In "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde constructs a caustic satire on literary and artistic criticism; through the creation of two characters, Wilde ludicrously pleas for the necessary revival of the disposed art of lying via arguments that nature and life are inferior and secondary inspiration to art. The adherence and dedication to truth and facts are just plain dull. Vivian, the fictional critic created as a vessel for this argument, pushes the idea of an aesthetic hedonism — art for art's sake — to an extreme, while Cyril, the beholder of this satirical tour de force, acts as a catalyst to the argument by posing just the right questions of disbelief. Wilde uses the character of Vivian to skewer the elitist, self-righteous if not conceited, social entity known as the art critic.

"The Tired Hedonists, of course. It is a club to which I belong. We are supposed to wear faded roses in our button holes when we meet, and to have a sort of cult for Domitian. I am afraid you are not eligible. You are too fond of simple pleasures . . . besides, you are a little too old. We don't admit anybody who is of the usual age."

Cyril, the unknowing accomplice, is a caricature of the dim witted and mildly questioning general readership. In the structure of his essay, Wilde oscillates between pseudo-legitimate arguments concerning the remolding, and therefore creation of life by art, "There may have been fogs for centuries inLondon. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them" and utterly absurd statements, "in fact, the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people." In doing so, Wilde draws the reader into these his arguments by the sheer force of his rhetoric, only to remind the reader of their foolishness later on by way of more absurd comments.

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows?...The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific of metaphysical point of view and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it. It depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only does it come into existence…Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon. The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it.

Vivian sometimes reads from his article, "The Decaying of Lying," and sometimes argues his point on the spot.

Questions

The language of these two occasions greatly differs; where as the sections read from the article employ complicated syntax and formal language, Vivian's "improvised" explanations are much simpler. Why does Wilde choose to do this and what effect does it have upon Vivian's argument? On Wilde's argument?

The interaction between Cyril and Vivian anticipates the interaction that a piece of criticism has with its reader, how does their interaction and conversation effect the interaction of this essay with its reader, us?

What is the effect of the anthropomorphism of Nature in the above paragraph?

In "The Decay of Lying," as with all satires, there is a stated, ostensible argument of the "narrator" and a hidden argument of the author. Underneath layers of sarcasm, what is Wilde's criticism on genre of artistic criticism and its writers?


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Last modified 16 October 2003