Dorian’s Decadence and Desire

When Dorian Gray rejects and verbally abuses Sybil Vane after her one (and only, may I add) horrendous performance, he declares that she has killed his love: “I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadow of art….You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name” (85). In short, Sybil’s bad acting in the role of Juliet ripped the rose colored glasses off of Dorian Gray’s vision of her. Without her artistry, and her decadence, she is nothing to him. He really drives his cruelty home with the repeated use of “never,” which is really just very dramatic for the moment—afterwards, he still thinks of her and even contemplates returning, but it is these words that deliver Sybil to death’s door.

Much like Dorian is objectified by Basil and Lord Henry, the objectification of Sybil Vane is even more severe. For Dorian, she was just an object of artistry and desire. For Basil and Lord Henry, when they see her, she is only a pretty thing, and she is not even described as human to them: “the curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily. Her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory” (81). This objectification of the woman places further emphasis on the idea of materiality and decadence in the Victorian era, as Sybil here is placed among the men’s collection of exotic objects—alongside the Japanese tea table and Georgian urn, as well as Dorian himself (unbeknownst to him). With the decline of Queen Victoria’s reign, the people of England developed all consuming anxiety about the state of their affairs, looking to the accumulation of wealth and beautiful things to drown their feelings. Now lacking intellect and genius, Sybil no longer upholds Dorian Gray’s upper class standards of decadence, despite her remaining beauty. Theater itself is a decadent industry, and Dorian even expressed his desire to exploit Sybil’s image as an actress with his own fancier, more refined theater production geared towards a higher class audience. Without theater, Sybil lacks any valid substance for Dorian, who loves to collect pretty, decadent things.

This scene of The Picture of Dorian Gray relates to Lionel Johnson’s poem “A Decadent’s Lyric” in the subject matter and form. Decadence is demonstrated in the poem through alliteration and rhyme, as well as the repetition of “she and I.” Dorian’s dismissal of Sybil is decadent in its word choice, repeating “never” and using words with grander meanings such as “marvellous,” “genius,” and “intellect.” The same can be said for Johnson’s poem with the alliterations of “ardour and agony” and “desire, delirium, delight,” all of which are strong words on their own.

The “she” of the poem is attributed to a sense of performance, just as Sybil is an actress: “Her body music is: and ah, / The accords of lute and viola!” Like Sybil, without the artistry and musicality that this woman exudes, there is no performance, and there is no sex. It bolsters the act with the idea of romance. Johnson’s poem begins with the idea of the “very joy of shame,” as sexual acts were often seen as immoral at the time, but goes on to justify such thinking in the idea of decadence—if something is beautiful, it’s okay to indulge. Selfishness is justified as it demonstrates one’s appreciation for art, which is a major aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray overall. Dorian is really quite selfish in his disposal of Sybil Vane, as he does so without any sympathy for her feelings and merely scowls at her. His foul treatment of Sybil is validated by both Dorian and Lord Henry, who claims that such behavior, which resulted in her suicide, returned her to her art form by aligning her own life with a melodrama to mirror that of Shakespeare’s Juliet.

In both Johnson’s poem and Wilde’s character of Dorian Gray, decadence is used as a form of legitimization for one’s shameful actions.

4 thoughts on “Dorian’s Decadence and Desire”

  1. I like how you compare the way Dorian and Sibyl are objectified by Lord Henry and Basil. It is fascinating because Dorian goes on to objectify Sibyl as well, because he cannot see the negative impact it has had on his own life thus far. As well, your point about the objectification being worse because Sibyl is a woman reminded me of how Dorian is also described in feminine terms. I wonder if this is the way the novel linguistically differentiates a “womanly” figure from that of a “manly” one, by using sensual words to talk about them.

  2. I like how you compare Sybil without decadent acting, to the artistry of the woman in Johnson’s poem. Without Sybil’s stellar acting, you say: “there is no performance,” and without the musicality, “there is no sex.” It is interesting to consider how when Sybil acted poorly, the show went on. The performance happened, it just did not happen with her level of talent and she blended in with the other poor actors around her. To that extent, without musicality, does sex become more or less immoral and enticing to decadent people (like Dorian, or Henry)?

  3. Good observation with the way Sybil is described in comparison to beautiful inanimate objects. It definitely creates the impression that she is being observed as a decoration and nothing more

  4. I also think that with decadence, it is easy for characters like Lord Henry and Dorian Gray to argue that everything can and should be done with sensation in mind, and that if something does not instigate sensations, then there is no point in it existing. This goes back to Oscar Wilde’s prelude in that there is a heavy focus on beautiful things, and that finding “beautiful meanings in beautiful things” is to be cultivated, whereas you should be considered corrupt if an ugly meaning is found in something that should only be appreciated for its beauty.

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