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Oscar Wilde and the Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde was one of the most representative authors of the Victorian age, the phase of English history that corresponds to the reign of the Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901). The Victorian society is to be considered a very significant moment for English history and culture but also contained some contradictions difficult to understand; scientific development, enormous increase of commercial business, international power and prestige for United Kingdom, a rich and fine literature were the first side of a coin that showed, on the “dark side”, social inequalities, pollution and, in our case, hypocrisy. Homosexuality, in exemplum, was not tolerated at all and the existing laws condemned it very firmly, even to the jail and the hard work.

There was, then, a wit and brilliant novelist, poet, aphorist. And there was a lord, Alfred Douglas who fell in love with him. Surely, the guy had been fascinated and fallen in love with the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and many other interesting masterpieces because he was wit, he had education, an intelligence and a sagacity which certainly made him seem something special in such an hypocrite and mediocre society (perhaps Alfred should be quiet fed up with). 

To stop the relationship between Oscar and Alfred, Lord Douglas senior, Marquis of Queensberry and Alfred’s father, prosecuted for libel, a charge carrying a penalty of up to two years in prison. The trial discovered evidence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with other men. After two more trials he was convicted and imprisoned for two years’ hard labour.

Of course, a condemn like that one  comported to have almost killed him because the hard life of a jail and of the works was too hard to suffer for any human being and, over all, for a sensitive and delicate person.

How could such a gentle being face such an appalling and difficult situation? How could an educated gentleman, used at humanities, literature, fine arts, live in a squalid place, without freedom, without the possibility to cultivate his interests, strangely watched by the other jailbirds and having for skythat little tent of blue”?

In 1897, when he was in prison yet, Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis which was published in 1905, a long letter which discusses his spiritual experience through his judgments, creating a shady counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure.

Upon his release he definitely left Ireland and Britain, never to return, moved to France and there he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem remembering the cruel rhythms of prison life, exactly two years before to die, only forty six years old.

In the Ballad of the Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde tells us the sufferance he lived in that time of two years, when he wanted to pray and he could not, he wanted to weep and it was difficult, he walked and the detainees whispered ‘that fellow’s got to swing!”. The first image Wilde gives us is that one of a prisoner who does not wear the colours of the blood and the wine, although his hands had been found red after the murder of his wife. Now he wears a suit of shabby grey and, wistfully all the day, takes sometimes a look at that little tent of blue quiet similar to the sky. Oscar walked and a voice whispered someone was destined to be hanged.

Secondly, Wilde lists the crimes of the people of the Reading Gaol and the types of the humanity he had to live with. There is that one who killed the thing of his love, who strangled, who used knives, crying or not, with tender words or in silence and, reasoning in terms of literary categories, it seems a minimal reference to the Love – Death relationship which is an important reading key of Victorian poetry and literature.



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