Mirrors and Masks: Identity and Artificiality

by Alessia Mingrone

Personal identity is a recurring theme throughout literature, as in life. Oscar Wilde wrote his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1890, the nineteenth century fin-de-siècle. Around this time, the Aesthetic and Decadent movements were taking place in Europe. Less than half a century later, in 1926, Luigi Pirandello’s last novel, Uno, nessuno e centomila [One, No One and One Hundred Thousand] was published. Both of the aforementioned texts use the motifs of mirrors and masks in order to emphasize the instability and artificiality of identity. On the surface, these novels may seem to advocate insincerity, but, as one analyzes each protagonist, the question becomes whether their masks act simply as superficial pseudo-identities or whether they reveal something more about the dissolution of the ego.

The Decadent Aesthetic

The Decadent movement set out to make a strong statement regarding cultural degeneration. Traditional notions of beauty and goodness were displaced by aestheticism, which privileged the artificial and the grotesque. In her discussion of ethics and aesthetics, Moriah Hampton explains: “Tracing literary decadence beyond the Victorian fin de siècle, the genealogy reveals the emergence of a decadent aesthetic devoted to artifice, ugliness, and disease in response to the crisis of moral idealism” (iv). Particularly in England, strict, repressive ideals of nineteenth century morality stimulated the literary and cultural Decadent movement. Through his writing, Wilde constructs a Decadent Aesthetic based on Kant’s ideas of aestheticism. In contrast to the notion of moral idealism, Kant contends in the Analytic of the Beautiful that beauty must be experienced aesthetically, and not logically. Therefore, the purposelessness of art relies on a purely sensory experience that is not ruled by morality.

Wilde seems to reflect Kant’s notion that beauty and goodness do not necessarily overlap in the story of Dorian Gray. In addition to his disregard for morality, “Wilde’s version of decadent aesthetics foregrounds artifice and in so doing severs the link between surface and substance as well as appearance and reality” (Hampton 21). With the emphasis on the aesthetic, appearance becomes a substitute, but not equivalent to reality both in art as well as in the social sphere. This may appear superficial and insincere, but it turns out to be the defense mechanism of the Decadent protagonist. As the narrator questions in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities” (Wilde 174-75). Deceitfulness typically carries a stigma in society and is regarded as a vice. In Wilde’s novel, however, it is generally a coping mechanism, an inevitable way for the subject to conform to the strict demands of society.

The Ego

On a psychological level, the turn to Decadent Aestheticism can be equated to the ego grappling with the severity of the super-ego. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and a contemporary of both Wilde and Pirandello, coined the idea of the ego. According to his theory, the self is composed of the ego, the id, and the super-ego. The id is the repository and expression of basic desires, while the superego is a disciplinary, repressive force. The ego attempts to mediate between these two extremes in order to create a well-balanced individual. A problem arises when the ego is incapable of balancing out the pressures either from the id, which are typically internal, or from the super-ego, oftentimes external.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, societal pressure is an evident and burdensome presence in individuals’ daily lives. Throughout the novel, Lord Henry, who is by far the most libertine character, decries the prohibition imposed by the super-ego in the Victorian era: “‘People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself . . . . The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion—these are the two things that govern us’” (58). Within the rigid framework of nineteenth-century British society, both historically as well as in the novel, the individual felt a tremendous amount of pressure to play the part of the dutiful citizen and to respect strict moral codes. Lord Henry reprehends the tendency of people to allow society to dictate their behaviors. He contends (likely exemplifying Wilde’s own conviction), that the cohesive façade put on by individuals for the sake of society is really at odds with their fragmented, fearful interior world. The decadent protagonist experiences distress living in society, yet he or she cannot escape its pressures.

Reflecting on his own ego, Dorian Gray readily points out its instability. At the outset of the novel, he is a naïve adolescent who has not had much exposure to sensory pleasures. Once he gets to know Lord Henry, he learns about the Decadent Aesthetic and the philosophy of Hedonism. As a result, he begins to “wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence. To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion” (175). Dorian describes himself, and philosophizes man in general, as leading multiple different lives. The rupture of the ego is key to understanding the decadent aesthetic that the text advocates. At this early point in the novel, Dorian feels liberated by this new realization, without truly comprehending its implications. His ability to be and feel so many different affects at once is directly opposed to society’s ideal; the apparent novelty and awareness of sensory experience leaves him awestruck.

