The Ballad Beyond Reading Gaol: Avenge Oscar Wilde

By Genevieve Malloy

Oscar Wilde is one of the most famous writers of the English language.      A leading proponent of aestheticism, he wrote some of the most celebrated works to come out of Victorian England (including The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest) as well as a number of short stories and poems. Perhaps lesser known, however, is Wilde’s advocacy for libertarian socialism. He authored “The Soul of Man under Socialism” in 1891 (after he read works by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin), an essay in which he made a case for why true freedom and individualism cannot be realised for people, especially the poor and the working class, under capitalism. This political perspective was unfortunately quite prescient, as he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1895 and sentenced to two years hard labour in prison. Upon leaving prison he went straight to France, where for the remaining three years of his life he lived in poverty and exile. It was under these conditions that Wilde wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1897).

This essay is an attempt to describe Wilde’s politics, especially his views on freedom and individualism as they relate to socialism. It is also an opportunity to explore how Wilde’s observations during imprisonment remains relevant to the brutalisation and exploitation of prisoners, and to the oppression of LGBTQI+ people, in the modern day. Finally, in reflection of this, we must work towards avenging him and all who have been brutalised by this system. We must actively fight to destroy capitalism and look towards a socialist post-state society in which we can all realise true individualism and freedom.

The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Wilde came from a family of Irish intellectuals, and, having achieved great acclaim for his literary work, moved very comfortably amongst bourgeois social circles. At the time of writing The Soul of Man under Socialism and other essays, he was concerned with individualism as it related to art but also to freedom. While remaining trapped in some liberal notions of art as a redemptive venture in and of itself, it led to him reaching important conclusions about the failure of industrial capitalism to offer any real avenue to individualism and personal freedom.

He identified that individualism under the current economic conditions was false and represented a pursuit for a limited, wealthy few:

“For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses… Indeed, so completely has man’s personality been absorbed by his possessions that the English law has always treated offences against a man’s property with far more severity than offences against his person.”[1]

This is not incompatible with Marx’s reflection on bourgeois freedom:

“By freedom is meant, under the present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free selling and buying… when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say, individuality vanishes. You must, therefore, confess that by “individual” you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property.’[2]

Furthermore, Wilde identifies charity as an insulting substitute for self-determination of ordinary people. He reflects that institutionalised and private forms charity only “prolongs the disease. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.” In answer to this, he looks to socialism as a means by which society can be altogether reconstructed so that poverty would be “impossible.”[3]

Socialism for Wilde was somewhat utopian but he nevertheless identified the opportunities represented by abolishing private property: “Socialism… by converting property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and ensure the material well-being of each member of the community.”[4] Socialism has other implications; it would also mean abolishing the institution of the family, as “with the abolition of private property, marriage in its present form must disappear.”[5]

In Wilde’s view, technological progress that had been made thus far was not being used to make ordinary people’s lives easier: “This is the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. One man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it…. Were that machine the property of all, everybody would benefit from it.”[6] Wilde even goes on to say that socialism would allow faster innovation and increased automation to relieve humanity of some areas of labour. It is only under the economic model of socialism that this would be possible.

But his perspective has limitations: while praising the superior qualities of a socialist society in the same breath, he offers no basis or power structure to transition from capitalism into this next phase. This can be accounted for by his anarchist reading and otherwise liberal tendencies, such as a distrust of not only the state under capitalism but of a workers’ state, which he feared would be an “industrial tyranny”[7]. He also tended to look to individual “agitators” more than the working class fighting for self-emancipation. This outlook is somewhat reflective of his class position and also of anarchist tendencies (especially during the 19th Century) to task an enlightened few with liberating the masses through agitation, rather than examining material conditions and the necessity of a worker’s revolution and worker’s power to combat the highly organised ruling class and to begin removing the class antagonisms. Communism is the point at which the worker’s state can wither away as the apparatus is no longer necessary to defend against counter-revolutionary forces, nor necessary to support the fair distribution of resources. Wilde’s vision is Utopian as it looks to the ultimate goal without a realistic framework to reach it. Despite this, he had an admirable commitment to the cause and, as we can see, offered insights of how a world could be when the people have power over their own lives.

