Annotated First Draft

Kimberly Bassler
Literary Analysis
First Draft
The Function of Women in The Picture of Dorian Gray
In 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. 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.
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 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. 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). Sibyl falls in love with the idea of Dorian, not his true self,
and Dorian does 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 dies. 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. 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 for most of her life. As a
result, she, like Sibyl, romanticizes everything. Mrs. Vane gives her daughter
a look an actress would give in a scene (61). 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. Subsequently, her character seems limited and
The fleeting appearance of Lord Henry’s wife leaves much to be
desired of her character as well. 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 ends up a victim
of unrequited love, a recurrence which never tars her image and therefore
keeps alive the illusion of her marriage to Lord Henry. Lady Wotton appears
briefly in the novel as Dorian waits to see Lord Henry. She strikes up a
conversation with him that merely makes her seem foolish and flighty. Her
presence in the novel is amusing, but mainly serves as further evidence of
the nature of her marriage to Lord Henry as well as proof of how much Lord
Henry has influenced Dorian. 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. The conversation reveals more of Lord Henry’s feelings toward
these matters as Lady Narborough serves as a playful antagonist, calling him
“wicked” (171). Still, Wilde portrays her 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.
Though the Duchess of Monmouth possesses both great beauty and
charming wit, she still 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 matches her
appearance. In conversation she challenges both Dorian and Lord Henry. 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 this
standard seem flawed and almost unimportant. Those, such as Sibyl and her
mother, who reflect Lord Henry’s idea still do not seem worthy of praise to
Wilde or to any of the characters in the novel. 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. 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.