Dorian goes from appreciating the sense of freedom afforded by his fragmented ego to discovering a deadly sense of duality within himself. His obsession with his own appearance in the portrait is reminiscent of the myth of Narcissus. Reflecting the same values of the Aesthetic movement, Dorian himself ends up privileging surface over substance, which relegates his understanding of identity to a binary model. The emerging sense of duality is illustrated both in a thematic sense as well as concretely in the portrait. As the novel progresses, it becomes more difficult to compare appearance and reality, since Dorian’s body physically trades places with the ageless image. Dorian becomes paranoid about hiding the picture, while revealing to society only his flawless appearance.


Dorian Gray and the Mirror of the Soul

A prominent psychologist who contributed to the understanding of the fragmented self is Jacques Lacan. He introduced the idea of the mirror stage, during which the ego is formed by a process of objectification. Like Freud, Lacan believes the ego to be a site of conflict. In this case, the conflict occurs between one’s perceived visual appearance and the unconscious, resulting in alienation and fragmentation. When the child sees a reflection of his/her movements in the mirror for the first time, reality appears to be exactly reproduced. As soon as the infant recognizes the mirror image as his or her own, which can occur as early as six months, he/she assumes the self is being reflected as a whole entity. This basic process of identification takes place along the so-called “imaginary axis” up until the age of eighteen months. The unconscious, or “symbolic axis,” on the other hand, is dominated by the repressive authority of language. Upon the individual’s gaining access to society through language, the two axes intersect. Given that language is other to the individual, the unified sense of self from the mirror image is shattered and the child’s sense of bodily unity becomes decentered (Lacan 405). The corporal and the unconscious are in a state of contradiction as the ego begins to take shape.

The mirror stage also develops the Ideal-I, which:

Situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being (le devenir) of the subject asymptotically, whatever the success of the dialectical syntheses by which he must resolve as I his discordance with his own reality. (Lacan 406)

The term asymptotic here refers to a line that curves toward but never quite reaches the limit, indicating infinity, and therefore the impossibility of realizing the object of desire. This object is in fact the whole mirror image that the child wishes to preserve. Even before the individual consciously acknowledges society’s norms, his or her ego is dependent upon the external force of language. The results are a lifelong alienation from the self and a constant desire for identification. The mirror stage describes the disparity between desire and reality, and demonstrates how one’s self-perception of wholeness becomes dismantled early on in life.

Taking Lacan’s theory into consideration, the mirror as it pertains to unstable human subjectivity is an important symbol in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Throughout the novel, Wilde refers to the portrait as the mirror of Dorian’s soul: “This portrait would become to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul . . . . When the blood crept from its face, and left behind a pallid mask of chalk with leaden eyes, he would keep the glamour of boyhood” (141). At first, the portrait was the image of Dorian’s beauty and wholeness, which is in line with Lacan’s theory that the mirror reveals to the individual an idyllic form of his or her own body. As the narrative progresses, the axes get reversed, and the portrait mirrors Dorian’s soul in light of the super-ego, or along the symbolic axis. This shift ultimately makes sense because Dorian’s portrait (his mirror) is located in the external world, thus inevitably producing a reflection that he cannot reconcile with his interior self.

Moreover, Dorian’s decaying portrait demonstrates the link between ugliness and immorality that society seeks to evince. Over the eighteen years that transpire after the beginning of the novel, Dorian performs many acts that his superego recognizes as sinful, including the murder of Basil Hallward, the artist who had painted his portrait. Each time Dorian commits a sin, the picture manifests a subtle sign of decay, until it eventually becomes hideous. The portrait is supposed to be flawless as his own body decays, but here the roles are reversed. Having this concrete mirror of his soul forces Dorian to face his actions, listen to his super-ego and attempt to modify his behavior toward the end of the novel.

Thus, he comes to terms with his decadent acts by reinforcing moral norms. In the penultimate chapter, Dorian admits to Lord Henry: “‘I have done too many dreadful things in my life. I am not going to do any more. I began my good actions yesterday’” (238). Dorian regrets his lifestyle replete with sensual pleasures and disregard for morality. However, it is too little too late for him; he has strayed so far from the norms of society that he can no longer have any hope of fitting back in. At this point in the novel, it becomes clear that the portrait is an embodiment of moral codes imposed by society, in other words: the super-ego. As Hampton puts it: “Beyond guilt, the superego, at times, turns upon the self cruelly, berating and lashing out against the one who fails to mirror the ideal” (27). This censure is exactly what takes place as the portrait haunts Dorian a little more each time he transgresses moral and civil laws; his super-ego is vying for control over his actions, while he consciously aims only to preserve his beauty.

