Literature Study GuidesThe Decay Of Lying

The Decay of Lying | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde

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Argument, Philosophy

At a Glance

Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" presents various arguments on the nature of art through a dialogue between two characters, Vivian and Cyril. The essay first argues that all true art is lying and that modern writers' insistence on bringing commonplace reality into their works causes the "decay of lying." The essay also argues that nature is a poor source of inspiration for art, and it actually imitates art. The third argument is that life imitates art far more often than art imitates life. Wilde criticizes several writers of the time who he feels oppose his ideals. "The Decay of Lying" illustrates Wilde's dedication to the tenets of the late 19th-century Aestheticism movement, which stressed the notion of "art for art's sake," with art's only purpose being its beauty. The essay embodies the Aesthetic ideals that circulated at the time and constitutes a philosophical debate on the nature of art that continues to this day.

Perspective and Narrator

"The Decay of Lying" is an essay told in dialogue form in a similar manner to a conversation that might be read in a play. The text consists of an exchange between Vivian and Cyril, two characters who discuss various topics at length and debate and disagree on different points as the conversation proceeds in a country house library in Nottinghamshire, England. The dialogue between these two fictional characters allows the author to explore the points and counterpoints of the essay's argument and themes.

About the Title

"The Decay of Lying" was published in 1889 in the British monthly literary periodical The Nineteenth Century and was republished in Wilde's essay collection Intentions in 1891. The essay argues that all true art is made up of beautiful and imaginative lies and that this principle is being threatened by artists who insist on bringing the "real world" of commonplace events and facts into their art. Wilde argues that this trend of including "reality" in art causes the "decay of lying," an erosion of the imagination and creativity that Wilde feels art should derive from. Wilde criticizes popular artistic notions of the time as well as several well-known writers whose works he feels conflict with his artistic ideals. Wilde also makes bold claims about what art consists of, the role of nature in art, and the relationship between art and life. The essay was inspired by the late 19th-century Aestheticism movement, which rebelled against the conservative Victorian traditions that dominated society and stressed its provocative and sensual ideas. The movement insisted that art should be free from any moralistic, political, or utilitarian purposes and should exist simply for the sake of its beauty. Wilde funnels Aesthetic ideals into "The Decay of Lying" to make a philosophical argument on the nature of art that encompasses bold assertions that challenged the prevailing Victorian attitudes.


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