or Oscar Wilde’s Vivian, an author must employ his imagination to create characters from the “non-existent”, rather than imitating “real people from Life.” His article “The Decay of Lying” — providing the title and principle subject matter for Wilde’s respective work — critiques authors who rob stories “of [their] reality by trying to make [them] true”: such authors, Vivian argues, who are “perfectly truthful, and describe things exactly as they happen”, produce “sterile” works void of the “distinction, charm, beauty and imaginative power” that literature requires. Vivian therefore advocates for the “art of Lying”, which allows the author to take “Life as part of her rough material, [recreate] it, and [refashion] it in fresh forms . . . absolutely indifferent to fact”. The successful author thus refrains from creating characters “directly from life” and instead invents characters out of “the people who never existed”:

Mr. Ruskin once described the characters in George Eliot’s novels as being like the sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus, but M. Zola’s characters, that have their dreary vices, are much worse. They and their drearier virtues. The record of their [13/14] lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders. M. Daudet is better. He has wit, a light touch and an amusing style. But he has lately committed literary suicide. Nobody can possibly care for Delobelle with his “Il faut lutter pour l’art” [one must fight for art] or for Valmajour with his eternal refrain about the nightingale, or for the poet in Jack with his “mots cruels” [cruel words], now that we have learned from Vingt Ans de ma Vie litteraire [twenty years of my literary life] that these characters were taken directly from life. To us they seem to have suddenly lost all their vitality, all the few qualities they ever possessed. The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not the boast of them as copies. The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise, the novel is not a work of art.

Characters inspired by real people, argues Vivian, lose “their vitality, all the few qualities they ever possessed”, becoming mere “copies” of life and essentially rendering the novel “so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability.” For Vivian, authors who create such life-inspired characters are but a mere “copier of life.” Thus only in creating characters born from the imagination does the authors justify “what he is” — that is, an artist. Essentially then, the author is the creator of an Art which Life seeks to imitate; it is upon this point that Vivian critiques the state of Renaissance Art:

Art begins with abstract decoration with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. Art takes Life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to facts, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment. The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness. That is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering.

For Vivian, Life has taken precedence over Art, as observed in the trend of authors who draw inspiration from reality as opposed to the imagination. Because Life has driven “Art out into the wilderness”, there has been a “decay of Lying” and, consequently, “a lack of design” and an “extraordinary monotony” in Art. Ultimately then, Vivian calls for a return to the craft of Lying — “the telling of beautiful untrue things” — and ultimately heralds this craft as “the proper aim of Art”.


1. In “The Decay of Lying”, why does Wilde use the convention of the Socratic dialogue? Furthermore, what does Wilde achieve by writing a work that is about another author (Vivian) and his work?

2. Who is Wilde’s Vivian and what can we infer about him? Do Vivian’s aesthetic conceptions represent those of Wilde?

3. In “Signs of the Times”, Carlyle writes

Science and Art have, from first to last, been the free gift of Nature; an unsolicited, unexpected gift; often even a fatal one. These things rose up, as it were, by spontaneous growth, in the free soil and sunshine of Nature. They were not planted or grafted, nor even greatly multiplied or improved by the culture or manuring of institutions.

Here, Carlyle suggests that “Science and Art” grew from “the free soil and sunshine of Nature”. How do Carlyle’s ideas of nature and art differ from Wilde’s?

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Last modified 8 March 2011