Hundreds of Londoners flocked to the theatres to attend the plays of the Irish writer Oscar Wilde in early 1895. Critics praised both An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, and Wilde enjoyed the renown and honor that accompanied his recognition as an artist. Fascinated by contradictions and hypocrisy, he attacked Victorian England’s strict ideas of morality with his signature wit and wry humor. Society believed him to be a “dandy,” a fashionably-dressed man obsessed with self-indulgence who carried himself with poise. But unbeknownst to many of his fans, Wilde walked a dangerous line in British society as he was guilty of having relationships with other men. This was not only regarded as shameful and immoral during his time, it was also illegal, as Great Britain had made homosexuality a crime punishable by law. Some of these affairs were more public than others, the most significant of which being Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, which proved to be disastrous for Wilde as it helped bring about his downfall (Frankel 13-17). Later that same year, society passed its unforgiving judgment on Wilde: he found himself on trial, charged with “gross indecency” (Fletcher IX). The court convicted Wilde and gave him the maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment with hard labor. His prison sentence permanently changed him and his perspective on life, which he had once cherished and enjoyed. Wilde chronicles his descent into despair in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, in which he examines the evils of the prison system as well as the effects of hopelessness on his views of himself and his world.
Once he had stepped outside the realm of the “socially acceptable,” the society that had loved him and hailed him as a literary genius denounced him as a criminal (Fletcher IX). Wilde never recovered from this brutal rejection or his incarceration for his “crime.” In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, published in 1898, he condemns the English prison system through his descriptions of the appalling conditions in which the prisoners lived. Wilde claims that each cell was a “foul and dark latrine,” and that he had been served water that “[crept] with a loathsome slime” and bread “full of chalk and lime” (Wilde 267). Prisoners were released from their cells only to toil for hours in the prison yard. One of their infamous tasks was untying ropes that had been soaked in tar with their bare hands: “We tore the tarry rope to shreds/ With blunt and bleeding nails…” (Wilde 255). Wilde had only worked as a professional writer, and he was not physically prepared for these demanding tasks. Unable to occupy their time with anything other than manual labor, the inmates of Reading Gaol dwelled in misery behind the prison’s walls. The men often stared at the sky “with such a wistful eye…at every careless cloud that passed/ In happy freedom by” after they realized that they had taken their independence for granted (Wilde 262). A combination of their dreary surroundings and daily reminders of their captivity plunged the men into utter hopelessness. Wilde reveals his suffering in heartbreaking detail:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or to give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope. (Wilde 260)
Wilde’s imprisonment robbed him of his fierce will to live.
Through Reading Gaol, Wilde exposes the English penal system’s methods of breaking its prisoners. Meaningless hard labor destroyed a man physically while solitary confinement and neglect crushed his spirit; eventually both engendered an overwhelming sense of isolation. Physical anguish and despair fueled the dismal atmosphere of Reading Gaol as well as the prisoners’ hopelessness. The wardens also sought to dehumanize and force anonymity upon the captives, who were forced to wear masks whenever they left their cells. The inmates were forbidden to interact with one another and they were never called by their names. Thus, Oscar Wilde was known simply as “C.3.3.,” the man in cell number three on the third landing of cell block C (Fletcher XVIII). As if life had not been miserable enough, the wardens forbade Wilde, a writer and lover of literature, from having books and paper during the majority of his time in prison (Fletcher XVII). They denied him access to the tools he used to create his art. Each day he spent in solitary confinement forced him to reflect upon and to come to terms with all that he had lost. He struggled to endure his loneliness. Wilde adored his audience and craved the attention of the public, and at Reading Gaol they mistreated him, largely ignored him, and failed to even learn his name. In his melancholic state, he explains that it seemed as if even God had forsaken the men at Reading: “The world had thrust us from its heart,/ And God from out his care” (Wilde 254). If God, an all-loving creator, did not take pity on the prisoners, then their sympathy for their fellow humans was also lost.
