For some, magic lies in the shadows–it is, afterall, awfully easy to hide one’s flaws in the absence of light, because, for some, light means truth. Light shows what is, instead of what might be; one will find age where they thought rested the sweet bird of youth, and one will find ruined glamour where they thought they saw beauty. Shadows misrepresents things to people, thereby allowing those who have outgrown their fear of the dark to pursue their magic and run from their reality. However, for those whose youth is still in tact, it can be the other way round. As such, this pursuit of magic and avoidance of reality leaves individuals without an identity. In Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, this idea of finding magic in the shadows is explored through the character of Blanche DuBois, an aging antebellum who is constantly running from her true identity, as she chases after her ideal self in place of who she truly is. In contrast, however, in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, the idea explored is reversed–the idea of finding magic under the light and living in fear of the shadows and the realities they represent, through Sybil Vane, a young and deluded actor whose discovery of reality ultimately leaves her destroyed. Both of these texts explore what it means to entertain one’s own avoidance of truth in search of magic, and the consequences this can have on an individual’s identity. Through these two texts, both authors explore the idea that when one pursues their ideal self, as a means of avoiding the truth of who they truly are, they can be left without an identity when they realize that they cannot make their ‘magic’ a reality.
In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Blanche DuBois is a faded woman who is very much lacking a true identity, though she attempts to hide this. She runs from the truth of herself and her past through the use of her ‘magic’, and uses the pursuit of her ideals as a means of avoiding reality, after the discovery of her young husband Allan Grey’s homsexuality when she caught him in bed with another man. Blanche, despite the deeply impactful psychological effects this betrayal had on her, pretended that nothing had been discovered until she could not pretend anymore. Blanche describes how she, her husband, and her husband’s lover all dismissed the affair, and all went out to the ‘Moon Lake Casino’ to drink and dance–however, when she was on the dancefloor with Allan, overwhelmed by the intensity of her emotions, she spat ‘I saw. I know. You disgust me!’, prompting her husband to break away from her and rush out of the Casino to commit suicide. This was one of Blanche’s first real brushes with the harshness of truth and reality, and because it ended so horrifically, she learned from the young age of sixteen that entertaining reality and truth will only ever end in pain–had she continued acting from a place of idealism (what ought to be) rather than a place of truth (what is), Allan Grey would still be alive, and Blanche would not have figurative ‘blood on her hands’. This event marked the beginning of Blanche’s initial denial and eventual complete loss of her identity, as from that moment forth, she lived only in a world of idealism, or ‘magic’, as she would call it. Williams writes through the voice of Blanche, ‘I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes–yes magic. I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them by showing them what ought to be. . .’, thereby displaying just how deluded and desperate for an escape Blanche is. This need for magic in place of truth manifests itself in Blanche both physically and mentally–she avoids light because for her, light is equal to truth, and in her experience, the harsh light of truth has always been too sharp on such a delicate face. She lives in the shadows because that is where her magic lies; she is able to misrepresent her age to the people around her by placing coverings over lights and only going out when it is dark, for she believes on some level, that if she is able to misrepresent her identity to others, perhaps she too will believe her guise, and she will no longer have to face her past. Through this avoidance of light, she is literally denying herself of her true identity–age, past and all–and attempts to succeed in concealing her true being from both others and herself.
In contrast to Blanche’s eventual loss of identity, Wilde’s Sybil Vane never had one to begin with; an actress, she has spent her whole existence living in the skins of the characters she plays, and as a result her magic lies in the light. It is only under the stage lights that she has an identity, for she borrows them from her characters, in the same way that Blanche is able to pursue her ideals by adopting a different identity and ‘living in the shadows’. Theatre is Sybil’s magic, and as such, she is not running from herself in the same way that Blanche is, but rather waiting for her true identity to be found. Dorian Gray, her almost lover, is drawn to her for this very reason–because she is “Rosalind one night, and Portia the other.” For Dorian, part of the appeal of Sybil is because she is never herself, as is seen in his conversation with Lord Henry, when Dorian is asked “When is she Sybil Vane?” and Dorian responds with, “Never.” Sybil, herself, describes how she, before having ‘fallen in love’ with Dorian, believed in everything she was doing on stage–that she truly believed she was Rosalind one night and Portia the other–and for that reason her magic lies under the stage lights. She spoke of her avoidance of the shadows, in contrast with Blanche, because for Sybil, truth lies in the shadows–when she comes off stage, she is no longer the people she is pretending to be; she is merely herself and she doesn’t like the truth associated with that. As such, because she has spent her whole life pretending to be others under the magic of the stage lights, Sybil Vane does not have an identity because she allows herself to be so completely consumed by the characters she plays. This not only deludes her, but also those around her, such as Dorian, who are affected when her illusion shatters.
Both Blanche and Sybil’s lack of identity stem from a pursuit of one’s ideal self due to a fear and dislike of truth and reality. Their individual pursuits are both mirrored and contrasted in each other; both seek to live in their world of magic through pretending to be other people, and through avoiding reality–Blanche through her evasion of light because that is where her truth lies, and in her dwelling in the shadows because that is where her magic takes place; Sybil through her pursuit of magic under the stage lights and avoidance of the shadows and the truth that lies within them. Additionally, both Blanche and Sybil had a Grey/Gray boy who they destroyed, and who destroyed them in turn; Blanche’s past with her Grey Boy ultimately lead to her avoidance of reality in favour of magic, because of the guilt she carried surrounding his death. In contrast, Sybil destroyed her Gray Boy’s perception of her when she acted badly, due to a discovery of realism, on a night that he came to see her perform. Dorian was disgusted at how she defiled her art, and destroyed her by telling her that she was nothing without her art. Blanche’s observation of a woman’s charm being ‘fifty percent illusion’ is applicable in both situations, for Blanche’s illusion was shattered after Mitch’s discovery of her true age and identity, and Sybil’s was shattered after she acted poorly for Dorian, thereby ruining the image he had of her as being Juliet, or Rosalind, or Imogen. Furthermore, both women’s ‘magic’ was destroyed, and after both had pursued a life living in the skins of people neither of them would ever be, both were left without an identity.
Magic can lie in both shadows and in light. Shadows allow individuals to misrepresent things to those around them by concealing the whole truth and only showing part of it. These are the shadows that Blanche dwelled in, for the truth that came with light had never been kind to her. Likewise, shadows can house the ruins of monsters whose truths and pasts are far too ugly to be seen in the light. Because for some, the light holds magic. This light–the stage lights–are where Sybil existed in the skins and in the worlds of others. Both women existed in between light and shadow–in between shades of Grey. Both women didn’t want realism because they wanted magic–yes, magic! Both were women who pursued their ideals in place of truth, and, consequently, both were destroyed by the lack of identity this fruitless chase left them with.