n "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde employs a dialogue between two characters, Cyril and Vivian, to claim that "the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure." Vivian, the writer of this essay of protest, argues that the bad habits of fact and accuracy have permeated all of art and literature, and if unchecked, "Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away fro, the land."

Vivian sees great potential for those who embrace the art of Lying, and in so doing, truly create Art and not merely imitate. He calls for a completely original creation, not simply a recreation of Life and Nature, as they too, imitate Art.

The popular cry of our time is "Let us return to Life and Nature; they will recreate [20/21] Art for us, and send the red blood coursing th rough her veins; they will shoe her feet with swiftness and make her hand strong." But, alas I we are mistaken in our amiable and well-meaning efforts. Nature is always behind the age. And as for Life, she is 'the solvent that breaks up Art, the enemy that lays waste her house.'

In this situation the liar therefore, plays a redemptive role for the false, fallen, contemporary Art. She, "breaking from the prison-house of realism, will run to greet him, and will kiss his false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of the great secret of all her manifestations . . . " Moving away from conventional views that we can rekindle Art through the inspiration of what surrounds us, the liar tells us that:

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. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, and can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread. Hers are the "forms [31/32] more real than living man," and hers the great archetypes of which things that have existence are but unfinished copies."

Instead of the artist using Life as inspiration, Life only lives through Art's creation. Vivian supports this extreme argument by pointing out that societal views on beauty are always a reflection of imaginative Art; he specifically points out Rossetti and Burne-Jones' depictions of women and the Greek sculptures of the gods as the ideal. Indeed, we see here that the ideal cannot to be reached; it is but an imagined reality in a perfect world — a lie.


1. Why does Wilde use the two characters to present this argument instead of just starting with Vivian's essay?

2. Does this argument make Vivian a liar?

3. What would Ruskin, who encouraged artists to spend time truly immersed in nature and recreate it as part of their training, think of this argument? Is it parallel to his beliefs? Consider these two sections:

Ruskin, from Section V of Modern Painters:

Of all contemptible criticism, that is most to be contemned which punishes great works of art when they fight without armour, and refuses to feel or acknowledge the great spiritual refracted sun of their truth, because it has risen at a false angle, and burst open them before its appointed time. And yet, on the other hand, let it be observed, that it is not feeling, nor fancy, nor imagination, so called, that I have put before science, but watchfulness, experience, affection, and trust in nature; and farther let it be observed that there is a difference between the license taken by one man and another, which makes one license admirable, and the other punishable; and that this difference is of a kind sufficiently discernible by every earnest person, though it is not so explicable as that we can beforehand say where and when, or even to whom, the license is to be forgiven. [333]

Wilde, from "The Decay of Lying"

All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art's rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything.

4. Wilde's style of writing in "The Decay of Lying" echoes the sage writings of Carlyle, who wrote for a well-read audience. Is Wilde's intended audience the same? Who are they and why does Wilde feel they need to hear this?

Last modified 20 April 2009