In What Ways Does The ‘Double’ Figure In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde and In Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu?

Carmilla (1872) as a novella and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) as Wilde’s only novel, herald from the same era of Irish Gothic literature, they both explore anxieties surrounding the return of the repressed in their effacement of the reality of the monstrous and the natural and the intermingling of these concepts. The subject of homosexuality is circumspectly approached by both authors whose work contributed to the rising public consciousness surrounding homosexuality in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Fanu uses the marginalized image of the vampire to reflect the Victorian fear and fascination surrounding lesbianism as well as the presence of the female voice. Wilde too explores the unconscious fear of the feminine in a masculine centric society, but focuses particularly on the duality of society shown by the repetition of; the old and the new, the conservative and the progressive, the pious and the decadent. Wilde heightens the image of the civil war of style with in England at this time as a repressive regime which threatens to spiral into what Harry calls a new age of hedonism; idolizing aestheticism itself which prefigured a mood of new possibilities promised by modernity from previously stifled and repressed generations. What this means for the marginalised homosexual during this time provides the sub text of the 1890 serialisation, if not the 1891 novel which was edited by Wilde for overt references, for what he would later in his infamous trial call “the love that dare not speak its’ name”. Both novels serve to express what cannot be expressed, the uncanny aspects of human nature, that are in conflict as to what is accepted as “natural” with in a highly artificial and ritualised society.

Basil, to most critics, seems like a relatively minor influence on the character of Dorian compared with the ruthless and charming figure of Harry and this is perfectly true as Dorian says from the first chapter “Why had it been left for a stranger to reveal him to himself? He had known Basil for months, but the friendship between them had never altered him” Yet psychologically speaking, Basil is Dorian’s creator, he is responsible for opening Dorian’s mind to the appreciation of his own beauty, which Basil idolizes as the aesthetic ideal. The portrait is a clear object of the double with in the novel, yet the nature of its’ duality is far more complex. The image of Dorian links both himself and Basil to each other psychologically, as it reveals Dorian to himself and shows him the nature of his own youth whilst also acting as a mirror to what Basil values most as well as where he identifies himself in terms of sexual, cultural and psychological experience. Though many have sought to divine homosexual significance in Basil’s obsession with Dorian, particularly at Wilde’s trial, the crux of Basil’s fascination is perhaps more subtle than sexual idealization. Terrence Dawson promotes psychological identification as the key to this intense masculine relationship, “Basil speaks and acts as if he is mature and balanced, he is neither. He has never allowed his emotional life any expression. This aspect of his life is still in the adolescent stage…It is no coincidence that he becomes fascinated by a youth who stands at the threshold of adulthood” Basil’s painting shows Dorian about to embark on the same “rigths of passage” that metaphorically Basil has not under gone. Therefore we understand better Basil’s continued efforts to try to prevent Dorian’s embrace of experience as he on one level tries to protect his friend, but on a more personal level, as both his psychological and adolescent doppelgänger it is also a form of self-preservation against emotional development.
Despite over-whelming evidence that Dorian has changed as a result of his infamous lifestyle, Basil refuses to believe anything against Dorian because he can see, like the rest of society, that Dorian had kept himself “unspotted from the world”. In the final chapter however, Dorian reveals Basil’s picture and the repressed aspect of both mens’ lives are revealed as abominable and diseased. In the first chapter Basil explains to Harry that, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter…The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my soul.” Yet when Dorian reveals his soul which is symbolized by the cancerous picture, Basil refuses to admit that the picture has any bearing on his own soul, “There was nothing evil in it, nothing shameful” and projects all the malignant aspects on to Dorian’s embrace of life rather than his denial of it. As Dawson says, “what [Basil] fears most is to lose Dorian, not as a friend but as a model” In a similar way to Shelley’s Frankenstein, the inventor’s creation rebels and destroys his master in a petulant adolescent fashion for what he has made him become.
Both Dorian and Basil are obsessive characters who adopt personas for the benefit of society as a cover to allow them to explore; in Basil’s case a new medium of art as “the artist”, Dorian as the “the dandy” as a cover to indulge in his sociopathic hunger to experience as a “new hedonist”. Basil represses life outside of art whilst Dorian conducts life as if it were art, both are artificial, but unite the two as a ‘double’ which cannot function with in society because of their dedication to an unsustainable artistic ideal. It is interesting to note that like Carmilla and Laura’s quasi-sexual connection, Dorian and Basil’s psychological connection gives them attributes of the doppelgänger which is current in many Gothic texts. Doppelgangers traditionally haunt and torment
each other whilst providing a sense of fascination, their dual nature providing an unstable but inescapable relationship. Basil and Dorian also find their psychological duality in the fear of the feminine, as Dorian’s infatuation with the young and beautiful actress Sibyl Vane mirrors Basil’s own infatuation with Dorian. Despite Basil’s insistence on Dorian as his friend, he makes no effort to understand Dorian’s character and even says to Harry from the first that, “Dorian Gray is to me simply a motive in art…He is a suggestion of a new manner. I find him in the curve of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours. That is all” As Basil finds the reality of Dorian’s character horrifying outside of his image in art, so Dorian’s feelings evaporate for Sibyl when she can no longer act as the great women in Shakespeare. Sibyl realises the power of her own love and can no longer pretend to feel anyone else’s on a gaudy and unreal stage,“i might mimic a passion I do not feel but I cannot mimic one that burns me like fire” Dorian is disillusioned and cruelly leaves Sibyl as she has become too real as she describes, “You had brought me something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand what love really is” but Dorian does not want reality because it scares him, he bartered his soul to stay as an adolescent when he uttered his “mad wish” and so he leaves Sibyl heart-broken because he cannot and will not respond to her as a sexualized women, “I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realised the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away.”

