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Natascha Kracheel Otto-Friedrich-Universitt Bamberg Lehrstuhl fr Englische Literaturwissenschaft

The Decay of Lying: Oscar Wildes Prose, Plays and Poetry (WS 2010/2011)

The fascination of sin: Comparing the deaths of Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane in Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray

Natascha Kracheel Lehramt Gymnasium Englisch, Geschichte, Sozialkunde 3rd semester

Natascha Kracheel

Table of Contents

1. The Fascination of Sin and the Importance of Drawing a Line- The message conveyed by Sibyls and Dorians deaths, Part I Introduction 1

2. Comparing the Deaths of Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane 2.1 Unsolved Mysteries 2.2 Importance of the Incidents 2.2.1 Importance of the Incidents for Dorian Gray 2.2.2 Importance of the Incidents for the Plot

2 2 7 7 8

3. The Fascination of Sin and the Importance of Drawing a Line- The message conveyed by Sibyls and Dorians deaths, Part II Rsum 9

Works Cited


Natascha Kracheel

1. The Fascination of Sin and the Importance of Drawing a Line- The message conveyed by Sibyls and Dorians deaths, Part I Introduction
Oscar Wilde is famous for his literature but also for his wit and accurate quotations. He is reported to have said that morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace. (Moncur)Wilde also draws a line in The Picture of Dorian Gray, causing some literary scholars to assume his intention was to write an oldfashioned morality play (Oates 420). This essays intention is to compare the deaths of Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane and to prove the thesis that a certain morale is promoted by the novel. The downfall and death of both characters is brought about by the experience of the fascination of sin (Wilde 106) and the refusal to draw a line someplace (Moncur). Dorians and Sibyls deaths are not the only ones in the novel but they share certain characteristics which also serve the promotion of a non-hedonistic morale. Apart from the message these events promote in regards to the novel as a whole, they are alike in many ways and provide a lot of information about the central themes of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Thus, this essay first compares the deaths in regards to unresolved questions arising from the events, then goes on to describe the differences and similarities in their importance for the novels plot and for the character of Dorian Gray. Finally, the summary of similarities and contrasts is meant to support the thesis that both deaths actually promote non-hedonistic and non-aesthetic values and prove that sins fascination is fatal.

Natascha Kracheel

2. Comparing the deaths of Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane

2.1 Unsolved mysteries

Both, Dorian Grays death and Sibyl Vanes death appear to be suicides. The actress Sibyl Vane is found dead in her room at the theatre after swallowing prussic acid or white lead which are both highly toxic substances. Dorian Grays death occurs as he stabs the portrait created by Basil Hallward, since murdering his soul in the form of the portrait leads to his death simultaneously. Arguments can be made in favour of both characters suicide but also against them, since the descriptions of their ends can be interpreted in various ways. It is thus the aim of the following paragraph to establish the similarities of both deaths in terms of the unresolved questions arising in two cases of apparently obvious suicide. The case of Sibyls death seems to be clear: Sibyl has transformed from an innocent seventeen-year old (Baldwin 28) who was very much in love, to a broken individual and fallen woman (30). Her great love for Dorian is not returned and in her pain about the ending of their relationship she seems to see no other escape than to kill herself. She deems Dorians words as final and decides to swallow either prussic acid or white lead; later she is found dead in her theatre room. In the conversations after her death, Sibyls passing is always presented as suicide. Lord Henry has no doubt it was not an accident (Wilde 79) and this thesis is not openly questioned in any of the conversations taking place in the aftermath. Lord Henrys account of Sibyls death, however, also raises questions and suggests that either Lord Henry himself or Dorian Gray are responsible for the actresss death.

Natascha Kracheel Lord Henry claims Sibyls death has been caused by some dreadful thing they use at theatres (Wilde 79) but prussic acid and white lead were not restricted to this use in the Victorian age (Parssinen69) . In the 1800s toxic substances, among them prussic acid, could be purchased without restrictions. They fulfilled several purposes; they served as pest killers, cleaning agents and as medicine. Accidental and suicidal poisonings were also promoted by the easy access to these substances, however, leading to the establishment of several acts and laws by the government from 1868 onwards (69). During Dorian Grays lifetime criminal poisoning often went unnoticed (78) and the polices suspicions could not be proven easily since the purchase of these substances did not yet require the registration of the customers name and address (69). Therefore, everyone surrounding Sibyl would have known about the dangers of these substances, especially since government wanted to raise awareness among the population. Most citizens would have had knowledge where to buy substances like prussic acid, thus, not only the theatre staff would have had access to toxic substances. Everyone, including Lord Henry and Dorian Gray could have purchased the prussic acid or white lead that lead to Sibyls death. Lord Henry first raises suspicions when he mentions, in his account of Sibyls death, that Sibyl had swallowed something by mistake (Wilde 79). This statement is problematic because he had mentioned before that he had no doubt (79) Sibyls death had not been an accident. His statement could indicate that Lord Henry is making up a story to conceal his own involvement in Sibyls death. If Sibyl wanted to kill herself, as suggested by his earlier statements, she would not have swallowed the substance by mistake (79). It is also unclear why Sibyl Vane, an experienced actress, would have swallowed a toxic substance use[d] at the theatres (79) accidentally, since she is used to these substances and should be aware of their uses and dangers.

