Revised Final Draft

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Kimberly Bassler
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
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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
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
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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
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
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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
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
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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
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
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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.