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The Decadent Movement

The Decadent was speaking to his soul--
Poor useless thing, he said,
Why did God burden me with such as thou?
The body were enough,
The body gives me all.


He dreamed of a new sin: An incest 'twixt the body and the soul

From “The Décadent to His Soul” by Richard Le Galliene.


These lines from “The Decadent to His Soul” by Richard Le Galliene call to mind the central decadent themes at the heart of The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Like the narrator in this poem, Dorian enjoys the pleasures of the material world and feels that they are all that is necessary in life, while simultaneously feeling horrified at the decaying soul represented by his portrait. The last line quoted here calls to mind Dorian’s ultimate “sin”, in which while letting the portrait that represents fusion body and soul decay he believes that being physically beautiful and leading a life that is also beautiful are enough. 


The term “decadence” refers in the broad sense to the phase in which a civilization decays and declines, but the term has also been used to describe several artistic movements, particularly in the nineteenth century. The decadence of fin de siècle England is said to have grown out of the earlier French decadence movement spearheaded by writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Joris-Karl Huysmans. In England the movement’s primary champions were Oscar Wilde (called the “High Priest” of the movement by the National Observer at the time of his trial (Thornton 1)), illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, and author Walter Pater. Though decadence is a broad label, and shares much overlap with the Aesthetic and Symbolist movements, qualities frequently attributed to the movement include perversity, artificiality, egoism, curiosity (Goldfarb 371), morbidity, and a desire to “épater le bourgeois (shock the bourgeois) (“Decadents and Aesthetes.”).

Critical Essay – Artificiality and Virtue

The character of Dorian Gray and his portrait stand as embodiments of the decadence of the fin de siècle. Dorian does not only lead a lifestyle that is decadent, hedonistic, and “immoral” on a superficial level, as it is implied that he engages in several affairs with young women and frequents opium dens, but the marred portrait and Dorian’s permanently youthful visage themselves represent the artificiality that was favored by the decadents – “the aesthetic crosses over into the real world and takes on its temporality, whereas the real, by the magic of Dorian’s wish not to age, takes on the timelessness of art (Bernheimer, et al, 5)”.

To decadent forefather Charles Baudelaire, virtue and goodness were artificial constructs – “"All that is beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. Crime, the taste for which the human animal draws from the womb of his mother, is natural in its origins. Virtue, on the contrary, is artificial and supernatural, since gods and prophets were necessary in every epoch and every nation to teach virtue . . . the good is always the product of some art (“Decadents and Aesthetes.”)," he wrote. Baudelaire’s thoughts on crime bring to mind Lord Henry’s, “All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime… Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders… I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations (Wilde 213).” Lord Henry seems to feel similarly to Baudelaire as he finally presents to Dorian the boundaries of his decadent philosophy – crime is vulgar, and therefore the opposite of art, and adds, “One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner,” indicating further that his objection to crime is not related to the question of its morality, but because it lacks the virtue of the artistic.

Dorian’s affair with Sibyl Vane is another case in the novel that suggests the virtue of artificiality, for Dorian loves Sibyl as a talented actress, a figure of art and artificiality. When Sibyl succumbs to her human love for Dorian and loses her talent, Dorian as a true decadent, falls out of love with her.

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