Summary and Analysis Chapter 5



The following day, Sibyl Vane and her mother discuss the girl's relationship with "Prince Charming." Sibyl is elated and wants her mother to share her joy. She is in love.

Mrs. Vane's attitude is more realistic and down-to-earth. She wants her daughter to think of her career. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Vanes owe Mr. Isaacs fifty pounds, a good deal of money, as Mrs. Vane points out. On the other hand, Mrs. Vane is willing to consider marriage for Sibyl if it turns out that Dorian is wealthy.

Sibyl has all the idealistic enthusiasm of an innocent seven-teen-year-old. In one of Wilde's more effective metaphors, he says that the "joy of a caged bird was in her voice." Sibyl does not want to hear about Mr. Isaacs or money. What is money compared to love? She wonders only what "Prince Charming" sees in her. The Vanes still do not even know Dorian's name.

Sibyl's sixteen-year-old brother, James, who is about to sail for Australia, enters the room. He is very angry — toward London, toward England's class system, toward the life that he lives.

Mrs. Vane feels ill at ease around her son, fearing that he might suspect some secret that she keeps. Sibyl, however, is even more girlish, sweet, and innocent around her brother. Lovingly calling him "a dreadful old bear," she is delighted that he will go for a walk with her in the park on his last afternoon at home. For his part, James is very protective of Sibyl and repeatedly warns his mother to watch over the girl in his absence.

During their walk in the park, James is brooding and angry; Sibyl dreams of "Prince Charming" and fantasizes aloud, in a somewhat childlike manner, about the great success that her brother is to be.

James hates the "young dandy" who is courting his sister, hates him the more because he is a "gentleman." He warns his sister that the man wants to enslave her and repeatedly threatens to kill the "gentleman" if he does Sibyl any wrong. James is especially angry when Dorian suddenly passes through the park in an open carriage, but only Sibyl actually sees him. James is also angry with his mother. At the theatre one night, months before, he had heard "a whispered sneer" about her.

After James and Sibyl return from their walk, he confronts his mother. He wants to know if she and his father were actually married.

The crude situation reminds the melodramatic Mrs. Vane of a bad rehearsal. She simply says, "No." James accuses the father of being a scoundrel. Mrs. Vane defends the man, now dead. She knew that he was "not free" when she got involved with him. He would have taken care of her and the children had he lived. He was, after all, a "gentleman." James insists that Sibyl never be told about the father and notes that his sister's suitor is another "gentleman." He repeats that he will track down Sibyl's "gentleman" caller and "kill him like a dog" if he wrongs the girl, a threat that becomes very important later in the book.


The absence of Dorian or Lord Henry from this chapter may make it seem like filler, a chance for the reader to catch a breath after the whirlwind engagement announcement that ended the previous chapter. However, this short chapter serves an important function in the novel; it introduces and describes characters and sets up events that will be developed later in the story.

Sibyl is the ingénue, an innocent girl, and the reader would be hard pressed to find another character in the book as sweet or innocent or wholesome. She is no match for the jaded, sophisticated world of Lord Henry and Dorian. Her pure joy at being in love provides poignant contrast to the manipulative intentions that Dorian calls "love."

It is little wonder that James is enraged at the thought of any harm coming to his sister. He is the adventurer, off to see the world, but the reader has to suspect that all the anger about class distinction and all those threats about killing people might eventually come to something.

Mrs. Vane is the fallen woman with a crusty exterior but a good heart. She was ill-treated by the wealthy, privileged, married man who fathered her children. Because Sibyl has fallen in love with a gentleman just as her mother did, the reader can't help but wonder if her romance will end as tragically as her mother's.

Mr. Isaacs, whom Wilde introduced in an earlier chapter, is the creditor to whom the Vane family is indebted. When Sibyl says that Isaacs is not a gentleman and that she hates the way that he talks to her, the reader needs no further explanation of his character. Sibyl and her mother live in desperate circumstances, and Sibyl could easily fall hopelessly, blindly in love with a young man as charming as her Prince.

The only thing missing from this list of characters is the suitor — Dorian. Will he be the hero, a true gentleman who saves the family and carries off Sibyl to live happily ever after? Or will he be a cad?


bismuth a white, crystalline, metallic element used in alloys to form castings; here, used as powder.

querulous expressing complaint.

tableau French, "picture"; a scene on stage in which the actors remain silent and motionless as if in a picture.

affluence a plentiful supply of wealth or goods.

super-cargo an officer on a merchant ship who is in charge of the cargo.

morose gloomy; very melancholy; sullen.

dogma a system of beliefs supported by authority.

victoria a low, light, four-wheeled carriage for two with a folding top and an elevated driver's seat in front.

four-in-hand a vehicle, pulled by four horses, driven by one person.

Achilles the hero of Homer's Iliad.

articles the articles of agreement, or contract, signed by James, to undergo the journey to Australia.

drudgee a person who does tedious or menial labor.

Back to Top