Sibyl Vane, Dorian’s first love, is a young, beautiful actress performing at a cheap theater in London’s East End. She exudes an almost child-like naïveté and wonder about the world, somehow untouched by practical concerns despite her poverty. For example, while her mother is very aware that their family is in debt and therefore holds high hopes of Dorian being rich, Sibyl finds such speculations distasteful. She begs her mother to “let [her] be happy,” emphasizing that anything worldly or practical is enough to break the spell of her fantasy. In this light, calling Dorian Gray “prince charming” does not have class-based connotations in her mind at all and truly is about “prince charming” as a theatrical archetype. Dorian’s love is the first time she truly understands the artifice of theater. Whereas Juliet and Desdemona seem like real representations of romance before she falls in love, Shakespeare’s words pale at the real, turbulent emotions Dorian awakens in her to the extent that she calls acting a “profanation” of love. Just as she once found all mention of the real world distasteful, now that her reality seems so beautiful, she can no longer abide the theater.
It’s possible to read Sibyl as a flat character, the very object d’art that Lord Henry and Dorian see her as. In this reading, Sibyl contributes to the novel’s dialogue around art. Her loss of talent after falling in love evokes Lord Henry’s comment that great artists are boring people because they put their souls into art instead of life. Before love changes Sibyl, Dorian observes she’s always the roles she portrays and never herself, embodying her art as if she herself were art with beauty as its only aim. Reality takes away Sibyl’s artfulness, just as the preface suggests of art. However, it’s possible to read Sibyl as having more subjectivity. Sibyl doesn’t escape into her art because her life is boring, as Lord Henry suggests of great artists, but because her life is bleak. Acting and imagination are her escape. For example, she copes with James leaving by imagining him striking gold in Australia. Dorian’s flirtation allows her to think her reality could become beautiful. According to this reading, she commits suicide because she has lost the love that makes life bearable and can no longer find solace in art. Without love or art, her life becomes empty.