Written by Dimana Radoeva
for Prof. Shalon Noble
Writers who incorporate parts of their real life into their literary work publish their personal feelings and thoughts in texts that will inevitably end up in the hands of hundreds, maybe millions of strangers. In cases like Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, the intensely personal letter he wrote was meant for one specific person, Lord Alfred Douglas, and not for a mass audience. More specifically, Wilde’s writings about his relationship with another man, published in a time period where the LGBT community was so openly hated, continue to be relevant today. The decision to bring to light one’s personal struggles can extend the writer’s influence farther than just in a literary sense. In the 1997 film Wilde, the portrayal of the psychological and emotional stress that Oscar Wilde is put under during his exploration of his homosexual feelings poses an important critique of homophobia in the 19th-century societal aristocracy.
The necessity for Wilde to hide his homosexual feelings due to societal stigma leads to significant emotional turmoil in his personal life. He has to hide his relationship with Bosie—Lord Alfred Douglas—from his wife, children, and extended family. Wilde spends less and less time with his wife and children to continue his work, but most importantly, to continue his relationship with Bosie without them finding out. In a scene where Constance, Wilde’s wife, has a conversation with Lady Mount-Temple, all it seems that Constance knows about the two men’s relationship is that “they’re studying classics” and “they talk about Plato” (Wilde 36:10 – 15). Having to hide an entire new side of himself from his wife and kids by lying to them, while indulging in spending more and more time with Bosie, causes an internal, emotional conflict. For example, Constance visits Wilde while he is about to present a new play. Bosie is in the room, and Constance tells Wilde that the children miss him, so he should come back soon. On the other side, Bosie insists that they have a schedule to keep. In that moment, Wilde must literally make a choice between his family and Bosie. He ends up caving in to Bosie’s demands and tells his wife that he will visit the next day. This scene reflects the entirety of Wilde’s emotional conflict between Bosie and his family. He always struggles to keep a balance between his family life and his lover. He has to keep up the appearances of an upper class heterosexual man with a family, because of societal standards, while also staying true to himself in terms of his sexuality. These are conflicting interests that are intensified by the personal narrative of Wilde’s emotional stress throughout the whole movie.
Furthermore, Wilde’s personality and philosophical ideologies are brought up during the trial in an effort to vilify and convict him. When he is cross-examined in court, the prosecutor lists off the professions of the rent boys that Wilde has been in contact with. Wilde answers that “[he] recognizes no social distinctions at all of any kind, to [him] youth, the mere fact of youth, is so wonderful” and that he would “rather talk to a young man for half an hour than be … cross examined in court” (Wilde 1:23:45 – 1:24:06). This fact about Wilde’s behavior and his way of seeing the world is then immediately twisted to denigrate him as a person. The prosecutor proceeds to assume Wilde would then “commit improprieties with [them]!” (Wilde 1:24:20 – 1:24:23). The prosecution sees Wilde’s literary work and demeanor in court as an outright confession of all of his “sins.” Even if there is no actual relevance in bringing up Wilde’s work, everyone present at the trial makes fun of his ideas and content, which wounds him. He is ridiculed, taken advantage of, and presented in front of the Crown as a perverted man with very strange ideas about love and pleasure. When the prosecutor quotes Wilde by saying, “pleasure is the only thing one should live for” (Wilde 1:22:19 – 1:22:23), the crowd laughs and Wilde exasperatedly tries to explain his point of view, which is immediately ridiculed as well. During the trial, Wilde’s confession of sin or the commission of a crime is determined by the proof the Marquess has provided, but more importantly, it is solidified by defamatory statements on Wilde’s personality, thoughts and feelings. The personal attacks directed at Wilde throughout the trial are more condemning than any actual evidence submitted. From Wilde’s point of view, these offensive remarks about his very being establish the importance of the intensely personal nature of the movie—the psychological stress of being condemned for just being himself and the extensive societal stigma towards homosexuality.
