lthough Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” ostensibly satirizes the moralizing and didactic tone of sage writers such as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, the crux of his argument in fact echoes these earlier writers’ serious efforts to diagnose and prescribe remedies for perceived symptoms of cultural decay. Wilde peppers his dialogue with witticisms and sarcastic asides, such as “Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is of course well known in Fleet Street,” a barb directed at London’s press, creating a lighthearted, satiric tone. Similarly, Vivian’s central point — that lying is an “art” that must be cultivated — superficially appears too extreme and absurd to be taken seriously as the basis of an artistic value system. However, Vivian’s final speech, which summarizes and restates the central points addressed in the dialogue, reveals a more sincere aesthetic theory unifying points that, when introduced earlier in the piece, could be easily interpreted as deliberately outlandish statements designed as a vehicle for Wilde to mock the pomposity and self-importance of sage writing. The conclusion, however, presents a unified, cogent view of art not as a mirror of, but a model for, ordinary life:

Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is-not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct [54/55] opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress. Sometimes it returns upon its footsteps, and revives some antique form, as happened in the archaistic movement of late Greek Art, and in the pre-Raphaelite movement of our own day. At other times it entirely anticipates its age, and produces in one century work that it takes another century to understand, to appreciate and to enjoy. In no case does it reproduce its age. To pass from the art of a time to the time itself is the great mistake that all historians commit.

The second doctrine is this. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art's rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything. As a method Realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter. To us, who live in the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for art except our own. The only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us. It is, to have the pleasure of quoting myself, exactly [55/56] because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are so suitable a motive for a tragedy. Besides, it is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.

Here, Wilde directs his gift for crafting memorable turns of phrase not to satiric ends but to make an argument against nineteenth-century aesthetic trends that evokes Carlyle and Ruskin both in form and content. Like those writers, Wilde decries the effects of urbanization and industrialization on Victorian culture, since realism arises in part from a desire to authentically capture the hardships of ordinary people’s life in developing urban centers. Similarly, he shares these authors’ concern that culture cannot meaningfully progress if it follows current trends. Wilde’s satire, in the end, gives way to a genuine denouncement of modern aesthetic values.

Discussion Questions

1. How do Wilde’s views on the proper role of art in “The Decay of Lying” compare to Ruskin’s opinions about authenticity and art’s social function in “The Lamp of Memory”?

The conclusion indicates that Wilde does take art’s role and function seriously. However, do you think this undercuts or necessitates a re-reading of the humorous passages in the dialogue, or do you think the satire and sincerity can comfortably co-exist?

Does Wilde’s writing style change at all as he transitions to the concluding paragraphs and strives to emphasize his real point? Do diction, sentence length, and sentence structure remain the same?

Is Wilde’s decision to frame his argument in the context of a dialogue, rather than an essay or a (transcribed) speech effective? How does it shift the focus or the reader’s expectations?

Last modified 8 March 2011