Madness, Performance, and Illusion in Victorian Literature

Published: 2021-09-02 23:40:14
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Differing from centuries past, Victorian England expressed a desire to more closely understand the meaning of madness, as psychological historian Elaine Showalter notes: “By the middle of the century, however, visitors to the Victorian asylum saw madness domesticated, released from restraint, and unnervingly like the world outside the walls” (Showalter 158). The insane, warped perception of reality prompted questioning into the formation of the sane identity, especially through the medium of literature. Was “the self” so simple to understand and identify?
The identity of humanity was much more complex and multi-faceted than the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century perceived it to be. Novels of the Victorian era, specifically Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, examine this complexity through the lens of madness. Both Lady Audley and Dorian Grey adopt new selves, and so conceal their unacceptable secrets from the outside world; however, this act cannot be sustained, as Victorian literature would admonish.
Performance – creating a facade for the outside world – is ultimately what drives Lady Audley and Dorian Grey mad because the illusion of entertainment becomes their reality, causing a fascination with their own self-creation and destruction, respectively. In hopes of escaping poverty, Helen Talboys creates a new identity that fractures who she is, leaving her vulnerable to scrutiny. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of Lady Audley’s Secret and the proclaimed “Queen of Sensation,” understood the goal of a performance: to distort reality.
As an actress herself, Braddon witnessed the power of entertainment over a captivated audience, warping and disguising perception in order to achieve the desired effect. Helen Talboys, too, sees the temptation of masking her true self. Initially rational, Helen lives under the care of her alcoholic father because her mother is placed in an insane asylum when she is a child. The desire to advance her means is evident given her conditions; but, when George Talboys does not return for many years and she is left in destitution once more, she must make the difficult decision to leave her old life in favor of becoming Miss Lucy Graham.
Undertaking such an act of empowerment was revolutionary and bold, as feminist critic Lynn Voskuil relates: “As players in this cultural drama, women were the compliant conduits of a transcendent notion of womanliness, weaker vessels perfectly type cast to express an idealized femininity reliably and coherently” (Voskuil 621). This further underscores the rationality of her choice to recreate her own identity because the likelihood of her discovery was slim while the benefits possible to her are innumerable. Although Lucy’s initial purpose in playing the role of performer is self-empowerment, it soon becomes a role of concealment.
With George’s untimely return from her past life, the threads she weaves to create a tapestry of lies begin to unravel, until the constant scrutiny from her elevated status as mistress causes her intense psychological stress from her efforts. Literally tunneling their way into Lucy’s inner chambers, George and Robert Audley examine the representation of her secret, the pre-Raphaelite portrait that revealed “something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend” within her split identity (Braddon 71). This portrait of her conscience shows her deception, and reflects the conflict within her concerning her past life.
In order to maintain this elaborate performance, she chooses self-creation over reality by attempting to murder her real husband. Lady Audley is absolutely determined to sustain her created identity by any means necessary in order to preserve the illusion to both the outside world and herself, awakening mental instability from the web of lies she spins. A monomaniacal obsession mandates Robert Audley to investigate the mystery of George’s disappearance, and this further pushes Lady Audley to the brink of insanity as her performance begins to overtake her.
In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Sybil Vane offers an interesting comparison to Lady Audley. Sybil is utterly absorbed in her acting as a means of escaping her sordid life, shaping her reality through the characters she plays in the theater every evening. She emerges from the emptiness of the act when Dorian declares his undying love for her; on the other hand, Lady Audley is unable to escape the falsehood that clouds her reality. The obsession with self-creation has conquered her. She is the perpetual actress in an unending performance that she cannot quit.
It is clear that Lady Audley begins to lose her grip on reality when it seems that Helen Talboys is screaming to return to the surface once more. For example, Lady Audley maliciously decides to manipulate Sir Michael into believing that his nephew is a madman bent on persecuting an innocent woman. Although Lady Audley sets the plan into motion, Helen hesitates for a moment, barely able to speak as she trembles and cries before him, aware of the horrid performance in which she plays the leading role.
