Repression maintains equilibrium in an individual by dissolving any inappropriate thoughts or guilt resulting in urges, allowing the individual to function effectively as a member of society. Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian, however, argues that repression of such urges is ultimately harmful in the epigram, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” Though this theory is potentially true, submitting to temptation can bring about both negative and positive consequences, as one will learn throughout life, making the adherence to Henry’s advice a risky one.
Yielding to temptation can most obviously take on the most negative of consequences. An individual who fails to repress his urges becomes out of balance in this carefully maintained equilibrium, and thereby falls flat on his face, or in more sinister terms, brings evil to the world. Scrutinizing the examples set forth by Biblical and mythological characters further prove the hypothesis that submitting to temptation is both dangerous and erroneous. Had Pandora resisted temptation and kept herself from opening the box, which she would not even have felt compelled to do if she had not been so warned ominously, the world would contain no evil. According to the ancient Romans, by yielding to this urge, Pandora let loose hundreds the demons dripping in satanic intentions to inhabit their lands. A number of present-day Christians also find the introduction of evil into the world as brought about by temptation through the actions of Eve in the Old Testament of the Bible. Upon being warned by God, Eve proceeded to remove an apple from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, thus casting out all of mankind from the garden and designating original sin as a trait of humanity. Such examples of the embrace of temptation going wrong are evidence of the wisdom lacking in Henry’s epigram. If all submitted to their darkest temptations, the world would be overrun by self-righteous criminals, excusing heinous deeds to the mere need to rid of a lure gripping at their soul. Sound judgment prevents most from allowing their urges to get the best of them, learning when to and when not to seek out their desires, a healthy way of obtaining wants, but remaining a credible member of society. But when judgment eludes those with the most crucial decisions ahead, temptation will win out to the point of creating either negative, as shown in examples of Biblical and mythological proportions, or positive consequences.
As Lord Henry noted, repression of an urge can be harmful, following along the lines set forth by the current psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. Not only is yielding to a temptation the only way to break free of it, Henry concludes, but also if one is to “resist it … your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”. Freud’s theory of repression agrees with Henry’s statement, relating that repression, usually by an unconscious mechanism of the ego, keeps an individual in balance by eliminating inappropriate and guilt causing urges, memories, and desires, all products of the id, to the point where they are out of sight, if not out of mind. The id, the most primitive instinct, demands immediate gratification and is usually ruled by the pleasure principle, insisting upon satisfaction at once, regardless of circumstances and possible outcomes. The ability to repress the dangerous or disturbing thoughts, Freud argues, is vital to the individual’s ability to navigate his way through life successfully. Only the repression of harmful impulses and urges allows the individual to gain the capacity to move onward. Despite this, as Lord Henry acknowledged, the repression of undesired temptation can cause great torment. Although an urge of the id may be repressed, it remains in the unconscious and can still affect the actions and thoughts of the individual. “As the repressed items teem and surge beneath the conscious surface, they sap vital psychic energy and constantly force the individual to maintain lines of defense mechanisms against his own unconscious,” insists Freud. As the urges become overwhelming and unable to remain suppressed any longer, the individual will search for a release of these emotions. As in the classic example of a wife who had repressed her anger at her husband for fifteen years suddenly lights him and his bed on fire, the consequences of these releases of repressive forces is often unpredictable and harmful. The repression of her anger created anxiety, frustration, and even neurosis with the release causing enormous emotional and physical damage. Freud’s argument concludes with the opinion that the freeing of repressed urges and memories does more good than harm, regardless of the consequences, as it results in a new balance and distribution of psychic energy, eliminating incapacitating anxiety.
The advice of Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray although following along the lines of Freud, the breakthrough psychoanalyst of the age, diverges from what mankind has known for centuries, embracing temptation leads mostly to negative consequences. Although the resulting effects of the acquisition of what one desires can be a positive matter for the individual to readjust inner levels of equilibrium, the effects of one’s reputation and on society can have a very grave cost.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London, New York, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York, MacMillan Company, 1913.