De Profundis | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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De Profundis | Summary



Wilde's Complaints Against Douglas

Wilde begins "De Profundis" by addressing his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945) as "Bosie." He uses this nickname throughout the letter. Two years of prison life in Reading Gaol have been hard on Wilde. The purpose of the letter is to outline Wilde's complaints about Bosie, the circumstances that led to the scandal surrounding their relationship, and Wilde's trial and conviction for gross indecency due to the romantic relationship between Wilde and Bosie.

Wilde reminisces about his time together with Bosie but criticizes Bosie's selfish and reckless behavior. Bosie convinced Wilde to spend large amounts of money on him for expenses Wilde characterizes as frivolous, including fancy meals, hotels, travel, and gambling. He recalls the happiness he felt by contrast when dining inexpensively with his close friend Robbie Ross. Wilde also describes Bosie as lazy and lacking ambition. Bosie's faults cumulatively led to Wilde's inability to focus on his creative work and successful career as an author.

Despite the faults he finds in Bosie, Wilde accepts the blame for allowing their relationship to essentially ruin his life. Bosie's mother Sibyl Montgomery (1845–1930) warned him in October 1892 that her son was vain and bad with money. Friends of Wilde urged him to go abroad and break off his relationship with Bosie. Wilde agreed but renewed the relationship after Bosie telegraphed Wilde's wife Constance Lloyd (1859–98) begging her to encourage Wilde to contact him. Bosie spent time in Egypt and when he returned, Wilde refused to see him but gave in when Bosie threatened to kill himself. Two days later Bosie's father found Wilde and his son dining together. He sent a letter to Bosie attacking Wilde.

Wilde also describes nursing Bosie back to health and lavishing him with "affection, tenderness and love" when he was sick with the flu. He recalls how Bosie completely ignored Wilde when he himself subsequently caught the flu. According to Wilde, Bosie even mocked him for being sick.

As Bosie and Wilde became more involved, Bosie's family grew increasingly concerned about the nature of their relationship. Wilde describes a scene in which Bosie's father lashed out at Wilde, "waving his small hands in the air in epipleptic fury ... uttering every foul word his foul mind could think of." Despite this attack Wilde went to comfort Bosie's mother after another of her sons killed himself.

Events Leading to the Scandal and Trial

Wilde continues his letter by recalling the events which led to his trial. He initially sued Bosie's father for libel because of the personal attacks he laid against Wilde. Bosie encouraged the lawsuit and assured Wilde he would win. Bosie's father started a separate investigation into Wilde, and eventually Wilde was convicted of violating British laws against gross indecency on account of his relationship with Bosie. The court expenses Wilde accrued bankrupted him so that he was financially ruined as well as imprisoned. The trial became a scandal and Wilde's letter mentions the case being broadcast in newspapers.

Wilde admits to loving Bosie, but criticizes him for thriving on scandal and writes, "In you hate was always stronger than love." "De Profundis" states that Bosie visited Wilde in prison and wrote him letters at first but then went silent. Bosie wrote a defense of Wilde for a French magazine, but Wilde calls it weak and not reflective of how close he and Bosie had been. Wilde is also hurt that the article contained extracts from personal letters included without Wilde's permission.

Examination of Suffering

The second half of "De Profundis" provides Wilde's meditations on suffering. He is determined not to have prison ruin his spirit and asks himself, "If I go into prison without love what will become of my soul?" Wilde misses his wife and children and finds prison conditions very difficult. His mother passed away three months after he was transferred to Reading Gaol. He is touched that his wife traveled all the way from Genoa to break the news to him personally, but he is hurt that he heard nothing from Bosie. Wilde is also deeply appreciative that his friend Robbie Ross acknowledged him on the street when Wilde was being led through jeering crowds to his bankruptcy trial.

Time in prison has made Wilde believe prisoners are sympathetic to tragedy and don't shun people having hard times in the way that Bosie has left Wilde behind. Wilde accepts his suffering as transformative and writes, "Where there is sorrow there is holy ground." He looks to the model of Jesus Christ for insight on suffering. Wilde writes that Christ is like a poet because he suffered purely and to achieve "self-perfection." Wilde compares his own suffering to Christ's experiences and vows to transform himself and reach an even higher artistic level because of the time he has spent in prison.

"De Profundis" returns to thinking about Bosie, and Wilde writes that his letter is sincere. The end of the letter summarizes the complaints against Bosie but also expresses Wilde's desire to see him again. Wilde hopes to travel to a small seaside town after his release from prison because "The sea ... washes away the stains and wounds of the world." He writes that he hopes to meet Bosie there so that they can reconcile and emerge from the experience as better people. "De Profundis" concludes with a request for Bosie to write back to Wilde.


