“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”; Or, an Anti-Morality Tale about Murder and Public Image

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) wrote in a notebook he kept during his time at Oxford, “as in the physical so it is in the moral life—we turn our eyes not to the deeper depths from which we have sprung, but to the higher heights to which we can rise” (Oxford Notebook 87). Thoughts like this abound in Wilde’s notebooks. However, it is not until recently that scholars have begun to reexamine the relationship between Wilde and Victorian morality, viewing him far more sympathetically and with far more complexity than previously.  In an essay that reconsiders Wilde’s trials, Dale Barleben narrates Wilde’s entrance into the courtroom for the 1895 libel trial against the Marquess of Queensberry in response to Queensberry’s public proclamation that Wilde was a “Posing Sodomite.” Barleben argues Wilde’s trials were “of not only his actions but also his literature and reputation” (908). This breakdown between the private and public, Barleben says, ultimately lead to Wilde’s ruin:

In many of Carson’s remarks during his cross-examination, Wilde was painted as both immoral and infectious […] The distinction is significant here because a civil claim, like the tort of libel, allows for a remedy for one individual as against another. It designates a private harm, not necessarily important to social order […] Yet Carson’s remarks are clearly directed toward Wilde’s acts being of a criminal nature. That is, his malfeasance, in Carson’s narrative, threatened the very underpinnings of social order in late Victorian society. (910)

 His essay calls attention to the trauma felt by Wilde once his public identity was questioned and marred by his private actions—branding him a morally corrupt criminal. Wilde’s name would no longer denote a popular, important author but a deviant, felonious threat to the nation.

By conflating personal morality with the public good, reputation and public image were sanctified; actions were neither immoral, nor illegal, until those actions ventured into the public’s view. Namely, “Wilde’s private life was relatively private until the apparatus of the trial […] ironically made him and his private affairs matters of great public importance” (Barleben 910, emphasis added). It was easy for Wilde’s contemporaries to ignore “crimes” committed as long as they remained private. Likewise, in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (1891),[1] Wilde establishes that the key to attaining “the higher heights to which we can rise” is guarding against negative public perception (Oxford Notebook 87).  The moral-aesthetic ideal, under this system of social accountability, rests on one’s ability to maintain a line between personal acts and public knowledge. A “good person” is someone who will go to any lengths—including murder—to maintain his public image as a good person, not someone who is unfailingly honorable.

I argue Wilde uses Lord Arthur’s choices subsequent upon accepting “the doom of murder hanging over his head” as a comical means to explore these moral aesthetics. These feature heavily in some of his other short fiction, as Justin Jones notes in his essay, “Morality’s Ugly Implications in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales.” Jones notes that while writing children’s fairy tales, Wilde employed

ironic moments of moral instruction—accompanied by the ugliness of the characters and/or the surroundings—to mark the boundary between artistic beauty and coarse reality and to highlight the moral hypocrisy of those in his audience who would extol the virtues of charity and compassion for the less fortunate while supporting the class system responsible for their condition.

This short story, instead, invites readers to examine the morally charged responses of Lord Arthur as he chooses his victim. Wilde highlights the boundary “between artistic beauty and coarse reality” precisely by extolling “the virtues of charity and compassion” in his protagonist, a man committed to committing murder. What redeems Lord Arthur’s murderous acts is his obsession with protecting his name, as well as his beloved’s.

Lord Arthur’s initial reaction to Mr. Podgers’ prediction that he would murder someone is essentially aesthetic: he laments “its absolute uselessness, its grotesque want of meaning.” Moreover, as he comes to grips with his “fate,” the focus for Lord Arthur is his name. Coming upon a wanted poster “printed in black letters,” he imagines how, “some day, his own name might be placarded on the walls of London” and, “perhaps, a price would be set on his head also” (emphasis added). Wilde juxtaposes Lord Arthur’s musings on his own fate with the poster’s description of the murderer.

It was an advertisement offering a reward for any information leading to the arrest of a man of medium height, between thirty and forty years of age, wearing a billy-cock hat, a black coat, and check trousers, and with a scar upon his right cheek.  He read it over and over again, and wondered if the wretched man would be caught, and how he had been scarred. 

This juxtaposition emphasizes Lord Arthur’s focus on his own name, instead of, as with this unknown criminal, focusing on how he would be physically seen by others. Lord Arthur’s concern here about his “unavoidable” crime is solely on how it impacts his name. His name—and not his body—bears the weight of public perceptions of him.

Of course, Lord Arthur realizes that should the murder occur after his marriage to Sybil Merton and his crime made known to the public, her name, “a symbol of all that is good and noble,” would also be tarnished. The possible negative effect to Sybil’s name drives him to postpone their planned wedding. Lord Arthur nobly sacrifices “the primrose path of dalliance to the steep heights of duty” after realizing that he is obligated to commit murder. Wilde writes that Lord Arthur “recognized none the less clearly where his duty lay, and was fully conscious of the fact that he had no right to marry until he had committed the murder.” The irony of murder as sacred duty is heightened as he congratulates himself on the wisdom of his decision: he realizes “he had the rarest of all things, common sense.”

