Oscar Wilde: The Wounded Hero?

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.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol Today

As I read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, it’s dark and hopeless tone struck me. It still has Wilde’s trademark playfulness when it comes to language, but it takes on darker and more somber undertones. It actually reminded me of And Still you Expect Greatness, which is a volume of poetry produced by Michigan prisoners who participate in the Prison Creative Arts Project sponsored by the University of Michigan. I first read this volume of poems when I was thirteen or so, and I have come back to it several times since. I was struck by how similar the tone of the poems in the volume had to Wilde’s work, even though they were separated by over a century. I was even surprised to find a poem that sampled from The Ballad of Reading Gaol that I had forgotten about.

However, one poem really stood out to me in terms of matching Wilde’s style, Buried Alive by Calvin Westerfield:

                            O’ wicked blocks of cement so pale,

              Defiantly make four walls a cell,

              Affix dense bars diverse hands will try,

              Lasting steel mold tombs where hope will die.

                             Conscious corpse to ponder days gone pass,

              The smell of summer’s fresh cut grass,

              That passion once felt of her embrace,

              Abandonment has not took its place.

                            Heartbreak pained to scale a bob-wired cage,

              Pure desperation replaced by rage!

                            Come view the body while it’s still warm,

              Lonely heart in the eye of the storm.

              Souls stolen by lost degenerate thoughts,

              Liberty denied but just-us bought.

                            Few will survive in their names alone,

              Etched in the bricks of immortal stone.

                            O’ wicked blocks, my captors – so pale,

              Great minds will die in these evil cells,

              Where two men share a hell and pure hate thrives,

              To coexist while buried alive.

Both poems describe the physical bleakness of prison, and address themes of death in prison as well as relationships with other prisoners. Particularly, “To coexist while buried alive” reminds me of Wilde’s “open grave” which “gaped for living thing” and meant that “Some prisoner had to swing” (888-9). It is saddening to see how similar these two poems are, as it speaks to how little things have changed.

Wilde and Christ

What surprised me most about reading De Profundis is how Wilde portrays himself as a Christ-like figure. Wilde suffered a great deal while in prison, and as we read in this letter to Bosie, he goes through a significant emotional and spiritual journey. Wilde draws a lot of parallels between himself and Christ, and this identification seems to be a way to give his suffering meaning. 

One parallel between Wilde and Christ was Wilde’s forgiveness of Bosie, even though Bosie may not have appreciated his forgiveness at the time. Although Wilde spends a majority of the letter disparaging Bosie’s actions, he feels like the only thing he can do is forgive Bosie. Although Wilde states that he’s forgiving Bosie for his own sake to unburden his soul, he also states, “I cannot allow you to go through life bearing in your heart the burden of having ruined a man like me…I must take the burden from you and put it on my own” (1017). The sentiment of taking Bosie’s burden for his own really stood out to me and brought to mind Christ taking on the burden of humanity’s sins. Even though humanity caused Jesus to suffer, He had to take on their sins to save them. He forgives them. In a similar way, Wilde takes on Bosie’s sins and suffers for them. Wilde identifying with Christ in this way may have given his suffering meaning while in prison. 

Another way Wilde identifies with Christ is by portraying Christ as a romantic artist. Wilde views Christ’s life as a romantic tragedy. Christ’s ideals were too radical for the rigid Philistines of the time, and He suffered because of that. Wilde states, “All great ideas are dangerous. That is what Christ’s creed admits of no doubt. That is the true creed I don’t doubt myself” (1037). Like Christ, Wilde’s ideas of Love and Beauty were too great to be accepted by the “British Philistines,” as Wilde so calls them. Wilde views Christ as having suffered for the ultimate ideal of Art. Since Wilde also feels as if he’s suffering due to ideas presented in his art, he could take comfort in Jesus doing the same. 

Wilde’s spiritual journey was one of the most interesting aspects of De Profundis, and it’s fascinating to see how faith played a part in getting him through his experiences in prison.