Give the critical analysis of Mark Twain’s essay ‘On the Decay of the Art of Lying.’

A very fine writer that Mark Twain was, his literature stands out in its writing. More so, in his essay ‘On the Decay of the Art of Lying’, Mark Twain makes use of several literary devices to add a layer of creativity and originality that allows for an enjoyable and fuller read. He uses satire, metaphors, wit, verbal irony, sarcasm and narrative in such a subtle and beautiful way that it seeps into the reader’s subconscious.

The most obvious literary device used in this essay is ‘Satire’, a literary device used to criticize a social institution or convention with the hope of reforming it for the better. The entire essay, in that sense, is satirical. How can lying be an art form? Traditionally, lying has been considered evil and deceitful. Lying is looked down upon and liars are ostracized. Hence, the wise thing is for us to train ourselves diligently to lie thoughtfully, to lie for an unselfish and charitable purpose and something that should be healing in its effect.

“Lying is universal – we all do it,” is one specific example of satire in the essay. Instead of perfecting the ‘art’ of lying, people should perfect the art of truth – telling. Twain is using satire to target human vices and follies, to target social institutions and convention, to target the fad of the generation who resort to lying. He is attempting to reform the audience through ridicule.

Another literary device which Mark Twain has used in this essay is ‘Metaphor’. In his words, “The highest perfect of politeness is only a beautiful edifice, built, from the base to the dome, of graceful and gilded forms of charitable and unselfish lying”. Using metaphor, Twain is implying a comparison between polite or courteous lying and an edifice, or a building structure. He is emphasizing upon the elegance of their form, both lies and the structure, and also points out at its structural strength. That is, Twain is hinting at the strength and power these lies have in influencing another person.

Wit, is also very apparent in this essay by Twain. Wit is an intellectually amusing language that surprises and delights. An example of wit is, “I think that all this courteous lying is a sweet and loving art, and should be cultivated.”

Twain writes with beautiful language that carries eloquence off every roll of the tongue, but instead of a poetic spin, it results in something sarcastic and humorous.

Another literary device prevalent in this essay is ‘Verbal Irony’. This follows when words literary state the opposite of the speaker’s true meaning. In the lines, “Then shall we be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land…” How can truth be pestilent? It is clear to the audience that truth, and not lies, should be spread pervasively.

Twain goes on to say that once lying is perfected, the world shall be “great and good and beautiful.” This is ironic in a sense that lying is associated with everything negative yet one who lies correctly is shown in a positive light.

Twain has also incorporated ‘Sarcasm’ in this essay. Sarcasm is characterized by bitter and caustic language that is meant to hurt or ridicule someone or something. However, here, it is used almost humorously. Twain writes that once perfecting the art of lying, humankind will be “worthy dwellers in a world where even benign Nature habitually lies except when she promises execrable weather. Then – But am I but a new and feeble student in this gracious art.”

The use of ‘Narrative’ as a device is also seen in Twain’s essay. It’s in the form of an anecdote. He tells the audience about a particular conversation he with a “lovely spirit, a lady whose impulses were always high and pure” while at dinner “in that for country where (he) once lived.” The entire anecdote story is a prime example of the narrative device.

Hence, it can thus be concluded that, Twain has written this essay which is nothing less than a masterpiece. The theme is so common yet it is still a fresh work of literature even today and finds a perfect fit considering the current social scenario. Twain uses literary devices like it is second nature, for the words seem to flow across till the end and allow for a unique and a genuine essay.

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