Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’

Oscar Wilde’s short story ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ appeared in the same year that Sherlock Holmes made his debut appearance in print, and curiously, both stories feature a man with an uncanny ability to read the details of people’s lives from very small details. But unlike Conan Doyle’s consulting detective, Mr Podgers the cheiromancer in ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ uses people’s palms to divine the secrets of their personalities, and to predict their futures.

‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ was first published in The Court and Society Review in 1887 before being collected in the short-story collection Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories in 1891. You can read ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.

‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’: plot summary

At a party thrown by Lady Windermere, the story’s title-character, Lord Arthur Savile, is introduced to Mr Septimus R. Podgers, a cheiromantist or palm-reader. Podgers reads his palm and recoils when he sees what’s ‘written’ there, and only reluctantly reveals the truth to Lord Arthur: that he is destined to be a murderer. Lord Arthur wants to marry, but believes he cannot in all good conscience do so with his impending fate hanging over him. He decides that the only thing for it is to commit the murder first, before marrying his sweetheart, Sybil Merton.

Lord Arthur resolves to murder his aged aunt, Clementina. Knowing her to suffer from heartburn, he acquires a deadly poison and places it within a bonbon sweet, which he then puts into a bonbonniere (an ornamental box), presenting it to his aunt as medicine for her to take next time she suffers from heartburn. While he is holidaying in Venice, Lord Arthur received a telegram informing him that Clementina has died, shortly after leaving a dinner party at which she complained of suffering from heartburn.

Returning to London and thinking that he has relieved himself of his fate, Lord Arthur learns that his aunt has left him some one of her houses on Curzon Street in London. But while he is sorting through his aunt’s possessions, Sybil finds the bonbonniere containing the poisoned sweet Lord Arthur had given her. And the sweet is still inside. He realises the truth: his aunt never touched the poison, and died of natural causes! He realises he needs to find someone else to murder.

He determines that dynamite is the answer, and acquires a bomb, disguised as a carriage-clock, from a contact given to him by Russian revolutionary friend of his named Rouvaloff. Lord Arthur then sends to the Dean of Chichester, a relative of his who has a fondness for clocks. But when the bomb goes off, the Dean is unharmed, and the Dean’s son Reggie plays happily with it.

Lord Arthur starts to despair of ever successfully committing a murder, and so he resigns himself to the fact that he can never marry Sybil. However, that night he encounters none other than Mr Podgers, the palm-reader, and pushes the man into the Thames, where he drowns. He has finally committed his murder and is now clear to marry. He reads in the newspaper that a verdict of suicide has been returned at the inquest into Podgers’ death, and Lord Arthur gets married.

Years later, when Lord Arthur and Sybil have been married for some time and had children, Lord Arthur learns from Lady Windermere that Mr Podgers was ‘a frightful impostor’ and that she has abandoned cheiromancy in favour of telepathy now.

‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’: analysis

‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ was published in 1887, when there was a vogue for the occult, the supernatural, and what we would now call the pseudoscience of things like cheiromancy or palm-reading. Indeed, there was something of a craze for palmistry among the well-to-do of London society at the time the story was written. And like his story ‘The Canterville Ghost’, which offers a comic take on the ghost story and the idea of hauntings, Wilde’s story about Lord Arthur pokes fun at the idea of cheiromancy as ‘nonsense’, as Lady Windermere calls it at the end of the story.

Curiously, Wilde himself indulged the idea of palm-reading, visiting one of its most celebrated practitioners, a man known as ‘Cheiro’, who predicted that Wilde’s right hand showed he was destined for impending ruin. Two years later, Wilde would be put on trial, and subsequently imprisoned. Before this, in 1885, Wilde had allowed a palm-reader, Edward Heron-Allen, to publish a diagram of the author’s hand in The Daily Graphic. Wilde appears to have been fascinated by palmistry, and ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ uses this voguish practice to offer a riff on the age-old idea of a prophecy which its subject takes seriously and seeks to fulfil.

‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ is a witty story and, despite its title, fairly light, but it does touch upon a serious topic which might even be said to prefigure the work of a very different writer, Franz Kafka, who explores the notion of guilt over some unspecified ‘crime’ (in his novel, The Trial). And as with Kafka, a religious interpretation of Wilde’s story seems appropriate: in a sense, Mr Podgers is like a Calvinist priest who argues that everyone’s fate is predestined and that they are, in a sense, guilty of a crime even before they have committed it.

Lord Arthur chooses to believe that his fate is inescapable, and that the best thing he can do is get it out of the way as quickly as possible so he can get on with marrying and settling down. But at the end of the story, it is strongly implied that his murderous actions (and attempted murders of members of his own family) were founded on a lie, as the man who told him his fate is revealed to be a fraud. And of course, Lord Arthur’s motives were pure: he didn’t want to enter into marriage when there was a chance that his murder victim may turn out to be his wife or children. There is a grim irony in the man who makes it possible for him to fulfil his destiny being the very one who had claimed to read that destiny in the lines of Lord Arthur’s hand.

And the grim ending to the story lies in the fact that its ending is not treated grimly. We leave Lord Arthur happily married with a wife and children, who are unaware of his crime which gives the story its title. Is Wilde, himself a happily married man (who was also concealing a secret from his wife and children, concerning his relationships with other men), blowing apart the Victorian family with the upstanding husband and his ‘angel in the house’?

‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ is, then, a clever piece of writing because it acts like a Trojan horse for some big themes – chiefly, the extent to which we believe ourselves to be in control of our natures – but it wraps these weighty issues up in a story that is by turns farcical, witty, even jolly in its treatment of its protagonist’s eventual fate.

About Oscar Wilde

The life of the Irish novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is as famous as – perhaps even more famous than – his work. But in a career spanning some twenty years, Wilde created a body of work which continues to be read an enjoyed by people around the world: a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; short stories and fairy tales such as ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’; poems including The Ballad of Reading Gaol; and essay-dialogues which were witty revivals of the Platonic philosophical dialogue.

But above all, it is Wilde’s plays that he continues to be known for, and these include witty drawing-room comedies such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as a Biblical drama, Salome (which was banned from performance in the UK and had to be staged abroad). Wilde is also often remembered for his witty quips and paradoxes and his conversational one-liners, which are legion. They include, ‘Work is the curse of the drinking classes’, and ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius’ (when travelling through customs in America).

Wilde’s life – his generosity to others, his double life as a family man and someone who engaged with extramarital affairs with other men, and his subsequent downfall when he was put on trial for ‘gross indecency’ – has been movingly written about in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde and in the 1997 biopic Wilde, with Stephen Fry in the title role.

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