Wilde’s experiences in prison eventually led him to count himself among the dead. He refers to “death” frequently in Reading Gaol, using the word to describe the bitter end to an intangible idea or entity as well as the literal absence of life. At the opening and end of his poem, Wilde argues that “each man kills the thing he loves,” though the precise meaning of this ambiguous “thing” remains unclear. He also suggests that its death is generally the consequence of a man’s poor or “immoral” choices. This “thing” he names may be love, peace of mind, or happiness. Or is Wilde referring to the death of any hope of returning to normalcy and attempting to rebuild his former life as a beloved writer (Wilde 270)? Whatever this “thing” is, Wilde advises against killing it slowly and explains that “[t]he kindest use a knife, because/ The dead so soon grow cold” (Wilde 249).
Wilde felt a profound emptiness growing within him that could not be filled, leaving the once-sensitive man numb. In Reading Gaol he declares, “And though I was a soul in pain,/ My pain I could not feel” (Wilde 249). After his release from prison, Wilde lacked the will and drive to pursue any of the creative projects he had initially hoped to complete. “The intense energy of creation has been kicked out of me,” he explained to an acquaintance (Fletcher XVIII). He would later die with the belief that his English fans abhorred him. “I will never outlive the century,” he said after his release, eerily predicting his death. “The English people would not stand for it” (Frankel 3). His statements reveal the stark contrast between the celebrated, witty writer who had sauntered confidently through London and the miserable, ruined man who emerged from his prison cell.
Wilde seems to be condemning Victorian England’s moralistic ideology and pleading with his audience to behold what society had done to him. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, originally published under the pseudonym “C.3.3.,” the “name” he had been given in prison, was the last work Wilde released to the public. Did he intend to leave this world with a farewell message in a poem that explained how his will to live had been crushed? In Reading Gaol, Wilde reveals the existential crisis he and the other prisoners endured when they were informed that one of their fellow inmates was to be hanged. Each of them wondered if they “[w]ould end the self-same way,/ For none can tell to what red Hell/ His sightless soul may stray” (Wilde 253). Wilde’s incarceration at Reading Goal forced him to contemplate his fate, and his question was answered in November 1900 when he died a broken, penniless man in Paris (Fletcher XVIII). An excerpt from Reading Gaol was chosen as Wilde’s epitaph, and it accurately reflects the last few years of his life as a pariah:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn (Wilde 266).
Wilde, an “alien” in his world, knew perfectly well that only his fellow outsiders could properly identify with him. Only society’s others, the “aliens,” would truly be able to feel sympathy for him, and he gave them The Ballad of Reading Gaol as a token by which to remember him.
By the time of his death in Paris, Wilde had fallen from grace in the eyes of society. He lived the remainder of his life in self-imposed exile in mainland Europe under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth. Wilde refused to return to England, the country that had robbed him of all that he loved by convicting him of “gross indecency” (Fletcher XX). His fate is evidence of society’s tendency to punish its artists should they ever violate its definition of what is socially acceptable. Society, however, failed to completely stifle Wilde’s voice and put an end to his following. Wilde’s fellow “aliens” found solace in his works, and he posthumously regained the admiration and respect of thousands. Over one hundred years after his death, the writer who had died an outcast is once more hailed as an artist, a literary genius, and a hero. His works are read by people of all ages from all walks of life, and his plays are performed on stages across the world. The Victorian public had denounced The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel, as immoral and dangerous when it was first published in 1890; today, however, it is honored as a literary masterpiece (Fletcher XVI). The popularity of Wilde’s plays is undeniable. Since 1900, The Importance of Being Earnest has been reproduced over three hundred times in the United Kingdom alone (“The Importance of Being Earnest: Notable Productions”). In death, Wilde achieved his final wish to be loved and remembered, and he has since been pardoned for his “moral transgressions.” Despite Victorian England’s efforts to end his career forever, Oscar Wilde, prisoner C.3.3., once again commands an audience of adoring fans.
“The Importance of Being Earnest: Notable Productions.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Victoria and Albert Museum, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Poems. The Collected Oscar Wilde. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2007. 248-270. Print.
Wilde, Oscar, and Angus Fletcher. “Introduction.” The Collected Oscar Wilde. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2007. XIII-XLI. Print.
Wilde, Oscar, and Nicholas Frankel. “General Introduction.” The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Nicholas Frankel. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2011. Print.