Punctuality is the thief of time 準時是時間之賊。   

Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. 愛國情操是邪惡之人的美德。 

I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do - the day after. 後天可能要做的事,我絕不延後到明天。

The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. 擺脫誘惑的唯一方法就是屈服於誘惑。

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. 些許的誠懇是危險的,極多的誠懇是致命的。

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. 現世的人對每種事物的價錢了然於胸,對其價值卻一無所知。

Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. 每位聖人都有不為人知的過去,每位罪人都有無法預知的未來。

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much. 經常原諒你的敵人吧,激惱他們的方式無過於此

Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination. 量入為出的人苦於想像力的匱乏。 


I. Definition of epigram

     According to the dictionary definition, an epigram is a brief, clever, and usually memorable statement. Derived from the Greek word meaning "to write on or inscribe,"epigram has been employed for over two millennia. What’s so significant about it that it is repeatedly used throughout history? Take a close look at Oscar Wilde’s epigram and we’ll see its attraction!

II. Characteristics of Wildean epigram

     For Oscar Wilde, epigram is a mode of ideological resistance against the dominant bourgeoisie. In other words, it is his weapon to fight against the dominant class. As a homosexual and Irishman, Wilde is the outsider in the Victorian society. Epigram gives him not only the authoritarian voice of the dominant class but the free space to assert his own idiosyncrasy. In Jan B. Gordon’s view, epigram is the language of the aesthetic 1890s, which appeals especially to the Decadents (52). As a social product of this transitional period, it has the antipathetic tension of the old and new discourses. By using the strategy of “re/citation,” it gives voice to the dominant bourgeois discourses while simultaneously bringing it under judgment. According to Richard Terdiman, “re/citation” is the satirical appropriation of dominant clichés with the purpose of denaturalizing them ( 211). The form of the dominant discourses is borrowed while the content is turned upside down. This is how Wilde subverts the discourses of his bourgeois enemy. His epigram is like a “guerilla struggle” against the dominant enemy. It basically is not an essentialist genre or institution which could be framed a priori (Terdiman 77). It is “proverbially elusive,” like the “fish’s tail,” which “flicks, flashes and disappears” (Bentley 144). Through the dialectical engagement of the two opposing discourses, Wilde’s epigram not only reveals the deficiency of the dominant discourses but points to a new way of thinking and living: "As simultaneously adversative (through its opposition to its original) and citational (through reincorporation of the original by the very fact of its parody), the satire effect might be  understood as a productive yoking together of these two antithetical dynamics, one tending toward differentiation, the other toward identity" (Terdiman 202).

     The efficiency of Wildean epigram is also endorsed by Gordon. He asserts that in the Decadent world, “all is mirrored, reflected, capable of infinite expansion or contraction through parody” (55). Wilde’s preference for epigram reveals that he is a Decadent caught between two opposite and apparently incompatible pulls: on the one hand he is driven by the world, its necessity while on the other hand he yearns toward the eternal, the ideal, and the unworldly.

III. Analysis of Wildean epigram

     Now, let’s examine how the subversive strategy of “re/citation” is used in Wildean epigram:

"Punctuality is the thief of time"---the bourgeois discourse emphasizes the importance of being earnest. And punctuality is one trait of earnestness. The original form of this proverb is “Procrastination is the thief of time.” It means that putting things off is a bad habit which wastes your time. Wilde substitutes “punctuality” for “procrastination;” the original form is borrowed while the essence is debunked. Implied in this epigram is his objection to the bourgeois sense of earnestness as a Decadent prefers ennui and beauty to serious business.

"I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do - the day after."---Wilde gives the original phrase a final twist by replacing the word “today” with “the day after.” A dutiful person fulfills his responsibility, making sure to finish today’s work instead of putting it off till tomorrow. But Wilde insists on the principle of seizing the day. Any unspeakable pleasure cannot wait till tomorrow to be enjoyed. This epigram implies that Wilde indulges himself in the pursuit of fun and beauty without any hesitation and delay.

