Posted by: Lily R | December 16, 2020

Flattened Women: Oscar Wilde’s Perception of Sibyl Vane as a Subject Humanized by Masculinity

Sibyl Vane is arguably the only semi-prominent female figure in “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.” She constantly represents imagery itself throughout the text — her profession is as an actress, her physical attributes are described through artistic language, and her worth is fleeting, only reaching its apex when Dorian Gray perceives her. As a struggling performer and a poor woman, she only finds textual reassurance when men such as Dorian watch and appreciate her. In this way, Sibyl occupies the role of framed artwork. She is a beautiful sight, admired distantly, but has no written quality other than providing entertainment for other characters. When Dorian eventually loses interest in her due to her sudden artistic failure, she is deemed unimportant, and Wilde writes her character off through suicide.

Dorian is only in love with Sibyl when she performs artistically. However, for Sibyl, these performances are a constant charade, unable to be replicated once she experiences true love. Upon discovering her inability to properly act, Sibyl says to Dorian, “The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came—oh, my beautiful love!—and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality is,” (Wilde, 84). To this, Dorian responds that Sibyl’s inability to preform has “killed his love.” Here, Wilde portrays a woman as an item of interest which has self-destructed. By assuming that Sibyl remains drastically in love with Dorian, while Dorian maintains secretive feelings constructed through mere visuality, he proves his internal biases against women, claiming that they are emotionally and intellectually inferior to men. Wilde’s assertion that women can love blindly without knowledge of their partner’s true feelings is reminiscent of his general misogynistic attitude portrayed throughout the text.

Wilde attempts to provide argumentation against female subjugation through the role of Dorian in response to Lord Henry’s comments throughout the text. For example, when Lord Henry claims that “woman are a decorative sex,” (Wilde, 47), Dorian retorts and praises Sibyl highly. At one point, he even says, “[Sibyl has not merely art, consummated art-instinct, in her, but she has personality also; and you [Lord Henry] have often told me that it is personalities, not principles, that move the age,” (Wilde, 55). However, Dorian’s quick transition to hatred for Sibyl proves that his love is false and based solely in visual perception. When Sibyl is no longer visually stunning to Dorian, he feels no desire to keep her. This embodies textual metaphors of women as false doubles of themselves which pervades through the text, a nod to Wilde’s internal disenfranchisement with and negative attitude toward women.

The fact that Dorian Gray is another double in this text only complicates Wilde’s arguments for female presentation and subjugation. Dorian clearly thinks highly of himself and is contextually allowed to — other characters praise and consider him throughout the novel. However, he is doubly embodied through his cursed image. In this way, he and Sibyl occupy similar roles. Once their visual qualities are deemed unimportant to the viewer, they are written out of the text. Because of this, I propose that Dorian does feel an emotional pull to Sibyl, but that it is merely mutuality and correspondence through visual representation that attracts him to her. In the end, Dorian is his own viewer, similarly to how he was Sibyl’s, and he chooses to destroy the image which keeps him alive.

Throughout “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde proposes ideas about human worth through observation and physical quality. Both Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane are discussed through their artistic facades and abilities to please the viewer aesthetically. This external viewing is ultimately what leads to both characters’ deaths, though Sibyl is destroyed through masculine rejection, while Gray is allowed to opt for self-destruction. These two separate deaths of characters perceived artistically suggest that Wilde believed humans to be too visually scrutinized and consumed for them to successfully exist as independent beings.

Works Cited:

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wordsworth Editions, 1992.


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