This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about the public perception of Wilde. I came into this class never having read any of Wilde’s works before, and what little knowledge I had about him was in the context of his homosexual relationships. We discussed the public misconception of Wilde as a “gay icon,” and especially as I write my final paper on the anticolonial Wilde, I am realizing that his queerness was the least of Wilde’s concerns in the political sphere. Obviously gay rights were not a thing in Wilde’s time, but as we read sections from the trial transcripts in Kaufman’s Gross Indecency, Wilde was less concerned with defending his homosexual acts than he was with defending his art. I was surprised when we then read Wilde’s criticisms of the prison system in De Profundis. He said:
With us prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. We are unwelcome when we reappear. To revisit the glimpses of the moon is not for us. Our very children are taken away. Those lovely links with humanity are broken. We are doomed to be solitary, while our sons still live. We are denied the one thing that might heal us and help us, that might bring balm to the bruised heart, and peace to the soul in pain (1016).
His criticisms of prison are in the context of his own suffering but his use of “us” and “we” suggests that he speaks on behalf of all prisoners and that he calls not only for his own reintegration into society but essentially advocates for prisoners as a whole.
In my research for my final paper, I found that during his lecture tour of the United States, Wilde was outspoken on the issues of British imperialism and the erasure of Irish history and culture. He was heavily influenced by his mother’s work in the Young Ireland movement. In his chapter on “Anticolonial Wilde,” Deaglán Ó Donghaile says Wilde “contradicted the calls for political and cultural containment [of the Irish people]… and challenged the normalization of British violence and countered representations of the Irish as both conquerable and commodifiable” (Im 33). Therefore, the “rebellious Wilde” is not necessarily a product of his queerness but his controversial opinions on prison and British imperialism as an Irishman in Victorian England. However, it is the queer Wilde that receives the most attention. While I doubt this will change, even as the study of Wilde’s works continues, I think that in looking at Wilde’s public perception alongside his works, we see that the personal lives of celebrities and ‘scandals’ are given priority in our collective memory.
One thought on “The Political Wilde”
This is such an interesting post, and I never knew how prevalent “anticolonial” Wilde was in reality given that our conversations usually don’t steer in that direction, so thank you for that! Now I’m wondering more about the trial in the context of this argument. Was Wilde under scrutiny for “gross indecency,” or was the court more concerned with his subversive ideas? Is “posing sodomite” simply a front to persecute Wilde?
Since this post is related, I think I can gauge more about people and how they are perceived in popular culture based on stickers made about them. Stickers from Redbubble, Etsy, etc., are used as personalized decoration items to show somebody’s personality, plastered on people’s water bottles or laptops. One day this semester, I looked up stickers of Oscar Wilde on Etsy and Redbubble, and a lot of the stickers were stickers with the words “avenge Oscar Wilde.” Avenge is an interesting word in this context, and I think it may be able to explain why we focus so much on the scandal of Wilde–precisely because it could have been a terrifying reality for queer people. Even though Wilde was primarily defending his art rather than his queerness because it was the least of his concerns, by defending his art, he inadvertently defends his queerness as well.