The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

A month later Dorian is sitting in Henry's library, waiting for Henry. Lady Victoria Wotton, Henry's wife, enters. Dorian refers to her as Lady Henry; using her husband's name in this way was common for the time. She says she would recognize Dorian from the 17 photos her husband has of him and because she had caught sight of him at an opera he attended with Lord Henry. Dorian shares an opinion of the music, which Lady Henry recognizes as one of her husband's opinions. She notes that she regularly hears his opinions quoted by other people.

Henry enters. Once his wife leaves Henry talks dismissively of marriage. This leads to Dorian's sharing his news: he's in love with an actress named Sibyl Vane. Dorian claims she's a genius. Henry says no woman is a genius and asks Dorian how he met her. Dorian had been walking through London, looking for an adventure, when a "hideous Jew" lured him into an unimpressive theater. There Dorian watched a production of Romeo and Juliet. Most of the production was unimpressive, but Sibyl, Dorian says, was genius. Since then he's gone to the theater to watch her in different roles. He loves her, and he loves the fact that she's an actress, that she plays so many roles, and that she is never just Sibyl Vane.

When Henry asks Dorian to describe his relationship to Sibyl, Dorian is offended. They have met—they met on the third night Dorian went to the theater—but they aren't involved yet. He says Sibyl is very innocent, and she calls him "Prince Charming." Henry watches Dorian talk about Sibyl, and thinks about how much he has changed. Dorian wants Henry and Basil to meet Sibyl. Once Dorian leaves, Henry sits alone and thinks about Dorian in love, treating him as an "interesting study." When he gets home, he finds a telegram waiting from Dorian saying he and Sibyl are to be married.

Analysis

Wilde never explicitly explains Lady Henry's nervousness around Dorian. However, since she comments on her husband's 17 pictures of Dorian, at least part of it seems to be jealousy. She is nervous to be around someone her husband adores (whether they are having sex or not). This jealousy seems at least somewhat justified since Lord and Lady Henry are clearly such a bad match. He is stylish, witty, and always in control. She lives in her illusions and is untidy. Theirs is not a deep or happy marriage, and Henry's dismissive comments after his wife leaves document this.

The male characters in this novel inhabit a largely homosocial world, of all men. However, Henry's disregard for Sibyl Vane's genius—and his disparagement of women in general—at times tips over into active misogyny on his part.

As for Dorian's love, several points about it are essential. First, Henry's influence on Dorian is at the root of it. The things Henry said to Dorian the first time they met filled him, Dorian says, with a "wild desire to know everything about life." That set him walking the streets in search of experience, and those walks led him to the theater where he met Sibyl. Second, the context in which Dorian meets Sibyl is exceedingly picturesque: in the middle of a tawdry theater, Dorian finds beauty and innocence. This is straight out of a romance novel or a syrupy greeting card. Next, though this is not long after they've met, Dorian is already starting to sound like Henry, especially when he delivers lines such as, "Ordinary women never appeal to one's imagination. They are limited to their century." Dorian's attitude toward women is becoming as mean spirited as Henry's.

And of course this chapter powerfully develops Wilde's themes of the conflict between appearance and reality and between art and life. Sibyl is a particularly striking example of these themes because of how she fuses the two sides of each theme. Sibyl is especially attractive to Dorian because she's an actress. She plays a part. Her life is art, and changing her appearance is a fundamental and daily part of her reality. For all that Dorian sounds exceptionally young when he's talking about her, his comments are also profound. If one accepts that actors connect with other times and characters through their art, then there really would be something special about them.

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