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.

One thought on “Wilde and Morality”

  1. I agree that in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” Wilde is challenging our traditional expectations of morality, particularly our expectations of morality as confined to a narrative. The ridiculous nature of the story – taking chiromancy seriously, multiple failed murder attempts, murder being viewed by the protagonist as an absolute necessity without any moral qualms, et cetera – complicates any moral judgements we want to make. I think it is interesting to consider this moral void that you point out in your post in terms of the subtitle of the story, “A Study of Duty.” I think this subtitle encourages us to consider what is right and wrong in terms of our duty to ourselves and to others. Lord Arthur acts out what he perceives to be his duty by committing murder before allowing himself to marry Sybil. Perhaps Wilde is asking us to question the reach of duty, and to what extent actions typically considered moral wrongs can be seen in a different light given unique circumstances. The question of where our true duties lie is inherently a question of morality. What is the strongest factor in our decision making? Is it a traditional moral compass, such as one that clearly prohibits murder as a reprehensible crime? Or our duty to ourselves, or to the people we love? I think Wilde, in a satirical, humorous way, explores these questions of morality by presenting a story of a man who doesn’t abide by a traditional sense of morality. The result is a confusing, frustrating one, since a murderer getting a happy ending isn’t what we expect as readers, but I think sitting with this discomfort can lead us to a consideration of what gives us our traditional moral codes.

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