Wilde’s audience in De Profundis is ambiguous. While this letter is addressed to Alfred Douglas, he often disappears from the letter entirely as Wilde reflects on personal philosophies and religion. At times, Wilde seems to use De Profundis as a diary, while at other times, he seems to be appealing to an audience beyond Bosie to justify his actions and philosophies. Regardless of who Wilde was originally writing to in De Profundis, his decision to publish it widened the letter’s audience significantly, making the world privy to intimate details of Wilde and Bosie’s relationship. This immortalized Wilde and Bosie not only as historical figures but as queer characters.
In my research for my final paper, I read an article by Alan Sinfield arguing that Wilde “constructed” homosexuality through his work and his public life. In the Victorian era, there were no clear-cut ideas about same-sex attraction. Our modern terms and ideas about queerness did not exist to shape Victorian thought about same-sex passion. Sinfield argues that as an “outed” queer figure, Wilde became symbolic of same-sex attraction. His philosophies and characteristics became associated with queerness and served as marks of queerness in later years.
Considering Sinfield’s argument, De Profundis likely had a significant impact on how people viewed same-sex love. By publishing what essentially serves as a memoir documenting his relationship, Wilde added his personal life to his body of work. This puts intimate details of Wilde’s life up for literary interpretation. As people looked to Wilde’s fiction and philosophy retrospectively with knowledge of Wilde’s same-sex attraction, Wilde and Bosie became literary “types.” They can be likened to Basil and Dorian, or Lord Henry and Dorian, depending on how one reads their relationship. Their relationship calls back to the boy-love of The Symposium and prefigures novels like Giovanni’s Room, where the wealthy and aging Jacques pays attractive boys for company, and beautiful Giovanni’s relationship with the older and more powerful Guillaume proves fatal.
De Profundis puts Wilde’s life and loves up for literary interpretation, placing real people in literary history. Wilde accomplishes what he proposes in Phrases and Philosophies For the Young: to “become a work of art.”