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.
De Profundis is by far the most raw and emotional of Wilde’s works. The piece is unique in not only its emotional tone but the way Wilde discusses religion. In his scathing letter to Bosie, Wilde touches on many of the themes that occur in his poems and plays; he meditates on God, the meaning of art, the dangers of overindulgence, love, and most significantly, predestination. Out of all of these themes Wilde is the most consistent in his views of predestination. He criticizes Bosie for his abuse and the role he had in his financial ruin, but Wilde recognizes how his own flawed actions brought about his downfall. He says, “I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me: that I ruined myself: and that nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand… Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still” (1017). Predestination is typically described in a religious context, as a sort of divine prophesy that all events are willed by God, but Wilde maintains the role one has in their own fate.
I found this to be especially interesting when considering the theme destiny and fortune telling in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House.” When discussing these two pieces in class, we talked about how Wilde emphasizes the class differences at play in one’s destiny. Particularly in the case of Lord Arthur, Wilde presents a commentary on the boredom of the upper class. The chiropodist reads Lord Arthur’s palms and foretells his future as a murderer, but Arthur’s ridiculous actions that follow as he attempts to get the act over with serve as a commentary on how he has control of his fate all along. This contrasts with “The Harlot’s House” where the people inside move like “strange mechanical grotesques” and “wire-pulled automatons,” lacking any autonomy or control over their lives (867). In terms of his class status and his views on free will, Wilde falls somewhere between the Lord Arthur and the figures in the poem. He recognizes his level of culpability in his downfall: “Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others… I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetops” (1018). While Wilde condemns his former lifestyle of pleasure and decadence, he maintains many of his other life views and expands on his religious life. It’s fascinating reading perhaps his most revealing work and questioning if Wilde has really changed that much or if similar threads can be read in the rest of his works regarding religion and free will.
Despite having spent a lot of time with The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I freely admit that each of the tales still puzzles me. The sort of irresolution we ended our class on them with feels maybe predictive of the irresolution I imagine I’ll feel even at the close of my thesis — almost more questions than answers. And I guess that’s some of their charm, that, like Wilde, they are a little elusive, seemingly random, but undeniably charming (I’m sure that’s a bit of a bold claim to make, but bear with me). It’s difficult too to identify what exactly gives them that quality, if it’s the abundance of small details such that it’s hard to know what to focus on, or perhaps their less-than-satisfying ends. It’s just hard to make something tangible of them — hard, but not impossible.
One element of “The Happy Prince” I’m still trying to understand are the religious details that come in at the very end. God asks his angels to bring him “‘the two most precious things in the city’” (277) and he is brought the Happy Prince’s heart and the dead Swallow. The Swallow is conferred into Paradise to sing eternally and the Happy Prince is restored to a city of gold. They are clearly rewarded for their love, as they are brought together to God. The question is why God must bestow this reward, when for the rest of the story all that seemed to matter was the relationship between the Prince and the Swallow and the value they found in each other. This sort of religious quirk at the end of a tale happens again in “the Selfish Giant” when the Giant is brought into Paradise by a child Christ: “You let me play once in your garden, today you shall come with me to my garden which is Paradise” (285). This line in “the Selfish Giant” however, allows a much more direct explanation of why the Giant is going to Heaven compared to that in “The Happy Prince” — the children can now play in his garden because he has learned not to be selfish. This direct line of reasoning doesn’t seem as critical in “The Happy Prince.” Perhaps it has something to do with the sacrifice of both the Happy Prince and the Swallow. While I don’t read their relationship to be wholly mutualistic, there is a sense in which they both died in the service of others — the Swallow to the Happy Prince and the Prince to his city and perhaps that granted them a place in Paradise.
What is most curious about these religious elements to me is not that they simply exist, or even puzzling out why they exist. Instead what feels most key about them to me is that, though they are abrupt, they are not out of joint with the rest of the story. While it is narratively confusing that God and his Angels appear at the end, it somehow doesn’t also feel wrong. It is as if on some level those elements just fit the story. I don’t have an explanation for why they fit, they just seem to, and it’s something I’m going to keep trying to explain as we keep thinking about Wilde this semester.
I found myself really enjoying Wilde’s short stories that we read for this week, particularly “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.” I think I found this one really striking because it made me think about the topic of religion and Wilde and the Aesthetes’ relationship to it.
When Lord Arthur is told by the palm reader that he will commit a murder, he feels as though his fate is sealed, and that there is no way to escape it. He is destined to commit a grave sin. This reminded me of Calvinism and the idea of predestination, or that no matter what humans do in life, some are meant to go to heaven and some are meant to go to hell. This realization drives Arthur Savile into a panicked state of planning to murder his extended relative(s) in order to fulfill his destiny and move on with his life. I like how Wilde toys with comedy as the first attempt of murder fails, and his second becomes further comically tortuous to Savile as nothing seems to be working. It is only when Savile kills the palm reader that he can really move on. It is as though the palm reader is a representation of God or a leader in the Calvinist church, he is whoever is telling people that their fate is set. And, comically, the palm reader is a fraud! As though Calvinism itself is a sham.
This story indirectly showcases the ideas that Wilde had about religion. As we learned in class, Wilde believes in Catholicism, and other Aesthetes did too. But, I am still unsure exactly why Catholicism appeals to him. Is it because of free will… the freedom of agency in doing what pleases you? Is it because he sees similarities in the transformative power of the artist, like the transformative power of Christ? Is it because he replaces Christ with art? Is it a genuine spiritual connection that appreciates the ritualistic nature of Catholicism? I still have a lot of questions about Wilde’s relationship with religion that I look forward to hopefully answering as we continue reading.