Is Dorian Insane?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, should Dorian be omitted from the blame for his participation in Sibyl Vane’s suicide? Is he clinically insane? Does he understand the awareness that his actions/thinking are wrong? The narrative this novel seems to hold is that Dorian genuinely believes he is a good person who has done no wrong (up until the point where he kills Basil). Dorian can feel emotions of ecstasy or elation when he is complimented and questions his, “secret pleasure, at the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden that should have been his own” (Wilde 119). The dreamlike, detailed, and flowery language of this scene almost sets it up to be read as illusory, Dorian’s words can’t be trusted to reflect his honest emotions. Here we can notice a moment of slight remorse and guilt where Dorian acknowledges he is doing a wrong deed by not reflecting/working through his emotions. However, Dorian chooses to bury his emotions in the painting to deal with and rot.  

The death of Sibyl paired with Dorian’s selfish wrongdoings physically alter the painting and marks the beginning of the end for Dorian. Dorian did feel slight remorse for Sibly initially on his own accord before speaking with Lord Henry about his conflicting feelings. Although Lord Henry was not present for Dorian and Sibyl’s last conversation, he sure does have a lot to say when relieving Dorian’s guilty conscience. Lord Henry reasons Sibly, “never really lived, and so she has never really died… don’t waste your tears over Sibyl Vane. She was less real than they are” (Wilde 89). ‘They’ meaning all the Shakespearean female lead characters she performed at the theater, such as Juliet, Ophelia, or Cordelia. Not only does Lord Henry dehumanize Sibyl to fictional characters, but he succeeds in relinquishing Dorian of any guilt for his wickedness towards Sibyl. What I really am trying to say here is: do these scenes illuminate a sort of ambivalence in taking a stance on whether Dorian is aware of the calamity of his actions in Sibyl’s death, and should he be absolved from them? The unreliable, hedonistic protagonist (+ antagonist?) demonstrates an ability to question his emotions but makes a conscious choice to bury them deep down. He can, at the very least, begin to understand his implication in Sibyl’s death before his best friend and idol, Lord Henry, guides him otherwise.

4 thoughts on “Is Dorian Insane?”

  1. I really like how you point out that Lord Henry is so determined to brush off Dorian’s guilt for Sibyl’s death. I find it very interesting how much Sibyl has in common with the Shakespeare heroines she portrays. All of these heroines die because of a man. Juliet kills herself because she can’t live without Romeo. Hamlet drives Ophelia to insanity and she commits suicide. Edmund orders Cordelia to be hanged for helping her defenseless father. Having Sibyl portray these heroines feels like Oscar Wilde’s way of implying it may be the man, in this case Dorian’s fault, for Sibyl’s death. I also find it interesting how Lord Henry earlier in the book adored Sibyl’s beauty and didn’t value her for anything else, but now that she’s dead he doesn’t value her at all, not even for her beauty.

  2. I thought what you looked into was interesting because I was baffled by just how much Dorian Gray can justify Sybials’s death and Basil’s death. I would argue that the guilt he feels is more physical and fearful than actual care for the friend he killed. I think that would be something good to add to this because they mirror how he and Lord Henry justified Sibyl’s death I also think that when Dorian is considering Basil after he killed him he is quite unsympathetic in a much quicker way than he way with Sybil which shows his moral decline.

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post and pondering Dorian’s mental state throughout the novel. One scene that I think could be interesting to weave into your argument is in Chapter XIII after Dorian kills Basil. The narrator describes how Dorian opened the door and “did not even glance at the murdered man.” Referring to Basil as the “murdered man” instead of “Basil” or “Basil’s body” suggests a disassociation or distance between Dorian and his act of killing Basil that one could argue is related to his mental state at the time of the murder.

  4. Dear Teti,
    I’m so glad you pointed out Sybil Vane’s death and the passage where Lord Henry compares her to the female leads of Shakespeare’s plays. I think you make great points but there’s one part where I would like to offer a different reading. In the second half, you write that “Lord Henry dehumanize[s] Sibyl to fictional characters…” There’s more to this than the dehumanization (which you are totally right for saying). Here’s a question that will help you begin to understand why Lord Henry references these characters: What do Juliet, Ophelia, and Cordelia all have in common? Besides the obvious, they all tragically perish due to love. Juliet kills herself as a declaration of her love because she can’t stand to be without Romeo. Ophelia also commits suicide due to romantic complexities caused by her lover Hamlet and the men in her family. Lastly, Cordelia is hanged when she is the only one who truly loves King Lear (her father). As Shakespeare’s characters, their deaths are tragic and result from very legitamte reasons. But in that passage, Lord Henry is saying that Sybil merely played those characters as someone performing in the sphere of art. Thus, she was artificial which makes her love was artificial.

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