This apparent dichotomy between her two identities proves to only aid the wicked nature of the plan, though: “It was the one wild outcry, in which the woman’s feebler nature got the better of the syren’s art” (Braddon 283). Interestingly displayed, the glimpse of her genuine self that breaks the surface of her facade in these ephemeral moments offers a much more real exhibition of emotion- so much so that it immediately stirs Sir Michael into a frenzy, spell-bound for his lover as she continues to work her magic upon him.
Helen’s voice is completely drowned out, projecting her own malady so articulately upon Robert because she is intimate with the lies and deceit she has created for herself: “They know that they are mad, but they know to keep their secret…[and] they may yield to the horrible temptation- the frightful, passionate, hungry craving for violence and horror” (Braddon 287). Her anxiety both to keep secrets and mask her reality places a burden upon her shoulders that she finds difficult to carry, but her newly-created self helps alleviate the stress that Helen so clearly exhibits as an integral part of her.
Another example of the stress induced by performance upon the dual selves of Lady Audley occurs subsequent to her setting Luke’s public house ablaze. Robert Audley, the man who threatens to pull the curtain on her new life, increasingly threatens her stability on the stage by offering her an ultimatum- she must confess to Sir Michael or he will do it himself. She is so dedicated to this illusion that the madwoman within her demands she kill Robert, finally escaping the past lies that furtively pursue her. She contemplates to herself after leaving the inn: “Perhaps it would be wiser in me to run away, o take this man’s warning, and escape out of his power forever…What could I do? I must go back to the old life, the old, hard, cruel, wretched life- the life of poverty, and humiliation, and vexation, and discontent” (Braddon 316). Always in a struggle of duality, Lucy is again drawn back to the performance against her better judgment due to her initial goal of escaping poverty as an ambitious and self-assertive young woman. The will of the illusion proves too tempting; the madness is too entrenched within her.
This secrecy cannot be sustained due to the scrutiny of Victorian society at large, as Braddon warns readers of the pitfalls of lies and false self-creation. Put simply by Voskuil: “Lady Audley is at once both a clinical case and a theatrical display, a madwoman and an actress” (Voskuil 633). The identity she fashioned as a tool to aid her struggle consumed her, making it impossible for Lady Audley to distinguish herself between Helen and Lucy, rational and mad. Two polar ideologies unknowingly influence Dorian Grey until they split how he sees himself, thereby hastening his internal self-destruction.
Oscar Wilde, a master of language and author of The Picture of Dorian Grey, wrote for an age of increasingly realist outlook. Under the tutelage of John Ruskin, one of his mentors, Wilde’s vision of truth became that which shocked, awakened, and awed. Ruskin had profound influence on his direction, prompting Wilde to explain human identity through the case of Dorian Grey by examining his madness as a deeper metaphor for the battle that takes place within the human soul: “Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art,” Wilde directly addresses the readers in the preface before the story begins (Wilde 4).
Dorian is easily influenced by his company at the onset of the novel as a boy, whether it is that of Basil Hallward or Lord Henry Wotton. Nonetheless, it is clear that his friend Harry gains influence, and eventually domination, over the creation of Dorian’s perception as he forms two separate understandings of the self. The human soul is not simply a product of one influence or another; it is an amalgamation of ideas, thoughts, and perceptions that frames identity in terms of a paradox, Wilde argues.
Sheldon Liebman, author of a critical response entitled “Character Design in The Picture of Dorian Grey,” follows up on this thought: Dorian Gray is torn between two mutually exclusive interpretations of human experience: one, optimistic, religious, and emotional; the other, pessimistic, cynical, and intellectual. In the course of the novel, the reader (if not Dorian) discovers that neither interpretation is adequate and that, from Wilde’s perspective, there are no alternatives (Liebman).
In response to the frivolity of the Romantic identity, the Victorian era developed an outlook to mirror the complexity of the world, seeing illusion and paradox as the threshold to truth. The illusion present in the novel, the portrait of Dorian painted by Basil, represents the incumbent split within Dorian’s soul; he sees this as visual product of his indulgent self, his “mask of shame”, hiding it in order to maintain the illusion of beauty (Wilde 93).
