In satirical essays, the creation of fictional narrators generally serves as a hint of the piece’s irony. A reader can usually take a separation between narrator and author as an indication that the writer does necessarily not agree with the ideas that their narrators present. Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” expresses a more complex notion of the relationship between narrator and author in satire. The piece is written as a dramatic dialogue in which one character, Vivian, summarizes and at many points simply reads out loud from his essay, which bears the same title as Wilde’s, and the other character, Cyril, serves as the more inquisitive interlocutor. At some points in the dialogue it seems possible that the identical titles of Vivian’s and Wilde’s essays suggests a congruency in beliefs, and thus that Vivian’s character acts as a distancing tool for Wilde to express his own beliefs and that Cyril is a stand-in for the reader who needs to be convinced, such as in the following selection, where Vivian voices an opinion that Wilde himself was known to share.
The public imagine that because they are interested in their immediate surroundings, Art should be interested in them also, and should take them as her subject matter. But the mere fact that they are interested in these things makes them unsuitable subjects for Art. The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art.
This notion, of art “never [expressing] anything but itself,” is one that Wilde expresses in other writings as well (such as in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, where he writes that “art is quite useless”). However, Vivian also expresses ideas that Wilde could not possibly agree with, such as the assertions about Japan’s existence.
The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.
While it’s possible that Wilde thinks that the image of the Japanese related through art is not representative of how Japanese people actually are, it is unlikely that he also thinks that the country of Japan does not exist. This passage exemplifies one way that the character of Vivian functions in relation to the author—he represents an extreme, communicating some of Wilde’s ideas but also playfully making fun of and destabilizing them, exemplifying the ideas about art that Wilde communicates through him.
1. Vivian says that the “unfortunate aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to Nature” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet “is merely a dramatic utterance, and no more represents Shakespeare’s real views upon art than the speeches of Iago represent his real views upon morals.” Is this a hint that Vivian’s dialogue is itself simply a “dramatic utterance” for Wilde? If he does agree with his character’s views, what is his purpose in including this statement about Hamlet?
2. In Vivian’s article, he writes about the importance of lying in art, citing “novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability” as a fault of modern writers. Is the purpose of Wilde’s invented dialogue to create something more true by conveying it through fiction?
3. How does the way that Vivian and Cyril function in relation to Wilde compare to the way that Beerbohm’s fictional narrator functions in “The Pervasion of Rogue”?
Last modified 8 March 2011