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Oscar Wilde is literature's most famous homosexual. And yet, at the centre of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/91), is an encounter between a young man and a young woman. Compared with the other issues raised — the nature of Lord Henry's "new Hedonism," the significance of the aesthetics propounded, and the implications of Basil's fascination with Dorian and of Dorian's "mad prayer" to be allowed to enjoy the "eternal youth" of his portrait (pp. 143 & 105) — Dorian's relation with Sibyl Vane may not seem of much consequence. This essay argues that it plays a crucial role.

Sibyl is introduced in chapter IV and is the main focus of the events in the next six chapters. Her brother reappears in chapter XVI, still determined to find the "Prince Charming" responsible for his sister's suicide some eighteen years before, and pursues Dorian through the next two chapters. Thus almost exactly half the novel is directly concerned with her. Furthermore, insofar as Dorian's treatment of her is the first manifestation of the character which Basil finds so shocking, she also indirectly conditions the events leading to the latter's murder. In spite of this centrality, she has attracted relatively little interest from criticism. Even when her importance is acknowledged, as it is by Shewan (1977), there is a strange reluctance to explore the theme of Dorian's relation with her as a determining aspect of the novel.

Starting from a distinction Jung made between emotion and feeling, this essay analyses Dorian's relationship with Sibyl in the light of three very different mythological motifs: the stories of Actaeon and Artemis, Narcissus and Echo, and Adonis and Venus. It argues that Dorian's fascination with Sibyl belongs to Wilde's authentic unconscious, and that Basil's fascination with Dorian is a substitute experience resulting from an unconscious fear of the feminine. The aim is to reveal that the Dorian-Sibyl relationship is an unexpected key to both the novel and the author's complex personality.

Last modified 7 March 2002