The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Monsters are often metaphors, as we saw in the “Metaphorical Monsters” post. However, monsters are often also foils to horror stories’ main characters. As Robert Louis Stevenson showed us, in The Strange Adventures of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the monster is, or can be, just an alter ego of oneself, one’s bitter half, rather than one’s better half. In Jungian terms, the monster is the shadow archetype, comprised of the collection of those aspects of oneself that an individual represses.
As a foil, the monster’s character traits are opposite to those of the monster’s attributes. They illuminate by contrast, showing readers or viewers more clearly what the main character is like. Usually, there is only a single foil, but there may be more than one. For example, in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Faith, the rogue slayer, is a foil to Buffy, and, because of Faith’s irresponsibility, we better discern Buffy’s reliability and trustworthiness; Faith’s narcissism allows us to better see Buffy’ altruism; Faith’s amorality lets us better perceive Buffy’s morality. Although Buffy is spontaneous and independent, she is not, like Faith, rash and reckless--well, not as a rule. The only other slayer whom viewers observe over several episodes, Kendra, is a foil to Buffy as well, although she’s not a monster, as Faith, at times, in a way, tends to be. Kendra contrasts sharply with Buffy in several ways, among which are:
Buffy is spontaneous; Kendra is inhibited.
- Buffy is affable; Kendra is reserved.
- Buffy lives with her mother; Kendra was removed from her parents’ home shortly after she was born and does not remember her parents.
- Buffy has a boyfriend; Kendra is not allowed to date and is unsure even how she should act around members of the opposite sex.
- Buffy is a modern, liberated young woman; Kendra is subservient to men.
- Buffy blows off research (and homework); Kendra is more a bookworm than Buffy’s watcher, Rupert Giles.
- Buffy is autonomous; Kendra is a follower.
- Buffy is independent; Kendra is dependent.
- Buffy is a fashion enthusiast; Kendra owns only one shirt.
- Buffy shares her secret identity with her friends; Kendra keeps her identity as a slayer secret.
We could go on (and on), but you get the picture: both Faith and Kendra are foils to Buffy.
However, we begin, with Kendra, to digress. Let’s resume our consideration of how monsters can be foils to a main character.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, does not employ a foil, per se, as much as it does a symbol.
In Wilde’s story (which is surely a study of hypocrisy and false appearances), the protagonist, Dorian Gray, remains young and handsome while his portrait is aged by the sins he commits. Gray claims to love an actress, Sybil Vane, but, when, lovesick for her suitor, she loses her ability to act, he jilts her, causing her to commit suicide. Thereafter, for nearly two decades, inspired by a “poisonous” novel he receives as a gift, Gray undertakes a career in debauchery. The portrait continues to age and to become more and more repulsive, reflecting Gray’s inner state. Enraged, Gray murders the artist, Basil Hallward, who painted his likeness (and who gave him the novel). He blackmails a friend into disposing of his victim’s corpse. After a close call during which Sybil’s brother, James, seeks to murder him to avenge his sister, but is subsequently killed himself in hunting accident, Gray repents, vowing to reform. Hoping to see a change in his portrait, he finds that it is uglier and more aged than ever, whereupon, in a newfound capacity for self-reflection, he wonders whether curiosity or vanity prompted him to check on his portrait’s appearance. He tries to confess his sins and change his ways, before it is too late to save his soul, but he hasn’t the will to do so, and, instead, he plunges a knife--the same weapon with which he’d earlier dispatched Hallward, and is found by his servants, aged and shriveled, it being necessary to examine the rings he wears in order to identify his remains. The portrait is the picture of youth and health that it was when Hallward had first unveiled it.
Gray’s portrait is limited as a means of illustrating the temptations Gray faces and their specific effects on his own life and the lives of those he encounters. For this reason, perhaps, Wilde shows his protagonist’s behavior and its consequences directly, using the portrait to symbolize the effects of his treacherous behavior and his dedicated debauchery upon the protagonist’s inner man. Outwardly, he remains young and handsome, but his portrait shows the true state of his soul. It also indicates, from time to time, his emotional state, as when the picture sneers after Gray has treated Sybil in an abusive manner, thereby showing the contempt that he feels for her but does not show in his actual behavior toward her--not until he jilts her, at any rate. There is only so much that can be accomplished through the use of an inanimate object, after all.
Stevenson’s novel divides the good self from the bad, with Dr. Jekyll’s creation a potion that transforms him into the hideous Mr. Hyde. The monstrous alter ego differs from its creator in several important ways and, thus, serves as a true, if limited, foil:
- Dr. Jekyll is moral; Mr. Hyde is without a conscience.
- Dr. Jeckyll is socially respectable; Mr. Hyde freely indulges his passions, including his sexual lusts.
- Dr. Jekyll is a cultivated man; Mr. Hyde is a little more than a wild animal.
- Dr. Jekyll is a man of reason; Mr. Hyde is a sociopath.
- Dr. Jekyll is law-abiding; Mr. Hyde is criminal.
