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James Clark

Mr. Keith Newvine

AP Literature and Composition

17 June 2019

The Destructive Nature of our Cognitive Realities: An Analysis of ​The Picture of Dorian Gray

and ​Black Swan.

Judy Garland once said, “We cast away priceless time in dreams, born of imagination,

fed upon illusion, and put to death by reality” (Illusion Quotes). What Mrs. Garland is trying to

communicate through this quote is the threat that our minds present to us. In essence, the

existence of our primordial desires distorts the cognitive workings of our brains, causing us to

lose sight of reality. This unrighteous phenomena is echoed through Oscar Wilde’s ​The Picture

of Dorian Gray​ and Darren Aronofsky’s ​Black Swan​. In the novel by Wilde, a young man named

Dorian Gray is influenced and manipulated by his surroundings, which unfolds into a tale about

the mental deterioration of a deranged, seemingly immortal, and wickedly youthful man.

However, a painting that lies in Mr. Gray’s cellar depicts his true nature, one that is unholy and

atrocious. Likewise, Aronofsky’s film follows a young woman named Nina who must undertake

the role of ‘Swan Queen’ in her studio’s production of ​Swan Lake​. However, her longing to

embody the ‘Black Swan’ causes Nina to manifest into a monstrous being that ultimately spells

her doom. Overall, the two texts exemplify the sinful nature of the human condition, revealing to

the audience how truly obliterating our cognitions can be.


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Through the character of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde is able to juxtapose the alluring

qualities of youth with the wicked nature of sin. Consequently, the reader has a unique

perspective in which they can observe the horrible wrongdoings committed by Dorian Gray

without being captivated by his beauty. This feature of the novel emphasizes Dorian’s mental

deterioration; although the reader can imagine how handsome Dorian Gray is, his sins override

the reader’s previous thoughts. Furthermore, Dorian Gray makes an interesting comment on his

unique position: “He [Dorian Gray] looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could

realize his conception of the beautiful” (Wilde 150). Through this quote, it’s clear that Dorian

Gray is overrun by corruption and vanity. It seems that Dorian is willing to do anything in the

pursuit of beauty, leading to the atrocity that occurs in the following chapter. In this chapter,

Basil Hallward, the painter that created Dorian’s portrait, is stabbed to death by Mr. Gray.

Through the text, Mr. Gray was clearly fed up with the ugliness depicted by his portrait. So, in

order to “realize his conception of the beautiful,” Mr. Gray was urged to kill the man that he

believed caused the portrait to become hideous. This depiction of sin shows how far humanity is

willing to go in order to pursue seemingly meaningless desires.

In a similar fashion, Nina from the movie ​Black Swan​ forces herself to undergo changes

in order to fit a devious role that society (her dance director) has laid out for her. During the first

half of the movie, Nina is depicted as kind, naive, and quiet. For this reason, she fits perfectly

into the role of ‘White Swan’ in her studio’s production of ​Swan Lake​. However, in order to

obtain the main role in this ballet, Nina must also embody the ‘Black Swan.’ This character is

mischievous, treacherous, and lustful, as she steals the one true love of the ‘White Swan.’
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Throughout the film, we see Nina transform into this monster that is unequivocally distinct from

her previous self. The following dialogue represents this metamorphosis perfectly:

Mother of Nina: “What happened to my sweet girl?”

Nina: “She’s gone!” (​Black Swan).

Through this excerpt of dialogue between Nina and her mother, the audience is able to

understand the depth to which Nina’s desire to become the ‘Black Swan’ has distorted her true

self. Before, she would always treat her mother with respect, and even fear whenever she did

something that upset her mother. However, just as Nina refers to that part of herself in the

third-person, the previous, child-like, and pure Nina is now gone and replaced by a disobedient

and truly evil Nina. Therefore, the audience sees the effect that Nina’s distorted cognition has on

her-- her desire to become the ‘Black Swan’ has overridden her true self.

Through the above texts, the audience has seen an unholy evolution of what was once

pure and innocent into something that is now appalling, barbaric, and even wicked. However,

what result does this have on the two protagonists of each text? In ​The Picture of Dorian Gray,​

Dorian, in order to pursue beauty, stabs and destroys his self-portrait. Likewise, Nina takes a

shard from a broken mirror and stabs her alternate for the role of ‘Swan Queen.’ The result of

these two struggles ends with both protagonists unwillingly stabbing themselves in the heart. In

essence, their hallucinations of grandeur obstructed their view of reality, prompting the two

protagonists’ untimely deaths. Although both characters were aiming to kill something that is not

apart of them, the characters had created a strong connection with these ideals throughout their

respective texts. Therefore, cutting these ties caused the characters to ultimately lose what

allowed them to live in the first place-- their desires and their hearts.
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Overall, both texts depict the destructive nature of sinful desires and how the protagonists

go about their wicked ways. The cognitions of the two protagonists, although altered throughout

the two plots, displayed the extent to which humanity can go to pursue distorted ideals.

Furthermore, both texts reveal how the protagonists brains care more about wishes and desires

rather than life itself, which includes the lives of others and the protagonists themselves. In the

end, both texts teach the audience that humans cannot continue their destructive habits. As stated

before, these habits can alter one’s cognition, leading to untimely occurrences such as the ones

depicted in the two texts.


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Works Cited

​ irected by Darren Aronofsky. Performances by Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and


Black Swan. D

Vincent Cassel. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010.

“Illusion Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore, www.brainyquote.com/topics/illusion. Accessed

17 June 2019.

Wilde, Oscar. ​The Picture of Dorian Gray.​ Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.