Autobiographical Elements in the Works of Oscar Wilde and Constance Lytton during Their Time in Prison
Oscar Wilde and Constance Lytton provide written works and an autobiography of their personal experience during their time in prison. Even though they were imprisoned for different events, both of their occurences brought them a shift of consciousness and perspective of the society that has imprisoned them as they fight for their individual beliefs.
Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for two years due to the indecency of being homosexual. During his time there he had to confront his fate and the inner conflict he felt about being imprisoned. Wilde’s consciousness and perception of society was altered when he was imprisoned and helped to face the struggle and turn it into a more positive outlook by accepting it. Wilde resolved by writing a letter, more a lover’s complaint, to his friend, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde begins by talking about the suffering him and the other inmates experience while being in prison. The author describes the despair of their fate and the self-reflection one has to endure while there. Wilde acknowledges in his letter, De Profundis, ‘…Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods and chronicle their return’ (Wilde, Profundis). Wilde reveals that while being in prison he had nothing to do but confront his emotions that brought him melancholic feelings when having to handle it. While considering all that Wilde has done in his life, he becomes conscientious of the mere fact that he has avoided any hardship and heartbreak in his life. The author realized that the suffering and sorrow one has to endure is only a moment in time, however long it may be, and will not last forever. Wilde feels a self-awareness that in the suffering is where one will find the true beauty of art.
In Oscar Wilde’s poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the author is able to comprehend the pain of others when he is aware of his own pain. Throughout the poem, the reader can sense the anguish that resides within that Wilde feels about his social conviction and imprisonment. At first, Wilde reaches a point of resentment towards the condemned man who is sentenced to death. This resulted from the fact that Wilde himself wanted to be in his place as he had a death wish to end all of the pain and suffering. This quickly turned into a realization that others around him are in worse circumstances than himself and that the condemned ones are a model for all prisoners. Wilde views this as a way to maintain his own self-control to get through his time in prison.
As the warders walked past by each padlocked door, the prisoners found the idea of religion and prayer one of the only ways to keep hope inside the prison. Wilde notes, “And wondered why men knelt to pray/Who never prayed before” (Wilde, Reading Gaol). This idea of finding hope in religion and plea is a central theme in the poem. There was no hope inside the prison and the prisoners there were continually prompted of their possible fate of hanging. One of the only things that gave the prisoners hope to keep going during their sentence was the idea of God and mercy to believe in. Whether one is religious or not, the mere presence of being in prison was enough to influence prisoners to start to think and pray to God. Both Wilde and Lytton experience a religious perspective while in prison as Wilde and the other prisoners look to God in hope, and Lytton and others look at their experience as a comparison to the crucifixion.
Constance Lyttons’ autobiography, Prisons and Prisoner: Some Personal Experiences, follows the life of the author herself and how her imprisonment altered her perception of the society that imprisoned her. The author argues that women are made into criminals and put into police vehicles, believing that society constructs impassioned reactions that lead to the confinement of women. Lytton believes that the right to vote and equal rights would provide the prevention of convictions. Constance Lytton was imprisoned four times in which she was involved in the suffrage movement beginning in 1908. Due to her social status, Lytton was treated fairly better than other women who were imprisoned with a less privileged social status. Lytton was then protected and released on health grounds. Lytton was determined to represent the struggle for both women’s equality and in opposition to class privilege. By doing so, Constance disguises herself as Jane Warton and gets arrested to serve time in prison to get treated the same as one who was not as privileged. The author’s only way to accomplish this is to change her identity so she could not be prevented by her family or the Home Office.
During her third imprisonment, Lytton disguised as Warton refuses to work or do anything the guards tell her to do. This results in Warton getting sent to solitary confinement where she is held down and tortured into force feeding. The author states, “…the doctor when he had fed her by force and tortured her body, struck her on the cheek to show how he despised her!” (Lytton, Prisoners). This grueling experience, among others that women endured, shaped comradeship between prisoners. The act of being force-fed and the treatment given poses as a reenactment of the crucifixion. Even though this was such a terrifying experience for Lytton, she could not help but laugh inside as she had accomplished one of her goals. Lytton, like Oscar Wilde during his time in prison, describes the emotional state of being imprisoned as somber, hopeless and anguished. A sense of helplessness overwhelmed them. Lytton’s time in prison had changed her perspective to the realization that she needed to continue forward.
Oscar Wilde’s, De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Constance Lytton’s Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences, brings forth a comparison of how both authors experience a change in perspective and consciousness when they are imprisoned for indecency and fighting for their individual beliefs to gain rights for others like them. As the reader navigates through their personal experiences, the shift in perception becomes apparent.
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