I will first study Sibyl’s justification, focusing on lines 1 to 54. In a second part, I will deal with Dorian’s reaction, which is the object of lines 55 to last.
Sibyl’s speech relies on two oppositions: one between acting and reality, the other between her life before Dorian and her life since she met him. “Before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life,” the young actress tells her lover. She didn’t know herself from the parts she played: “I was Rosalind one night and Portia the other.” For this reason, she could not distinguish between the feelings she actually experienced and the ones that she pretended to have: “The joy of Beatrice was my joy, and the sorrows of Cordelia were mine also.”
She now seems to think that this was all a state of confusion: “I thought that it was all true,” which implies that she does not think so any more, that she now considers her former self as mistaken, which is confirmed by this sentence: “I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real,” much like Plato’s prisoners in the allegory of the cave (Republic, book 7). Her relation to art was not just the “willing suspension of disbelief” as Coleridge famously put it: she did not choose to pretend she thought it was real because she actually thought it was.
Dorian is the liberating force who enabled her to know reality from fiction: “You came – oh, my beautiful love! – and you freed my soul from prison,” she tells him. The world has not changed, only now she sees it differently, she sees it as it really is: “I saw through the hollowness.” “You taught me what reality really is,” she goes on. The repetition, the tautology even, in this sentence is very important because it lays emphasis on the unadulterated purity of reality as she now sees it, as opposed to the confusion that previously prevailed in her mind. This revelation marks a turning-point in her life: “to-night, for the first time,” she says twice.
Moreover, Sibyl finds reality much more palatable than fiction: “I became conscious that the Romeo was hideous, and old, and painted, that the moonlight in the orchard was false, that the scenery was vulgar.” For her, the stage is “hollowness” and “sham,” and life is greater than plays: “You are more to me than all art can ever be,” she tells Dorian.
Consequently, she is not willing to “suspend her disbelief” any more: “What have I to do with the puppets of a play?” she asks. Reality is even sacred to her, since she says it would amount to “profanation” to counterfeit it by acting. This is why she vows “I shall never act well again” and has “an expression of infinite joy” when she proudly says “How badly I acted to-night.” To her mind her inadequate acting is evidence that she has become real instead of playing a part.
For Dorian, however, her being proud of her bad acting is paradoxical, even impossible to understand. “‘Understand what?’ he asked, angrily.” The only explanation that he can think of and which was kindly suggested by Basil Hallward is “You are ill.” Sibyl’s descent from the wonders of art to reality deprives her of any charm she might have had: “You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect.” Sibyl’s terrible acting was the triumph of reality on stage, for Dorian an unforgivable failure which he is now going to punish by a converse process: his speech in the second part of the text, which I will now turn to, marks the triumph of art in the real world.
Contrary to Sibyl, Dorian is drawn to the beauty of art rather than the solidity of reality: “I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art.” What he loved in her was not Sibyl but the actress. “When you are ill you shouldn’t act,” he tells her, not out of consideration for her welfare but because she “make[s] [her]self ridiculous”. It is not even the actress he used to love but the parts she played. “She is all the great heroines of the world in one,” as he said in chapter 4. Dorian was in love with Sibyl not for what she was but for what she represented to him: the wonderful beauty of art. Conversely, “without [her] art, [she is] nothing.”
Now that Dorian is forced to see Sibyl not as a collection of great characters rolled into one but as herself, that is to say “a third-rate actress with a pretty face,” he is appalled by the idea that he may have loved her: “Oh, I can’t bear to think of it! I wish I had never laid eyes upon you!”
Because Sibyl does not conform to the image Dorian had of her, he can tell her: “you have killed my love.” Having one’s ideal destroyed is probably the worst thing in the world that can ever happen to one, so Dorian obviously wants to punish Sibyl for this crime by a similar destruction: “You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name.” He exercises a stinging irony in the last line of the extract, “Acting! I leave that to you. You do it so well,” which is clearly meant to mercilessly and cruelly humiliate the young woman.
However, the reason why Dorian wants to humiliate her is no doubt that he himself feels humiliated by his chosen idol turning out to be “shallow and stupid.” The degradation of Dorian’s image of Sibyl implies the degradation of his self-image because he can’t help thinking “what a fool [he has] been” to love her.
To conclude, I would like to pursue this train of thought and stress the identification relationship between Dorian and Sibyl.
At the beginning of this extract, Sibyl thinks Dorian understands her without needing any explanation. Although she is totally mistaken, Dorian speaks of Sibyl’s failure on the stage as a humiliation and a suffering for him, not her. They seem to be mirror images of each other: similar and yet reverse. In addition, just as Sibyl inspired in Dorian an artistic passion, he has awakened in her a passion for reality. Significantly, Sibyl’s “awakening” as she describes it in this passage echoes Dorian’s “awakening” scene when he discovers his portrait in chapter 2. In both cases, the cause of the “awakening” is the same: it is Dorian. Sibyl has fallen for Dorian just as Dorian had fallen in love with his own image. However, the effect is opposite. When Dorian first sees himself in his portrait, he becomes aware of beauty, of art. On the contrary, when Sibyl knows Dorian, she discovers reality.
Moreover, Dorian’s relationship to Sibyl stands in stark contrast to his relationship with Basil. They are the two artists he has come into close contact with. Both have been transformed and inspired by him, but in two opposite ways: Basil has been inspired into new artistic heights whereas Sibyl has been inspired into sacrificing her artistic gift. Because of him, Basil has painted his best pictures, while Sibyl has done her worst acting.
Ultimately, Sibyl will die because Dorian wants her to: since he takes his love away from her, she will commit suicide. Dorian will then discover an expression of cruelty in his portrait: so the change of his image of Sibyl will entail the change of his self-image. In other words, although (or because?) she is “Sibyl Vane,” the prophetess/seeress (“sibyl”) whose prophecy is “vain,” disappointing or deceiving, she will help reveal Dorian to himself. In this respect too, she is a mirror image of “Dorian Gray,” whose first name, like Sibyl’s, points to Greek antiquity, and who emits a “grey” or colourless, undefined and malleable image.