We have previously discussed some similarities between Wilde’s work and The Woman in White, the sensationalist novel by Wilkie Collins, and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” stood out to me exactly for that reason. The story definitely has the feel and themes of sensationalism, including several failed murder attempts with a variety of weapons and near misses with the police. But I think the reason the two feel so similar is not these plot points, but the voice of the narrator, Lord Arthur, and his quest to marry his lady love, Sybil Merton. This chase felt eerily similar to Walter Hartright’s goal to marry Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White. Both men have a certain stubbornness about their goals, and both have a wiliness to do illegal things in order to accomplish them. In Watler’s case, breaking Laura out of an asylum, and in Arthur’s, murdering Mr. Podgers.
However, in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” it appears that Wilde is satirizing sensationalism to some end. It is Arthur himself who decides he needs to murder someone else in order to marry Sybil, nothing else in the greater world of the story requires it. He believes that he must murder because he believes that the fortune that Mr. Podgers gives him is unavoidable, and he wants to protect Sybil from his murderous acts. The irony here is that in order to save his marriage’s future wellbeing, Arthur decides to start his marriage on a bed of murder and lies, not to mention that the whole scenario is based on the outcome of one palm reading! This is much different than the narrative of A Woman in White, where Walter, although he may not be perfect, is attacking a legitimate problem facing both his own goal of marrying Laura, but a problem for women at large. I find this twist in genre fascinating and am curious about how it would’ve been viewed by readers during Wilde’s time.
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.