Young love is condemned by cynics and writers alike as a situation that is too fleeting and idealistic to truly last. Maybe this is true; just ask the Montagues and Capulets. However, the significance of a first love should not be dismissed because the effects can last long into a person’s life and even beyond. Thus is the case with Sybil Vane, the young beauty adored by the title character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though she only appears for a few chapters, the effect Vane has on Gray resonates throughout the entire novel and is the cause for most of his major transformations.
Before Dorian Gray really changes, he meets Sybil Vane and immediately falls in love with her. He is still young, energetic, and rather narcissistic about the appearance of his face that friends and acquaintances alike praise. When it comes to love and romance, Gray is also extremely idealistic, raving about the purity of his love for Sybil and how the play he met her at, Romeo and Juliet, could only mean good things for their future (rather ironic when the ending of this play is considered). His love, however, proves shallow, and when Dorian Gray dismisses her because of bad acting, Sybil commits suicide. This begins the course of Dorian’s fall from grace as he first feels guilty but after some talking to from his friend Lord Henry Wotton, decides that this is the most romantic thing that has ever happened to him. The attitude towards the suffering of others as pleasure for himself leads Dorian down the path of debauchery and seduction, forever erasing the innocence he once had.
Without this innocence and the idealism of his youth, Dorian Gray seems to have no morals or fears regarding the consequences of his actions. He frequents opium dens, has indecent relationships with men and women alike, and even kills his best friend, Basil Hallward. After committing the murder he does not even seem to have qualms about blackmailing Allan Campbell into disposing of the body. Throughout all this, he does not ever even seem to remember Sybil Vane until her influence reenters his life in the form of her brother, seeking revenge. For the first time, Dorian is forced to face potential consequences for his actions in the past. Though he escapes death and Sybil’s brother is killed instead, her influence–and possibly even the memory of her and his past love–promotes yet another transformation within Dorian. He begins to fear consequences and even to feel guilt, eventually causing him to destroy the painting that has been keeping him so innocent and young-looking all these years, in effect destroying his own soul and killing himself.
Dorian Gray’s life is destroyed by his own susceptibility to influence. He is influenced by his friends, influenced by vanity, influenced by literature, and–to arguably the greatest extent–influenced by the love he once felt as a youth. The destruction of this young love and the death of Sybil Vane destroyed Dorian Gray’s own innocence. Though she was not in his life (or the book) very long, Sybil Vane influenced Dorian Gray throughout the rest of the story, as do the effects of young love on a person’s life.