In Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying", a fictional character named Vivian argues for the revival of creativity and the appreciation of "art for art's sake." He also asserts that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life," a questionable claim that earns more credence as Vivian explains his original reasoning. Vivian, a self-professed advocate of lying, uses the above arguments to support his case that deceit, as opposed to honesty and realism, leads to the production of worthy art and literature:

One of the chief causes that can be assigned for 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. . . 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 from the land.

Wilde's assertion of these ideas through an invented character makes it difficult for readers to distinguish between fact and fiction. He ensures that his own opinions on the subject remain ambiguous, thereby allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. The nature of the topic addressed, namely the merits of deceit, also casts doubt upon the dependability of the narrator. Vivian puts forth a strong argument for lying in this dialogue, forcing the reader to question his veracity. It seems appropriate that a man with such a love for lying would use the skill to lure an audience over to his side. In this way, Wilde leaves the reader questioning Vivian's sincerity, as well as whether or not the author expresses his own opinions through his character's voice.

Questions

1. In their play Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan openly mocked the ideals that arose out of the Aesthetic Movement. The cult of beauty and the decadents' dismissal of realism were laughable to those who ascribed to the teachings of Ruskin and Carlyle. How were the aesthetes received by the general public as opposed to their fellow intellectuals?

2. In Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts Satan as a deceivingly sympathetic character. An enigmatic and alluring personality, Satan tempts the reader to his side just as he tempts Eve to sin. How can this portrayal of Satan be compared to Wilde's character, Vivian?

3. Why do you think Wilde chooses to distance himself from the dialogue in "The Decay of Lying"?

4. Why do you think Wilde chose to frame "The Decay of Lying" as a conversation? Did you think that Cyril's character contributed anything to the work or was he just a convenient device to ask the right questions and facilitate discussion?

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Last modified 23 April 2009