The severity of the super-ego suggests that the portrait reveals what society deems as truth, which is what ultimately destroys Dorian. Falsehood is, for Wilde, a conscious coping mechanism, which protects the individual from the incessant pressures of society. In Lacan’s terms, it is a “lure” designed to create the illusion of unity. During his last moments, Dorian realizes that his beauty represents artificiality, while the ugliness of his portrait forces him to face reality. As a result: “he loathed his own beauty, and, flinging the mirror on the floor, crushed it into silver splinters beneath his heel…His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery” (Wilde 248). Dorian’s possession of a mirror at this particular moment symbolizes, like Lacan’s mirror stage, the idyllic representation of his body. The act of shattering this mirror represents his awareness of and attempt to rid himself of the Ideal-I, the imaginary axis, the mask he had been wearing to fool society into believing, as he himself wished to believe, that he is a whole entity. When he realizes that he cannot shed his mask, he decides to destroy the portrait, indicating that he wishes to sever his dependence on society. However, because it is impossible to live in the world without the unconscious and language, or as Lacan puts it, the symbolic axis, Dorian ultimately takes his own life by stabbing the picture. His death reveals the inextricable and paradoxical dependence between the imaginary and the symbolic axes. An individual will never be able to reconcile his or her bodily image with the unconscious, yet he or she needs both in order to survive.


The Persona, Playing Parts, and Pirandello

Wilde’s novel was a precursor of early twentieth century psychological and literary ideas, which shifted from a Faustian duplicity to an even more complex notion of the self. Irving Saposnik, a scholar of English literature, claims that the “Victorian man was haunted constantly by an inescapable sense of division. As rational and sensual being, as public and private man, as civilized and bestial creature, he found himself necessarily an actor, playing only that part of himself suitable to the occasion” (716). This passage encapsulates the essence of Wilde’s protagonist, who is unable to reconcile the duplicity of his identity. However, along with the advent of the twentieth century, as Judith Halberstam, theorist, author, and professor at the University of Southern California, affirms, “‘The post-Frankenstein monster emerges at the turn of the century marked by an essential duality and a potential multiplicity’” (qtd. in Bani-Khair 38). A transition begins to take place in literature, which would eventually result in protagonists who experience the multiplicitous fragmentation of the ego, something Wilde only alludes to at certain points in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Prominent Italian author Luigi Pirandello’s Uno, nessuno e centomila [One, No One and One Hundred Thousand] demonstrates the unraveling of the self into countless parts. The novel tells the story of Vitangelo Moscarda, who begins to question the authenticity of his identity as a result of a mundane conversation with his wife.

The first sentence of the novel describes Vitangelo looking at himself in the mirror. His wife comments that his nose is tilted, which leads the protagonist to ponder extensively questions of identity and perception. In Lacan’s terms, Vitangelo has attempted to illude himself that he is a whole entity every time he has looked in a mirror. Up to that moment in his life, he had been convinced of having a decent, if not attractive nose. However, given his wife’s remark, he begins to wonder about the other disparities between his own self-perception and that of others. Thus, “cominciarono le mie incredibili pazzie” (Pirandello 19) [my incredible follies commenced][i] as he begins to conduct a series of social experiments.

First of all, he decides that he must know himself as a stranger from the outside by observing himself repeatedly in the mirror. Vitangelo explains his experience: “Quando mi ponevo davanti a uno specchio, avveniva come un arresto in me; ogni spontaneità era finita, ogni mio gesto appariva a me stesso fittizio e rifatto” (18) [When I placed myself in front of a mirror, I experienced an arrest; all spontaneity was over, my every gesture seemed to me artificial and fabricated]. As he observes himself in the mirror, every one of his movements appears phony and distorted. The mirror turns out to be a crucial element of Vitangelo’s story, as the very word appears thirty-six times in the novel. At one point, he even states that his madness is as clear as a polished mirror and comes to the seemingly obvious realization that, as long as he inhabits his body, he will never be able to see himself as others do.

