Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, and the Rhetoric of Agency

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De Profundis occupies a precarious place in Oscar Wilde's canon and for several reasons is often skirted by wary interpreters: it does not fit neatly into any single genre; it does not resemble any of the other works that made Wilde famous; it is full of irritating inconsistencies and contradictions; and it seems ambiguously aimed at a wider audience than its inscription to Alfred Douglas suggests. After all, there are the enduring plays, the fascinating novel, the engaging dialogues; why struggle with a reader-resistant text framed as a personal letter? Its handling in the recent Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde (1997) illustrates this critical uneasiness. De Profundis is almost completely ignored in this collection of essays. In her chapter, for example, Regenia Gagnier (a sympathetic interpreter of De Profundis in an earlier study) devotes one sentence to it, calling it "perhaps his greatest work of art" (27)--but does not elaborate. Nowhere in this volume is there a sustained effort to assess the place of De Profundis in Wilde's canon or to set it within the context of his life.

Many readers disparage or dismiss De Profundis. It has been condemned as a "venomous dossier" and "obsessive piece of writing" (Julian 352), and it has been dismissed as the complaint of a very unhappy prisoner who "thereafter lost interest in" the work (Croft-Cooke 231). Even good-faith interpretive efforts run aground: Avrom Fleishman speaks of being "unprepared--even after several readings, in my own case--to believe my eyes" at its shifts of tone and attitude (285-86). There are some sympathetic interpretations, however. One is biographer Richard Ellmann's judgment that De Profundis is "one of the greatest love letters ever written," but that it suffers from a "disjointed structure" (515). Another is Gagnier's own earlier interpretation of the work as a response to the degradation of prison life; shifting between "realism and romance," "Wilde kept a positive past and created a possible future" as "romance"(Idylls 192). "He reconstructed the world," says Gagnier, "in order to show that he is above it" (Idylls 190). Both interpretations are insightful. Certainly De Profundis is a record of Wilde's deeply divided feelings for Douglas. And it is also at times a romance through which Wilde imagines a future for them both, in which he recovers aesthetic and moral superiority over Douglas.

But there are significant aspects of De Profundis that are not considered in the interpretations by Ellmann or Gagnier. Neither asks why its structure appears disjointed or what might account for its subversive energies--its disconcerting shifts in tone, its abrupt swings in self-positioning, or its figurative intensity. Though Wilde creates a vision of his post-prison future, this vision entails at least as much irony as romance, because much of the time Wilde seems to be writing against himself, constructing self-representations that seem to hide as much as they reveal. Throughout much of the text Wilde seems up to something but unwilling to declare what that might be. I want to look again at the elements of De Profundis that make it unreadable for some and to propose that it has a significant place in Wilde's work. From my perspective, the disjunctions arise from irresolvable tensions lurking in Wilde's rhetorical goals as he sought both to hide and to reveal his own agency within the events of his life. These tensions are not idiosyncratic but are inherent in the sociocultural space Wilde occupied as an active homosexual. He took it as obligatory that he must displace and disguise his motives and actions even as he explained them. The tonal inconsistencies of De Profundis thus need to be read as manifestations of the tectonic pressures embedded in his life--pressures until 1895 kept more or less under control. In De Profundis Wilde was trying to demonstrate not so much that he was above the world, but that he had been--and still could be--an agent in a world that required duplicity and disguise for survival. …