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Oscar Wilde wrote "I don't defend my conduct, I explain it," when he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol in 1895 for his violation of England's stringent laws against homosexuality. Wilde's nototious liaison with the Marquess of Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), had so inflamed the Marquess that he made public attacks on Wilde's character and morals. In return, Wilde sued for slader, an action which, to Wilde's bitter astonishment, led to a series of scandalous trials and convictions. From his cell in ...
Oscar Wilde wrote "I don't defend my conduct, I explain it," when he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol in 1895 for his violation of England's stringent laws against homosexuality. Wilde's nototious liaison with the Marquess of Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), had so inflamed the Marquess that he made public attacks on Wilde's character and morals. In return, Wilde sued for slader, an action which, to Wilde's bitter astonishment, led to a series of scandalous trials and convictions. From his cell in prison, Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis, the detailed and unsparing revelation of his love and tragedy.
With a major feature film biography scheduled for release and the current tremendous success of the long-running play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, the text of this remarkable document with the Hart-Davis notes is uniquely relevant. This volume alone provides the entire content of De Profundis; W.H. Auden's famous essay in The New Yorker further sets the stage.
1. Richard Ellmann suggests that De Profundis is a love letter, above all else. Does De Profundis follow the conventional form of a love letter? In what specific ways does De Profundis read like a love letter? In what ways does it differ? What makes it romantic?
2. Examine the letter's structure and define its different parts. Do Wilde's style and tone remain consistent throughout?
3. In De Profundis, Wilde recognizes numerous ironies regarding the circumstances of his imprisonment, most notably that he himself is imprisoned after suing Queensberry for slander. What other ironies (or paradoxes) does Wilde point out? What role does irony play in the letter? Why might Wilde choose to speak in these terms?
4. Do you think Wilde is a reliable narrator? How might his memories of Bosie be influenced by his imprisonment? Do you find his criticism of Bosie fair? Why or why not?
5. Throughout De Profundis, Wilde compares Alfred Douglas to numerous literary figures, from the lion's whelp in Agamemnon to Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What, if anything, do these figures have in common? How are they different? Compare the different contexts in which Wilde alludes to these figures.
6. What sort of freedom awaits Wilde upon his release? How does he aim to live?
7. Dante's Inferno is one of the texts to which Wilde frequently alludes in De Profundis. Examine the different contexts in which he quotes from Inferno. What similarities, if any, can you find? Why do you think Wilde quotes from Dante so often?
8. Discuss Wilde's invocation of Christ as both a literary and a historical figure. Whatquality of Christ does Wilde most admire? Why does Wilde call Christ the first individual in history? In what ways is Christ like an artist, according to Wilde? Richard Ellmann refers to this section as the letter's climax. Would you agree? Why or why not?
9. After providing a withering critique of Alfred Douglas's behavior, Wilde turns his criticism on himself, claiming, "I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me: I ruined myself and that nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand." Examine the reasons he gives for writing this. Do you agree with his claim?
10. Toward the end of the letter, Wilde writes, "A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a Member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it." What is the price Wilde has paid for this knowledge? Is this something he could have understood in this youth? Why or why not?
Posted January 3, 2011
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