"The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."---This is a famous epigram of Wilde’s. The former half of this epigram borrows the bourgeois sense of morality, “to get rid of temptation,” but the latter half ridicules it by the words “to yield to it.”

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."---This is a parody on Alexander Pope’s heroic couplet, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” Wilde belittles bourgeois value of sincerity. A little of it does harm to aesthetic principles while a lot of it kills the aesthetic inspiration. Decadents object to bourgeois sincerity because it limits their imagination by requiring moral implication for artistic works.

"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."---this epigram ridicules the bourgeois commercialism, which ignores the true beauty of art.

"Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious."---In the Victorian age, the British Empire expanded its territory under the pretext of “patriotism.” In Wilde’s view, “patriotism” serves as a cover for the wicked people to do evil things.

"Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future."---A saint is always an epitome of morality. Wilde debunks the sacredness of a saint by the word, “past,” which implies the unspeakable sins committed by a saint when he is young. In contrast, even though a sinner did something immoral in the past, he still has potentiality for creating a bright future.

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."---In Christian morality, forgiveness is a highly valued virtue. Wilde recites the moral teaching, “Always forgive your enemies,” but in the meantime, he adds “nothing annoys them so much.” Here, he points out that the inner motive of forgiving is the assertion of one’s power. I forgive my enemies to show my generosity, to let them acknowledge my superiority over them. If your enemy is your intellectual equal, he will certainly feel enraged by your implicit display of power.

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."---Modesty is a bourgeois virtue, which is cited in the first half of the epigram, “Anyone who lives within their means.” And the final twist comes with the latter half, “suffers from a lack of imagination.” Those who follow the golden rule of modesty, in Wilde’s view, are always in lack of imagination. For the aesthetic Decadents, the petite bourgeoisie is the class which lacks a sense of beauty.

IV. Conclusion

     Instead of merely verbal play, Wilde’s epigram has as its intention an ideological critique, which reflects the social change in the 1890s. Implied in his subversive strategy of “re/citation” is an alternative aesthetic perspective, which cast doubt on the dominant bourgeois discourses. Bourgeois morality, as he satirizes it, is the “seven deadly virtues,” and to flirt with one’s own husband publicly is “to wash one’s clean linen in public.” These examples of verbal parody exhibit his rebellion against the hegemonic class.

     Besides a tool of social criticism, Wilde’s epigram represents a quintessential expression of modernity. As Roland Barthes indicates, the value of modern literary works lies in the dynamic interaction of the two opposing edges: one is the “obedient, conformist, plagiarizing edge” where official language is copied; the other, the subversive edge, the site of “deflation” ready to assume any contours (406). Because of its concern with these two conflicting edges, Wilde’s epigram can be ranked as modern text defined by Barthes. The mode of resisting the dominant bourgeois discourses in the nineteenth century liberal context is still relevant to our modern world. The deconstructive critique in our century is the “continual serial” of the nineteenth century rebellion.



Barthes, Roland. “The Pleasure of the Text.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1982.

Bentley, Eric. The Playwright as Thinker. New York: Harcourt, 1967.

Fletcher, Ian, ed. Decadence and the 1890s. London: Edward Arnold, 1979.

Gordon, Jan B. “Decadent Spaces: Notes for a Phenomenology of the Fin de

Siècle.” Fletcher 31-60.

Terdiman, Richard. Discourse / Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth Century France. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1949. New York: Penguin, 1983.

---. Lady Windermere’s Fan. Oscar Wilde: Plays. New York: Penguin, 1954. Taipei: Bookman, 1985. 7-72.

---. An Ideal Husband. Oscar Wilde: Plays. New York: Penguin, 1954. Taipei: Bookman, 1985. 147-246

---. The Importance Being Earnest. Oscar Wilde: Plays. New York: Penguin, 1954. Taipei: Bookman, 1985. 247-314.


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