The definition of “vivisection” is “1: The cutting of or operation on a living animal usually for physiological or pathological investigation. Broadly: animal experimentation especially if considered to cause distress to the subject. 2: Minute or pitiless examination or criticism.” (from Merriam Webster)
The definition makes explicit that the word is meant to be negatively connoted with cruelty. It is a word that is not commonly used in modern day-to-day language, and yet appears frequently in The Island of Doctor Moreau and is echoed in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Moreau vivisects various animals to interface them with humans, a process that, as definition 1 describes, causes extreme distress to the animals—not only during the surgeries themselves, but in post-operational life as well as they are forced to ignore their animal instincts and behave like men. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the word appears in Lord Henry’s thoughts after a discussion with Dorian. The passage reads, “[Lord Henry] had been always enthralled by the methods of natural science, but the ordinary subject-matter of that science had seemed to him trivial and of no import. And so he had begun by vivisecting himself, as he had ended by vivisecting others” (56). Although this does not mean literal surgical vivisections, it is almost unclear whether or not Lord Henry is talking about “minute or pitiless examination or criticism” or if he still means to invoke the imagery of surgery in a more metaphorical sense. In any case, Lord Henry’s choice of the word with all its connotations is referencing Dorian’s physical appearance. If he means it in the surgical sense, one can imagine one of Moreau’s beast men, whose body is drastically altered by operation. If he means it in the critical sense, it is as an art critic critiquing a painting. The casual use of the word invokes a tone of nonchalance and carelessness with which Lord Henry others. This passage shows that he regards Dorian’s life as some sort of project, caring only for Dorian’s physical being and not for his emotional or mental health. Lord Henry’s disregard for anything beyond the surface of Dorian’s life is a reflection of the aesthetic art movement, since Lord Henry treats Dorian like a piece of art. He only values Dorian for the pleasure brought by looking at him, manipulating him, and watching his life unfold, without concerning himself with the mind and emotions behind all this. Although Oscar Wilde is promoting aestheticism, as we can see from the preface, Lord Henry’s callousness under the guise of appreciation for the aesthetic seems to be a critique of the movement, suggesting that perhaps aesthetic views should be reserved for art and not for human lives.