Oscar Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism was a slow—if not incomplete—change of heart. Indeed, it seemed to be the “form, rather than the content” (Ellman 34) that began the author’s dalliance with the religion, as he seemed instinctively drawn to the maryr-happy, scarlet-toned atmosphere of piety due to its artistic implications.
It was Catholicism’s deviancy from the normative values of Victorian Anglicanism, not the specificities of its dogma, which attracted Wilde, as its contrast with religious traditionalism paired harmoniously with the mantra of “l’art pour l’art. Both the texts “De Profundis” and “The Soul of Man under Socialism” present Jesus Christ as the ultimate aesthetic prophet, with Wilde not only rendering the Aesthetic movement a holy mouthpiece, which acts as an appeal to the Victorian pathos, but fashioning a representation of the ‘beautiful martyr,’ a stirring and familiar concept to the Greek-minded.
Instead of discarding Christianity, Wilde adapted the teachings of Christ to suit his own needs, expertly handling holy subjects with a secular approach; indeed, Wilde’s interpretations of essential Christian imagery reflected his oscillating faith and were ultimately rooted in the only system of belief to he was truly converted—that of the Aesthetic movement.
Wilde’s ambivalent relationship with Christian ideologies, namely in his ‘pagan’ tendencies and his fascination with Catholicism, resonates in his critique of the institutionalized traditional thought that unyieldingly prevailed in Victorian society, a point made clear in “The Soul of Man under Socialism. ” His concern with “the state of souls” does not serve the purpose of being a religious tirade, but rather argues that, under oppressive governing establishments such as capitalism or organized religion, “the majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism—are forced, indeed, to spoil them” (1174).
Instead of achieving a respectable level of profitable skill, as should be encouraged by government, or attaining spiritual fulfilment, as should be addressed by religious hierarchies, the working classes are forced instead to fixate on the social issues perpetuated by these same all-encompassing structures. Wilde seems to address poverty in both body and soul, as much of a critique of Anglican Church as it is of Parliament’s insufficiencies. It is essential to note that much of his work strives to distinguish between Christianity and the vehicles through which it is dispersed.
To denounce charity as a virtue is a bold statement in its Victorian context, yet Wilde demands attention be given the “hypocrites” of the nation, whose attempts to provide a temporary curative for the inescapable consequences of the free market and the deficient spiritual fiber present in society can only prolong the misery of the have-nots. While “The Soul of Man” is arguably the most prevalent statement regarding Christianity prior to Wilde’s imprisonment, many of his other works are interwoven with Biblical implications.
Jarlath Killeen’s novel, The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde—which serves to provide supplemental literary contexts and criticisms for the aesthete’s multifaceted fairy tales—picks up on this same strain of discourse within “The Happy Prince” as “The Soul of Man,” as both texts relay a similar message concerning the dilemma of working class alienation, as well as its subsequent repercussions, not the least of which being moral degradation. Catholicism, which was seen as a break away from the “Protestant work ethic” that dominated social decorum, can be determined as one of Wilde’s solutions for the disparaging souls of the working class.
Killeen goes as far as to determine that “Wilde [saw] Catholicism as a means of combating the spiritual slavery of the people, as it eschewed predestination and good works rather than work” (34). On the surface, Killeen’s thesis may seem contradictory to Wilde relays an inherent distrust of “good works,” as the aesthete denounces charity as the merely serving the selfish whims of the upper classes. To give freely in the classist Victorian system, as he argues, “[…]creates a multitude of sins” (Soul of Man, 1174).
However, Wilde delivers the message that the Church is at blame for the perpetuation of sinful giving, as it indoctrinates the people into complacency, rather than inspiring them into self-betterment. Wilde’s flippancy toward the norms of institutionalized religion is evidenced heavily in his depictions of the figure of Jesus Christ, as the portrayal of forgoes the reverence expected of contemporary Victorian authors in order to uphold aesthetic, rather than holy, doctrine.
Wilde’s literature is no stranger to the figure of the ‘beautiful martyr’; indeed, his fairy tales—as exposed by Killeen’s findings—grant to the reader the Young King and his rejection of materialism, the Selfish Giant’s “wounds of love,” and Nightingale’s ultimate sacrifice, all serving as stand-in Christ figures. “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” however, is unique in its approach to its representation of martyrdom, as it ventures past mere imagery and presents us with the Biblical Savior himself.
Christ, as Wilde explicates, is upheld as the supreme individualist due to his unprecedented ability to remain unspotted from the world, separating himself from external influence and adhering only to the desires of his own personality, which is the key to self-realization. The development of mankind, therefore, can be “assisted by Christianity,” creating a world upheld by the “true secret of Christ” as dictated by Wilde—to be irrevocably oneself (Soul of Man, 1179).
Wilde’s speech shifts here from the societal to individual, from the advancement of the political sphere to that of the artistic. As he extrapolates upon the different meanings of Christ’s teachings–including the Biblical Messiah’s equivalences of the rich to underdeveloped personalities and the poor to those that are developed–one can understand the slanted way the aesthete interpreted the New Testament.