n his satirical work, “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde defends the doctrines of aestheticism in a largely facetious dialogue between the constructed characters Vivian and Cyril. In defense of art for art’s sake, Vivian reads Cyril excerpts from an article he has written, titled “The Decay of Lying: A Protest.” Vivian rejects the notion that art should seek to imitate nature, and warns that modern culture has been corrupted by excessive focus on fact, which leads to “genre ennuyeux:” dullness. Vivian claims that fact and art are opposites, and leaves no room for possible reconciliation. Fact leads to the death of imagination, and therefore, he argues, bad art. In his article, Vivian remarks that in many great works of art and literature “facts are either kept in their proper subordinate position, or else entirely excluded on the general ground of dullness.” He laments the rise of modernism in art, observing: “Now, everything has changed. Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarizing mankind.” Vivian believes that the effect of this devotion to honesty threatens the art world especially. He explains:
VIVIAN. The loss that results to literature in general from this false ideal of our time can hardly be overestimatedÉIn modern days while the fashion of writing poetry has become far too common, and should, if possible, be discouraged, the fashion of lying has almost fallen into disrepute. Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy —
CYRIL. My dear fellow!
VIVIAN. Please don’t interrupt in the middle of a sentence. “He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe their probability. This is no isolated instance that we are giving. It is simply one example out of many; and if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away fro, the land.
Wilde uses the voice of Vivian to advance his satiric attack on modern art and advocate for the rebirth of “lying,” which becomes synonymous with artistic imagination and creativity. However, as Wilde reaches the conclusion of the dialogue, he drops his satiric tone and begins to directly list the doctrine of aestheticism which he wishes to advance. He outline the foundations of the artistic movement, reiterating the principle of art for art’s sake, and concluding that lying, defined as the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.
1. Why does Wilde choose to present his argument in dialog format? What effect does the use of invented characters have on Wilde’s argument about lying?
2. What purpose do Cyril’s interruptions serve? How does Wilde develop the relationship between Vivian and Cyril, and what effect does this have on Vivian and/or Wilde’s argument?
3. Early on in the dialogue, Vivian observes:
Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity. I only hope we shall be able to keep this great historical bulwark of our happiness for many years to come; but I am afraid that we are beginning to be overeducated; at least everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching — that is really what our enthusiasm for education has come to.
4. Can Wilde’s voice be heard here? If not, how do we know what Wilde believes? Does Wilde speak through Vivian? Are there other instances in the dialog where we hear Wilde clearly?
5. How does Wilde’s repeated use of the word “lying” shape the essay? How would the effect be different if he were to use a synonym with different connotations?
6. How do Wilde’s views on the connection between authenticity and art as expressed in “The Decay of Lying” compare with those of Beerbohm in “The Pervasion of Rouge,” and Ruskin in “Traffic?”
Does the straightforward ending of the piece undermine the effectiveness of the preceding satire? Does this ending more directly reflect Wilde’s voice? Does it strengthen his argument?