SELF-GIFT AS SHOWN IN OSCAR WILDE’S “THE DOER OF GOOD”
Throughout his literary works, Oscar Wilde returns repeatedly to the theme of self-gift. He often includes characters who give of themselves for the sake of others. In this way, these characters are types of Christ, giving great gifts of life and love to a frequently ungracious soul. Though there are many Wilde stories that show this allegorical symbolism, one exemplifies the spiritual ramifications of such self-gifts, namely Wilde’s “Poem in Prose” entitled “The Doer of Good,” which depicts Christ’s encounter with some ungracious recipients of his love. It is a symbolism found in other Wilde stories, such as “The Nightingale and the Rose” and “The Birthday of the Infanta,” though it is in “The Doer of Good” that one sees the gifts so frequently rejected. Wilde’s purpose in this story clear: by rejecting the gifts of Christ, we are rejecting Christ as well.
“The Doer of Good” opens with a single sentence, one that introduces the rejection addressed in the rest of the story: “It was night-time and He was alone.” The immediate image is depressing. The narrator never names the ambiguous “He” is in the story, though he must be used to companionship, for the narrator stresses that “He was alone,” as if this was abnormal. Likewise the narrator mentions, “It was night-time,” calling to mind an absence of daylight, another abnormality. Why is He alone at night? Where are his friends? The story does not say, though a closer examination of the He character might illuminate the problem.
It becomes clear early on in the story that the “He” is none other than Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Wilde capitalizes the “H” in “He,” giving right honor to Christ. His identity becomes clearer as He meets different people who have received gratuity from Him in the past, all of whom He had in some way healed. If one reads the story with Christ replacing the pronoun “He,” the question of why He is alone makes sense. Christ frequently withdrew from the crowd to pray and meditate. It is possible that this story, set at night, follows one of these personal retreats. This would explain why “He was alone.” One can find support for such a claim in the story’s next sentence, which reads, “And He saw afar-off the walls of a round city and went towards the city” (Wilde, 244). Christ is away from the city, possibly approaching after a day of meditation and prayer.
Since “He” is Christ, the clause “and it was night” takes on a new sense of symbolism. Perusing the Bible reveals several appropriate passages dealing with God’s light conquering the darkest night. In Isaiah 9:2, for example, the prophet notes famously, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” The Gospel writers filled their works with references to Christ as light. This is clearest in the Gospel According to John, where Christ refers to Himself frequently as “light.” For example, Jesus speaks of the dichotomy between the light and the darkness with Nichodemus:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (John 3:19–21)
Later on in that same Gospel, Jesus states how He is “the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John ). He even compares his presence and absence from Earth to daylight and night respectively: “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:4–5). Without Christ, then, nighttime drowns the world in darkness. Night becomes a time away from Christ, a time away from the light of God’s love and redemption, even a time of loneliness. Christ is ordinarily the remedy for such dark loneliness, but in “The Doer of Good,” Christ walks the dark night alone. Along his walk, He encounters the signs of a darkness even his presence cannot disperse.
He first meets a young man living in a luxurious palace. Wilde, with his usual detailed descriptiveness, describes the young man’s palace: “And He beheld a house that was of marble and had fair pillars of marble before it. The pillars were hung with garlands, and within and without there were torches of cedar.” The house is beautiful to the point of extravagance, an abuse against which Christ had preached frequently (see, for example, Luke –31). Now he enters a house overflowing with such excesses; the reader can almost picture a wave of despair washing over His face. His despair grows as he approaches the young host of the party, wallowing in the extravagance:
And when He had passed through the hall of chalcedony and the hall of jasper, and reached the long hall of feasting, He saw lying on a couch of sea-purple one whose hair was crowned with red roses and whose lips were red with wine.
And he went behind him and touched him on the shoulder and said to him, ‘Why do you live like this?’
The reader can almost hear the sorrow in His voice as he speaks, a sacrificial heart reaching out to one who needs such a gift.
The next line reveals that He has given the young man a gift, one of a new life: “And the young man turned round and recognized Him, and made answer and said, ‘But I was a leper once and you healed me. How else should I live’” (244)? The young man is one of the former lepers Christ healed in his public ministry. It could be the leper healed on his way to
And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.’ (Matthew 8:2–5; see also Mark –45)
Perhaps it was Simon the leper, in whose house a woman entered and anointed Christ’s head (Matt. 20:7, Mark 14:3). Luke 7:36–50 mentions that Simon is a Pharisee, and therefore a high profile man in Jewish circles. If he is the same Simon as Simon the leper, then this Simon is the bad host that did not show Christ the basic hospitality of the time. It may be that the leper in “The Doer of Good” is Simon, here continuing his bad habit of missing the greatest of gifts. Another possibility is that the young man is one of the ten lepers Christ healed on the way to
Christ moves on from the ungrateful man. He encounters in the city a young painted woman of the night. Behind her is another young man, different from the one of monetary excess, obsessed with a different kind of excess. This young man lusts after the girl, who likewise encourages his bad behavior with her sensual walk and alluring dress. Wilde also uses religious language to describe the two: “Now the face of the woman was as the fair face of an idol, and the eyes of the young man were bright with lust” (244). The young man stares in lust; Christ’s condemnation of such behavior rings hollow in his ear: “But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. ). He is an adulterer, though he does not care. His passions so consume the young man that he worships the object of his desire, namely the girl, rather than God, the true object of worship. Lust is his only care, his perverted rite of worship.