Composition and Structure

Conditions in Reading Gaol where Wilde was imprisoned after being convicted of gross indecency were challenging physically and mentally. As a writer Wilde found it particularly difficult to lack access to books and sufficient writing supplies. Prisoners were not allowed to work on creative texts like novels and plays. They were allowed to write letters, but these were subject to inspection. During his incarceration the prison leadership shifted from Colonel Henry Isaacson (1842–1915) to Major James Nelson (1859–1914). Nelson permitted Wilde to be given more books to read and paper to write. Wilde was able to keep the manuscript of "De Profundis" from being inspected by simply writing more and more so that the letter did not have to be delivered. The manuscript of the text and its final published form show that the letter was carefully written out and probably revised. This suggests Nelson bent prison rules by allowing Wilde each day to see what he had written the day before.

The resulting text is long and rambling but also showcases a carefully planned structure with two main parts. The first part reviews the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between Wilde and his friend and former romantic partner Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945) who is referred to as "Bosie" throughout the letter. There are two main threads that run through Wilde's retrospective analysis of their relationship. Wilde outlines the various faults he finds in Bosie's behavior and character that led to the public scandal and trial. He weaves admissions of his own faults among these criticisms of Bosie and openly accepts blame for what happened. Wilde's acceptance of his mistakes rhetorically prepares for the second half of "De Profundis" which looks beyond the relationship between Bosie and Wilde to explore the transformative power of suffering. Wilde upholds Jesus Christ (c. 4 BCE–39 CE) as the paradigm of suffering and draws comparisons between Christ's story and his own. The end of "De Profundis" comes full circle by returning to the relationship between Wilde and Bosie. Wilde imagines what it will be like when he is released from prison, and he expresses a desire to be reunited with Bosie as a changed man. The long meditation on suffering and transformation that precedes this final statement on the personal relationship between Bosie and Wilde casts that relationship in a more accepting light than it appeared at the beginning of the letter.

The Rhetoric of Criticism

"De Profundis" is filled with criticisms of Bosie's character. Wilde bemoans at length Bosie's vanity, his habit of spending Wilde's money carelessly, his love of scandal, and his lack of care for Wilde. The criticisms are often very specific and include details such as how much money Bosie wasted on meals and gambling, how he completely ignored Wilde when Wilde had the flu, and how Bosie insensitively published Wilde's personal letters. Details like these show the extent to which Wilde has been hurt and offended. Wilde acknowledges to Bosie, "No matter what your conduct to me was, I always felt at heart that you really did love me." Yet later in "De Profundis," Wilde complicates this statement by declaring, "In you hate was always stronger than love." On the other hand, Wilde is careful not to let "De Profundis" slip entirely into becoming a letter of complaints. Very early on in the letter Wilde declares to Bosie, "I blame myself terribly." He expresses that he continues to care for Bosie in spite of everything that has happened.

Wilde declares to Bosie that "my letter has its definite meaning behind every phrase. There is nothing in it of rhetoric." Yet by accepting blame and not rejecting Bosie, Wilde rhetorically presents himself as humble instead of angry. "De Profundis" solicits sympathy from Bosie and readers in general because Wilde characterizes himself as both suffering and acting with nobility. Wilde's refusal to hate Bosie softens his critiques and complaints by rhetorically presenting them in the context of his own suffering and forgiveness. The rhetorical tone of "De Profundis" makes the criticisms of Bosie more acceptable. On a broader level, however, "De Profundis" complicates Wilde's supposed humility when he draws comparisons between himself and Christ who is believed by Christians to be the son of God. This comparison implies that while Wilde may take the high road by forgiving Bosie and accepting his own faults, Wilde also has a superior opinion of himself.

The Rhetoric of Transformation

"De Profundis" consistently declares Wilde's desire not to ignore or reject his hardships but rather to embrace them. He tells Bosie that "the silence, the solitude, the shame—each of these things I had to transform into a spiritual experience." The second half of "De Profundis" extensively meditates on the image of Christ. This implies that the spiritual transformation Wilde wants to achieve is akin to the way that Christ bore suffering at the hands of his persecutors in ancient Galilee for declaring himself the son of God and the spiritual king of the Jews. Rhetorically speaking a comparison between a human and a deity is shocking. Wilde's remarks make the corresponding section of "De Profundis" as controversial as its specific and personal criticisms of Bosie. Wilde softens the shock of his comparison to Christ by first explaining that he seeks transformation in artistic terms and hopes to allow his suffering to make him a more sensitive and self-aware artist. Only after expressing this view does Wilde return to considering his relationship with Bosie and how that might also be transformed. He admits that his letter to Bosie has been harsh and he continues to not deny Bosie's faults. Yet he also expresses a desire to see Bosie again and insists that they can reunite as better people despite the past hardships. He writes, "To humility there is nothing that is impossible, and to love all things are easy." Wilde's use of the word "humility" in the passage echoes Christ's advocacy of humility. His characterization of his relationship with Bosie in terms of "love" and not simply Bosie's faults emphasizes Wilde's insistence on transformation.

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