Dorian Gray has just learnt that his former fiancée, Sibyl Vane, has committed suicide. She was a young actress he had fallen in love with. However, on the evening before this extract, when he took his friends Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton to see her play the female lead in Romeo and Juliet, she turned out a terrible performance which disappointed and humiliated him. Immediately after the play, he broke their engagement in stinging terms. When he got back home, he noticed that a portrait of him painted by Hallward had changed, which made him realize he had been cruel to the girl. Consequently, he decided to make it up with the young woman. The next morning, however, Lord Henry brings him the news of Sibyl’s death.

            I will first deal with the way in which Dorian takes it in, then with Lord Henry’s attitude toward Dorian.

            At first, Dorian is amazed that life can go on after Sibyl’s death. How can something that turns our personal world upside down not affect the world at large? This reaction to this “mystery” of the universe is a very common one: speeches putting side by side the horrible and the beautiful aspects of life, the way Dorian’s does, abound in literary history.

What is special about Dorian is that he takes the blame for Sibyl’s death: she took her life because he had abandoned her, so he can say “I have murdered Sibyl Vane.” Nevertheless, his stance on Sibyl’s death appears ambiguous: he also refers to the previous night’s events as something that happened “to me,” as if his role in them was a passive one, or as if he was not directly involved in them. It seems Dorian thinks of himself as belonging with the lovely roses and the happily singing birds in his garden rather than the Sibyl Vanes of the world. Among the disturbingly undisturbed elements of the world, he indeed mentions his going to the opera and the restaurant on that very day.

In fact, something else weighs on Dorian’s mind. He tells Lord Henry “Suddenly something happened that made me afraid. I can’t tell you what it was, but it was terrible.” He also alludes to “this thing that has happened.” He has realized that his picture had taken another expression than the one Hallward had painted. He knows that his wish that the picture might grow old in his place whereas his appearance should never change has been granted. This explains Dorian’s fearful, almost desperate cry: “You don’t know the danger I am in, and there is nothing to keep me straight. She would have done that for me.” If Sibyl had not died, Dorian could have atoned for his cruelty towards her and therefore restored his image.

However Sibyl is dead, so that the cruel image of Dorian she projects back to him has frozen. As a consequence, Dorian turns to Lord Henry in order that his friend send him another, more favourable image.

Lord Henry displays his characteristic cynicism. His duet with Dorian is in a way reminiscent of a current type of scene in baroque drama, in which one starry-eyed character, generally a young woman, expresses her romantic notion of love, which another, often an older woman, counteracts, systematically substituting the harsh truth of married life to “love’s young dream” to borrow Thomas Moore’s famous phrase.

This is exactly what Lord Henry does in paragraph two, in which he turns inside out Dorian’s exalted dream of redemption through Sibyl. Lord Henry’s picture is probably not far from the truth when he says Dorian is “absolutely indifferent to her.” The young man does say “She had no right to kill herself. It was selfish of her.” Of course, this is highly ironic since nothing could be more selfish than this very sentence.

With the same flippant wit, Lord Henry does away with “good resolutions,” which for him “are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws,” since men behave according to the laws of nature, to the laws of their passions, not according to good resolutions which are therefore “cheques that men draw on a bank where they have no account.” Morality is an illusion at which Lord Henry deals a final blow when he equates “heart” with foolishness: “You have done too many foolish things during the last fortnight to be entitled to give yourself that name,” meaning “heartless.” There is here a syllogism implied: a) having a heart is being foolish, b) you are foolish, c) therefore you are not heartless.

Nevertheless, Lord Henry’s cynicism does not take Dorian as its object, since it helps the young man get rid of any sense of guilt he might have had for Sibyl’s death. Thinking about Lord Henry’s last remark, he says: “I don’t like that explanation, Harry,” probably because of the deep immorality of Lord Henry’s attitude to life (or maybe just because Dorian does not like being told that he has done foolish things). However, Lord Henry is right: morality has little weight where the human psyche is concerned. “I don’t like that explanation, Harry, (…) but I am glad you don’t think I am heartless.” In other words, “your views may be wrong but I will embrace it because it gives me a good self-image, it tells me what I want to hear.”

What it tells Dorian is that he needn’t bother about the picture and the less flattering tale it tells him about himself. Dorian wants to think he is not guilty of Sibyl’s tragedy, but he is a victim: “It is not my fault that this terrible tragedy has prevented my doing what was right.” He is even Sibyl’s victim: she was “selfish” to kill herself, depriving him of the opportunity to return his portrait to its original untarnished beauty. To the end, Sibyl is another mirror image of Dorian.

Dorian is ready to accept the flattering image Lord Henry gives him of himself: that of an artwork, and indeed he has in a way become a picture, since his unchanging appearance is that of his portrait. This is why he exclaims: “How extraordinarily dramatic life is!” His life appears to him not so much as real-life but as “a Greek tragedy,” and Sibyl’s death is “simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play.” Of course, in “wonderful” we may read “beautiful,” but the dominant shade of meaning is that of “unreal.” Indeed, Dorian is losing touch with reality. Already at the beginning of the extract his sense of time is blurred: “was it really only last night?” he asks. He says he loved Sibyl “once,” as if it were part of a distant past (“it seems years ago”), while his love was cut short only the evening before. Of course, this is something we all experience when we live upsetting events. However, Dorian also states that “I cannot feel this tragedy as much as I want to” and “this thing that has happened does not affect me as it should.” In addition, he wonders at the fact that his “first passionate love-letter should have been addressed to a dead girl.” Clearly, Dorian does not belong in the real world any more.