Seeing such abhorred behavior, He intervenes. As with the former leper, this young man also recognizes Him, for Christ healed this young man as well. He was once blind, and like the young man before, he abuses the gift given to him by Christ. The biblical origin for this young man could be any one of the many blind men healed by Christ in his ministry, but it is most likely the man born blind in John 9, as it is perhaps the most famous example of a man born blind. As with the former leper, the former blind man has wasted his divine cure. “At what else should I look” (245), he asks, finding nothing more appealing than the sensual female form. He ignores the beauty in front of him, the glory of Christ there present. He received physical sight from Christ, but by turning away from Him, the young man becomes blind to God’s grace.
Jesus turns to the seductive woman, asking “Is there no other way in which to walk save the way of sin” (245)? As before, the woman turns and recognizes Him. Unlike the two young men, however, the woman laughs. “But you forgave me my sins, and the way is a pleasant way,” she replies (245). Again, there are several possible sources for the woman mentioned here. It could be the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11) or perhaps the woman who bathed the Lord’s feet with her tears (Matt. 20:7, Mark 14:3; Luke –50). If it is the second woman, the one who washed Christ’s feet with her tears, then the young man who was a leper might indeed be Simon, for it was in his house that the woman performed her original acts of kindness. Again, the complete rejection Christ’s gift leads to a turn towards sin and destruction. There is little meaning in the life of the woman, as there is little meaning in the life of the two young men, for they have abandoned the one who is Life, killing themselves spiritually.
In the woman, there a new stage of spiritual abandonment. She laughs at Christ, as if His shock is unexpected. It is only natural, she must think, to return to such a life, for Christ forgave her. In responding as she does, the woman represents the presumptuous people who believe that salvation is assured after their initial conversion. The two young men mentioned already in the follow this view as well, but only the woman expresses it. Nothing one does can remove the saving imprimatur. One need not live as Christ lived, or even follow his basic teachings. The initial baptism, or even a mere assent of faith, is all that one needs for salvation. How wrong these people are. How distressing is their situation. Christ cannot heal or forgive an unwelcoming host. He cannot give his gifts to those who do not want them.
With sadness, He leaves the city. The Gospels record another time where Christ left a city after facing the unwelcome reception of its people. In that passage, Christ rejects the suggestion of John and James to call down fire from heaven and destroy the city (Luke –56). In a later passage, Christ notes that it will be better for the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon, than for a town which rejects Him (Luke 10:13–16). This town, likewise, has rejected Him, and He will hold the town accountable at the Judgment.
Outside the city, He finds the opposite end of the faithful spectrum. Outside is a young man weeping. As with the other three individuals, Christ approaches the young man tenderly. “Why are you weeping,” Christ asks (245). Like the others, this young man looks into the face of Christ and recognizes Him. It is with great sadness that one reads the last line of the story: “but I was dead once and you raised me from the dead. What else should I do but weep?” We know exactly which young man this is. Assuming that Wilde is referencing stories from Scripture, it must be the young man raised from the dead in Luke 7:12–15. The only other two notable instances of Christ raising the dead are a young woman (Matt. –26) and Lazarus, who was older (John 11). It seems that the young man, like the three before, has received a life changing gift from Christ. Unfortunately, he does not appreciate it.
The young man suffers from despair. If in the city the presumption of the people leads to their rejection of Christ, then outside the city this young man’s despair likewise leads to a rejection of Christ. Neither the young man at the beginning of the story nor the young man at the end has a properly ordered understanding of Christ’s mission for us. The first three sinners fall in one direction, assuming their salvation is guaranteed while they live lives of sin; this last sinner falls in the other direction, presuming there is no hope for himself or for others. All are sinners, but in a way, this last one is particularly upsetting, for by despairing and claiming that there is no hope, that there is no joy in this world, he also rejects heaven. If there is no good in this life, a prefigurement of the life to come, then the life to come must likewise lack goodness. Even if he weeps because he was so close to the glories of Heaven but was taken back to Earth, a resolute soul would see this gift of life as a chance to better himself, to be ever more ready for the eternal glories of the next life. This young man does not see the gift this way. He instead rejects the gift as a curse and weeps, as if weeping was the only way to live. In rejecting his gift, he is also guilty of rejecting Christ.
All four people met in this story share a common rejection of gifts. The first three reject their gifts of a new life by reveling in the excesses of the world, abusing the gift and rejecting the gift-giver, who is Christ. The last young man, rejects his gift of a new life by rejecting life itself, and likewise rejecting Christ. These four in a sense represent the entire human race, to whom Christ gives immense gifts of life. How often, then, do we reject these abundant gifts, and by doing so reject Christ? Though not a work of spirituality in the strict sense, Christians everywhere can draw spiritual water from “The Doer of Good” and meditate on their own acceptance of the Divine Will. The world needs to draw closer to Christ from whom all good gifts flow, so we might not end up like the sinners in this story, living lives without Christ.