Natascha Kracheel Lord Henry also bears some character traits that suggest he could be responsible for Sibyls early death. Dorian Gray has served as Lord Henrys experiment since they met it awakens Lord Henrys desire to dominate Dorian (Oates 423). Sibyls appearance might have left Lord Henry afraid his influence over Dorian could come to an end. The reader is informed on several occasions that Lord Henry would not have approved of a marriage, too. Shortly after Sibyls death he even tells Dorian that If [he] had married this girl [he] would have been wretched (Wilde 80), suggesting that the marriage would have been an absolute failure(80). Furthermore, Lord Henry leads an aestheticists life dominated by pleasure and happiness (Eklund 4). Most aestheticists found a way of living this ideal without condemning their conscience completely but Lord Henrys extreme opinions and beliefs suggest that his desires finally might have dominated the Lord completely. The combination of both character traits, fear of losing power over Dorian Gray and the loss of conscience, suggests a motive: Lord Henry Wotton could have killed Sibyl Vane because he felt his influence over Dorian was receding. Simultaneously, however, Sibyls glamour (Felski 1101) started to gain more and more influence over Dorian. Dorian Gray is another suspect concerning Sibyls death. Dorians last meeting with Sibyl takes place a few hours before she dies. Dorian could have waited for Sibyl and surprised her in her room. Lord Henry also utters a statement that suggests that he is aware of a motive that would have turned Dorian into a killer he asks Dorian: I suppose they don't know your name at the theatre? [...] Did anyone see you going round to her room? (Wilde 79). Lord Henrys aim could be distracting Dorian from the questions the death raises concerning Lord Henry himself or he might actually be worried that Dorian is involved in Sibyls death.

Natascha Kracheel Dorians character has transformed noticeably throughout the play and Lord Henrys involvement in this change is undeniable. Dorians psyche is no longer whole but there is a chasm in his psyche (Parssinen 65). Sometimes he despises the portrait and himself, other times he feels the pride of individualism (Wilde 106) and the fascination of sin (106). Dorians transformation from a respected member of society to a dangerous individual is complete. Either due to Lord Henrys direct manipulation or due to Lord Henrys convincing beliefs, Dorian might have transformed and have decided to end Sibyls life. For reasons mentioned before Lord Henrys intention might have been convincing Dorian that Sibyl should not be part of his life any longer. Dorian could have reached this aim by ending the relationship to the actress or he could have ended her life on purpose. The reader has no means to know the real intentions of Lord Henry or Dorian. The text alludes to Dorians involvement in Sibyls death, too. Not only does the text mention Dorians familiarity with toxic substances and drugs as he muses about drug dens (There were opium-dens, where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of things that were new. (143)), but as Dorian returns from the theatre he also notices something new about his portrait the face appear[s] to him to be a little changed. [...] One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth (74) . At this point of the novel the reader is aware that sins and changes in Dorians character manifest in the portrait and could thus assume that Dorian is somehow responsible for Sibyls death. It is now obvious that Dorian has sinned but the reader can not know if his involvement in Sibyls death is an active or a passive one. Even if Dorian or Lord Henry were responsible for Sibyls death, however, a murderer would be hard to determine. If Dorian had killed Sibyl, Lord Henrys presence in Dorians life would have contributed to the events and Dorians transformation in character, so one could argue that both men would be responsible.

