyone coming on to his island without him knowing about it, 'Look back up at those small heads and bodies as they watched over the northern approach to the island.'(p3). This scene describes how Frank has cut off the heads and bodies of small animals to mount them on spikes protruding from the ground. He does this so that no one can come on to the island without the animal's watch. Frank believes he holds dominion and power over the lives that he has taken. He believes that his prey, being an extension of himself, warn him of an intruder. The verb 'approach' is interesting here, it symbolises war. It conjures images of an approaching army, making him the leader and not a lone soldier against any battalion of enemies. Despite these reoccurring moments of grandeur, Frank is portrayed to be relatively unconscious of his demand for power, 'Not that I had any particular reason for watching him; I just liked doing it. It made me feel good to know that I could see him and he couldn't see me, and that I was aware and fully conscious and he wasn't.'(p148) Frank is obsessed with demonstrating his power by killing animals. However, in this section which appears later in the book, we see Frank demonstrating his power over another human. Frank acts as a hunter, choosing to stalk his father at night, like his prey. This contrast between the son and the father shows the animalistic nature of Frank. As time goes on, he is starting to become the animals and insects that he kills, it is as if he has gained their power and as they have become a part of him, he is gaining their traits too. He has even identified an aging alpha male and is appraising the aged male sleeping. Oscar Wilde talks of the same animalistic instincts in The Picture of Dorian Grey when Dorian feels 'The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him'(p125). This is directly before Dorian murders Basil. It is the nature in which Dorian feels like a 'hunted' animal that contrasts the animalism that Iain Banks describes. Whereas, the character Frank likes to play the hunter to feel powerful, the character Dorian Grey enjoys the thrill and 'mad passions' of being an animal, letting go of power or control in this instant, for excitement, for 'a new experience'. Written by the man that insisted that he 'can resist everything except temptation'(5).
Though Oscar Wilde always insisted that he was a prescriber to aesthetics and Ian banks has often voiced socialist views on politics, it isn't beyond reach to describe their views of the world as closer to nihilism. The animalistic nature of the morals that they both put forward is very base and lacks the pleasure of a soul at the centre of their theories. Confronted with the incessant demand for power and the depravity of self-indulgence, it is easy to see why both authors were incredibly popular in their time and our own.
We are a world without morals; a world that has long since decided that the nature of a soul is too terrifying to believe in based on the atrocities that we have committed. The authors build on this lack of spirituality and create a world of black that only seems to dive deeper into the pit of narcissism. Oscar Wilde clings to aesthetics for the base of his morality instead of anything spiritual and Iain Banks making languid stabs at being a better person on the back of his admittance that he is not. Perhaps it is the authors complete disregard for morals that make their writing intriguing. Or their insight into true human nature that makes their opinion so sought after. As people, the authors were deplorable. As authors, they are timeless voices of their generation, speaking words that will be adopted and echoed for generations to come.
Bibliography and references
A) Primary texts
Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wordsworth classics, 1890
Iain Banks The Wasp Factory, Abacus, 1984
B) Secondary sources: Books and articles
Cohen, Philip. John Evelyn Barlas, 'A Critical Biography: Poetry, Anarchism, and Mental Illness in Late-Victorian Britain.' Rivendale Press, 2012
Burkholder, John K, 'The New Hedonism' Work Press
Wilson, Colin, 'A man of some importance' Socialist Review, 1995
Terpening, William, 'The Picture of Oscar Wilde: A Brief Life' The Victorian Web, 1998
Buzwell, Greg, 'The Picture of Dorian Gray: art, ethics and the artist' British Library, 2014
Ross, Iain. 'Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece' Cambridge University Press, 2013
C) Secondary sources: Digital sources
Craig Williams (director) Raw Spirit (2013) BBC Scotland interview
Agnes Nixon (creator) Oscar Wilde: Wits End (2001) A and E Biography
Simon Tillotson (producer) In Our Time: Oscar Wilde (2001) BBC Radio 4 podcast
1 Drew, John M. L. The Picture of Dorian Gray: Introduction, Wordsworth classics, 1890 pp 18
2 Craig Williams (director) Raw Spirit (2013) BBC Scotland interview
3 Harris, Frank Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth classics, 2007 pp107
4 Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters. Ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Fourth Estate, 2000
5 Wilde, Oscar, and Karl E. Beckson. I Can Resist Everything Except Temptation: And Other Quotations from Oscar Wilde. Columbia University Press, 1996
6 H. Montgomery Hyde, The Love That Dared not Speak its Name. Little. Brown and Company, pp 144