"I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive."

Amongst their differences, they share a likeness to one another. Their likeness lies not in their eccentric names nor their sexes, but their relentless pursuit of excellence turned undoubtedly obsessive.

"I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive."
Angie Hoffmeister. If We Were Villains. [hardback book]. Titan Books.

Disclaimer: Suicide, compulsive behaviours, homicide, and violence are mentioned in the article. Spoilers of The Picture of Dorian Gray, If We Were Villains, and The Secret History are included.

Dorian Gray [1]. Henry Winter [2]. James Farrow [3]. Three artists, each remarkably respected in their domains of art. Dorian: a radiantly handsome and wealthy young man with a beauty so great, it blinds those around him from detecting his flaws. Henry: another young and wealthy man, prodigious in the study of the Greeks- his intellect in the dead languages and philosophy rivals no other. James: a gifted theatrical actor, favourite to many, with a penchant for playing the noble hero. Amongst their differences, they share a likeness to one another. Their likeness lies not in their eccentric names nor their sexes, but rather a distinct, ardent love for perfection in their art. A perfection that calls into question whether an affinity like this leads to an excellence many dream about or instead an affliction one is urged to live without? Three artists that share a likeness to each other: their relentless pursuit of excellence turned undoubtedly obsessive.

  1. Dorian Gray, the main character of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a radiantly handsome, impressionable, and wealthy young gentleman, whose portrait the artist Basil Hallward paints. Under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian becomes extremely concerned with the transience of his beauty and begins to pursue his own pleasure above all else. He devotes himself to having as many experiences as possible, whether moral or immoral, elegant or sordid. ↩︎

  2. Henry Winter, one of the 6 main characters in The Secret History, is a wealthy, intellectual prodigy and a passion for Greek. He is the unofficial leader of the group and Julian’s favourite student. ↩︎

  3. James Farrow is the narrator Oliver’s best friend. He is portrayed as a talented theatrical actor often playing the hero. ↩︎

Fig. 1. Ivan Albright. (1943-44). Picture of Dorian Gray. [oil on canvas]. Chicago. United States.

Obsession and its craft

The origin of the word is Latin, derived from obsidere, meaning “a besieging”. A besieging refers to the act of surrounding a place with armed forces for capture or surrender (Tearle, 2023). And that is the very essence of an obsession. To be an obsessed artist, one must surrender themselves completely into their craft. It is, in short, a decadence of perfection and often talent. A talent many have dreamt about. Whether it be the highest grade in academics or the first chosen kid in sport classes, there lies a certain gratification of being the best. And with this excellence, comes a painstaking struggle; everything is only good in moderation after all.

The obsessed artist is erratic, often egregious, and most definitely enigmatic. The lines between right and wrong are blurrier than ever. Morality is no longer black or white: when they wish it so, it is a dark and dismal grey. The obsessed artist will take any means necessary for their craft; for that is what they live for. What they breathe, work, eat, and suffer for. And yet they’re eloquent. Elusive. Enticing. Enviable. They’re- dare I say- endearing. There lies a melancholic suffering in them- one ravishing enough that I’d like to delve into and unpack. For an obsessed artist’s endless pursuit of perfection leads to the unravelling of their being.

The obsessed artist must be fanatical about their craft, there can never be a shortage of passion. Passion - that impressive keyword you use in your job interviews, your CVs, your 3-words-to-describe-yourself ice breakers. When one puts it that way, passion stands for ambition and devotion; the obsessed artist is inarguably passionate. They can and always will be better at their craft - they strive for greatness. They get that hefty job offer, that well articulated CV, that great first impression. But there is more to passion than meets the eye. Google the word and suffering and agony come up as synonyms- not ambition, not devotion. One might wonder why there is such a stark contrast. Take a closer look and you’ll see that with extreme passion, for this is the passion that these artists have, comes suffering and agony - to cry over that job you weren’t offered, that badly written CV, that horribly executed first impression. Obsessed artists are filled to the brim with passion for their craft so much so that their passion metamorphosizes into a double-edged dagger. On one end, an excellence and on the other, the agonising maintenance of this excellence. The obsessed artist is an exploration in the indulgence of passion and the desperation that so often accompanies it.


Dorian’s insatiable desire, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, to create an ideal self is but one example of this dagger. His pursuit in honing his craft, in this case the preservation of his youth and beauty, results in the giving away of every expense of his soul to fill this ardent, undying need for perfection. With this decadence, Death follows Dorian throughout the book: his lover: Sibyl Vane ends up taking her own life after losing her ability to act well. Then Basil Hallward: a painter who drew the portrait- the origin of this obsession- ends up murdered by none other than Dorian himself. Alan Campell: blackmailed by Dorian to help get rid of Basil’s body, later takes his own life. The characters who take part in fueling Dorian’s obsession end up facing the same wrath. The double-edged dagger takes no prisoners.

