decorated initial 'I'n "The Decay of Lying" Oscar Wilde sets out a dialogue between two characters in a disquisition on art, nature, and the relationship between them. The primary character in this dialogue, Vivian, broadly echoes a wide range of decadent ideas about the subject of art: "What Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition." And: "Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror."

In attacking the idea of realism, the character of Vivian seems to reject the ideas of John Ruskin and his early Pre-Raphaelite followers. Whereas Ruskin had encouraged artists to find truth in nature, Wilde's character mocks the idea:

"The popular cry of our time is 'Let us return to Life and Nature; they will recreate art for us, and send the red blood coursing through her veins; they will shoe her feet with swiftness and make her hand strong.' But, alas we are mistaken in our amiable and well-meaning efforts. Nature is always behind the age."

At the same time, Wilde's character actively praises D.G. Rossetti, whom he calls especially imaginative. Rossetti, however, was powerfully influenced by Ruskin, and in fact Ruskin was Rossetti's patron. In a similar contradiction, at the end of the poem Vivian, after pages of ranting against nature, decides eventually to join nature and enjoy the twilight hours, returning to nature as Ruskin suggests. These seeming contradictions only serve to offer further questions for an already curious dialogue.

Questions

1. Why does Wilde chose to have this essay take the form of a dialogue between two speakers, and quite a lopsided one at that?

2. Is the main character, Vivian, supposed to be conveying Wilde's views? Or is the relationship more like that of Des Esseintes to Huysmans — a character created by an author who doesn't agree with his protagonist?

3. Does Wilde intend the character to be self-contradictory? Are this decedent's attitudes toward Ruskin and Rossetti consistent? Are his views towards nature consistent or a contradiction?

4. How does this work compare and contrast with A Rebours, a work that clearly influenced Wilde? How do Des Esseintes' views on flowers seemingly contradict Vivian's ideas? Is the end, where Vivian leaves his study, meant to be reminiscent of the end of A Rebours?

5. In the preface to Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" he makes several statements regarding realism and art:

"The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass."

Wilde famously said that "all art is quite useless." How do each of these statements inform or contradict Vivian's words?


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Last modified 21 April 2008