After having exercised his madness through various social experiments, Vitangelo realizes that every person he has come into contact with has assigned to him a unique identity, none of which matches his private self-understanding. He reflects: “E tanto ormai, fisso in questo tormento, m’ero alienato da me stesso, che come un cieco davo il mio corpo in man agli altri, perché ciascuno si prendesse di tutti quegli estranei inseparabili che portavano in me quell’uno che ero per lui” (124) [By now, fixed in this torment, I was so alienated from myself that, like a blind man, I handed myself over to others, so that each of them could select out of all the inseparable strangers in me, the one I was for him]. Vitangelo reflects on the agony of feeling alienated from his own body. He likens himself to a sightless man surrendering a part of himself to each person he comes into contact with. His alienation is different from Dorian’s because he is not concerned with beauty. He genuinely desires to understand how others view him from the outside, which is impossible given that he inhabits his own body. What Dorian and Vitangelo have in common, though, is that they both desire to be viewed, and to view themselves as whole. Dorian wishes to appear as perfect as his portrait, while Vitangelo seeks to gain a holistic understanding of who he is in every social situation. Throughout the texts, it becomes clear that both ideals are unattainable.

Ironically enough, the more Vitangelo consciously works at constructing a comprehensive understanding of himself, the more he realizes that he has an infinite number of identities. Matteo Magrini, who discusses both Wilde and Pirandello in his article, explains:

“Uno, nessuno, centomila”, di Pirandello, sottolinea la tendenza dell’individuo ad essere “più persone” nei differenti contesti della quotidianità: uno, come egli percepisce l’identità di sé; nessuno, perché al mondo non è che uno tra miliardi, centomila perché nei vari contesti lui ricopre molti ruoli.

“One, No One and One Hundred Thousand” by Pirandello underlines the tendency of the individual to be ‘numerous people’ in different daily contexts: one, as he understands his own identity; no one, because he is one among billions in the world, one hundred thousand because he covers many roles in different contexts.

The significance of the novel’s title, One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, is revealed through this passage. Vitangelo possesses one understanding of himself as a whole entity as reflected in the mirror at the beginning of the novel. At the same time, he is no one because he is alienated from himself. Without a sense of self-identity, a person is essentially just one of billions, like we perceive ants. Finally, he is one hundred thousand because of the multitude of strangers he interacts with every day, each of whom takes a different aspect of him to be his true identity. The multiplicity of roles he enacts grows each time he is put in a different social context. Given this understanding of identity, it is no wonder why Vitangelo feels so fragmented and miserable; he simultaneously views himself as one, no one, and one hundred thousand.

In the same vein, another prominent psychoanalyst of the twentieth century, Carl Jung, defines the act of playing different parts depending on social context with the word persona. In Latin, this term originally meant the theatrical mask worn by actors to indicate their role in a play. For Jung, it is an arbitrary segment of the collective psyche that feigns individuality in that “our modern notions of ‘personal’ and ‘personality’ derive from the word persona. I can assert that my ego is personal or a personality, and in exactly the same sense I can say that my persona is a personality with which I identify myself more or less” (196). Whereas one might initially assume that the persona is something individual, Jung emphasizes that it is a vehicle through which the collective psyche speaks. The persona mediates between the individual and society, but it is essentially artificial, “a semblance, a two-dimensional reality” (158). While Dorian Gray can serve as a claim for artificiality in the individual, Vitangelo’s case may be extended to make a larger claim for the whole of society, in which individuals fabricate personas for themselves and each other.

When an individual assumes a persona, or adopts a persona that others have imposed on him or her, one of the resulting side effects is identity fragmentation. Jung claims: “The construction of a collectively suitable persona means a formidable concession to the external world, a genuine self-sacrifice which drives the ego straight into identification with the persona, so that people really do exist who believe they are what they pretend to be” (193). If the persona were a completely deployable costume that one could seamlessly put on and take off, it would function exclusively as a mediator between the individual and society. However, even in their multiplicity, different personas are interconnected because they coexist within the same body. Thus, social identities become inseparable from one’s personal sense of identity. These both contribute to forming the ego, and they inevitably end up overlapping and influencing each other, blurring the line between reality and artificiality.

Toward the end of Pirandello’s novel, another character that shares the protagonist’s tragic struggle to understand his “authentic” identity is introduced. Vitangelo explains the findings of his social experiments to Anna Rosa, a friend of his wife’s that he hardly knows, as follows: “‘Lei non può conoscersi che atteggiata: statua: non viva. Quando uno vive, vive e non si vede. Conoscersi è morire. Lei sta tanto a mirarsi in codesto specchio, in tutti gli specchi, perché non vive; non sa, non può o non vuol vivere. Vuole troppo conoscersi e non vive’” (187) [‘You cannot know yourself if not when acting: a statue: not alive. When one lives, he lives and does not see himself. To know oneself is to die. You look at yourself so much in this mirror, in all mirrors, because you do not live; you do not know how, are not able or do not want to live. You want to know yourself too much and you do not live’]. Once again bringing up the mirror, Vitangelo contends that living and knowing oneself are mutually exclusive. If one is constantly looking in the mirror, he or she is attempting to grasp a unified identity, therefore foregoing the act of living. This conclusion is similar to Dorian’s, namely that one will never be able to view himself as whole, yet will constantly attempt to do so, which alienates him from language and society, therefore widening the divide between the imaginary and the symbolic.

