Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" deliberately works with paradox at multiple levels in order to reinforce its satiric effects and to undercut its own pretensions. Vivian responds to a reproof from Cyril: "Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to the bitter end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice" (pp.1-2). Wilde, by presenting his ideas as mediated by a character presenting an eponymous article, distances himself from the material and creates a further layer of satire. Through his speakers, he comments on the actual process of writing on such complex ideas and forces a self-deprecating ambiguity on the entire essay — Cyril, even after hearing the end of Vivian's article must ask for a recapitulation of its ideas.
VIVIAN. Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty. People tell us that Art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us; and that after a careful study of Corot and Constable we see things in her that had escaped our observation. My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out...As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her. [p.1]
The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art. But of this I think I have spoken at sufficient length. And now let us go out on the terrace, where "droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost," while the evening star "washes the dusk with silver." At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. Come! We have talked long enough. [p.16]
Wilde never strays from his playful mood. However, he creates an incredibly complex voice within this broader context. He manages to come back to Vivian's original statements and apply his own theories within the context of the frame-story with a unique flippancy that both upholds and undercuts the premises of the essay
1. What does Wilde suggest with the phrase "cultivated blindness" (p.1)? Is Vivian making use of this faculty when she quotes Tennyson in respect to nature at the end of the piece?
2. How does Wilde underscore or undercut his aesthetic theories by making use of the dialogue form and ending the piece with his speakers retiring to nature? How does the frame-story complicate his satire?
3. Wilde, through Vivian, gets in once last jab at the end ("though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets"[p.16]). However, he quickly cuts his self-indulgent satire off when Vivian says, "Come! We have talked long enough" (p.16). What intertwining voices emerge in these concluding lines?
4. What tone does the piece seem to take toward the poetic quotations at the end? How does Wilde's use of quotations differ from previous examples we have encountered?
Last modified 7 April 2005