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Mind and matter in the picture of Dorian gray

Davis, Michael



In chapter 8 of Dorian Gray, Dorian reflects on the terrifying discovery, which he has made the previous night, that the painting has been somehow altered to express his own moral state. He speculates thus on a possible explanation for the change in the picture: Was there some subtle affinity between the chemical atoms, that shaped themselves into form and colour on the canvas, and the soul that was within him? Could it be that what that soul thought, they realized? - that what it dreamed, they made true? (Wilde 93) At the end of the chapter, he thinks along similar lines: Might there not be some curious scientific reason for it all? If thought could exercise its influence upon a living organism, might not thought exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things? Nay, without thought or conscious desire, might not things external to ourselves vibrate in unison with our moods and passions, atom calling to atom in secret love or strange affinity? (103) Wilde's references to atoms encapsulate something of the complexity and paradox which characterise the novel's representations of the mind and its connection with the body. Atoms make up the painting and Dorian's own body, and this reminder of the materiality of both reminds us, in turn, of the possibility that Dorian, and all human selves, may occupy an insignificant yet inescapable place in the wider processes of the physical world. Most pervasively in the novel, and in the fin de siècle more generally, anxieties about one such material process - that of evolution, and especially of degeneration - haunt representations of the self. In Dorian's thoughts about atoms lies the still more extreme possibility that the very distinction between organic and inorganic may be blurred, a vertiginous sense that human evolutionary kinship extends beyond even the simplest organisms to matter itself, and that the category of the human is thus under greater threat than ever in the light of scientific theories of the material world. At the same time, the questions that Dorian asks himself envisage not the reduction of the mind to matter but the near-opposite of this: the possibility that thought may somehow influence the matter of the painting. In a fantastical version of the Hegelian idealism which forms an important part of Wilde's philosophical position, the mind may prove to be the ultimate reality, independent of and dominant over matter, as the state of Dorian's mind is mysteriously given sensuous form in the transformations which the painting undergoes. The atoms of the painting, like the human mind, take on an ambiguous relationship to the material world. The atoms are not fixed but fluid; like the mind itself, they are material and yet seem to act in ways contrary to physical laws of cause and effect, always in process and resistant to external comprehension. Copyright © 2013 Cambridge University Press.


Davis, M. (2013). Mind and matter in the picture of Dorian gray. Victorian Literature and Culture, 41(3), 547-560.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Sep 1, 2013
Journal Victorian Literature and Culture
Print ISSN 1060-1503
Publisher Cambridge University Press (CUP)
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 41
Issue 3
Pages 547-560
Keywords Oscar Wilde, literature and psychology, consciousness,
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