There is a somewhat tragic aspect of these characters’ futile attempts to view themselves as whole entities. In an autobiographical letter, published in 1924, the author refers to this work as the “…bitterest of all, profoundly humoristic, about the decomposition of life: Moscarda one, no one and one hundred thousand” (“Luigi Pirandello”). As Pirandello states, and the title of the novel suggests, the protagonist’s ego is a site of contradiction and constant transformation. His identity is torn apart, seeming to result in the absence of all unity or truth. Italian professor Victor Carrabino echoes this sentiment in his interpretation of the novel: “Pirandello’s characters even ‘voluntarily surrender their humanity in order to escape the pain of living by taking refuge in the wooden passivity of marionettes’” (126). Vitangelo’s social experiments literally and figuratively prove that when one sees his own reflection in the mirror, it is not the same reflection others see. Therefore, the image reflected to him in the mirror is just as artificial as the masks he puts on for society. It is painful for the protagonist to realize that he will never be able to pin down a singular comprehensive understanding of who he is. He flounders in desperation for some time, but does not quite completely take “refuge in the wooden passivity of marionettes,” as Carrabino puts it. Vitangelo can be seen to embrace the multiplicity of his identity in the end when he states that he no longer thinks about death “perché muojo ogni attimo, io, e rinasco nuovo e senza ricordi: vivo e intero, non piú in me, ma in ogni cosa fuori” (Pirandello 203) [because I die every instant and am reborn anew and without memories: alive and whole, no longer in myself, but in everything external]. Conceptually, at least, Vitangelo is able to let go of the yearning for a perfect mirror image, and surrender himself to the unconscious. He realizes the potential for wholeness, just not within his own body. Although the ending appears to be rather hopeful, the tragic aspect is that he forgoes being himself, and simply morphs into the outside world.


Mirrors and masks are so crucial in these two novels because they are supposed to act as outward screens that represent individuals as whole entities. However, Dorian’s portrait (his mirror) reflects his image in light of his super-ego, his unconscious; this is in a binary opposition to his actual body, which is the ideal image of himself. Vitangelo’s various masks or personas end up shattering his image of wholeness, as they represent the multiplicity of his identity. One may wonder why it is so difficult for these protagonists to accept that they are not whole. Both novels justify putting on masks and assuming different identities in society as a way to avoid the ugliness and suffering of life. At one point, Dorian states: “‘To become the spectator of one’s own life, as Harry says, is to escape from the suffering of life’” (Wilde 145). This statement is paradoxical because, as Vitangelo demonstrates, it is impossible to escape one’s body and become the spectator of one’s own life. Going back to Lacan’s mirror stage, our unconscious selves are inevitably influenced by society, making it impossible to preserve our perfect mirror image. And, even if it were possible to view oneself wholly, “one of the messages Pirandello seems to impart is ‘that we must not needlessly force one another to undergo the sorry spectacle of seeing what we really are’” (Topazio 1589). One is then compelled to ask: what are these characters so afraid of beneath their masks?

Pirandello confronts this question by using an animal metaphor. In a letter to his sister, he compares human beings to spiders, snails, and mollusks who have webs and shells to protect themselves from the emptiness of the world. By the same token, Carrabino claims: “it is because of man’s effort to avoid his naked encounter with nothingness, that he engages himself in a continuous ‘ballo in maschera’ [masquerade]” (128). For the majority of the novels, Dorian and Vitangelo are so distressed about preserving their artificial identities because they have realized that their “true” identity does not exist. They cling onto their masks and their personas, the most “real” aspects of themselves, because there is nothing underneath. Their search for wholeness is ironically a marker of its lack. Vitangelo is able to accept this lack in the end, but only at the price of losing his humanity and his bodily self.

As Shakespeare once wrote: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts” (II.vii.138-41). Dorian Gray and Vitangelo Moscarda demonstrate the impossibility of living without acting. Their obsession with mirrors is indicative of their longing to unify their egos, which Lacan explains have been fragmented since infancy. Mirror images and masks are ultimately the only reality for these protagonists because they serve to represent their identities every single day. Indeed, “one never seems so much at one’s ease as when one has to play a part” (Wilde 205).


End Notes

  1. All bracketed English translations are my own.

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