The sanity of Dorian is in no real threat when he is young, but as he progresses in years without actually aging his self-destructive habits degrade his soul and force the reader to question his grasp of reality. Capitulating to the illusion of a world of pure beauty, Dorian loses his understanding of reality, and himself in the process, leading him to madly conceal his soul from the outside. The magic of the wondrous picture before him fascinates his curiosity, his desire to pursue beauty and hedonism due to the Harry’s domination.
This transformation begins when his life of secrecy begins. To put his identity in terms of reality and illusion, he switches places with Sybil upon nonchalantly discovering her tragic suicide. Sybil’s poor acting connotes her return to reality, while Dorian only falls deeper into his conception of polarity- beauty and ugliness, his physical vitality versus his corrupted soul. The beauty of the illusion on stage and the stirring of his imagination inspire him, but the drab and dull movements of reality, where Sybil now belongs, contradict his new way of understanding.
Because Dorian sees beauty as the one and only means of perceiving reality after his contact with Lord Henry, he refuses to acknowledge the inherent brutality and indecency of the world at large. This subsequently encourages him to reject the ugliness within his own soul. Similar to Lady Audley, Dorian seeks to conceal the part of him that is abominable, and hides his painting away in a forgotten room of his household. No one can know his true self. “What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas? He would be safe.
That was everything,” Dorian reflects (Wilde 103). His enchantment prevents anyone from directly seeing his act, but the real toll is inflicted on the part of his soul where Basil, the voice of morality, still holds sway. The portrait is, indeed, a window into his soul and the site of a conflict between two selves. Falling further and further into the depths of seedy London after receiving the poisonous French novel given to him by Lord Henry, Dorian’s inner strife is apparent as he indulges in every sin available to him.
The entrenched obsession with beauty transforms into madness when the conflict comes to a climax as Dorian confronts the source of his moral identity, Basil: “Each of us has heaven and hell in him, Basil” (Wilde 150). The grisly stabbing of Basil is the culmination of his identity crisis- the illusion of outer beauty and hedonistic pleasure becomes his reality. The secrecy of a double life at first does not wear on the part of himself he symbolically destroyed: “Perhaps one never seems so much at one’s ease as when one has to play a part” (Wilde 167).
In this grand performance, his beauty masked his secret to the outside world and kept him at complacent. The secret is safe from everyone but his conscience, the portrait itself, which eventually comes to destroy him. Dorian becomes obsessed with returning to his portrait after nights of sin and debauchery, fascinated by the change between the fiend depicted and the gentleman in the mirror. He fails to reconcile the lack of change in his physical appearance, of which he is so enamored, and soon he becomes disenchanted with the lifestyle of decadence that he lives.
Indulging in opium, prostitution, and senselessness, Dorian self-destructs due to his double life: “Ugliness that had once been hateful to him because it made things real, became dear to him now for that very reason. Ugliness was the one reality…what he needed for forgetfulness” (Wilde 177). The respective conceptions of beauty, ugliness, and reality that vie for control within him are psychologically draining. Ultimately, the madness that seizes his character cannot be controlled.
The battle of individual influences within him wear upon him, to the point where the concealment of his painting (and thus soul) from the world is a burden too difficult to be borne. Stabbing the painting in the heart in a performance imitating his murder of Basil, the two polarities of his identity return to a single being. Dorian’s ignorance of the uncomfortable realities of life explain his self-understanding. The illusion he submits to and the madness that ensues bring on his self-destruction because the flawed role of the beautiful in his understanding of reality causes him to lose his identity in the performance.
Madness in Victorian literature is a means of understanding identity from a fractured perspective. Evident in the classic novels of Braddon and Wilde, the fascination with madness was both an examination and a cautionary tale. Both Dorian Grey and Lady Audley concede to their insanity due to the significance of their secrets, burdened by the weight of their “other” identity. Performances are a suspension of reality, and neglecting to take heed of the difference between the two aspects can lead to disastrous consequences and self-destruction.

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