Alternatively, the continuous narration of “The Selfish Giant” throughout the movie is representative of the parallel narratives of the Giant and Wilde’s character development, which end with Wilde, like the Giant, realizing he must sacrifice a part of his personal life. The movie contains several scenes in which Wilde tells the story of “The Selfish Giant” to his children, and the film ends as Wilde narrates the end of the short story as well. The scenes containing portions of the story are very significant to the emotional state Wilde is in at the time. For example, he narrates the part where the Giant realizes his mistake in putting a giant wall around his garden, understanding “how selfish [he] has been! … Now [he] knows why Spring would not come here. … [he] will knock down the wall, and [his] garden shall be the children’s playground for ever and ever” (Wilde 4). This part of the story is narrated right after Wilde decides to break up with Bosie and dedicate himself to his family. Metaphorically, Wilde is the Giant in this scenario and his children are those mentioned in the narrative. Wilde sees how he should be living: as a loyal husband and father to his children. He has been selfish in seeking a relationship with Bosie while ignoring his family. This shows a particular personal relation to the story and a deeper meaning to the narrative voice-over spanning the entire movie, because, later on, when he is imprisoned, Wilde finishes “The Selfish Giant” narration with an entirely new meaning, considering his current state in prison. As he prepares to leave prison, the scene shows him looking up slowly to a small window in his cell, a white light shining brightly through the bars. The conclusion of the short story is spoken through a voice-over by Wilde himself, once again. The Giant finds the little boy that tried to climb in his garden many years after. He sees that on the “palms of the child’s hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails on the little feet,” which angers the Giant as he wants to take revenge on whoever did this, but the boy simply explains that “these are the wounds of Love” (Wilde 5). Historically, Oscar Wilde, during his stay in prison, converted to Christianity and even tried to be baptized before he died (Nelson 1). The focus on the shot of the white light through the window represents the young boy, with wounds on his hands and feet like Jesus Christ, who takes the Giant’s hand and lets him go to Paradise, because of his goodwill towards the children. This is a parallel to Wilde seeking absolution from God after having lost his wife, but having been blessed with the opportunity of still seeing his children, who are so important to him. Perhaps Wilde, for a brief moment, feels like he has atoned for his sins in prison, so he prepares himself for a paradise with his children. He is willing to adhere to the 19th-century social standards by promising to never see Bosie again and repressing his true identity to, in return, be able to be with his children. The unfortunate personal sacrifice Wilde must make to be able to reach his paradise is actually a very strong message about the societal pressure he experiences throughout the whole movie.
In summation, Wilde explores Oscar Wilde’s life in a biographical sense, but the movie is a much deeper analysis of a personal influence affecting the narrative in a very specific way. The emotional stress and the repression of Wilde’s homosexuality greatly affect his relations with his family and children. Also, the trial Wilde must suffer through is designed in a way to humiliate him, destroy his reputation, and vilify him as a person. Furthermore, the narration of “The Selfish Giant” is a metaphor throughout the whole movie that symbolizes Wilde’s sacrifice of an integral part of his personal life: his sexuality. Although the movie makes the spectator believe that Wilde has learned from his mistake of dating Bosie, the conclusion shows them reuniting, despite every single one of Wilde’s friends objecting to the union. This makes Oscar Wilde’s character development seem rather grim, because of his willingness to go back to an unhealthy relationship, but perhaps the final scene shows the actions of a man finally freed of the prison society put him in, in regards to his turmoil with his sexuality, who puts his personal happiness above all else. To have this very hopeful representation of a gay character in media is very telling of the important progress in society’s acceptance of LGBT people.
Nelson, Max. “Suffering Is One Very Long Moment.” The Paris Review, 13 Oct. 2015, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/13/suffering-is-one-very-long-moment. Accessed 3 Dec 2016.
Wilde. Directed by Brian Gilbert, performance by Stephen Fry, PolyGram, 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde.” Short Stories at East of the Web, 13 Mar. 2003, www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/SelGia.shtml. Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.
About the Author:
Dimana Radoeva is a cinema communications student with a passion for film, writing, and video games. Her achievements include: managing to survive two years of college, becoming a champion at long-distance running away from her problems, and never respecting the word-count limit on essay assignments. She’s hoping to pursue a journalism or communication degree in university, so she’s actually preparing herself for her upcoming career as a Starbucks barista