Similarly in Carmilla the fear of feminine is examined through the reactions of the male society, Fanu uses the trope of vampirism to explore the power of women embodied in lesbianism and the blatant panic this inspires in the crowd of men who assemble to destroy Carmilla in her crypt at the culmination of Laura’s tale. Through this Fanu exposes the hysteria during the nineteenth-century over the ‘threat’ posed by lesbianism against the established patriarchal culture, up until 1921 legislature did not include the term ‘lesbian’ in fear that it could encourage women to forsake traditional heterosexual relationships. The tale of the eponymous Carmilla is a layered narrative adding a structural dimension to the duality, ambiguity and ambivalence that mark the text and the narration of Laura, whose story is presented by Fanu, as part of a casebook by Dr. Hesselius. This device places the story of powerful female sexuality with in a pervasively male “safe” mode of narration, as a documented event devoid of mystery. However, it allows Fanu to note Laura’s death before we have reached the culmination of her story, so that the reader is aware she has died relatively young of a slow and undisclosed illness. We can only reflect as it becomes apparent that Carmilla is a vampire, that Laura may have finally transitioned into a new, and essentially masculine, freedom of the vampire after her death. Structurally the story mirrors the ambiguity of Fanu’s and Laura’s stance on homosexuality in the confusion of sympathies that Carmilla’s character provokes. Female sexuality with in the nouvelle is symbolised as a catching sickness that strikes down local women of the village with in days, creating bewilderment in the scientifically rational male heads of the community.

Through Laura’s narration of her first memory as a child we hear of her frightening meeting with Carmilla, as an adult we hear the same tale again from Carmilla’s perspective. On first recognising Carmilla as the figure of her nightmare, “I saw the very face… on which I had for so many years ruminated with horror” She is initially scared yet her sexual attraction towards Carmilla almost immediately supplants these emotions as she falls under Carmilla’s spell, shown by her mirroring of her language. The first thing Carmilla says is “I saw your face in a dream and It has haunted me ever since” to which Laura replies “Twelve years ago, in a vision or reality, I certainly saw you…It has remained before my eyes ever since”. Linguistically they mirror each other as well as both being each others doubles in terms of their birth, position and beauty. Carmilla goes onto to say that she doesn’t “know which should be most afraid of the other”, here she is disingenuously associates her feelings of trepidation with Laura in order to gain her trust or perhaps genuinely, to show the equality they share on a sexual level and gender, unlike heterosexuality. As Laura describes to the reader how she felt, “”drawn towards her” but there was also something of repulsion. In this amphibious feeling..attraction immensley prevailed. She interested and won me” She presents her own feeling but again she is copying Carmilla’s speech as in the previous paragraph Carmilla admits to Laura “Your looks won me”. This can either be interpreted as part of Carmilla’s supernaturally persuasive and magnetic power over Laura as a victim, or that Laura and Carmilla are doppelgängers, destined to meet and fall in love and their assimilation is merely a sign that they are in some way part of each other as Carmilla later says, “you and I are one forever”.

