Vivian, Oscar Wilde's character in "The Decay of Lying," loves a good liar. He craves a good liar. He's tired of artists and intellectuals seeking truth, striving to most accurately mirror the world around them. Why spend so much time on nature, what with, as Vivian says, "Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition" (p. 1)? Instead, artists should embellish, enhance, fabricate, and redecorate; artists should lie for the sake of beautiful art. In his conversation with Cyril, Vivian explains how lies and imagination give art its power:
Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, and can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread. Hers are the "forms more real than living man," and hers the great archetypes of which things that have existence are but unfinished copies. Nature has, in her eyes, no laws, no uniformity. She can work miracles at her will, and when she calls monsters from the deep they come. She can bid the almond tree blossom in winter, and send the snow upon the ripe cornfield. At her word the frost lays its silver finger on the burning mouth of June, and the winged lions creep out from the hollows of the Lydian hills. The dryads peer from the thicket as she passes by, and the brown fauns smile strangely at her when she comes near them. She has hawkfaced gods that worship her, and the centaurs gallop at her side. [p. 9]
Questions for Discussion
1. The line, "Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance" is a bold strike against naturalists like John Ruskin, who devoted an entire chapter of Modern Painters to realizing the most truthful depiction of water. However, Wilde also lets the reader know that he writing satire with comical remarks like, "But nature is so uncomfortable" (p. 1). As readers, how do we know what to take seriously, and what to brush aside as mock seriousness? Are there tonal changes that can clue us in, like Jonathan Swift's clear moves from silliness to biting criticism in "A Modest Proposal"?
2. How does Wilde use his prose style to support the concept of beautiful and imaginative art in this passage?
3. How does the dialogue format of this piece affect our reading? Are there certain advantages or limitations to fictionalizing the narrative voices?
4. Why title the piece "The Decay of Lying," as opposed to something like, "The Decay of Imagination"?
"The Decay of Lying." Victorian Web.
Last modified 7 April 2005
Last modified 8 June 2007