Analysis of Oscar Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime

Subtitled “A Study of Duty,” “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” was published in a volume called Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. Oscar Wilde had previously sold it in 1887 to the magazine Court and Society Review. Lord Arthur stands at the brink of his wedding to his beloved Sybil Merton when he goes to a party at Lady Windermere’s and meets a cheiromantist, or palm reader—her pet entertainer for the time. When Lord Arthur has his palm read privately by Mr. Podgers the cheiromantist, he learns that he is destined to murder a distant relative. To clear the way for his marriage to Sybil, he decides to get the murder over with; however, it turns out that Lord Arthur is an inept murderer. Both of his attempts at the crime—giving his second cousin, Lady Clementina, a poison pill for her next attack of heartburn and sending a dynamite-rigged exploding clock to the Dean of Chichester—fail. Lady Clementina dies but does not take the pill he gave her, and the clock acts an entertaining toy for the Dean’s family. Just when Arthur is about to give up, he sees Podgers on a bridge at the Thames and has the inspired notion that action will do the trick. He grabs Podgers by the legs and tips him into the river. The story ends happily as Sybil and Lord Arthur, having been married by the Dean of Chichester, converse with Lady Windermere. Sybil tells her friend that Lord Arthur takes one subject so seriously that he must not be kidded about it—cheiromancy.

The story is a humorous critique of the Victorian notion of duty and the idea of the heroic quest as it juxtaposes Lord Arthur’s determination to clear the way for his marriage by committing murder with the reader’s knowledge that murder cannot masquerade as duty. This opposition creates irony throughout the story. Wilde also satirizes the idea that the aristocracy can be moral exemplars for society. When Lord Arthur makes the arrangement for the exploding clock to be sent to the dean, for example, he contacts a Russian anarchist and agrees, on his honor, not to give any information to Scotland Yard about him. Lord Arthur also takes Lady Windermere’s taste for novelty as a premise for serious action. His killing of Podgers does not mean his denial of belief in chiromancy, but it strikes the reader as a moment of poetic justice as the origin of Savile’s murder attempts becomes the fulfillment of his quest. The story’s tone, especially in a passage that describes Lord Arthur’s despair at not being able to commit a murder, clearly mocks the norms of melodrama: “When he got upstairs, he flung himself on a sofa, and his eyes filled with tears. He had done his best to commit this murder, but on both occasions he had failed, and through no fault of his own” (47). Most of the story’s satire focuses on Lord Arthur, but other characters are not spared. Sybil, in her role as unquestioning wife and patient fiancée, is also part of the satire. She is ridiculously loyal to Lord Arthur even when he travels abroad and delays their wedding without giving her or her parents an explanation. Lady Windermere’s trendiness comes through again at the end of the story: Her new fad is telepathy. Lady Windermere ironically observes about Arthur’s loyalty to cheiromancy, “I never heard such nonsense in all my life” (52).

Wilde, Oscar. Complete Shorter Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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