Lord Henry’s Fascination with Vivisection

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the narrator mentions Lord Henry’s fascination with vivisection, as applied to himself and others. Reading The Picture of Dorian Gray through The Island of Dr. Moreau contextualizes this reference to vivisection as alluring in the eyes of Victorians because it was a manner of scientific research, though gruesome, that could possibly answer great questions in the medical field and about our own selves.

Although both took stake in vivisection, Dr. Moreau and Henry pursued it in different ways and for different purposes. According to Wilde’s narrator, 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” (Wilde 38). That is, Henry has a sick fascination with vivisection that Moreau shares, but Henry’s seems to stem from a general interest in science for entertainment purposes. Vivisection appears to be a stumbled-upon method that happens to serve Henry’s need to learn about and manipulate himself and others psychologically, not a consciously chosen and pursued path. Moreau, however, consciously dedicates his life to “the study of the plasticity of living forms” with the original goal of applying his research to medical advancements for humans (Wells 53). Moreau’s focus seemed to shift throughout The Island of Dr. Moreau, as his test subjects “were animals—humanised animals,” “animals carven and wrought into new shapes” in a creation-esque way (Wells 52, 53). Moreau convinces himself that he has a godlike ability to craft these new forms. Henry’s pride in his manipulation of Dorian is akin to that of an experiment-gone-right, which could foreshadow the magnification of Henry’s ego and god complex as his experiment progresses.

Currently, Henry observes Dorian “with a subtle sense of pleasure” because he has changed so much from the “shy frightened boy” Henry met in Basil’s studio (Wilde 36). Henry notes that Dorian’s “nature developed like a flower, had borne blossoms of scarlet flame” (Wilde 36). Through the lens of The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which Moreau’s experiments ‘betray him’, this observation of Dorian’s blossoming can be read with a sense of warning. Dorian “developed like a flower,” and is strongly associated with beauty, but his “blossoms of scarlet flame” foretell a dangerousness in this transformation that may come back to harm Henry as Moreau’s vivisected animals caused his downfall.

Further, Henry describes the “crucible of pain and pleasure” seen when watching life as “curious,” which connotates the mixture as merely an entertaining curiosity that he is interested in observing. Henry does, however, go on to note that “pain and pleasure” are infectious, and that “one could not wear over one’s face a mask of glass nor keep the sulphurous fumes from troubling the brain and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams” (Wilde 38). By comparing the observation of “pain and pleasure” in life to “sulphurous fumes,” Wilde (through Henry) labels it as toxic, a poison that inevitably harms the observer. As we are reading about Henry’s views on vivisection, we can assume that he has been a victim of these “sulphurous fumes,” “monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams,” and yet he continues to experiment with Dorian and watch for Gray’s newfound experiences with pleasure and pain. Moreau takes a more aggressive stance towards these sensations, claiming that “pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven and hell. Pleasure and pain—Bah!” To Moreau, “[t]he store men and women set on pleasure and pain… is the mark of the beast upon them, the mark of the beast from which they came” (Wells 55). Read through this belief, Henry’s vivisection of Dorian, which introduces him to pleasure and pain, brings out the bestial nature within him and within Henry himself, marking them as inferior in the eyes of Moreau.

Overall, Moreau and Henry practice vivisection in different ways, but both explore the push and pull between humanity and bestiality. The death of Moreau and degradation of Henry by pain and pleasure both lead to the conclusion that messing with humanity results only in the ascension of bestiality.

3 thoughts on “Lord Henry’s Fascination with Vivisection”

  1. I think that it is really interesting how you chose to focus on specific repeated language within The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Island of Dr. Moreau. The fact that vivisection is used in different ways in both novels, one being a more psychological version and the other being a literal version, is highly significant because it speaks to the context of the novels. The fin de siècle was a pivotal time for advances in medicine and psychology, as we have learned from Ledger and Luckhurst, and novels were a way to say something about what was going on with those advances. I like how you also looked at the understanding of “pleasure and pain” in both novels. Dorian is slowly deteriorating throughout the novel and is attempting to conceal his psychological anguish, or pain, with decadent behaviors that ultimately bring him pleasure. It would be interesting to explore how in this novel decadence, which can be equated to pleasure, functions as a coping mechanism for Dorian to avoid showing what Moreau calls his “bestial mark.”

  2. I also wrote my post on vivisection, but we took our ideas in totally different directions! I think it’s really interesting that you connect Lord Henry’s version of vivisection to bestiality because that is something I didn’t even see when I was looking at the exact same passage. I also like the idea of Henry’s vivisection of Dorian having the potential to come back and hurt him. I do wonder if that’s possible since Henry himself has already been vivisected, so he might be immune to whatever pain Dorian might end up trying to inflict on him later on. That being said, I haven’t finished the novel, so I guess I’m about to find out.

  3. I thought this was very interesting! And important because science has such a huge impact on the Victorian life–as we see from our last reading, Dorian is able to use it to his advantage in order to get away with Basil’s murder as he calls upon a scientist to dispose of the body without a trace. You also mention that Henry’s vivisection of Dorian has brought out the bestiality within him. I agree! This is certainly seen through the portrait of Dorian as well, as it changes from a beautiful buy to a man with more animalistic features, down to the blood stained hands that appear after he commits murder.

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