The theater is crowded when the men arrive. Dorian continues to wax eloquent about Sibyl’s beauty, and Basil assures Dorian that he will support the marriage wholeheartedly since Dorian is so obviously in love. When the play begins, however, Sibyl is terrible, and her acting only worsens as the evening wears on. Unable to understand the change that has come over his beloved, Dorian is heartbroken. Basil and Lord Henry leave him, and he makes his way backstage to find Sibyl, who is quite happy despite her dreadful performance. She explains that before she met Dorian and experienced true love, she was able to inhabit other characters and feel their emotions easily, which made possible her success as an actress. Now, however, these pretend emotions no longer interest her, since they pale in relation to her real feelings for Dorian. She realizes that “the words I had to speak were unreal, were not my words, were not what I wanted to say.” As a result, she declares that her career on the stage is over. Dorian, horrified by this decision, realizes that he was in love not with her but with her acting. He spurns her cruelly and tells her that he wishes never to see her again.
After a night spent wandering the streets of London, Dorian returns to his home. There, he looks at Basil’s portrait of him and notices the painting has changed—a faint sneer has appeared at the corner of his likeness’s mouth. He is astonished. Remembering his wish that the painting would bear the burden and marks of age and lifestyle for him, Dorian is suddenly overcome with shame about his behavior toward Sibyl. He pulls a screen in front of the portrait and goes to bed, resolving to make amends with Sibyl in the morning.
Dorian does not awake until well after noon the next day. When he gets up, he goes to check the painting. In the light, the change is unmistakable; the face in the portrait has become crueler. While the stunned Dorian tries to come up with some rational explanation for the change, Lord Henry arrives with terrible news: Sibyl committed suicide the previous night. Dorian is stunned, but Lord Henry manages to convince him that he should not go to the police and explain his part in the girl’s death. Lord Henry urges Dorian not to wallow in guilt but, rather, to regard Sibyl’s suicide as a perfect artistic representation of undying love and appreciate it as such. Dorian, who feels numb rather than anguished, is convinced by his friend’s seductive words and agrees to go to the opera with him that very night. When Lord Henry is gone, Dorian reflects that this incident is a turning point in his existence, and he resolves to accept a life of “[e]ternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joy and wilder sins,” in which his portrait, rather than his own body, will bear the marks of age and experience. Having made this resolution, he joins Lord Henry at the opera.
Dorian’s romance with Sibyl represents the possibility that he will not accept Lord Henry’s philosophy and will instead learn to prize human beings and emotions over art. His love for her allows him to resist Lord Henry’s seductive words, noting to Lord Henry, “When I am with her, I regret all that you have taught me. . . . [T]he mere touch of Sibyl Vane’s hand makes me forget you and all your wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories.” But just as Lord Henry appreciates Dorian as a work of art rather than as a human being, what Dorian values most about Sibyl is her talent as an actress—her ability to portray an ideal, not her true self. The extent of Lord Henry’s influence is painfully clear as Dorian heartlessly snubs Sibyl, who claims that her real love for him prohibits her from acting out such emotions onstage. Surely, to modern readers, Sibyl’s devotion to Dorian—not to mention her grief over losing him—seems a bit melodramatic. She is a rather thinly drawn character, but she serves two important functions. First, she forces us to question what precisely art is and when its effects are good. Second, she shows the pernicious consequences of a philosophy that places beauty and self-pleasure above consideration for others. Sibyl’s tragic fate enables us to be as critical of Wilde’s philosophies as he himself was at the end of his life.
Sibyl’s claim that Dorian gives her “something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection” stands in undeniable contrast to Lord Henry’s philosophy, in which art is the highest experience and life imitates art rather than vice versa. Indeed, time and again, Lord Henry delights in ignoring the significance of human emotions. Even though Sibyl’s conception of art as a reflection of grand emotions counters Lord Henry’s (and Wilde’s) philosophy of art, it resonates throughout the remainder of the novel. Indeed, Sibyl’s philosophy is echoed in the very portrait of Dorian, since it is a reflection of Dorian’s true self.
The answer to the narrator’s question as to whether the changing portrait “[w]ould … teach [Dorian] to loathe his own soul” is yes, as Dorian grows increasingly uncomfortable over the course of the novel with what the disfigured portrait signifies about himself. As the novel progresses and the painting continues to register the effects of time and dissipation, we see the degree to which Dorian is undone by the sins that his portrait reflects and the degree to which he suffers for allowing the painting to act as a “visible emblem of conscience.” The aging of Dorian’s likeness in the portrait ultimately contradicts some of Lord Henry’s—and Wilde’s—beliefs about art: the painting does not exist in a moral vacuum. Instead, the painting both shows the deleterious effects of sin and gives Dorian a sense of freedom from morality; it thus influences and is influenced by morality.
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