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What Was the Decadent Movement in Literature?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Decadent movement in literature was a short-lived but influential style during the latter half of the 19th century. It is most associated with French literature, and Charles Baudelaire was perhaps the foremost figure of the Decadent movement. Decadent writers used elaborate, stylized language to discuss taboo and often unsavory topics, such as death, depression, and deviant sexualities.

The word Decadent arose in the literary world as a disparaging assessment from critics. As an adjective, with a lowercase d, decadent denotes effeteness and a decline of morals, such as that which supposedly caused the dissolution of the Roman Empire. French literary critics in the 19th century used the term to dismiss writers who they felt were unimportant and merely wallowing in shocking subject matter, but some writers embraced the term and began identifying their own work as Decadent, taking pride in their opposition to everyday morality and mores.

Decadent literature encompasses poetry, novels, and short fiction. It was in part born out of the Romantic movement, which sought to effect emotions in the reader, but also a revolt against Romanticism's glorification of nature. The Decadents favored art and artifice over the natural world, and in this respect were closely aligned to the Symbolist and Aesthetic movements of the same period. The Gothic offshoot of Romantic fiction, especially the work of Edgar Allen Poe, was a major inspiration to the Decadents. In fact, Baudelaire translated Poe's works into French.

Decadent novelists include Joris-Karl Huysmans, Theophile Gautier, and Octave Mirbeau. In addition to Baudelaire, notable poets of the genre include Arthur Rimbaud, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, and the Comte de Lautréamont. The French Decadents gained a following in English literary circles in the late 19th century, and a few English writers adopted the Decadent style. Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley were the foremost English Decadents. Wilde famously incorporated Huysmans' A Rebours into his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; though he did not name the book, his readers undoubtedly recognized it from the description.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon946142 — On Apr 17, 2014

I absolutely love anything from the Decadent era. I wish Oscar Wilde had written more books because Dorian Gray was amazing.

By anon354323 — On Nov 07, 2013

Oscar Wilde the novelist did do a lot of work in this genre.

By behaviourism — On Nov 08, 2010

@anon1440, Oscar Wilde did not exactly influence the decadent movement, though you could say he was influence by it. The decadent Victorian era in which Wilde lived inspired him, both in works like The Picture of Dorian Gray and his plays, like The Importance of Being Earnest. However, unlike actual decadent movement writers, Wilde found the truly decadent lifestyle he wrote about laughable, and often satirized it in his work. In Dorian Gray, the quest to fulfill his lifestyle becomes the main character's downfall; in Earnest, it almost undoes two different couples' futures, only because one man is unsure of his social ranking.

By anon1440 — On May 30, 2007

How did oscar wilde influence british literature and the decadent movement?

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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