Lord Arthur’s next objective is deciding “whom to make away with.” He fixes on his second cousin, Lady Clementina Beauchamp, but only after having “made out a list of his friends and relatives on a sheet of notepaper” (because he had no enemies who he might more cheerfully murder). Wilde makes certain to note that Lord Arthur choice of victim comes from this list, reinforcing the level-headed and morally idealistic approach to his fate. Wilde reinforces this morally ideal character by describing how his choice meant “there was no possibility of his  deriving any vulgar monetary advantages by her death.” In addition to keeping his public image safe, Lord Arthur consciously chooses a victim whose murder would be free of personal gain. As “violence was extremely distasteful to him,” he chose poison and “was very anxious not to murder Lady Clementina in any way that might attract public attention.” Though he would later decide on capsule of aconite to ensure a quick and painless death, his primary care is to hide his involvement. The thought of “seeing his name figuring in the paragraphs of vulgar society—newspapers,” and that Sybil’s parents “might possibly object to the marriage if there was anything like a scandal” shows how Lord Arthur was less concerned with his action or his victim than some of his comments may first appear. The emphasis continues to be placed on the effect to public perception.

After the startling revelation that he had not in fact poisoned his second cousin, though Lady Clementina was dead, Lord Arthur “looked again over the list of his friends and relatives” but decided on a different method of murder. Though dynamite would surely draw more attention, Lord Arthur figured it would be more foolproof than his previous attempt. Once again showing his prudence, Lord Arthur, who “had not the slightest interest in social questions,” would easily be overlooked during any murder investigation that appeared to be politically motivated. So he “determined to blow up his uncle, the Dean of Chichester.” The audacity of this decision is shown when the anarchist Herr Winckelkopf remarks that he “had no idea that [Lord Arthur] felt so strongly about religion.” But it is not religious conviction that motivates Lord Arthur; it is the desire to “do his duty” (to get his fated murderous action behind him) and maintain his good name. The failure of the bomb causes him to contemplate completely calling off the wedding even though “Sybil would suffer.” For Lord Arthur, her suffering was the only alternative since he failed to complete his duty, again; if he could not murder someone and get away with it, keeping his name clean of negative publicity, then he could not risk marring Sybil’s noble name.

The story’s resolution comes when Lord Arthur is finally able to commit the fated crime—allowing him to maintain his clean public reputation and free him up to marry Sybil. Distraught by the bomb’s failure, Lord Arthur again walks the streets of London and sees “a man leaning over the parapet.” On closer inspection, he realizes the stranger was none other than the cheiromantist Mr. Podgers.  A “brilliant idea flashed across” Lord Arthur’s mind and he immediately enacts it: in “a moment her had seized Mr. Podgers by the legs, and flung him into the Thames.” Without a second thought, after so many failures and under the emotional strain of keeping secrets from Sybil, Lord Arthur finally commits the fateful murder—“with a sigh of relief, and Sybil’s name” on his lips. He even makes certain, showing his dutiful consistency, to watch the “eddy of moonlit water…[until] no trace of Mr. Podgers was visible.” The actual act of murdering a person, even watching as any evidence of life disappears, goes unquestioned, unexamined by Lord Arthur. The murder has no moral issue because it was in service to protecting his public identity, his name. Wilde even goes so far as to underscore Lord Arthur’s complete lack of critical reflection with the ironic response he gives a passing policeman. The policeman asks if Lord Arthur had dropped anything, seeing that his attention was still focused on the water; Lord Arthur, “smiling, and hailing a passing hansom,” comically responds that he dropped “[n]othing of importance, sergeant,” and returned to Belgrave Square.

Even after committing the murder, making sure it actually succeeded, Lord Arthur kept his composure. He continued to abstain from Sybil until “[f]inally, it came” (emphasis added): the evening paper, with the headline “SUICIDE OF CHEIROMANTIST.” This joyous confirmation meant that he accomplished his moral task; he had committed murder, a crime, but managed to keep his name clear of public intrigue. Unlike Wilde, Lord Arthur took steps to ensure that his crime would remain secret. His methodology, though charged with the very virtues that Wilde criticized his contemporaries for hypocritically extolling, shows that his central moral concern was negative public attention. Furthermore, Wilde creates a character that can be an image-obsessed murderer and an altruistic, virtuous suitor. In fact, the easily missed irony of Lord Arthur’s final statement in the short story truly underscores this point. Answering why he believes in cheiromancy, Lord Arthur says, “Because I owe to it all the happiness of my life…Sybil.” He was able to marry Sybil and keep both their names clean solely because the person who warned him that he would murder someone, Mr. Podgers—Cheiromantist, ended also being his unwitting victim. Still, the attention Wilde pays to the hypocrisy of his time in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” as well as his other short fiction, has been neglected by scholarship.

Scholars, such as Barleben above, often examine Wilde’s longer prose, his essays, plays, and later poetry, like The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), De Profundis (1905)[2], and The Ballad of Reading Goal (1898). These works have unquestioned places in the literary canon, however, focusing solely on them overlooks the larger, critical debates that Wilde was a part of, as I have pointed out here. To take Wilde studies further, research should increase its coverage of Wilde’s lesser known, or, rather, less-studied works, like those contained in this edition of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. The neglect to his shorter fiction creates an historically inaccurate narrative, one in which Wilde’s critical portrayal of his contemporary world is limited to these canonical works. Continuing to focus solely on works in the canon engenders this misbelief in younger scholars, limiting their ability to reach “the higher heights to which we can rise” (Oxford Notebook 87).

- Jacob Fields

Works Cited

Barleben, Dale. “Law’s Empire Writes Back: Legal Positivism and Literary Rejoinder in Wilde’s De Profundis.University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 82, no. 4, 2013, pp. 907-923.

Jones, Justin T. “Morality’s Ugly Implications in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales.” SEL, vol. 51, no. 4, 2011, 883-903.


[1] While Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories were published in 1891, as we have reproduced here, the short story itself was originally published in the literary magazine The Court and Society Review, 1887.

[2] De Profundis was published five years after Wilde’s death by Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, but was originally composed during the end of Wilde’s incarceration: between January and March 1897.