Natascha Kracheel Sibyls death is not the only death in The Picture of Dorian Gray that is surrounded by mysteries and unresolved questions, though. Dorians death also appears to be suicide but again certain passages of the text leave room for speculation. Dorian does not mention directly that he plans on destroying himself. He merely speaks about killing the past (Wilde 159) and wonders why he has kept the portrait for such a long time; he makes plans to destroy it. Assuming that Dorian Gray is aware of the fact that destroying the picture is equal to destroying and killing himself, he would have to accept that whoever would find him death would also discover his secret. The text makes it obvious however, that this is not Dorians intention. Before the actual event he ponders if he really [was] to confess? (158) and comes to the conclusion that he never (158) intends on doing this; possibly an indication that Dorian is not aware of the consequences that destroying the portrait will bring about. Another text passage supporting this thesis is Dorians conclusion that without [...] hideous warnings (159), the portrait, he would be at peace (159). Dorian is aware of his sins and cannot expect forgiveness in afterlife. Assuming Dorian intends on killing himself by stabbing the picture, would he not dread life after death instead of assuming he will be at peace (159)? Furthermore, the actual death of Dorian Gray is not described directly. The information about Dorians death is provided from the outside of the room. Noises and the servants perceptions are the only sources providing information for the minutes of Dorians death. Again the text leaves room for speculations. There was a cry heard, and a crash (159). The crash could be caused by either the sound of the painting crashing to the floor or Dorians body as he falls to the ground .Similarly to Lord Henrys account of Sibyls death, the reader has to rely on outsideinformation to find out how death was caused. 2.2 Importance of the incidents

Natascha Kracheel

2.2.1 Importance of the incidents for Dorian Gray Sibyls death not only serves the morality-play function but also leads to advancement in Dorians character (cf. Oates 426). Through Sibyls death Dorian ultimately becomes aware of the fact that he is unable to feel grief. Dorian expresses this discovery when he states that he [has] not been wounded (Wilde 80) by her death. Temporarily he also reaches his aim of mastering his conscience completely. By mystifying Sibyls death, describing it as the beauty of a Greek tragedy (80) he manages to calm himself and his conscience. Doing this leads to a further amplification of Dorians character changes, he is now even further detached from normal human emotions (Oates 427). Apart from the first emergence of Dorians lack of emotion, Sibyls death also leads to the first expression of evil by Dorian (Eklund19). Sibyls death marks the starting point for the emergence of several fatal changes in Dorians character. Sibyls first appearance was the beginning of Dorians burgeoning independence (Baldwin 26). Sibyls death not only marks a shift in Dorians emotions but also brings about a shift in the power structures of the characters relationships. Dorian no longer seeks to gain independence from Lord Henry because he has already begun to determine his own fate by ending the relationship to Sibyl. Sibyls death makes his decision final, theres no way back for Dorian. His character has transformed completely he does not need Lord Henrys advice as guidance any longer. This is not a turning point, however, but the advancement of a development that started when Lord Henry first met Dorian. Possibly it is also Lord Henrys original intention. Another development of Dorian is advanced by both deaths. As Dorian kills himself this is ultimate proof that his aim to achieve mastery over feeling (Felski 138) cannot be achieved permanently. As he tries to master and dominate his emotions the way he had

Natascha Kracheel learned it after Sibyls death he has to realize that what he did not want to happen, namely being dominated by his emotions (cf. Wilde 85), is what he becomes. Ultimately, his emotions and his sorrow become so unbearable that he seeks escape in suicide. This is yet another similarity uniting Sibyl and Dorian in death: neither Sibyl nor Dorian are masters of their emotions and thus choose the option of suicide. Other than Sibyl, Dorian is found dead by his servants. While Sibyls loved ones discover her death, Dorian is isolated in death; no loved ones are there to grieve. Dorians life before his last day had been dominated by outward appearances and good reputation. In death Dorian is alone; his life comes to a tragic ending. Sibyls end is more dignified. As an actress she sought the spotlight and succeeded, even in death- her story is covered by the media. Not her flaws are reported, but the tragic circumstances of her death. Dorians reputation, on the other hand, probably takes a turn for the worse after the discovery of his body and the tell-all portrait.

2.2.2 Importance of the incidences for the plot

As mentioned before, Sibyls death is in many ways a first step towards Dorians end. Dorians pleasure-seeking lifestyle (Eklund 1) manifests in both events and makes it clear that the practical reality (1) of this lifestyle ultimately leads to a downfall. Sibyls death should therefore not be seen as a turning-point of the plot but as advancement of the plot and the intended message of the novel in general. Sibyls death is the first indication that an extreme aesthetic lifestyle, living solely for pleasure and happiness, is not a lifestyle that should be promoted and lived. By indulging in this lifestyle (11) Dorian first causes Sibyls downfall, then he goes on living this way and brings about his own fall. One could argue that Dorians murder of the portrait, his suicide, [restores] the human soul to its rightful place

Natascha Kracheel (Felski 397). Sibyls soul is supposedly already in this rightful place (397) since she had been a mostly innocent girl (Baldwin 28) before she met Dorian. By ascribing both characters a certain place in the greater scheme of things, the events serve the function of a morality play with an ethically justifiably ending; Dorian is punished (Oates 421). Dorian and Sibyl both exist after their deaths. Dorian is still present in the form of his portrait and Sibyls story is covered by the media (Psomiades 186). This facilitates the assumption that both events are not meant to be seen as turning-points in the story of Dorian Gray but are part of an ongoing process. Dorians and Sibyls death are therefore not isolated events but part of a chain of events. Dorians death is the logical consequence of Sibyls tragic ending.

