Oh, she was so shy, and so gentle. There is something of a child about her. Her eyes opened wide in exquisite wonder when I told her what I thought of her performance, and she seemed quite unconscious of her power.
Dorian describes Sibyl to Lord Henry for the first time. His description of Sibyl echoes Basil’s initial description of Dorian as being innocent and unaware of his own beauty. We infer that had Sibyl lived and married Dorian, her influence could have undone Lord Henry evil effects, saving Dorian from a life of corruption.
“Mother! mother!” she cried, “why does he love me so much? I know why I love him. I love him because he is like what Love himself should be. But what does he see in me? I am not worthy of him. And yet—why, I cannot tell—though I feel so much beneath him, I don’t feel humble. I feel proud, terribly proud.[”]
Sibyl asks her mother what Dorian sees in her, her guileless nature unaware that her assets of purity and goodness feature prominently in her allure. The contrast to Lord Henry’s destructive machinations highlights the equating of innocence with beauty throughout the story. She has never known anything of real life, and she relates Dorian’s handsomeness to ideals from plays about what “Love himself should be.”
Yet she was curiously listless. She showed no sign of joy when her eyes rested on Romeo. The few words she had to speak… with the brief dialogue that follows, were spoken in a thoroughly artificial manner. The voice was exquisite, but from that point of view of tone it was absolutely false.
When Dorian brings Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl act for the first time, he observes how much worse she performs than he has ever seen before. We later find out that Sibyl cannot feign feelings now that she has experienced the real thing. Although her beauty has not changed and she has the right technique, her performance shows what happens if an artist does not put their whole being into their art.
The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came—oh, my beautiful love!—and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality is. To-night, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played.
Sibyl explains to Dorian the reason for her poor performance in the play. She has acted for her entire life, never knowing real relationships or experiences in the world. Now that she has felt real love with Dorian, she find cultivating pretenses meaningless. Although Dorian becomes angry with her, the reader suspects the anger to be a construct of Lord Henry’s manipulation of Dorian’s thoughts and actions.
The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died. To you at least she was always a dream, a phantom that flitted through Shakespeare’s plays and left them lovelier for its presence, a reed through which Shakespeare’s music sounded richer and more full of joy.
Lord Henry attempts to comfort Dorian after bringing news of Sibyl Vane’s death. He says that because Sibyl only existed in plays, she never truly lived. Dorian and Lord Henry gain distance from her death by reducing the reality of her life to her professional pursuits. She died just as she was beginning to have a life she truly wanted, but the first rejection she experienced was too much for her to bear.