"The Decay of Lying" delivers the complete text of an essay within a dialogue between two characters, Cyril and Vivian. Playful banter between the two men and Vivian's tongue-in-cheek "article" lend a whimsical tone to Wilde's promotion of Romanticism over Realism. Though teasingly provocative and mischievously impassioned, Vivian's essay has a clear, direct structure and concludes with a precise summary. Wilde ends Vivian's dialogue with quotes from poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Blake. The quotations apply the third and fourth "doctrines" to the proposed action of the piece.
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 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 It is out of date.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.
The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy. It is a theory that has never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light upon the history of Art.
It follows, as a corollary from this, that external Nature also imitates Art. The only effects that she can show us are effects that we have already seen through poetry, or in paintings. This is the secret of Nature's charm, as well as the explanation of Nature's weakness.
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.
Wilde's character Vivian assumes authority through declarative statements. His command of the argument extends beyond his article to his friendship with Cyril. In the last paragraph of the story, Vivian, transitioning between the world of academic pursuits and the social sphere, commands "Come! We have talked long enough," closing the discussion and presumably taking Cyril outside for another cigarette and a long-awaited rest on the grass.
1. Why is the word "lying" important to the piece? Would the tone change if Wilde had chosen to call it "The Decay of Imagination?"
2. One might imagine "The Decay of Lying" to be performed on stage, but within the dialogue, the argument is structured as an essay. What effect do conversational elements have on the piece?
3. In his concluding paragraphs, Vivian makes declarative statements such as, "All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature," and "As a method Realism is a complete failure." How do these declarations interact with the argument, especially with the way a liar is characterized?
4. In the last paragraph, Wilde finally presents his reader with a definition of lying, "the telling of beautiful untrue things." What is the effect of this direct proclamation so near the end of the piece?
Last modified 24 October 2007