Prisoner C.33 & Reading Gaol

In the late 19th Century, homosexuality was both a societal taboo and a criminal offence. Wilde had at times been very secretive about his affairs but at others attempted to gain a measure of public acceptance. Wilde’s personal life and affairs with men were brought to public attention when he sued the Marquess of Queensberry, John Douglas (whose son had an intimate relationship with Wilde), for libel – Douglas had publicly accused him of being a “somdomite” [sic].[8]

As part of his legal defence, Douglas was able to prove that Wilde had solicited sex with men.      As a great deal of evidence emerged, Wilde’s lawyer withdrew the suit. Instead of fleeing the country, Wilde remained and was himself prosecuted by the Crown. At his trial, he was cross-examined over ‘a love that dare not speak its name.’ His responses only strengthened the case that he had engaged in homosexual acts and so he was sentenced to two years imprisonment & hard labour for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895.

Hard labour in Victorian England consisted of exploiting prisoners as a workforce in quarrying, building roads or dockwork. Wilde was sent to a few different prisons before he arrived at Reading Gaol and so would have experienced some of these. However Reading Gaol followed the ‘separate system’, where prisoners laboured, sometimes uselessly, in isolation from other prisoners. It’s likely that Wilde took some artistic licence in describing exactly the work that took place in Reading Gaol itself, yet he expresses on the gruelling and dehumanising experience of incarceration:

“We tore the tarry rope to shreds

With blunt and bleeding nails;

We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,

And cleaned the shining rails:

And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,

And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,

We turned the dusty drill:

We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,

And sweated on the mill:

But in the heart of every man

Terror was lying still.”[9]

These stanzas give us a sense of the relentless and painful work enforced for prison labour – the description feels ‘loud’ with onomatopoeic action, which is driven by the feeling of the ballad form extended from the usual 4 lines to an enduring 6 lines (with an ABCBDB rhyme scheme). His use of the first-person plural “we” stands out to me. The repetition of that word, and the listing of the types of labour they perform, signals that despite his previous position in society, he is now aligned with the ‘criminal class’, with ordinary people, the class of people who stand to benefit from the socialist ideas he had advocated for.

In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde reflected on the cruel indignity of being constantly surveilled:

“He does not sit with silent men

Who watch him night and day;

Who watch him when he tries to weep,

And when he tries to pray;

Who watch him lest himself should rob

The prison of its prey.”[10]

Wilde like the others would be watched hawkishly and yet had their identities stripped from them, an anonymity that emerged from the dehumanising experience:

“I trembled as I groped my way

Into my numbered tomb.”[11]

Fear and pain run deep through the poem. While Wilde manages to weave in some of his signature dark humour, it still serves to show how the experience of cruelty, indignity and loneliness of incarceration is all-encompassing.

“It is sweet to dance to violins

When Love and Life are fair:

To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes

Is delicate and rare:

But it is not sweet with nimble feet

To dance upon the air!”[12]

Towards Liberation from Oppression & Incarceration

As Oscar Wilde rightly said: “A community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.”[13] In the present day we still have a justice system which acts as a repressive arm of the state. Overcrowded and underfunded, prisons are often sold off and run privately, creating even greater conditions of exploitation of prison populaces. The U.S. is perhaps most famous for the extent to which they continue to use prison labour as legalised slavery: this year during the California bushfires, the government ran out of prisoners which they would have usually forced to fight the fires as too many had been infected with COVID-19. In Australia, prisons pay their prison labourers as little as 82 cents per hour of work.[14] There is a huge over-representation of Indigenous people present in every level of the criminal justice system: 28% of the adult prison population are Indigenous while accounting for just over 3% of the general population. Almost 37% of Australian women in prison identify as lesbian or bisexual, and in the U.S. there is also a trend towards disproportionate incarceration of LGBTQ+ people.[15]