In If We Were Villains, James takes on the roles of various Shakespeare characters: Brutus, Macbeth, and Edmund. For every character he plays, he subconsciously embodies their most notable traits. First, Brutus’ nobility, second Macbeth’s callousness, and last Edmund’s anger. James’s character arc depicts the stages of obsession. An obsession in the arts starts off lighthearted and with good intent. It quickly turns into a fervent desperation: sacrifice after sacrifice until it leads to an irrevocable demise. James’ alluring perfection in his acting leads to his tragedy when he’s outshined the wrong person. The anger James portrays whilst playing Edmund is arguably a foreshadowing of the later atrocity committed (or framed, no spoilers!) by him and his scoundreling troupe.

Fig. 2. Angie Hoffmeister. If We Were Villains. [hardback book]. Titan Books.

In The Secret History, Henry Winter’s world shatters when his idolised mentor abandons him after finding out who was behind the death of one of his peers - Bunny. Henry’s obsession takes the form of isolation and delirium. Henry writes in his diary in Latin, spending his days so immersed in ancient books and myths about the Greek that he loses touch of reality. His actions showcase this: he neither communicates with other students or keeps up with the advancements and politics of his time. He’s shocked when learning about the astronaut visits to the moon. Henry’s obsession with his craft, his study of the Greeks, engulfs him as a whole. This indulgence in the Greeks leads him to take on their notorious acts of sacrifice and upholding of duty.

To be, or not to be: that is the question.

It’s crucial to recognise that the obsessed artist is flawed. Dorian, Henry, and James certainly exemplify this.

Henry Winter, a damaged psychopath.

Dorian Gray, a narcissistic murderer.

James Farrow, a gifted actor with a guilty conscience.

They are fictional. Written with all their flaws out in the open. Their portrayals are of the dark side of that dagger: the humaneness in humanity. Ultimately, all three characters’ obsession in their craft ends up being their demise. Their lives are no longer their own; fully engulfed by perfection and its right hand, desperation. Their obsessions strayed them too far, deciding their fates: each taking their own lives. Dorian by stabbing his portrait and thereby himself, Henry with a gun, and James by drowning. Impressionable readers must realise that the infeasibility in their compulsive habits is what grounds them. One must avoid the temptation of perfection - it does not bode well to be an obsessed artist.

The obsessed artist is a favourite allegory of mine- it helps ground me when my new found infatuations border obsession - when that quiet persistence with greatness almost swallows me whole. Dorian Gray, Henry Winter, and James Farrow are my favourite artists. No other characters’ wounds and blatant flaws guide my interpretation of this allegory the way that theirs do. Three characters that share a likeness to one another. Their likeness lies not in their eccentric names nor their sexes, but rather how dear and near they are to me. After all,

"I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive."
- Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Book Synopsis

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s only novel is the dreamlike story of a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. In this celebrated work, Wilde forged a devastating portrait of the effects of evil and debauchery on a young aesthete in late-19th-century England. Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centres on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigour while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world. For over a century, this mesmerising tale of horror and suspense has enjoyed wide popularity. It ranks as one of Wilde's most important creations and among the classic achievements of its kind.

If We Were Villains

Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail - for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he's released, he's greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago. As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.

The Secret History

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.


Albright, Ivan. (1943-44). Picture of Dorian Gray. [oil on canvas]. Chicago. United States.

Hoffmeister, Angie. If We Were Villains. [hardback book]. Titan Books.

SparkNotes. (n.d.). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Sparknotes. https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/doriangray/characters/#:~:text=A%20radiantly%20handsome%2C%20impressionable%2C%20and,own%20pleasure%20above%20all%20else

SparkNotes. (n.d.). Henry Winter. Sparknotes. https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/the-secret-history/character/henry-winter/

Tearle, O. (2023, April 12). A summary and analysis of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray Oli. Interesting Literature. https://interestingliterature.com/2021/02/oscar-wilde-picture-of-dorian-gray-summary-analysis/#:~:text=The%20Picture%20of%20Dorian%20Gray%20has%20been%20analysed%20as%20an,nineteenth%2Dcentury%20aestheticism%20and%20decadence.

Writer: Sondos - a first year medical student at VinUni. When she’s not swallowed whole by her MD classes, she spends her days agonising and arguing over the symbolism of her latest read and the juxtaposition of a book she cannot for the life of herself remember. In her writing, she borders on opinion and somewhat analytical pieces, but always writes about literature because it’s her greatest passion. If you’d read more of her work, you can find her on Bookstagram: @obs3ssve.