What are Wilde’s thoughts on predestination?

While reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime I struggled to make sense of Wilde’s commentary on predestination in relation to the ideas we already talked about in class, particularly in “The Harlot’s House.” When Lord Arthur hears of his destiny to commit a murder, he thinks, “Could it be that written on his hand, in characters that he could not read himself, but that another could decipher, was some fearful secret of sin… Was there no escape possible? Were we no better than chessmen, moved by an unseen power, vessels the potter fashions at his fancy, for honor or for shame? His reason revolted against it, and yet he felt that some tragedy was hanging over him…” (165). The image of all of mankind moving around the earth as chessmen controlled by some supernatural force reminded me of the mechanical descriptions in “The Harlot’s House.” The dancers are described as “wire-pulled automatons” and “clockwork puppets” (lines 13 and 19). In both passages, Wilde presents the human condition as one that is entirely out of our control.

While this passage in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime probes our understanding of free will and reason, I could not help but think that the short story as a whole makes fun of the idea of predestination. The plot was predictable, especially in the ways that Lord Arthur tried to rush his fate and complete the crime in order to marry Sybil. I have read quite a few murder mysteries and suspense novels, and poisoning is one of the least effective ways to kill. Also, poisoning is more commonly used by women in literature, and in real life according to The Washington Post. The failed bombing is comical as well. The letter from Jane reveals it to be an “ingenious toy” that “looked so ridiculous, that James and I went off into fits of laughter… when we examined it, we found it was some sort of alarm clock” (179). What does it mean that Wilde portrays predestination so differently between Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House”? When we discussed predestination last week in the context of the “The Harlot’s House,” one of the main points we made regarded class distinctions, the idea that the poor are unable to resist the force of destiny that pulls them into the harlot’s house, but the rich instead partake because they are bored. Lord Arthur is clearly of the upper class, and he hears of his destiny at Lady Windermere’s extravagant reception. In the last lines of the story, when Sybil, Lady Windermere, and Arthur discuss his belief in chiromancy, Arthur says, “I owe to [chiromancy] all the happiness of my life” (183). Why does the hand of fate provide happiness to the rich and suffering to the poor? Lady Windermere says Arthur’s faith in chiromancy is absolute nonsense, and this perfectly captures Wilde’s views on predestination in both the short story and poem. Given Lord Arthur’s social status, he would have married Sybil and experienced such great “happiness” had simply chosen not to listen to his fortune and murder the chiromantist, yet the same does not apply to the impoverished visitors of the harlot’s house. However, this distinction between the predestination of the poor does not necessarily mean that Wilde is sympathetic to the lower classes. In The Decay of Lying, he discusses the poor as subjects in literature. Vivian says, “Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration” (1077). Reading the “Harlot’s House” as in conversation with Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, the effect is an indifference to specific details of father and instead an emphasis on how one behaves as it looms overhead.

Attraction to the Strange

While reading “The Harlot’s House,” I was struck by the line “Like strange mechanical grotesques” (7). We discussed the significance of “strange” in Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature” and how the word suggests queerness. It is interesting that Wilde uses strange to describe grotesques because it suggests a fascination with them. While the grotesque is horrifying, it demands a viewer’s attention, like a car crash people cannot look away from. The grotesque brings Frankenstein to mind and Milton’s Paradise Lost as a result. Professor McCrea mentioned Milton’s Satan in our discussion last week and how the most wicked character in the poem is by far the most appealing. This connects to “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” where Wilde proposes “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” (1244). With that phrase in mind, “The Harlot’s House” is both an examination of prostitution and a deconstruction of the binaries of good and bad. We have talked about how the decadents emphasize style and form over significance, and I think that the word “mechanical” in this line highlights the lack of intentionality of the people dancing in the harlot’s house. They dance like “wire-pulled automatons / slim silhouetted skeletons” (13-14). The dancers are not considering the wickedness of their actions. While they are described as grotesques and skeletons in a poem laden with gothic elements and shadows, the puppeteering element dissolves any sense of agency they may have. There are no moral assignments in the poem, only transient figures and interactions. As the music stops and the figures return into the normal world, there is a sense that anyone could wander into the harlot’s house and back out. It is as if the mechanical grotesques and ghosts walk among us, and returning to Wilde’s philosophy, “good people” are no exception.