Sibyl Vane: The downfall of Dorian Gray

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Sibyl Vane’s Symbolic Role In “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”, By Oscar Wilde Sibyl Vane plays a symbolic role in The Picture of Dorian Gray; moreover, she plays a symbolic role in Dorian Gray’s life. This essay will explore how Sybil’s character initially influences Dorian in a positive way, giving him the motive to turn away from decadence but subsequently brings about his downfall. Recurring themes will be discussed such as the aesthetic and references will be given to show examples of Sybil’s symbolic role in his life. A summary will follow, giving a brief synopsis concluding the essays arguments.

Wilde describes the younger Dorian Gray as a stunningly handsome young man, pure inside, untouched by corrupt influences and unaware of his own beauty. Dorian comes from a privileged background. He is hugely influenced by Lord Henry and by a book that Henry gives him. He views a self-portrait, which his friend Basil has painted, Dorian becomes acutely aware of his own transient youth and beauty. He wishes he could swap places with the picture; determining to lead a life of decadence, embracing all the excesses of life, moral or immoral.

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Sybil Vane is exquisitely beautiful, young and innocent and comes from a working class family. A talented actress in one of the lesser known theatres in London; she falls in love with Dorian. In describing her to Lord Henry, Dorian says ‘imagine a girl, hardly seventeen years of age, with a little flower-like face, a small Greek head with plaited coils of dark brown hair, eyes that were violet wells of passion, lips that were like the petals of a rose. She was the loveliest things I had ever seen in my life’. ( p. 5) Sybil’s youth, beauty and innocence enchant Dorian and is the catalyst which alters and transforms him from an amoral to a devoted character. Initially he is influenced by Lord Henry into leading a life of decadence but on meeting Sybil he sees this new relationship as a lifeline into living a worthwhile life. He is torn between emulating the purity of Sybil and the dubious intention of Lord Henry, ‘When I close my eyes, I hear them, and each of them say something different. I don’t know which to follow. ’ (p. 6) Dorian discusses with Lord Henry and Basil how Sybil has changed his outlook on life, ‘[h]er trust makes me faithful, her belief makes me good. When I am with her, I regret all that you have taught me…. The mere touch of Sybil’s hand makes me forget you and all your wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories. ’ (p. 67) Sybil’s character represents all that Dorian has lost; youth, beauty, innocence and purity. She is unwavering in her devotion to him whereas he is easily influenced by external factors.

She represents truth and purity whilst Dorian’s character represents selfishness and deceit. Through her acting roles we see Sybil’s life develops from art imitating life to life imitating art and this is manifested in her ‘tragic heroine’ status in the book. She acts the parts of tragic heroines and eventually she becomes one. On hearing of her death Dorian feels abandoned, ‘there is nothing to keep me straight. She would have done that for me. ’ (p. 3) After Sybil’s suicide Dorian feels that he has lost all opportunity to change his ways and has no choice but to immerse himself in an immoral life of self-indulgence and decadence. It is Sybil’s acting capabilities that draw Dorian to her initially; ‘[w]hy didn’t you tell me that the only thing worth loving is an actress? ’ (p. 46) When Sybil feels she can no longer perform love scenes on stage Dorian is aghast and embarrassed, ‘you have killed my love……I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect…..

You are shallow and stupid…. without your art, you are nothing……A third-rate actress with a pretty face. ’ (Wilde p. 74) He is so self-absorbed he compares the finality of her death to a play ‘to be like simply a wonderful ending to a wonderful play’ (p. 84). Sybil represents the aesthetic within the novel. Working in the arts, she appeals to Dorian, ‘she has not merely art, consummate art-instinct, in her, but she has personality also. ’ (p. 50) Sybil’s beauty and innocence reflect Dorian’s original character before his downfall.

She is unspoilt; Dorian’s outer image remains unspoilt but the portrait reflects his true characteristics. Sybil represents the aesthetic and reminds Dorian of himself, pre-portrait and she represents the characteristics he desires to possess. Sybil brings Dorian to the realisation that despite his bad behaviour towards her, his wish to remain young and beautiful has come true. Sybil’s fall from grace as an actress provokes Dorian to behave in a cruel and heartless manner which culminates in the portrait displaying the expression of his age and moreover his cruel character.

The picture takes on a nasty sneer with ‘lines of cruelty around the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing’. ( p. 77) This is the first time Dorian realises that his wish has come true as a direct result of his appalling behaviour towards Sybil. To summarize, Sybil Vane’s character is hugely symbolic within the novel; in representing the aesthetic, in altering Dorian’s character and representing good.

On meeting her, Dorian discovers his desire for purity and goodness and Sybil’s character provokes a significant change within him. When she is no longer able to act it provokes in Dorian a nasty and cruel behaviour which results in the portrait revealing for the first time his true nature. To conclude, Sybil’s death ultimately triggers a response in Dorian which leads to his moral decline and self-destruction. Works cited. Wilde, Oscar, and Michael P. Gillespie. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Print.

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