De Profundis | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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De Profundis | Context


Morality in the Victorian Era

Oscar Wilde produced his works at the height of the Victorian era. This period in British history roughly coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901). During this time the British Empire expanded enormously by acquiring colonies around the world. The political stability provided by Victoria's long reign contributed to economic growth and rapid industrialization.

The Victorian era evidenced a very hierarchical social structure that stressed differences between economic classes, racial and ethnic groups, and genders. Strict codes of social behavior governed relationships between family members, acquaintances, and the general public. These codes also attempted to enforce expectations about sexuality and sexual behavior. Open discussions of sexuality were frowned upon and women in particular were expected to be free of sexual desire. Modern concepts of homosexuality emerged during this time and homosexual acts were criminalized in Britain under 1885 legislation. Critics perceived Wilde's literary works as defying Victorian morality and rules governing social behavior. He also cultivated a public personality that resisted expectations of male appearance and sexuality. Reactions to Wilde's works and personality fueled the scandal leading to and surrounding his 1895 trial for gross indecency.

Victorian-Era Prison Conditions

Wilde's long letter "De Profundis" describes his experiences in Reading Gaol and other British prisons after he was convicted of gross indecency. British prisons during the Victorian era of approximately 1837 to 1901 focused on solitary confinement, severe restrictions, and hard labor as punishment. "De Profundis" is addressed to Wilde's former lover Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945). It is primarily focused on describing the difficulties of their relationship as well as Wilde's attempt to analyze himself while in prison. At the same time, the letter provides an authentic description of prison life. Wilde details the harsh labor he was forced to complete. This included menial or pointless tasks such as walking a treadmill and picking apart bits of rope. A long poem called "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898) was Wilde's last major work and it was seen as an argument for prison reforms.

Jesus as a Symbol of Suffering

Jesus Christ (c. 4 BCE–39 CE) was a religious leader credited with initiating Christianity. In Christian tradition, he is regarded as the son of God as well as one incarnation of God on Earth. He was born the son of a carpenter from the town of Nazareth in Galilee but as an adult traveled to preach, mentor a group of disciples, and perform miracles. Christ was arrested, put on trial, and persecuted for claiming to be the son of God and king of the Jews. He was then executed by crucifixion. The second half of "De Profundis" discusses Christ as a paradigm of transformation through suffering. Wilde mentions admiring how Jesus's suffering made the example of his life even more influential and led him to become more famous after his death than during his life. Wilde compares his own wish to accept his suffering in prison as a stage in his artistic development to Christ's own development.

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