A Study of Duty: Wilde’s Subtitles

As I read “The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” I became interested and even confused at the short phrases under the title. For “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” it is “A Study of Duty” (168). For “The Canterville Ghost,” it is “a Hylo-Idealistic Romance” (193). After reading each of the stories, I wondered why Wilde used the specific words to place under the title to encapsulate the art piece; why did he even need to prescribe such short phrases under the short stories if the stories speak for themselves? In addition, I thought it was almost contradictory to offer these phrases to encapsulate the art piece if the aesthetes and decadence believe that art impresses rather than expresses; it is the individualism of the reader that art finds its beauty. By bestowing a phrase on a story, many will examine the story through that specific lens that the phrases offer. I attempted to see if the phrases underneath each title allowed me a newer perspective to think about the stories.

Like others have said in the blog posts, Wilde ironizes Calvinism and the idea that Arthur Savile is predestined to murder; although he is clearly the worst world’s murderer in his multiple failed attempts, he finally succeeds when he murders somebody who advocates for Calvinism, who Wilde portrays as the embodiment of predestination. So why didn’t Wilde include predestination under the title? I speculate that he possibly did not want to attack such Calvinist ideals directly. Still, I believe it is more likely that he wanted to examine duty as a whole in society. In class, we’ve talked a lot about how Victorians were mortified by the aesthetes and decadents’ beliefs in the individual and “art for art’s sake.” At the same time, the Victorians emphasized collectivism and duty to the common good. In “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” Wilde “studies” duty and questions its validity. Does one person even have a duty? Much like the victims that Arthur chooses at random (179), predestination operates on similar grounds, implying that duty is also arbitrary. The subtitle helps ground the story and its more significant implications. Still, I also think that Wilde telling us what the story is (a study of duty) goes against some of the aesthetes’ viewpoints because what if somebody does not interpret it as a study of duty?

“The Canterville’s Ghost” is largely an enigmatic story to me. It was my favorite of the two, but the phrase underneath is hard to reconcile with, mainly because I didn’t view Virginia and the ghost to be in a “romance.” If anybody else has an interpretation, I would love to hear it and hope we talk more about this in class!