3. The Fascination of Sin and the Importance of Drawing a Line- The message conveyed by Sibyls and Dorians deaths, Part II Rsum
Concluding, one can say that both deaths, on the surface both presented as suicides, are actually caused by overwhelming emotions. These emotions, though they differ in their nature, result in pain and both characters, Sibyl and Dorian, seek to escape this pain by committing suicide. Problematic for the readers understanding of both deaths is the need to rely on information provided by a third party. The reader does not receive a first-hand account of the events. In Sibyls case the events are retold by Lord Henry Wotton who is not an objective reporter of the events in any case and in Dorians case the narrator and the servants provide information. Depending on the point of view the reader might take, Dorians death as well as Sibyls death can be seen as accidental (cf. Wilde 79) events or as planned suicide.

Natascha Kracheel However, both events are undoubtedly surrounded by mysterious circumstances, some questions are left unresolved. Another feature both deaths share is the manifestation of Dorians character developments. In the aftermath of Sibyls death his evil character traits and emotionless attitude towards tragic events are observed for the first time but they manifest throughout the following chapters, ultimately resulting in Dorians death. Moreover, both characters deaths can be regarded as the result of aestheticism gone wrong. The influence of Lord Wottons extreme lifestyle of absolute pleasure and indulgence corrupt Dorian and finally make Sibyl and Dorian victims of aestheticism (Sanders 484). What is different about the deaths that have been subject of this essays examinations though is the readers feeling of justice regarding the individual cause of death. While Dorians death has been described as restoring his soul to the rightful place (Felski 397) and may be seen as a rightful punishment for Dorian, Sibyls death seems more unjust. After all Sibyl dies young and tragically even though she has not committed sins as horrible as those committed by Dorian. Furthermore, as suggested by the title of this essay and the thesis in the introduction, Sibyls and Dorians deaths are both proof for the fascination of sin (Wilde 106). The fascination of sin (106) is the reason for both events. Dorians fascination results in sinful actions and in his cruelty towards Sibyl. Said cruelty then leads to Sibyls death and as the novel advances, Dorians realization of the sins fatality makes him commit suicide. Ultimately, both deaths are evidence that sin cannot be concealed (111). As explained before, Sibyls death leads to Dorians death. Rather than turning-points in the novels progress, they are part of a chain of events. The message that all events are

Natascha Kracheel trying to establish is the rejection of a hedonistic lifestyle and aestheticism taken to extreme. Dorians sins, committed under the influence of the aestheticist Lord Wotton, are consequentially punished in the form of Dorians death. Obviously the fascination of sin (Wilde 106) is turned into destruction and tragedy, making the novel an old-fashioned morality play (Oates 421).

Natascha Kracheel

Works Cited
Baldwin, Stanley P. Cliffs Notes on Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray. Hoboken. Wiley. 2000.Cliffs Notes. Eklund, Rosanna. The Evil in Dorian Gray: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Protagonist in The Picture of Dorian Gray. 09 March 2011. <> Felski, Rita. The Counterdiscourse of the Feminine in Three Texts by Wilde, Huysmans, and Sacher-Masoch. PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 5 (Oct., 1991), pp. 1094-1105. 9 March 2011.<> . Lawler L. Donald and Charles E. Knott. The Context of Invention: Suggested Origins of "Dorian Gray" . Modern Philology, Vol. 73, No. 4, Part 1 (May, 1976), pp. 389-398. 398.9 March 2011. <>. Moncur, Michael. Oscar Wilde. The Quotations Page. n.d. 13 March 2011.<>. Oates, Joyce Carol. "The Picture of Dorian Gray". Wilde's Parable of the Fall. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter, 1980), pp. 419-428. 9 March 2011. < . > Parssinen, Terry M. Secret Passions, Secret Remedies. Narcotic Drugs in British Society, 1820-1930. Manchester. Manchester UP. 1983. Psomiades, Kathy Alexis. Beauty`s Body. Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism. Stanford. Stanford UP. 1997. Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. 3rd ed. Oxford.Oxford UP. 2004. Print. Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Merlin Holland. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.5th ed. London. Harper Collins, 2003. Collins Classics.