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The Depiction of The Double Life in The Picture of Dorian Gray

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The Depiction of The Double Life in The Picture of Dorian Gray essay

‘Those who go below the surface do so at their own peril’. If the aesthetic exterior of a person is the ‘surface’, it is assumed that below this surface is sensibility and emotion. Wilde warns against probing too deeply, or at all, the conscience; the threat that you cannot experience pleasure to the same intensity once moral consequence has been considered haunts the novel. The phrase ‘terrible pleasure’ is thus both antithetical and associated. Dorian is only able to lead a life of ‘pleasure’ through remaining blind to his ‘terrible’ sacrifice of others; pleasure is almost intensified with the knowledge that it was born of another’s suffering. Yet, the mythic quality dictates that this separation of morality and unheeded pleasure is unsustainable and, as fresh paint does, the consequences of sin begin to seep to the suppressed conscience. It is to a self-afflicted ‘peril’ when Dorian submerges, albeit temporarily, ‘below the surface’ and realises he cannot live a life soulless. Once he has submerged in his conscience, he can no longer reach this perfect surface, and inevitably drowns.

To avoid degeneration is to live a life based on balance of two elements. The very phrase ‘double life’ is associated with the Gothic doppelganger, a balance achieved through each double being human, or human-like form. Wilde complicates this by choosing an inanimate object as the doppelganger, presenting an imbalance between the two and three dimensional; Dorian exists in a reality whereas the picture, as art, can only ever be a representation of life. As human and painting are studied simultaneously as if both were art, the two doppelgangers are temporarily two-dimensional: looking now at the evil and aging face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass (Wilde, p.117). Despite the third person narration, this perspective is temporarily from the mirror’s reflection. The description given then transforms from a detached account to a narrative with altered perception; Dorian’s mirror image is not arguably not a truthful reflection, but a constructed image of how he perceives himself. The reader must also be subjected to this impaired vision that disfigures truth, viewing the narration through a ‘thin blue [wreath] of smoke’ (Wilde, p.6). A further layer of doubling is suggested in the reflection, another two-dimensional version of Dorian that cannot physically commit to any action but will witness the ensuing inescapable ‘terror’ as an audience at the theatre would. Halberstam comments that ‘art serves to separate Dorian from his hideous other spatially’[1], demanding a focus on ‘spatially’. Morality lacks physical substance, and is instead part of the soul. Yet the painting acts as a physical representation of the effects of sin on Dorian’s soul, which consequently allows for this constant reprieve of morality. In almost anthropomorphising the painting, it is brought to a half life; capable of mimicking the bodily, but biologically there remains a lack of cognitive thought. As a ‘fair young face’, a beautifully aesthetic exterior is also what Dorian strives for, aligning himself more with the painting than a wholly human character. He therefore perceives this state of imbalance between ‘surface’ and substance as the perfect state, with the bodily form of one double and the moral blindness of the other. It death remains almost an inevitable act of nature, as balance needs to be restored.

In living a double life, secrecy is invariably a necessity for each life to separately function as society expects. A female naivety is perhaps implied in Sibyl Vane, the innocent actress, as she exposes her entire self theatrically to audiences routinely. As with many characters in Wilde’s novel, the ‘double life’ splits the character in to the original, arguably ‘true’ character and the double, a representation or imitation. In Dorian choosing what is assumed to be the secondary ‘double’, love is both aestheticised and cheapened; he desires the characters she plays, the performative layer of her identity: ‘I left her in the forest of Arden, I shall find her in an orchard in Verona’ (Wilde, p.71). The action of ‘[leaving] her’ not only foreshadows inevitable abandonment, but suggests how Dorian imagines Sibyl in a world of Shakespearean romance. In referencing Arcadian spaces –the ‘forest’ and orchard’ –Wilde constructs a pseudo-romance with a time limit; an arcadia is in harmony with nature, whereas Dorian’s love lacks authenticity and is unworthy of this literary elevation. In refusing to disentangle a constructed, imagined vision of her from reality, Dorian loves only, to whatever extent he emotionally can, what Sibyl outwardly constructs. Seemingly, Sibyl as a character lacks the simplest of emotional depth to have enough substance to split her identity in two. It is perhaps the exact effect Wilde strives for; the narrative does follow Sibyl beyond the theatre, but still only notes her virtuous beauty and theatrical mannerisms. Therefore, she appears to us exactly as she does to Dorian. However, Sibyl’s doubling is perhaps not as obvious as Dorian’s, which occurs physically. She is split instead by Dorian’s perception, with the two versions of her occupying reality or his imagination. Perhaps the act of introducing Basil and Harry, who encourage a compulsion with beauty, to his imaginative landscape also introduces a sense of reality. This sudden interjection of reality and the transition from Sibyl’s ethereal double, to the ‘charming’ yet ‘absurdly artificial’ (Wilde, p.77) rejects the reliability Dorian seeks in the constancy of ornamental beauty. The ‘terrible’ in Sibyl’s ‘double life’ thus lies in her tragic blindness: she is unaware that her secondary identity, the double life, is a construction, and she need not this substance of emotion to fulfil her predominantly decorative.

