Sibyl Vane: What’s In a Name?

A name contains a wealth of meaning, especially in this case. Sibyl Vane is a relatively minor character in Dorian Gray – or seems to be at first. She is Dorian’s first love, a wonderful actress he insists on marrying despite their large status gap. However, his rejection of her after her lackluster performance as Juliet ends up beginning his descent into sin – her suicide after his rejection is the first sin to mar the painting that reflects his soul. With that in mind, the name given to this actress – Sibyl Vane – suddenly reveals the importance of her role.

According to the OED, the word Sibyl means: 1. one or other certain women of antiquity who were reputed to possess powers of prophecy and divination; 2. A prophetess; a fortune-teller, a witch (OED).

As an actress, Sibyl is described as “divine beyond all living things. When she acts you will forget everything” (79). This description sounds like Sibyl casting a spell over the audience with her ability to act – aligning with the “witch” aspect of her name.

She “move[s] like a creature from a finer world” (81), fitting for a prophetess chosen by the gods (usually Apollo, the god of foresight) to see the future; thus, someone connected to deities and not fully of this earth.

Ironically, as someone who is supposed to see more clearly than the rest of the world, Sibyl explains “It was only in the theatre that I lived. I thought that it was all true. I was Rosalind for one night, and Portia the other…The painted scenes were my world” (84). However, Dorian’s love “taught her what reality is [and she] saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant” (84). In continuing the irony, the role she finally acted falsely was Juliet – and by the end of the night, Sibyl commits suicide after the death of her love (that is, the rejection from Dorian) just as Juliet does. Sibyl’s last role foretold the manner of her death – that is, a prophecy. Fitting for a Sibyl.

Sibyl’s last name, Vane, is also important. A vane is: 1a. A plate of metal, usually of an ornamental form, fixed at an elevation upon a vertical spindle, so as to turn readily with the wind and show the direction from which this is blowing; a weather-cock; 1b. (fig): An unstable or constantly changing person or thing (OED) (the bold is my addition, for emphasis).

On a literal level, Sibyl Vane is an actress, constantly changing her identity; night to night she is different Shakespearean female leads – “Rosalind for one night, and Portia the other” (84)).

On a metaphorical level, Dorian’s treatment of Miss Vane is overly cruel, marking the beginning of the downward spiral (or slippery slope, whichever metaphor you prefer) of his demise. His callous treatment leads to her suicide, staining his soul irredeemably and indicating the beginning of the end. Miss Vane is the metaphorical wind vane revealing the direction the wind of Dorian Gray’s fate is blowing.

Names have power. Sibyl Vane’s name gave her the power to suggest the course of people’s fates – both her own and that of Dorian Gray.

One thought on “Sibyl Vane: What’s In a Name?”

  1. I find this comparison interesting, especially since Sybil Trelawney’s name in Harry Potter indicates aspects of her character, like here. I agree that Wilde’s choice to name Dorian’s love interest “Sybil” both labels her as an indicator of change and coming misfortunes, but also contrasts nicely with the shallow, conceded social sphere in which the novel operates. Who would think that a spiritually in-touch person would exist in Dorian’s life? That’s too “deep” for Wilde’s character. But given Sybil’s fate, the name seems more apt and reveals more about the thoughtfulness hidden behind seemingly thoughtless characters.

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