In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is a moral point to be made about art. When one ceases to be “real”, they can only ever be found within art. Art is what reflects the reality but art can never ultimately be real. Art is what decays and shows the true decay of the person. Art shows the decay into nothingness.
So it is intriguing that as the story begins to focus on Dorian Gray himself in chapter IV, a very minor, trivial character is brought into play–Sibyl Vane. But she is actually not that minor or trivial a character at all. Indeed, she is Dorian Gray himself in a way. Dorian Gray is first brought attention to her by her acting. Her artwork.
“One evening she is Rosalind, and the next night she is Imogen. I have seen her die in the gloom of a Italian tomb, sucking the poison from her lover’s lips. I have watched her wandering through the forest of Arden, disguised as a pretty boy in hose and doublet and dainty cap.” (37)
Indeed, for Dorian Gray, she is nothing more than these fictional characters. As Sibyl Vane becomes his lover and then a romance develops, Sibyl becomes real and the art is destroyed. “She is quite beautiful…but she can’t act” observes Lord Henry Wotton (61). “I was Rosalind one night, and Portia the other. The joy of Beatrice was my joy, and the sorrows of Cordelia were mine also.” admits Sibyl (63) as Dorian discovers she has left the art work she once was. He scolds her on this saying “You have killed my love.” (63) “You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity.” (63) That night is when he realises that Basil Hallward’s picture has changed (65-67). It shows him evil. A cruel smile.
He discovers from Lord Henry that Sibyl Vane has committed suicide (71-72). But she had been dead before she took the action. For Sibyl Vane was only her art. The only thing Dorian loved about Sibyl was her art. The only thing that moved Dorian was her art. Sibyl was not a “real” character. She was a character that existed only in art.
“She has played her last part. But you must not think of that lonely death in the tawdry dressing-room simply as a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy, as a wonderful scene from Webster, or Ford, or Cyril Tourneur. The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died. To you at least she was always a dream…Mourn for Ophelia, if you like. Put ashes on your head because Cordelia was strangled. Cry out against Heaven because the daughter of Brabantino died. But don’t waste your tears over Sibyl Vane. She was less real than they are.” (75)
For indeed, she was mere art and when her art was destroyed, she could no longer live on either. She was only the art that created her. Similarly, as Basil Hallward makes his portrait of Dorian Gray, Dorian falls in love with Basil’s art. He wishes to become the art. “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young.” (19). Dorian proceeds to pray that it shall be the other way. That the picture will become old, and horrible, and dreadful. After the death of Sibyl Vane he sees this happening in his portrait. But his friends proceed to worship him. Basil Hallward sees him after the death of Sibyl Vane to admit his secret about the portrait.
“I worshipped you. I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you. When you were away from me you were still present in my art….But I know that as I worked at it, every flake and film of colour seemed to me to reveal my secret. I grew afraid that others would know of my idolatry.” (83-84)
When Basil realises the ugly truth about the portrait, he is brought to reality as well. For Basil, the “real” Dorian was art and nothing more. For Basil, he could only exist in art. “You have done enough evil in your life. My God! don’t you see that accursed thing leering at us?” (115). That “thing” was Dorian who became the “executioner” of the “idol-worshipper”. (115-116) But still, it is not realised.
“What would you say, Harry, if I told you that I had murdered Basil?” … “I would say, my dear fellow, that you were posing for a character that doesn’t suit you. All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. It is not in you, Dorian, to commit a murder.” (157).
In the end, as he perceives Sibyl Vane to be the art she creates, it is his friends–Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward–who can only see the art that he has become. Sibyl Vane is nothing more than art and when she is brought out of her picture she dies. Dorian Gray is nothing more than art and he realises this. That to fix reality, he must destroy the art he has become. “It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace.” (164) He takes the knife, stabs the picture, and soon, he is found dead. Or rather, he never existed at all. An old, shriveled man is found and Basil’s original painting is hanging on the wall (165). Dorian, like Sibyl, is only to be found in the art. He cannot be found in reality. For he became consumed by pride and when he became his picture, he could no longer function. When Sibyl was brought out of her picture, she could no longer exist.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Dover Publications, 1993.