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Madness, Performance, and Illusion in Victorian Literature: the Picture of Dorian Grey & Lady Audley's Secret

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Madness, Performance, and Illusion in Victorian Literature: the Picture of Dorian Grey & Lady Audley's Secret
Evan Marks
Professor Boylan
Class ENG 104-01
12/6/11
Illusions of Madness: Performance in Lady Audley’s Secret and The Picture of Dorian Grey Often quarantined from society at large, the mentally unstable of the Victorian era were simultaneously subjects of fascination and disgust, societal examination and segregation. 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 façade 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



Cited: Liebman, Sheldon W. “Character Design in The Picture of Dorian Grey.” Studies in the Novel. Vol. 31, Issue 3 ed. 1999. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <http://web.ebscohost.com>. This article examines the conflicting identity of Dorian Grey in Wilde’s novel. Showalter, Elaine. “Victorian Women and Insanity.” Victorian Studies. Vol. 23 ed. 1980. JSTOR. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org>. Gives historical background on insane women in comparison to men in Victorian society. Voskuil, Lynn M. “Acts of Madness: Lady Audley and the Meanings of Victorian Femininity.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 27, No. 3 ed. 2001. JSTOR. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org>. Examines Lady Audley as a metaphor for the Victorian woman, and how madness shapes her identity.

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