What role does Sibyl Vane play in The Portrait of Dorian Gray?
Wilde takes pains to establish Sibyl Vane as a multidimensional character with ambitions, allegiances, and a past. Yet to Dorian, she is merely a source of entertainment, an ornament that quickly loses its shine. Like Sibyl, several other characters serve only to amuse Dorian, suffering tragic fates when their moments of usefulness have passed. Sibyl is the ultimate example of what Wilde sees as a widespread human flaw: the habit of conflating people and art, the error of thinking that our friends and neighbors are merely colorful backdrops in the spectacle of our own lives.
Despite her brief appearance in Dorian Gray, Sibyl is among the most fully realized of Wilde’s characters. Wilde takes a rare detour from his long descriptions of Dorian’s thoughts and Henry’s inexhaustible witticisms to relate the story of young Sibyl and place her in the context of a troubled, noisy family. Sibyl’s mother reveals that Sibyl is illegitimate—a fact, she worries, that will turn Dorian away. Sibyl’s brother also frets about her future and reminds her of her family’s shaky finances. Wilde endows Sibyl with great theatrical talent and a heartbreaking passion in her earnest love for Dorian, her “Prince Charming.” By the end of Sibyl’s chapter, we have a fuller understanding of and deeper sympathy for Sibyl than we can claim for many of the more prominent characters in the novel.
The subtlety of Wilde’s portrait makes Dorian’s relations with Sibyl all the more disturbing. Dorian rejects Sibyl as soon as her theatrical talents falter. Sitting alongside Henry and Basil at one of Sibyl’s performances, Dorian observes with horror that Sibyl is merely a mediocre actress. He rejects Basil’s claim that he should continue to support Sibyl simply because of his love for her. He tacitly agrees with Henry that love, like art, is merely a form of imitation. (Wilde makes the implicit point that, by imitating her shallow beloved, Sibyl has become sloppy and cynical in her art.) Sibyl unintentionally exposes the depths of Dorian’s self-absorption. Indeed, her very name alludes to the ancient prophetesses, the Sibyls, suggesting that she foreshadows Dorian’s all-encompassing vanity. Dorian overlooks Sibyl’s tenderness, hopes, and personal history—all of the qualities that make her human—and discards her simply because she has ceased to amuse him.
After Sibyl, several other secondary characters fall prey to Dorian’s careless vanity. Alan Campbell has intellectual promise and a romantic connection with Dorian, yet in Dorian’s eyes, he is merely a means by which Basil’s corpse can be eliminated. Like Sibyl, Alan commits suicide after his entanglement with Dorian. Even Basil, whose love for Dorian inspired great works of art, ceases to have worth for Dorian when he becomes uninteresting. Dorian does not hesitate to kill him. Hetty Merton is a grotesque feather in Dorian’s cap. Dorian thinks he has acted nobly by severing relations before he can corrupt her, but he fails to admit that he lacks an interest in her inner life. Again and again, human beings become trophies for Dorian, sparkling statuettes that he can cast aside when his mind wanders.
By adding Sibyl to this array of tragic characters, Wilde emphasizes the human potential to treat friends as experiments or sources of momentary interest. He shows us Sibyl’s hopes and fears and turns her into a compelling human being. He then flattens her under the weight of Dorian’s insecurity and narcissism. After Sibyl, Wilde presents Alan, Basil, and Hetty, all victims of the same limitless callousness. With his series of brief, unforgettable tragedies, Wilde urges us to think more carefully about the emotional and spiritual lives of our friends.