Ethics vs. Aesthetics – the Role of Art in Sibyl’s Life and in Dorian’s Portrait

Something that really stood out to me while reading The Picture of Dorian Gray was the curious figure of Sibyl Vane, who appears only shortly as Dorian’s “great love,” but who just as quickly disappears when she commits suicide. After Sibyl performs badly in the play, Dorian immediately loses all love for her: “He flung himself down on the sofa, and turned away his face. ‘You have killed my love,’ he muttered.” (84) What is it that triggers such an immediate response of disgust in Dorian?

In the introduction found in the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, Robert Mighall addresses this curious relationship between Dorian and Sibyl, analyzing the significance of Sibyl as an actress. According to Mighall, Sibyl is an artificial character in the novel – in a sense, she is an actress not only in the story, but also in the novel itself. She is “living in a fairy-tale world,” in which Dorian becomes her real-life “Prince Charming,” and her sole existence occurs on the stage (xxvi):

“‘To-night she is Imogen,’ [Dorian] answered, ‘and to-morrow night she will be Juliet.’

‘When is she Sibyl Vane?’

‘Never.'” (54)

Dorian is “in love with Sibyl’s acting rather than the women herself.” (xxv) For Dorian, Sibyl is an archetype of art – therefore, Dorian’s love of Sibyl is not an emotional love, but an aesthetic love, which can be connected to the theme of Aestheticism that runs throughout the entire novel. According to Aestheticism, ethics and aesthetics are distinct from each other and can’t coexist. This can be seen when Sibyl acts in “Romeo and Juliet” just before she commits suicide – she weaves her love for Dorian into her role of Juliet, intermingling reality with art:

“(…) Dorian, before I met you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. (…) The painted scenes were my world. (…) You came – oh, my beautiful love! – and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is.” (84)

Sibyl’s failure to act well when introduced to reality, as well as her suicide immediately after, are a testament to the Aesthetic notion that art and ethics are opposites, and that “art is destroyed by life and morality, and that ethics and aesthetics belong to separate spheres of thought and judgment.” (xxvii) One could extend this theory of the separation between ethics and aesthetics to the portrait of Dorian Gray – in “real life,” Dorian is an aesthetic version of himself, a handsome man whose beauty remains intact forever, while the portrait is a moral version of himself, a face that becomes more and more corrupted with every sinful act he does. In an interesting reversal, Dorian becomes the “art,” while the portrait becomes the ethical and moral judgment.

One thought on “Ethics vs. Aesthetics – the Role of Art in Sibyl’s Life and in Dorian’s Portrait”

  1. Interesting post about the differences and intersections between art, reality, love, and aesthetics. Your point reminds me of some of the background reading on the Michael Field persona entitled “Michael Field, the Poet”. This article about the lives of the two women behind the pen name Michael Field states “The creative ferment that was “Michael Field” stemmed from an aesthetic programme that proclaimed the primacy of art over life. They thought go the world aesthetically, and consciously made their lives subservient to art– to Michael Field” (23). I wonder if the two women, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, were in a way doing a sort of “acting” reminiscent of Sibyl Vane from Dorian Gray.

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