decadents, in literature, name loosely applied to those 19th-century, fin-de-siècle European authors who sought inspiration, both in their lives and in their writings, in aestheticism and in all the more or less morbid and macabre expressions of human emotion. In reaction to the naturalism of the European realists, the decadents espoused that art should exist for its own sake, independent of moral and social concerns. The epithet was first applied in the 1880s to a group of self-conscious and flamboyant French poets, who in 1886 published the journal Le Décadent. The decadents venerated Baudelaire and the French symbolists, the group with whom they are often mistakenly identified. In England the decadent movement was represented in the 1890s by Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Ernest Dowson, and Aubrey Beardsley and the writers of the Yellow Book. J. K. Huysmans's À rebours (1884) and Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) present vivid fictionalized portraits of the 19th-century decadent—his restlessness, his spiritual confusion, and his moral inversion.
See A. E. Carter, The Idea of Decadence in French Literature (1958); M. Rheims, The Flowering of Art Nouveau (1966); J. Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 1880–1900 (tr. 1981).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: English Literature, 19th cent.