Bassler 1 Kimberly Bassler LeCorre-Cochran ENGL-2604 18 Oct. 2010 A Decorative Sex Near the beginning of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry states, “Women are a decorative sex” (47). Despite this claim, women appear frequently throughout the novel to interact with main characters. Sibyl Vane’s beauty and talent captivate Dorian Gray immediately, ultimately leaving a lasting impression on his character. Mrs. Leaf serves as Dorian’s faithful housekeeper. The Lady Narborough enters the story as an intelligent woman, full of wit and charm, who flirts with Dorian and Henry at dinner parties. Likewise, the attractive, flirtatious Duchess of Monmouth playfully challenges Dorian and Lord Henry’s philosophies on life. The mysterious woman at the opium den plays a crucial role in exposing Dorian Gray’s identity and nearly sealing his fate. Still, Oscar Wilde’s female characters continue to reflect Lord Henry’s statement throughout the novel. Even though certain women appear at pivotal points throughout the story, the role women truly play in the novel remains ambiguous. Sibyl Vane first appears as a beautiful, talented actress. She captures the essence of Juliet in her plays and seems to embody the qualities of a true artist. Dorian Gray practically falls in love with the mere Bassler 2 sight of her on stage. Though Sibyl plays an important role in the downfall of Dorian Gray, as an individual character she still supports Lord Henry’s claim. Though she is beautiful, she possesses one major flaw. Sybil lacks a grasp on reality, as evidenced by her sudden obsession with a man whose name she does not bother to learn. She simply knows Dorian as “Prince Charming” (59). One night after a showing at the theater, Sibyl falls in love with the idea of Dorian, not his true self, and Dorian has already done the same with her. She even tells Dorian the theater was her reality before she met him (84). Unable to exist outside the fiction of her plays, she commits suicide. After Sibyl’s death, Dorian and Lord Henry even speak of her as though she existed only in fiction. Dorian recalls, “She regarded me merely as a person in a play” (53). Dorian turns her death into a beautiful tragedy, romanticizing it much as Sibyl did with their relationship (102). These parallels made between reality and fiction leave one with the impression that Sibyl could not live in reality. Her existence seems fleeting and superficial, creating little, if any, depth for her character. Though Sibyl’s mother seems more practical, she lives completely in her plays. Her grasp on reality proves even less firm than Sibyl’s. Each of Mrs. Vane’s interactions with others becomes a scene to dramatize. She has both literally and figuratively lived in the theater most of her life. As a result, she, like Sibyl, romanticizes everything. Mrs. Vane, however, takes Bassler 3 Sibyl’s inability to live outside the stage even further. Everything she does and every conversation she has becomes just another scene to her. When Sibyl comes to tell her mother she has fallen in love with Dorian Gray, Mrs. Vane’s theatrics become evident. She gives her daughter a look an actress would give in a scene (61). Clearly, Mrs. Vane acts in her day-today life, never sustaining herself in reality. While speaking to Jim, she even looks for her audience as though delivering a line in a play (63). She cannot escape the theater. As a result, her character seems limited and superficial. She almost does not seem real. Mrs. Vane does not interact with any of the main characters in the novel. She appears isolated as a character, interacting only with her family and never experiencing any development. As a result, her purpose and depth in the story become unclear. The fleeting appearance of Lord Henry’s wife leaves much to be desired of her character as well. Despite her limited appearance, Victoria Wotton serves as one of the most straightforward examples of women as “a decorative sex” in the novel. She and Lord Henry have a marriage of convenience. They appear together for social functions, driving the idea that women exist for decoration and social status. Wilde characterizes her as a romantic. She always inadvertently becomes a victim of unrequited love, a recurrence that never tars her image and therefore keeps alive the illusion of her marriage to Lord Henry. Additionally, her absence in the Bassler 4 novel seems striking when one considers the fact that she is directly tied to a main character. As the wife of such an important, intricate character, many would expect to see her more often. Her absence, however, further supports the understated roles of females in the novel. The Lady Wotton appears briefly in the novel as Dorian waits to see Henry and instead encounters her. She strikes up a conversation with him that merely makes her seem foolish and flighty (46). Her presence in the novel is amusing, but mainly serves as further evidence of the nature of her marriage to Lord Henry. The conversation she has with Dorian also proves how much Lord Henry has influenced Dorian (46). Still, as a character she remains underdeveloped. Lady Narborough is more clever than other women in the novel, but she still functions mainly as entertainment at a dinner party. During her conversation with Dorian and Lord Henry, her intelligence and wit provide an opportunity for intriguing conversation. They discuss women, love, and marriage. She has interesting views about each and challenges Henry’s epigrams (170). The conversation reveals more of Lord Henry’s feelings toward these matters as Lady Narborough serves as a playful antagonist, calling him both “wicked” and a “cynic” (171-172). She appears to be the first truly sensible woman in the novel. Through her character, both Dorian and Henry develop further due to their remarks during the gathering. Her conversation with Dorian and Henry also proves just how Bassler 5 deeply Henry has corrupted the younger man. Still, Wilde portrays Lady Narborough as lacking because she possesses a “remarkable ugliness” (167). She nearly matches the men in cleverness, but fails to fulfill Lord Henry’s ideal for women because she lacks beauty. Due to this, her character appears only briefly and merely serves to deepen other characters. In contrast, the Duchess of Monmouth possesses both great beauty and charming wit. She still, however, fails to adhere to the ideal proposed by Lord Henry. The Duchess has porcelain skin, with red lips and “dainty” movements (187). Unlike many women in the novel, The Duchess’s mind mirrors her appearance. In conversation she challenges both Dorian and Lord Henry with her cleverness. In some ways, she expresses the same boredom Lord Henry does. She even throws in a clever quip or two of her own, proving her status as an intellectual match for the men. She appears perfect, but, as Lord Henry earlier stated, “She is very clever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness” (173). His statement emphasizes the notion that women are ornamental. The Duchess could be a truly fulfilling female character deserving of further development, but Henry writes her off. The Duchess becomes yet another fleeting woman in the novel. Therefore, Wilde seems to frame all his female characters based on the idea of women as “a decorative sex.” Women who do not adhere to Bassler 6 this standard seem flawed and almost unimportant. Those, such as Sibyl and her mother, who reflect Lord Henry’s ideal in beauty still do not seem worthy of praise to Wilde or to any of the characters in the novel. Similarly, the clever Lady Narborough still falls below Henry’s standard due to her physical appearance. Even more strikingly, the Duchess, who is both attractive and intelligent, ceases to matter as a woman because she is too headstrong. Women in The Picture of Dorian Gray function as brief, flawed characters. Instead of developing his female characters, Wilde utilizes them as pawns to affect his male characters. Both individually and as a whole, they are all static characters. In the grand scheme of the story, women seem impermanent and forgettable as well as frivolous and, at times, out of touch. Lord Henry’s quips along with the limited character development of female characters in the novel leave one wondering what Oscar Wilde truly thought of women.