Decadence as a social critique in Huysmans, D'Annunzio, and Wilde




Di Mauro-Jackson, Moira M.

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



When literary movements do not grow out of specific groups who adopt a name fort heir endeavors, they have usually been named to refer to certain stylistic features. Such is the case with "Decadence," a rubric referring to specific poets in turn-of-thecentury France. Most extant work on the artists of decadent literature focuses on its stylistic elements and narrative tropes: their reaction against the image of artist/creator from Romanticism, to cast the artist as egotist; their plea for art's autonomy (as well as for art for art's sake and for the artist as society's outsider); and their idea that art must be sensationalist and melodramatic, bizarre, perverse, exotic, or artificial to make an impact. What is overlooked in traditional approaches to decadent literature is its own frequent claims to social critique, toward which Julia Kristeva points in the un-translated second half of her Revolution in Poetic Language (1974). Moreover, much decadent literature emerges at a historical moment in which a ruling class is under fire; the typical "decadent" work portrays the decline of a class, and the possible repercussions of that deconstruction for the individuals in it. To approach the literature of fin de siècle decadence as social critique, this project considers three novels taken as the three bibles of the decadent movement in French, Italian and English literatures: Huysmans' A rebours (1884), D'Annunzio's own recreation of A rebours, his own Il piacere (1889), and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). I will argue that, in this era of emergent modernism, decadent literature tries to claim a more resistant and social critical position from within class structure than does modernism, and that decadent literature, despite its superficial affinities with the Romanticism to which modernism also refers, not only is a literature of the struggle of the individual against an uncaring social world, but also underscores the necessity of reconstructing the hero/narrator's ego, as his identity reflects a class position which must be altered if it is to remain viable.