While reading À rebours and The Portrait of Dorian Gray side by side, I was struck by a sense of hysteric madness in both Dorian and des Esseintes. The psychological affects of des Esseintes are much more clearly plotted for us than those of Dorian as the words neurosis, hysteria, and psychology are repeated throughout the novel. Dorian’s condition is much more obscure.
It seems both men come from a childhood that have marked them negatively—Dorian is the child of “Love and Death” as Lord Henry calls him, and des Esseintes recalls his childhood with an acute morbid negativity. Des Esseintes refers to his childhood often “par haine, et par mépris” (À rebours 88), and later actually says that he develops almost sadomasochistic tendencies because of his upbringing: “un besoin de vengeance de tristesse endure, une rage de salir par des turpitudes de souvenirs de famille, un désir furieux de panteler sur des cousins de chair, d’épuiser jusqu’à leur dernière gouttes, les plus véhémentes et les plus acres des folies charnelles.” (ibid) Not only this, but des Esseintes seems to perpetrate and encourage the cycle “en garda[nt] les deux vieux domestiques qui avaient siogné sa mere […] un ménage habitué à un emploi de garde-malade.” (98) He treats himself as a sick man and therefore becomes one all the more. He has true symptoms of a Freudian hysteric—he has a “toux nerveuse” (À rebours 182), he is “torturé par d’inexplicables repulsions, par des frémissements qui lui glaçaient l’échine.” (À rebours 181), and “le doute ne pouvait exister; la névrose revenait, une fois de plus, sous l’apparence d’une nouvelle illusion des sens.” (À rebours 215).
Dorian’s childhood and his mother’s beauty certainly cast a shadow on his upbringing but the source of his darkness is not as clearly defined. Although it does shape him, it is des Esseintes who “became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself. And indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.” (Dorian Gray 97) Dorian begins to question his own behavior, “had some strange poisonous germ crept from body to body till it had reached his own? […] Were his own actions merely the dreams that the dead man had not dared to realize?”(Dorian Gray 107). His neurosis seems to grow as his obsession with his own beauty does; he begins to act like des Esseintes, he collects, he obsesses, he hallucinates, corrupts the young souls of others, all the while thinking he is exempt from any type of reprobation.
Finally the last connection to make is that of forced solitude, paranoia, and the ability to “travel” from one’s own home. We are fully aware of des Esseintes’s solitude, he talks about it incessantly, and he even goes so far as to say that “la solitude avait agi sur son cerveau, de même qu’un narcotique.” (À rebours 169). He is so fond of this isolation that he begins to sympathize with monastic life as a doctrine for his own life (À rebours 159). Dorian too begins to desire this sense of forced confinement, he starts to collect like des Esseintes and begins to change: “For these treasures and everything that he collected in his lovely house, were to be to him means of forgetfulness, modes by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to be borne” (Dorian Gray 152). Des Esseintes on his end demonstrates this by his innate ability to travel to the ocean from his own bathtub (À rebours 102-103) but also his fictional trip to London. Des Esseintes describes it as “il se procurait ainsi, en ne bougeant point, les sensations rapides, Presque instantanées, d’un voyage au long cours, et ce plaisir du déplacement […]” (À rebours 101).
Both men reach a point of no return, des Esseintes ends up by removing himself “[…] de plus en plus, de la réalité et surtout du monde contemporain.” (À rebours 296) while Dorian begins to become intensely paranoid: “The next day he did not leave the house, and indeed, spent most of the time in his own room, sick with a wild terror of dying, and yet indifferent to life itself.” (Dorian Gray 146). What started as a decadent pleasure, a love for collecting, indulging in the ugly beauty of solitude, quickly becomes a nightmare from which the two main characters can not disentangle themselves.