As a twenty-first-century reader of Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," I was not particularly struck by the originality of his ideas about art because much of the last century's literature has seemingly subscribed to that tired maxim: "Art for Art's sake". Putting Wilde's ideological assertions to one side, then, I was most struck by his uninspiring style and his intellectual insecurity. The dramatic dialogue that structures the essay is poorly constructed and executed, and, what is more, Wilde seems more concerned with dropping names than with clearly explaining his arguments. Wilde might counter that as an artist he is in the privileged position of not having to rationally argue his point because he is supposed to lie. This reasonable response, however, only puts more pressure on his style and his genius. Unfortunately, these qualities, which he praises highly in his work, seem absent in the work itself.

The stupidity of Wilde's dramatic dialogue and the banality of his wit is thoroughly apparent in the following passage:

Many a young man starts life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy / CYRIL: My dear fellow! / VIVIAN: Please don't interrupt in the middle of a sentence. "He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling...

And on and on for 13 more pages. Wilde's only excuse for writing such a horrible passage, in light of the scathing remarks he makes against other authors, is that he is establishing an ironic distance between himself as author and his literary creations. I don't believe this to be the case, however, and even if it were Wilde needs a good spanking rather than our praise as a "literary genius". Does anyone find useful ideas in this essay? Does anyone find literary techniques that Wilde uses with more skill than other authors we have read? Is Wilde's style, contrary to my feelings, good? Does he use the dramatic dialogue with good effect?

Last modified 7 March 2002