Playing upon fact and invention in his text's structure and subject, Oscar Wilde thwarts traditional expectations of what is real and how it matters in "The Decay of Lying." In form, Wilde artfully sets up a fictitious dialogue between Vivian and Cyril to feign earnest discussion that is not so earnest in its faithfulness to a real conversation. In content, Wilde is facetious in touting the virtues of lying and elaboration, starting off overtly satirical and evolving into a more sincere and explicit attack against realism and a redefinition of aesthetics. Eventually, the seeming "lies" of Wilde culminate in Vivian's assertion that lying can really be considered the essence of art, and art the ultimate reality that is mirrored by life. Using Cyril to frequently undercut Vivian, and Vivian's satiric hyperboles to undercut Wilde's implied points, Wilde employs a somewhat self-undermining style that embodies whimsy and art, essentially practicing what Vivian preaches.
At one point, Wilde uses various specific examples to support and elaborate upon his thesis that art is a precursor, and not a reflection, of reality:
As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature. The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of [34/35] the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers. This interesting phenomenon, which always occurs after the appearance of a new edition of either of the books I have alluded to, is usually attributed to the influence of literature on the imagination. But this is a mistake. The imagination is essentially creative, and always seeks for a new form. The boy-burglar is simply the inevitable result of life's imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is, with trying to reproduce Fiction, and what we see in him is repeated on an extended scale throughout the whole of life.
After presenting inverted perceptions of how Schopenhauer, Nihilists, and Robespierre, among others, obtained their ideas, Wilde employs a narrative style inside his dialogue for his closing example:
Shortly after Mr. Stevenson published his curious psychological story of transformation, a friend of mine, called Mr. Hyde, was in the north of London, and being anxious to get to a railway station, took what he thought would be a short cut, lost his way, and found himself in a network of mean, evil-looking streets. Feeling rather nervous he began to walk extremely fast, when suddenly out of an archway ran a child right between his legs. It fell on the pavement, he tripped over it, and trampled upon it. Being of course very much frightened and a little hurt, it began to scream, and in a few seconds the whole street was full of rough people who came pouring out of the houses like ants. They surrounded him, and asked him his name. He was just about to give it when he suddenly remembered the opening incident in Mr. Stevenson's story. 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.
1. Are these illustrations factual? If they're not, as the extreme coincidence of the Jekyll and Hyde example may lead one to suspect, what purpose do fictitious examples serve in supporting Wilde's point of championing fiction?
2. By adding "at least it should have been" about Jekyll's brass door plate, Wilde implies that though these examples may be facetious, they should not be; reality should mirror literature, but it doesn't necessarily do so. Is he self consciously undermining his own points? What effects does that produce?
3. When recounting Mr. Hyde's transformation into a literary character, what are the effects of suddenly shifting to a narrative style, wherein a reader would normally expect fiction and a suspension from the factual world?
4. If art is reality, and life merely its imitation, then how would Wilde label the aspects of the world existing before art has touched them? Who was Mr. Hyde before Mr. Stevenson's story was written?
Last modified 16 October 2003
Last modified 8 June 2007