While the state of LGBTQ+ rights has changed a lot over the last century, some features of oppression have remained, and in some places worsened. Colonialism has created conditions in which Indigenous understandings of gender have been forced to assimilate into a Western gender binary system. Countries like Russia and its neighbour Ukraine have created laws to prevent any distribution of educational materials or ‘propaganda’ attempting to argue for equality across ‘traditional or non-traditional’ sexual relationships, while in Iran homosexuality is punishable by death.[16] In Australia, same-sex marriage was banned explicitly by an amendment to the Marriage Act during the Howard Government, which remained for 13 years. It took a mass movement in Australia, and years of campaigning, for a plebiscite to eventually be held, fought for, and for the ‘yes’ vote to succeed triumphantly. Yet the LGBTQ+ rights that have been won face consistent attempts to undermine them. This past year it has taken the form of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and most recently an Education Legislation Amendment tabled by Mark Latham & One Nation, which seeks to remove any mention of gender fluidity in NSW schools.[17]

The state needs its repressive arm to function, just as capitalism needs oppression to sow discord and to divide the only group capable of destroying it. We must turn up again and again to fight injustice against LGBTQ+ people, to fight the repression of all targeted by the police, prisons and courts. But we won’t be able to liberate and find true freedom until we destroy capitalism itself. I think of Wilde’s understanding of the strategy for change: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”[18] To avenge him and the countless others whose lives and liberties have been dictated by our cruel system, rebellion and revolution must be our resolve.

Genevieve is a Marxist and a member of the Socialist Alternative.


[1] Wilde, O. ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, De Profundis and Other Writings. Penguin Books, Great Britain 1986, pp.31

[2] Marx, K. Manifesto of the Communist Party, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf p.24

[3] Wilde, O. ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, De Profundis and Other Writings. Penguin Books, Great Britain 1986, pp.20

[4]op. cit.

[5] Wilde, O. ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, De Profundis and Other Writings. Penguin Books, Great Britain 1986, pp.29

[6] ibid. pp.33

[7] Ibid. pp.23

[8] ‘Oscar Wilde sent to prison for indecency’, History.com May 2020. Accessed Nov 19 2020, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/oscar-wilde-is-sent-to-prison-for-indecency

[9] Wilde, O. ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, De Profundis and other Writings.  Penguin Books, Great Britain 1986, pp.238

[10] ibid. pp.233

[11] ibid. pp.239

[12] ibid. pp.235-6

[13] Wilde, O. ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, De Profundis and Other Writings. Penguin Books, Great Britain 1986, pp.31

[14] Brook, B. ‘Bed linen and boomerangs – the surprising products made by prisoners’, news.com.au, March 2017. Accessed Nov 20 2020, https://www.news.com.au/finance/business/other-industries/bed-linen-and-boomerangs-the-surprising-products-made-by-prisoners/news-story/d9cfbb0e9414fd00c0ef764ce8002982

[15] Simpson PL et.al. ‘Understanding the over-representation of lesbian or bisexual women in the Australian prisoner population’, Current Issues in Criminal Justice Vol.31 2019, Issue 3.

[16] Saner, E. ‘Gay rights around the world: the best and worst countries for equality’, theguardian.com, July 2013. Accessed Nov 20 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/30/gay-rights-world-best-worst-countries

[17] Rice, S. ‘Government’s religious discrimination bill enshrines the right to harm others in the name of faith’, theconversation.com, February 2020. Accessed Nov 20 2020, https://theconversation.com/governments-religious-discrimination-bill-enshrines-the-right-to-harm-others-in-the-name-of-faith-131206

[18] Wilde, O. ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, De Profundis and Other Writings. Penguin Books, Great Britain 1986, pp.22

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