Form in “The Decay of Lying” and “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” and “Pen, Pencil and Poison” both serve as explanations of his views on art. “The Decay of Lying” takes the form of a more philosophical treatise, whereas “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” defies most characterizations of form. The form of both pieces allows Wilde to distance himself from his ideas about art.
“The Decay of Lying” takes the form of a philosophical, Socratic-like dialogue. Wilde does not appear as a character in the dialogue. Instead, he uses the names of his sons, Vivian and Cyril, who were too young at the time to have carried on the discussion written. Although this creates the potential for irony, it also distances Wilde from the conversation, though he remains a presence in the piece. The use of his sons’ names can also be interpreted as a regurgitation of ideas; they have absorbed Wilde’s ideas and can explain them point-by-point. The form of dialogue allows Wilde to express his ideas while exempting him from taking full credit for them.
Wilde’s piece “Pen, Pencil and Poison” unravels in a form difficult to categorize. Wilde uses Wainewright’s story to unveil his own views on art, weaving his life into an aesthetic treatise. The beginning of the piece appears to use the form of biography. As it progresses, however, Wilde contemplates the interplay of art and crime, beauty and the terrible (playing on Burke’s definition of the “sublime”). Wilde uses Wainewright to again hide behind another character or narrator to express his views. In doing so, Wainewright become a plot device rather than a three-dimensional character and historical figure.
Wilde uses “The Decay of Lying” and “Pen, Pencil and Poison” to express his views on art and aesthetic philosophy. By employing figures such as Vivan, Cyril, and Wainewright, Wilde deflects responsibility for his views on art. -KJO

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Filed under Week 6 Reviews: Wilde's criticism in Intentions

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