De Profundis | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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De Profundis | Main Ideas


Reckoning with the Past

Wilde's imprisonment for gross indecency on account of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), also known as "Bosie" provided ample time to reflect on the events which led to the scandal surrounding the relationship and to his trial. An analysis of Bosie's various wrongdoings comprises the first part of "De Profundis." Wilde discusses Bosie's flippancy, careless spending, selfishness, and other faults. The attacks on Wilde by Bosie's father John Douglas (1844–1900) are also reviewed. Wilde's discussion of the hardships he has encountered extends to the losses he has experienced. Shortly after Wilde's transfer to Reading Gaol, Wilde's mother Jane Francesca Elgee (1821–96) passed away, and he suspects that the strain of his situation was a contributing factor. Wilde is also deeply hurt from being separated from his wife and children and notes that "one single hair" from his son Cyril's "golden head should have been dearer and more valuable to me than ... the whole world." These personal sufferings Wilde faces come in addition to the harsh conditions of prison life.

Wilde unflinchingly reviews his sufferings in specific detail but also accepts them. "De Profundis" expresses a strong desire to reckon with the past rather than forget it. Wilde tells Bosie that "some people advised me to try and forget who I was" upon entering prison. He ignores this advice and instead decides to accept his past and use his time in prison to meditate on it. The ultimate hope Wilde expresses in "De Profundis" is that by reckoning with his past and sufferings he will be able to rise above them and emerge as a more aware artist.

Looking to the Future

In the spirit of transformation, Wilde looks to the future as well as reckoning with his past. Wilde mentions that he had been "advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all." He refuses that advice just as he refuses the suggestion to forget who he was upon entering prison. Wilde embraces the sufferings he has encountered in prison as a means to transform himself and thus has no plans to leave the thought of them behind when he is set free.

Wilde does not fixate on what he will do upon release from prison because doing so would run counter to his goal to live in the moment of his suffering and accept it. Yet he does briefly mention what he hopes to do after prison. Wilde expresses a desire to visit a small and quiet seaside town because the sea will metaphorically wash away "the stains and wounds of the world." The calm and remote setting he seeks is a stark contrast to the lively, metropolitan world of fancy hotels and expensive meals that Wilde and Bosie had circulated through prior to Wilde's imprisonment. This contrast signifies the transformation Wilde sees himself completing while in prison. He writes that he hopes to be reunited with Bosie in the seaside town but as a new person with a new life rather than to reignite their relationship as it was before.

Suffering and Art

While in prison Wilde lacks easy access to books and paper to continue his practice as a writer. The harshness of prison life also brings Wilde's creative output to a grinding halt. "De Profundis" implies that Wilde's creative impulses are not stopped even if it is difficult to actually produce new works. Wilde takes his suffering as material to shape into art because it is the one thing freely available to him in prison. In "De Profundis" he writes that "the artistic life is simply self-development," and he sees the necessity of working through his suffering as an opportunity for improvement.

The ingenious solution of writing a letter to Bosie finally provides Wilde with the chance to produce a literary work while in prison. "De Profundis" turns into something more than a personal letter to or complaint against Bosie. Wilde is determined to turn both his fraught relationship with Bosie and the sufferings of prison life into something meaningful. He writes, "I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me" and vows to transform his suffering into "a spiritual experience." Wilde takes Jesus Christ (c. 4 BCE–39 CE) as his model of transformation through suffering. He makes the startling claim that Christ is poet-like because he is "the most supreme of individualists" and focused on "the inevitable law of self-perfection." Wilde sees Christ as having possessed the key artistic power of imagination to a greater degree than anyone else. Christ was persecuted and crucified for proclaiming to be the son of God and the spiritual king of the Jews yet never ceased to share his vision of the better world he imagined despite his suffering. Wilde seeks to emulate Christ's model of living through suffering while leveraging a pure artistic vision.

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