Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
Oscar Wilde’s works have been met with both good and bad reputation. The Contemporary Review informs that Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol was once considered, “undervalued and unfairly condemned by generations of critics, some of whom claim that Wilde was a plagiarist” (190). But as time has passed, Wilde’s poems and other works have been very widely accepted; Ann Astell saying “The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), marks symbolically his artistic renunciation of mimetic desire and the bursting forth of Wilde’s creative powers as an essayist and playwright” (189), along with Peter Robinson saying, “Wilde’s poem requires us to appreciate its aesthetic principle, the single point of view, which forms the evaluative contrast to his regrettably multiple-viewpointed production” (303).
Throughout history religion has been prominent in most civilizations, especially during the modern day. But during the time of Oscar Wilde, Christianity and Catholicism were almost required by both the nobles and the citizens. Those who did not practice these faiths, or any faith at all, were usually criticized by their fellow man or by priests and deacons. In The Harlot’s House, The Sphinx, The House of Judgement, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde uses the story of these four poems to show his discontent for how people who claim to be in the Christian faith repress the desires of others who don’t wish to follow the same religion or guidelines.
In The Sphinx, the narrator give constant praise to the sphinx throughout the poem, admiring it’s exquisite beauty and what history it must have gone through. But once the narrator looks at the cross, they seem to be fearful of the crucifix, immediately cursing the sphinx and renouncing any love they might have had for it, yet gives no love for the cross. This seems to be a representation for someone who wishes to have, or has had, a religious faith that is really different than a Christian faith. But, with the overwhelming surge of Christianity, especially in Victorian England, that having a religion that highly contrasts with Christian views could end in persecution. Norbert Lennartz writes that, “The dualism in [The Sphinx] is thus less conceivable in terms of gender than in terms of cultural antagonism–an antagonism created between fabrications of a libertinistic antiquity and biased conceptions of a repressive Christianity.” (418).
Another interpretation to make from The Sphinx could be that the speaker truly doesn’t love the sphinx, but sees it as unholy because of what it represents. There references to Egyptian and Greek gods and goddesses within the poem, such as “Isis to Osiris knelt” (21) and “talk[ing] with Thoth, and did you hear the moon-horned Io weep?” (27 – 28). But not only would the Sphinx symbol a pagan idolatry, but also as a symbol for lust. The narrator lists off many possible lovers that the sphinx might have had, one partner the speaker focuses on is “Great Ammon… [who] lay with you beside the Nile!” (74). Once the speaker wakes up, he begins to rebuke the sphinx, calling it “snake-tressed Fury fresh from Hell” (161) and finds some solstice with his crucifix. When seen from this perspective, it could be that Wilde is portraying a pastor or priest, scolding something the narrator thinks as unclean or different, similar to how Wilde could have felt when it was revealed he was homosexual.
When the man in The House of Judgment is judged by God, he is only judged by the sins he’s committed in his life, that “thy life hast been evil… the Good I have hidden thou did’st pass by” (568), but God never mentions any good that the man might have done while he was alive. This again seems like another representation of degrading someone based on their personal faith, but in this poem, it seems to be a lack of faith instead of another faith entirely. When God decides that since the man has lived in Hell, that he’ll go into Heaven instead, the man unexpectedly says that he cannot, “in no place, have I been able to imagine it.” (569). Atheism and Christianity have always been at odds, as John Brooke says, “[f]or atheists and scientific materialists the plausibility of Darwin’s theory was a particularly welcome gift. This was because it could be used to dispel the need for divine intervention in nature and to challenge the [long cherished] belief that each species had been separately and meticulously designed by its Creator” (393).
The workers in The Harlot’s House are continuously degraded as nothing more than “mechanical grotesques” (7) and “clock-work puppet[s]” (19) by the narrator. Perhaps the narrator sees the brothel workers like this, and its customers as “phantom lover[s]” (20), is because the scene is being observed from a Christian or Catholic view, which regards prostitution or fornication as very sinful, to which Corrine Saunders writes “the Church’s anxieties regarding female sexuality, which created a rapprochement between the notions of marriage and whoredom” (175). Another reason this could be a possibility is that once the narrator’s love goes “into the house of Lust” (30) the entire scene changes into something much more dreary, which could signify a loss of spiritual innocence and unforgivable sin.
In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the depressing atmosphere along with the prison could be a depiction of how those who do not follow the path of Christianity might feel once whatever community the prisoners are from find out of their sins. That the prisoners feel entrapped and restricted by the rules, never able to be who they are out in the open because it doesn’t go with what the rest of the people believe in. The cells the prisoners are in could also be a symbol of how the guards see the prisoners’ souls, having to “[rub] the doors, and [scrub] the floors.” (219), to try and purify themselves of their sins. But, the guards can also end up as prisoners by their fellow guards, “our guardsman walked the yard, / in the suit of shabby gray” (97 – 98).
Another illustration is that the guards themselves could be considered followers of a Christian or Catholic faith, always watching the prisoners, putting them in harsh conditions to wear them down so that they might abandon who they were before and join them. Some of the language that the speaker uses could also contribute to this, such as “right in we went, with soul intent / on Death and Dread and Doom” (41 – 42), along with referring to themselves as “The Devil’s Own Brigade” (214).
One last representation is in the beginning of the poem, when the speaker talks about an unnamed man who is sent to jail for murdering his love, and starts to contemplate that “each man kills the thing he loves” (37), the love that the narrator is talking about could represent a person’s Christian faith, and killing it is when they denounce their faith. This could be supported by what the speaker says about love, that “[s]ome kill their love when they are young, / [a]nd some when they are old” (42 – 43), and that this loss is usually because of a certain sin, such as “the hands of Lust” (44) and “hands of Gold” (45), which could also be referencing to the jail as Hell itself. Christopher Nassaar compares the jail to Inferno from Dante’s Inferno, saying, “Wilde presents his prison as a hell on earth, consciously dramatizing it as an inferno,” along with, “Reading Gaol is a horror, a terrifying hell that swallows up criminals” (158 – 159).
But does Oscar Wilde really have this much contempt against the Christian or Catholic religion, or is it that he does not agree how these faiths are being upheld. Wilde seemed to be interested in a few different religions, “from his life-long wavering about conversion to Catholicism… to his interest in the Easter religions… to his attendance at Occultist meeting” (Kelly 212), but ultimately converted to Catholicism right before he died, but was either searching for a new religion, or simply looking at different faiths across the world. Instead, he seemed to have done a bit of both, “Wilde’s spiritual striving aligns closely with British occultism… Characterized by beliefs and practices that are seen today as decidedly ‘irrational’” (Kelly 213). Although Wilde was unfairly treated based his sexual orientation, he did not hold a grudge against his imprisonment, as Molly Kelly interprets, “Wilde thinks upon the ‘wrong and unjust laws’ which convicted him and the ‘wrong and unjust system’ which has made him suffer, he insists, ‘But, somehow, I have got to make both of these things just and right to me’ (732).” (218). It seems that Wilde did not personally despise the Catholic faith, but rather he despises how harsh the punishments are for those considered unholy.