n Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying,"Vivian's entire argument exists as a paradox and supports itself with contradictions. Despite the fact that he tells Cyril, "Paradox though it may seem — and paradoxes are always dangerous things — it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life," he doesn't seem to realise that everything that he's said so far can be refuted by his own argument. The fact that he's arguing for the return of the lie completely removes his credibility.
Vivian calls truth-telling a "morbid and unhealthy faculty", which suggests that he prefers to lean towards the alternative: exaggerations and lies. Vivian's support and fondness for mendacities destroys his ethos and makes it difficult for the reader to accept anything he says as truth. Because of this, the reader can assume that he exaggerates or lies in all his criticisms of artists, and so a passage like "In France, though nothing so deliberately tedious as Robert Elsmere has been produced, things are not much better. M. Guy de Maupassant, with his keen mordant irony and his hard vivid style, strips life of the few poor rags [12/13] that still cover her, and shows us foul sore and festering wound" could suggest that Guy de Maupassant is a master of irony and style who shows the beauty of life through his work.
Additionally, Vivian falls into the realm of contradiction and paradoxes when he tries to use examples from life in order to prove that Life imitates Art. He explains the story of a man named Mr. Hyde who finds himself in a situation identical to that at the start of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
He was so filled with horror at having realised in his own person that terrible and well-written scene, and at having done accidentally, though in fact, what the Mr. Hyde of fiction had done with deliberate intent, that he ran away as hard as he could go. He was, however, very closely followed, and finally he took refuge in a surgery, the door of which happened to be open, where he explained to a [37/38] young assistant, who happened to be there, exactly what bad occurred. The humanitarian crowd were induced to go away on his giving them a small sum of money, and as soon as the coast was clear he left. As he passed out, the name on the brass door-plate of the surgery caught his eye. It was "Jekyll." At least it should have been.
As Vivian tells this story to Cyril, he practices the art of storytelling. The last line ("At least it should have been") makes it unclear whether the name on the door actually did read Jekyll and whether Vivian tells the truth. In this way, Vivian tries to make the Art of his story imitate Life in a way which makes it seem like Life imitates Art. This strange circle of imitation continues when you consider that Art must imitate certain forms of Life in order to be credible, and also the fact that Vivian's story becomes Life once it is told. The entire argument eventually becomes a paradox, and so Vivian expresses neither truth nor lies.
1. A humorous representation of the relationship between Nature and Art can be seen in Alice in Wonderland when the cards are painting the roses red in the queen's garden. When asked why they are doing so, Two says, "This here ought to have been a red rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake." In this sense, Art is shown to be more reliable than Nature, since the cards fix the mistake of Nature using paint. However, when the Queen learns that they were lying to her through Art, she orders their heads to be cut off. How does this scene relate to Vivian's argument in "The Decay of Lying"?
2. When Vivian speaks of paradoxes as "dangerous things" he seems to accept the fact that his argument about Art and Life is at least a borderline paradox. Do you think Oscar Wilde saw that the character's entire argument could be seen as a paradox? If so, why might he have used such a twisted argument?
3. Wilde could have chosen to write the article "The Decay of Lying" without including the characters of Cyril and Vivian. Why might Wilde have chosen to write the piece as a dialogue?
4. "Ruskin, Wilde, Satire, and the Birth of Aestheticism" explains that Cyril and Vivian were the names of Wilde's two children and says, "Wilde's use of his children's names suggests, though, that he in a sense "gave birth" to the characters and the ideas that they toss about." For what other reasons might Wilde have used his own children's names?
Last modified 21 April 2009