Max Nordau’s Degeneration argues there is a fundamental need for boundaries biologically, and socially. In ‘unchaining the beast of man’ and ‘trampling under foot […] all barriers which enclose brutal greed […] and lust of pleasure’[1], society becomes an anarchy of base, animalistic tendencies that are usually supressed by inflicted boundaries. Dorian, unbeknown to consequence, unchains the beast within himself through declaring himself immune to moral consequence. After one set of boundaries is torn down, a different set of physical boundaries is desperately installed in an attempt to maintain an ordered control. This is attempted through the gothic motif of the locked door. Yet, as the old school room seems to act as the heart to his home, the painting acts as the central organ to Dorian’s body. Outside the room, Dorian is able to temporarily claim a physical, mental and moral freedom. Inside the room, this ‘double life’ reduces again to one, and he becomes one with the painting. When Dorian kills Basil Hallward, the blood that appears on the painting parallels the physical, then metaphorical, blood on Dorian’s hands also as he ‘dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table’ (Wilde, p.144). The biological specification of the ‘great vein’ anaesthetizes the sin through presenting the act as a surgeon’s work, with a controlled outcome, as opposed to manslaughter, a repercussion of uncontrolled, disorderly emotion. Desensitisation occurs further through stripping Basil of his name, reducing his identity to a characterless ‘man’. A name triggers an association and emotional response, so in implicating anonymity, Dorian refuses to even realise the situation to himself. This denial of emotive capability aligns Dorian with the picture as he refuses to acknowledge a conscience, presenting himself as a two dimensional canvas that is affected only physically. The language of the entire passage continues to emphasise this, as it remains observationally specific in noticing details of environment, but emotionally vague. From this chapter onwards, Dorian’s attempted double life becomes harder to maintain. Physically, the painting remains in the school room, but mentally it begins to haunt Dorian’s thoughts to the point of hysterical paranoia, a relentless burden that weighs on what soul he has left. Maintaining boundaries, as Nordau suggests is imperative to life, is therefore ultimately unrealistic. The ‘beast’ within man needs only to have its chains loosened slightly, in order to disregard boundaries completely.

There can be no argument that Dorian, as the protagonist, leads a double life. What is arguable is identifying the point where his soul splits. Some may assert that this splitting occurs through action, when Dorian inadvertently causes Sibyl’s death, or begins his ungoverned sinning. It instead occurs in thought, and most importantly influence: as soon as he becomes ‘dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him’ (Wilde, p.21), he is no longer his own original. Whilst he may not exercise fully his double life at this point, in thought he has been split in imitation of Harry. Wilde splits Dorian in so many directions–morally, physically, mentally, and spiritually –that a true ‘original’ version only seems to exist for an alarmingly small number of pages.


Halberstam, J., in The Modern Gothic and Literary doubles: Stevenson, Wilde and Wells, by Linda Dryden (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd., 2003)

Nordau, M., Degeneration (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993)

Wilde, O., ‘Preface’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray, (Surrey: Alma Classics Ltd, 2008)

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