Summary and Analysis Chapter 4



A month later, Dorian waits for Lord Henry in Henry's library at Mayfair. He is sulking and annoyed until someone at the door interrupts his mood. It is not Lord Henry, but his wife. Lady Henry is familiar with Dorian, having seen Lord Henry's photographs of the young man and having noticed Dorian with Lord Henry recently at the opera. In her brief appearance, Lady Henry seems as witty as her husband and equally indifferent toward convention.

Lord Henry enters, complaining about the hours he has spent trying to bargain for a piece of elegant fabric: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." After Lady Henry leaves, he comments lightly on the disappointments of marriage, and Dorian volunteers that he doubts that he will ever marry because he is too much in love with an actress named Sibyl Vane. He recounts his discovery of Sibyl in "an absurd little theatre" in the East End of London.

He had gone out one evening to seek adventure, recalling Lord Henry's advice that the search for beauty was "the real secret of life." In front of a theatre was a "hideous Jew," named Mr. Isaacs. Dorian was so amused with the man that he paid an entire guinea for a private theatre box. The play was Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. When Juliet, played by Sibyl Vane, walked onto the stage, her voice and performance were as magnificent as her appearance, and Dorian was immediately smitten. After that first night, he returned to the theatre every evening to see Sibyl Vane excel in various leading roles.

Lord Henry offers a few skeptical remarks about Dorian's dramatic description of his newfound love, but he does not oppose his young friend's choice to love the actress. Dorian is concerned that Lord Henry will assume that all actresses are "horrid people with dyed hair and painted faces." In one of his better comebacks, Lord Henry quietly advises, "Don't run down dyed hair and painted faces."

The love-struck Dorian tells of meeting Sibyl Vane, who immediately dubbed him "Prince Charming." He laments that the actress is bound to work for Mr. Isaacs, vowing to liberate her and present her properly at a more reputable West End theatre. As Dorian describes Sibyl and his love for her, Dorian admits that he is entranced partly because Sibyl Vane is an actress and, thus, a different woman every night. He confesses his love for Sibyl, calling her a "genius," and in the next breath states that he doesn't really care who she is or where she came from. From his own description, Dorian's "love" for Sibyl has more to do with the affectations of her profession than with her as a person.

Lord Henry remains detached about Dorian's romance. However, he does agree to meet Dorian and Basil for dinner and to see Sibyl Vane in a play the next evening.

Dorian leaves for the theatre, and Lord Henry muses on the situation. He feels "not the slightest pang of annoyance or jealousy" that Sibyl may intervene in their growing friendship; rather, these new developments make his protégé "a more interesting study." Eventually, his valet interrupts this reverie, and Lord Henry dresses to go out for dinner. When he returns home after midnight, he finds a telegram on the hall table. It is from Dorian: He is engaged to be married to Sibyl Vane.


Of primary interest in this chapter is the development of Dorian's character. Throughout the first three chapters, Lord Henry was the center of attention; Dorian was little more than a pretty face who envied his own portrait and was devoted to his mentor. In Chapter 4, however, Dorian begins to take over the novel. He comes into his own as a character, beginning to drive the plot of the story by acting independently of Lord Henry. His pronouncements, however, echo Lord Henry's, an indication that he is still very much under Lord Henry's influence. At least twice, the reader hears that an adage spoken by the protégé — Dorian — was originally spoken by the mentor — Lord Henry. However, Dorian's relationship with Sibyl Vane, superficial and immature as it may be, illustrates a burgeoning independence. It will soon lead to crisis and force more changes on the title character.

Dorian has not just fallen in love with an actress; he has fallen in love with her performances. He does not know the girl at all; yet, by the end of the chapter, they are engaged to be married. His ambition is not to build a relationship but to develop a star. If Dorian has learned nothing else from Lord Henry, he has learned the joy of manipulation. He wants to become Sibyl Vane's agent, not her husband. That Dorian's first love is so flawed with selfishness and manipulation is a bright indicator of the emerging dark side of his nature.

As for Lord Henry, he may not be jealous of Dorian's love interest, but he is somewhat skeptical. He feels that Dorian is "premature," noting early on that an actress is a "rather commonplace début" for a young man entering the world of romance, but he quickly drops that approach when he sees how intensely in love Dorian is. Lord Henry is wise enough to avoid confrontation. However, he must be stunned by the telegram announcing the engagement.

A modern audience might find one disturbing factor in the chapter. Mr. Isaacs, who runs the theatre and holds Sibyl Vane under contract, is described in such flagrantly racist terms that the reader cannot ignore them. Someone might argue, in Wilde's defense, that he describes one specific Jew, not necessarily a stereotype. A better defense is that Dorian is speaking, not Wilde, and the crude, racist observations may be early indications of Dorian's character. Certainly, the young man can be superficial. It may be unfair to conclude that the narrator's views are Wilde's views. However, either way, anti-Semitism was thriving in nineteenth-century England as well as in much of the rest of Europe, as witnessed in Charles Dickens' portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist or in the real-life Dreyfus affair in France.


Louis Quatorze Louis XIV (1638–1715), King of France (1643–1715), known as "the Sun King." The novel's reference is to a style of furniture.

Wagner Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813–83), German poet and composer, known for his stirring, nationalistic music.

brocade a heavy fabric interwoven with a raised design.

frangipanni (sometimes spelled "frangipani") a tropical American shrub with fragrant flowers; perfume from or resembling the flowers.

début French, meaning "beginning" or "coming out."

abstruse difficult to understand; obscure.

rouge French, meaning "red," "lipstick," or "rouge"; artificial blush for facial cheeks.

espirit French, "spirit" or "wit"; usually spelled "esprit."

Piccadilly a thoroughfare in London running from the Haymarket to Hyde Park Corner.

myriad a large, indefinite number.

les grandpères ont toujours tort French, meaning "Grandfathers are always wrong."

hautboy an oboe.

Juliet the leading female role in William Shakespeare's (1564–1616)

Romeo and Juliet.

Rosalind a leading role in William Shakespeare's As You Like It.

munificent very generous.

greenroom a waiting room or lounge in a theatre, used by performers when off-stage.

Lady Capulet the mother of Juliet in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Giordano Bruno (1548?–1600) Italian philosopher.

staccato here, rapid, short, crisp words.

efficacy ability to produce a specific effect.

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