However, the dichotomies aren’t really this simple, for, after all, it is Dr. Jekyll who invents the potion, and it is he who, of his own, free will, drinks it. Mr. Hyde is not another; as an adversary, he is not an external “other,” but the repressed aspects of Dr. Jekyll’s own personality. The conflict in Stevenson’s story is psychological and moral, not social (although the conflict does have social implications). Mr. Hyde is the self whom Dr. Jeckyll desperately wants to be, at intervals and for a time, at least; he is, in Jungian terms, Dr. Jekyll’s shadow, the repressed, largely unconscious part of his personality. In the end, Mr. Hyde takes over completely, killing himself and, as a result, Dr. Jekyll as well. Stevenson suggests that social norms and personal restraints, or morality and conscience, may not be sufficient, in the end, to control the beast within. When they are not, the result is not only crime and sin, but also death and destruction. The use of Mr. Hyde as a foil to Dr. Jekyll allows readers to see a greater, and, indeed, a hidden dimension of the protagonist, suggesting that, appearances to the contrary, Dr. Jekyll may not be as moral, respectable, cultivated, reasonable, and law-abiding as he seems, and, of course, he also allows Dr, Jekyll to discover this same truth about himself.
Other horror characters also have alter egos, or second selves. Count Dracula appears to be a cultivated, cosmopolitan, suave, and sophisticated man of refined tastes, capable of witty repartee and hospitality. He seems to be a well educated man of reason, and, in fact, he can be downright charming. However, he is also a vampire, and, as such, harbors all the attributes of the fiend that shares his body. He is parasitic, secretive, cunning, treacherous, deceitful, hypocritical, and narcissistic--all the things that, secretly, the count longs to be. The fact that man and demon inhabit the same body suggests that they are the same person, and that the vampire’s behavior represents the expression and enactment of temptations that the count normally represses. There is a fine line between the acceptable and the forbidden, at times, and the more political and economic power one has, the more opportunity he or she also has to do that which remains unthinkable to men and women who occupy lesser social positions. As a count, Dracula can be forgiven much more than a peasant would be forgiven.
He is a victim, however, of changing times, as another character, as his foil, suggests. Just as science and technology are beginning to replace religious faith and superstitious beliefs as the dominant worldview, so are nobles being replaced by a growing middle class, a member of which, Dr. Abraham van Helsing, a professor, summoned by his former student, a psychologist, proves to be the death of Dracula. The vampire’s supernatural power is no match against the professor’s use of hypnotism and medical science. Part philosopher and part “metaphysician,” van Helsing is also “one of the most advanced scientists of his day,” Steward informs the reader, and, as such, has one foot in the old, and the other in the new, world. He is a transitional figure. As such, he is a fitting antagonist and foil to the noble Count Dracula, whose world of monarchy and mysticism are coming to their ends. As with Buffy, whose foils are Kendra and Faith, Dracula has more than one opposite: the vampire is a foil to the count, just as is the professor.
Scientists have identified several possible origins for legends of werewolves, including the tendencies of some serial killers to engage in “cannibalism, mutilation, and cyclical attacks,” and have contended that the bizarre behavior of such wolf-men might have been caused by a variety of actual diseases, including “ergot poisoning” and “rabies, hypertrichosis. . . porphyria. . . . congenital erythropoietic porphria. . . . photosensitivity. . . . clinical lycanthropy” and “psychosis,” many of which conditions involve hallucinations and bizarre behavior. Be that as it may, werewolves represent another instance of a character with an alter ego, since, except during full moons, the wolf is a man (or a woman). However, this possibility for an innate, or built-in, foil that shows the opposite traits of the same character and represents a dichotomy within the same character’s personality hasn’t been well developed, probably because, although there is a long and voluminous body of folklore involving werewolves, there has been no definitive story about one, which integrates and centers the tradition on a single, well-developed, memorable character like Count Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, or Dorian Gray. However, since a foil has traits which are opposite to those of the protagonist (even when the main character and his or her foil are, in effect, the same character, as when the foil is an alter ego rather than a separate character), it would not be difficult to identify the characteristics that such a protagonist would possess, whenever he or she comes along. All one needs to do is to identify the traits of the werewolf and then list opposite attributes:
- The werewolf is bestial; the protagonist will be humane.
- The werewolf is fierce; the protagonist will be gentle.
- The werewolf is driven by its instincts; the protagonist will be cautious and deliberate.
- The werewolf is wild; the protagonist will be cultivated.
- The werewolf is destructive; the protagonist will be creative.
- The werewolf seeks sanctuary among the trees of the forest; the protagonist will find refuge in a society of his or her peers.
- The werewolf fears humans; the protagonist will be sociable and altruistic.
In such a fashion, we could go on, listing character traits and their opposites until we had the basis for constructing a protagonist for whom his or her werewolf avatar would be an appropriate and effective foil. Some day, a writer may pen the werewolf equivalent to Dracula. At such a time, the novel’s (or film’s) main character will most likely resemble the character we’ve delineated, for the monster is likely to be his foil and, thus, alert us to the hidden impulses and temptations within the protagonist whom he or she replaces whenever the monster within escapes the bounds of repression.