Because I’m going to write my paper on De Profundis and Wilde’s interaction with the prison system, I decided this week to read his two letters to “The Daily Chronicle,” respectively titled “The Case of Warder Martin: Some Cruelties of Prison Life” and “Prison Reform.” Both letters are Wilde’s attempt to draw public attention to prison experiences by writing to the editor—highlighting ways to stop the three punishments of hunger, insomnia, and disease (965). Searching for scholarships, Julia Wood states in “WILDE THE EXILE: A LIFE LIVED IN LETTERS,” an article in The Wildean, that “there is an invariably underlying drama in Wilde’s expression [of his letters about prison], and this drama is his need to play out the role of the wounded hero” (44).
A lot of our comments in class slightly align with this perspective. We spoke about how Wilde was classist in De Profundis, acting “holier than thou” as he was a middle-class artist in prison amongst people of another class status. This might well be the case in De Profundis, but Wilde being a wounded hero disregards the actual content of his letters to “The Daily Chronicle.” It should be noted that in the letters, Wilde does not speak of himself and his own experiences; he mainly takes up the role of an observer of injustices he witnessed in prison, such as with the young boy in “The Case of Warden Martin” and the lunatic man in “Prison Reform.” He doesn’t center himself in these interactions, which goes against the “wounded hero” portrayal of Wilde. The narrative space of the letter focuses on punishment, how prison can become a reformed system (if it ever can become one), and the portrayal of prisoners suffering who lived alongside Wilde. If anything, Wilde does not individualize himself in prison; he instead becomes part of a collective force, where the “really humanising influence in prison is the influence of the prisoners.” (961).
Wilde takes upon himself the role of being the voice of the voiceless. Although this grants Wilde the agency to portray his agenda, whatever it is, in the letters to “The Daily Chronicle” he focuses on prison as a system and how it wounds—not specifically wounding him but wounding prisoners, the most sympathetic class.
One thought on “Oscar Wilde: The Wounded Hero?”
This is a really interesting widening of perspective, to consider all of these letters together. I wonder if some of Wilde’s classism and the wounded hero-ness of De Profundis comes from the very personal nature of the letter and who it was intended for — his focus was on gaining Bosie’s attention and their relationship obviously colored or created the particular tone of that letter. Meant for the public, the other letters perhaps show a different, more polished, but also more socially thoughtful Wilde, one less invested in personal drama, as you suggest. I think it says a lot about what Wilde’s time in prison really did to him, outside of the relationship troubles that make up some of the contradictions of De Profundis — that he really did think deeply and with some solidarity about the conditions of prisons. I’ll have to read the other letters!