De Profundis is arguably Wilde’s most vulnerable piece of art. He writes from prison, his reputation eroded, and with a new outlook on life. It greatly differs from his other works, but in a sense it is still performative. I think Wilde partly uses De Profundis as a performance of his own truth, but a truth that does not fully consider his own actions and their consequences.
Wilde starts the piece with a pretty scathing denouncement of Bosie. His indiscretions about their relationship really illuminated how horrible Bosie treated Wilde, and it was a very vulnerable move on Wilde’s part. I think Bosie deserves to be called out for his actions, but Wilde fails to take into account his own choices in his involvement with Bosie. I think that this failure to address his own mistakes, and the fact that he went back to Bosie after getting out of jail makes me think about De Profundis being some ways in the context of a performative piece.
In class we discussed the question of if Wilde thought that others would be reading his letter. I think that he knew others would be reading it, and so in a way it was a method for Wilde to try and better his reputation. It is true that the mask is off and the jig is up, but by showing how bad Bosie was, maybe Wilde could have hoped to both work through his experience, and also to slightly clear his name. Wilde is shaping the narrative around their relationship, which is of course all he can do, but still there exists that intention alongside the vulnerability.
As much as it is frustrating to read that Wilde went back to Bosie even after everything that happened, I think about how complicated it was. I still think about how much of Wilde’s involvement with Bosie was feeling like he had no other choice. Like we read in “Love in a Dark Time,” when you are told that your love is gross and indecent, that must make you feel that you don’t deserve a healthy love. But then I also think about how neglected Wilde’s family was, and question Wilde’s thought-process there. I don’t know why Wilde went back to Bosie, if it was because he felt he had no choice, or just him not considering that he could and should live a life without him. But since he did go back, I do see a bit of performativity when I read De Profundis.
In Salomé, the prophet Jokanaan prompts strikingly different reactions in his listeners, showing how the beholder inserts themselves and their presumptions into the words and actions of others. When we are introduced to Jokanaan, we are told by a soldier that “He is always saying ridiculous things.” They, along with Herod, are fearful of his words. This seems to be due to a fear of speaking the truth. Herod in particular, though he indulges in the prophet’s speeches, wants to hide Jokanaan from others because of the truth he speaks about Herodias. The truth is unpleasant and dangerous to consider. Yet Herod remains curious about what the prophet has to say, questioning what the future has in store for him (and often spinning what Jokanaan says in a favorable light, when others consider the words to be against him). Herodias has no curiosity and is merely enraged by the prophet. This points to her impatience and selfishness, but more importantly it points to her desire to maintain her public image. She revolts against the words being spoken against her, and frequently returns to the topic of how she and Herod must treat their guests well by returning to the dinner party in order to preserve high opinions of them. Herodias wants to maintain a façade of a happy marriage, though beneath the surface there is tension on account of her original marriage and her current husband’s apparent attraction to her daughter. Salomé’s response to the prophet is the most complex. She is fascinated by his words and by his appearance, and becomes obsessed with seeing him, hearing his voice, and touching him. Salomé’s desire grows so strong that she needs to fully possess Jokanaan, which she can only do in his death. I wonder whether one of the causes of Salomé’s downfall was that she was poisoned by Jokanaan’s beautiful words.
After our class discussions on An Ideal Husband, and now having read The Importance of Being Earnest, one of the themes that is interesting me most is the discovery of the self, and how this plays out very differently in Wilde’s two plays. In An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert experiences trauma as a result of the discovery of his true self, or at least the self he was in the past. He wore the mask of an honest, righteous politician, and this version of self was the foundation of his marriage to Lady Chiltern. Lady Chiltern wishes her husband’s mask remained intact, preferring to be ignorant of his true behavior. She exclaims, “Lie to me! Lie to me!… You lied to the whole world. And yet you will not lie to me” (Wilde 520). In An Ideal Husband, the idea of the mask takes on a much lighter tone. The two male protagonists wear masks to change their identities, simply to escape to either the country or London. The discovery of their true selves, particularly for Jack, is a humorous, joyous occasion that provides him with a family that he only imagined having, in addition to a wife. Not only is he now permitted to marry Gwendolen, but he is also thrilled that he has “a brother after all,” someone who is already his close friend (Wilde 380). This contrasts Sir Robert’s moment of discovery, which nearly tears apart his marriage. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the removal of the masks is what permits a happy ending for each of the couples. In An Ideal Husband, though his true self is revealed to his wife and close friend, Sir Robert maintains his public façade and enters an even more significant role in the government on account of his well-maintained secret, the protection of the mask becoming necessary for a happy ending.