The New Woman – Sybil and Irene

In the Portrait of Dorian Gray, a notable moment in the story is the suicide of Sybil Vane as a result of her relationship with Dorian. As we see from their interactions, Sybil is a talented actress who Dorian falls in love with for her ability to completely portray the characters she becomes. Because of this love she loses her natural talent which pushes Dorian to fall out of love with her. No longer having her art or her newfound love, she kills herself. One of concepts created during the fin de siécle is the New Woman, which promotes an independence for woman in a male-dominated society. In a way, Sybil perfectly represents this figure because she has found her passion in acting and a career as an actress. Doing all without the traditional pathway of marriage and love showcases her agency and ability to create a life for herself during this time period. I believe there is a deeper meaning in the fact that the moment she meets Dorian and falls in love, her life goes downhill. Although it is a drastic symbolism, Sybil’s suicide denotes the affect a partner and love can have on a person.

When looking at Sybil’s situation through the lens of Irene Adler from the Sherlock Holmes stories, an interesting comparison can be made. Irene is one of the only people to have bested Sherlock Holmes, who is promoted as a character with a natural genius, and isn’t placed as a romantic foil for him. Irene is also a great example of the New Woman because of her pushback against traditional values. For example, her crossdressing directly signifies a disregard for how a woman should be during this time period. What challenges all of this is that in the end she still gets married. Even to look back at Romance of a Shop, after their journey of independence, the sisters still end up getting married and having children.

These different examples of female characters and their experiences placed during the time period of the fin de siecle make me question what statement the authors were attempting to make about the New Woman. Would it be better to focus on your passion and reject marriage to avoid the disappointment of love like Sybil? Or form your own path in life while choosing marriage at your own discretion like Irene? Either way I think both of these characters push forward thinking about what the New Woman truly signifies. It would be interesting to connect this thought process to how modern day feminism has developed from this early concept.

2 thoughts on “The New Woman – Sybil and Irene”

  1. This was such an interesting blog post! I wonder if Micheal Field, Katherine & Edith, would be classified from the modern perspective as proto feminist for simply wanting to publish their work. Or would one have to take into consideration their unique lifestyle omitted from male control and dominance where they lived under the guise of feminine “friendship.” The New Woman movement spurred a rise in women seeking to engage in the public sphere. All living and non-living female trailblazers surrounded by these texts such as, Sybil, Irene, and Micheal Field, would all participate within the public sphere, previously thought of as the male sphere.

  2. Dear harrimas,
    your application of the new woman to Irene Adler is certainly correct. It illuminates how Irene Adler functions as an unusual character written during a century where women were at the bottom of socio-political order. I have to wonder though, is Sybil actually a part of this New Woman concept? Because you write that sybil’s situation can be viewed through the lens of Irene Adler yet the only similarity is that they both fall in love and express interest in marriage. Rather than the new woman, perhaps it makes more sense to think about how Sybil exemplifies the aestheticism of the 19th century in her materialistic views of Dorian

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