A Plea for Change

In De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde offers commentary on his time in prison. While both are significant, I am more interested in the latter. The Ballad of Reading Gaol describes events that Wilde experienced, particularly the hanging of a fellow inmate, but more importantly, it presents a call for reform of the penal and prison systems of the era. Not only was the legal system incredibly flawed, but the prisons were inhumanely brutal. Health concerns were countless, work was destructive, and guards seemingly took pleasure in punishing inmates for the smallest of infractions. Wilde himself was sentenced to two years hard labor for “gross indecency.” Reading Gaol appears to comment on the reformative hypocrisy of prison, that it ravishes the minds, bodies, and souls of the very individuals it seeks to reform. More generally, Wilde also focuses on the depressing and hopeless conditions. The poem effectively communicates the perpetual terror and dread the prisoners feel as a result of their environment. Finally, the piece can be read, among many other things, as a criticism of the death penalty, thus rounding out Wilde’s cry for change.

I could not help but be reminded of Great Expectations‘ Newgate Prison while reading both of Wilde’s pieces. I feel that they give important context in understanding the conditions, and make Pip’s visit to Newgate that much more effective. Of course, Pip critically comments on what he observes himself, but Reading Gaol allows us to perhaps better understand Magwitch’s character and his desperation to escape the prison. This is because Wilde’s pieces have the “benefit” of being told by someone who experienced these very hardships. The similarities in Wilde’s and Dickens’ work and criticisms of the prison systems should come as no surprise, as Dickens was a prominent social reformation activist of the Victorian era. While the theme is much less pronounced in Great Expectations, both it and Wilde’s De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol serve as important criticisms of the penal system of the 19th century.

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