The notion of blood ties and blood lust are dual themes in Carmilla as it is discovered when portraits are uncovered and Carmilla’s image appears on one of the canvases right down to the “little mole on her throat” as Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, an obvious anagram of Carmilla, representing the lesbian as a repetition of female sexuality through out history, as Rank says, “[the double is] an energetic denial of the power of death”. The repetitious image of Carmilla as Mircalla, Millarca and Marcia in both Laura’s story and her reports of other peoples’ stories of the presence of Carmilla is a recurrent symbol of the lesbian as a constant and shadowy presence throughout history, it can also be read as Gothic in itself as the almost supernatural rebirth of this figure denoting the irrelevency of men in the reproduction of women. This is emphasised by the stress on the Laura’s descent from the Karnstein dynasty through her mother’s side and the uncanny silence on Laura’s patynomic name and lineage.

Carmilla is a seductive and beautiful vampire, she not only has the ability to survive independently of men, her preferred victims or lovers being women, she actively manipulates them using her own cunning and their patriachal arrogance of the “damsel in distress” to her own advantage. Her “amphibious existence” and the inherent duality of her nature inspires a confusing response of pathos, fascination and fear in the reader, so in turn we emulate the emotional reactions of Laura and become partially doubles ourselves. For the men of Laura’s tale, as a woman who can control them from the grave she is a monster and must be destroyed. To Laura however, despite having heard and believed the violence of Carmilla’s nature she is dismayed that she is not at the schloss on her return from the grave yard and reflecting on her in later life, “the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations… often I have started, fancying I heard the step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door” As her sexual doppelgänger, Laura cannot simply hate the memory of Carmilla anymore than Dorian can simply hate Basil or his picture. According to Freud “the double is paradoxically both a promise of immortality and a harbinger of death. The notion of the double undermines the very logic of identity”

Lacan’s “mirror stage” of child development in which the child experiences themselves for the first time as separate from the world around them. Part of this stage Lacan says is the realisation of the unobtainable completion of the fragmented self as we realise we are no longer part of out mother. Fanu challenges this theory by covertly sexualising Carmilla and Laura’s relationship and thereby showing the Otherness and duality of completing the whole and uniting the self through feminine love which Laura needs as the memory of Carmilla is her first memory, supplanting that of the mother. Dorian Gray, on the other hand is a series of recreations of the self in which Dorian becomes the principal artist and subject; Harry’s “New Hedonism” is a reaction to Victorian mores, which Dorian embraces as a new mode of existence in which heaven and hell are internalized and art becomes the only religion and paintings the only resting place for the soul. As part of this new aestheticism. that Dorian embraces, he sacrifices his sense of self for the ultimate realization of art and in a sense becomes his own psychological double, like Narcissus, as he is described by Harry, he becomes absorbed by himself and his own image. Ultimately the novel suggests that duality is natural: “You, Mr. Gray, you yourself,…. 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 -” But the evolution of character is inevitable, it is down to the artist what he would like his masterpiece to say about himself .
Anolik, Ruth Bienstock. Horrifying Sex: Essays on Sexual Difference in Gothic Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2007. Print.
David, Deirdre. The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
Dawson, Terence. The Effective Protagonist in the Nineteenth-century British Novel: Scott, Brontë, Eliot, Wilde. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2004. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Trans. David McLintock. (2003): n. pag. Abstract. The Literature of the Gothic: The University of Greenwich Course Reader (2012): n. pag. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. Print.
University of, Greenwich. “‘Carmilla’ by Sheridan Le Fanu.” The Midnight Reader Term One (2012): n. pag. Print.
Wilde, Oscar, and Isobel Murray. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Edited with an Introduction by Isobel Murray. London, Etc.: Oxford UP, 1974. Print.


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