Reading “The Decay of Lying” through the point of view of Oscar Wilde’s children made me start to think about the role of family in some of the Decadent works we have read so far. The connection is hard to make in “The Decay of Lying” because it is unclear why Wilde chose his sons as the main characters or what the actual significance is. Looking back at The Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature the family theme is a little clearer.
In Against Nature, Des Esseintes’ family is described in the prologue before the book even really begins. Huysmans traces the Des Esseintes lineage through the family portraits. Huysmans writes, “It was obvious that the decline of this ancient house had followed an inevitable course; the males had grown progressively more effeminate; as if to perfect the work of the time, for two centuries the Des Esseintes intermarried their children, thus exhausting, through inbreeding, what little strength they possessed,” (3). The Des Esseintes family has become weaker and sicker and the current Des Esseintes is no exception. Throughout the novel his weakness, illness, and neurosis are described. It seems that Des Esseintes is merely following a family trend.
Similarly, Dorian also traces through his ancestry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As Dorian examines the portraits of his predecessors, he sees pieces of himself in the various members of his family. He ponders whether he was, “bequeathed… some inheritance of sin and shame,” or influenced by past infamies (107-108). Dorian notes that he “had got from [his mother] his beauty, and his passion for the beauty of others,” (108). Like Des Esseintes, it seems that Dorian is just another link in a chain of similar family members. Wilde even writes, “There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life… It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own,” (108).
How unique are Dorian and Des Esseintes? Are they truly revolutionary or are they just members of eccentric families? Are their stories predetermined and inevitable? Both characters never have children, so is the line is severed. But Oscar Wilde had his two sons. Where does he see himself in this line of thought? Perhaps casting his sons in one of his witty and more pointed works is his way of expressing the hope that his legacy will continue.