Wilde and Morality

While reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, I was struck by how the story seemed to be almost void of morality as we traditionally understand it. I do not mean that there is no right or wrong in the story, but that audience expectations are not met. In my experience, people come to expect stories like Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” When the main character does something wrong, he gets his comeuppance, even if it is at his own hands. However, in Wilde’s story, Lord Arthur Savile never even acknowledges that he did anything wrong.

I think it is fair to state that murder is wrong without needing to explain why, and I would argue that most people would agree with me. The average person reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime would see Savile’s actions as morally reprehensible. Yet, he still gets his “happily ever after” and does not so much as acknowledge that what he did was wrong. The narrator is explicit: “never for one moment did Lord Arthur regret all that he had suffered” (182). Not only does Lord Arthur not show guilt for his actions, but he sees them in the lens of his own suffering. Throughout the story, Lord Arthur treats murder as a task he must complete in order to live the life he wants, not as a moral question. That is an uncomfortable reality for the reader to face, especially because Lord Arthur clearly shows no remorse.

The story does not seem to want the reader to look deeply into questions of right and wrong, yet I could not stop myself. Wilde seems content to represent a world in which people can do awful things with no punishment while innocent men–like the chiromantist–suffer for no reason. Arguably, that world is as akin to our own as the one of moral judgment that I choose to read into the story, even though it is difficult to accept. It is a concept for which I do not actually have an answer, and it paints a picture of an almost arbitrary world in which morality comes second to people’s desires–or doesn’t come up at all. I’ll be interested to see whether this notion is reflected in Wilde’s other work, particularly in The Picture of Dorian Gray.