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The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde: Summary & Analysis

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Many have written on their experiences in prison, but perhaps not so many as poignantly as Oscar Wilde. Keep reading this lesson to find a synopsis of 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', as well as to see it analyzed!

Synopsis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol By Oscar Wilde

You might've heard Johnny Cash sing about his stint in Folsom Prison, but what do you know about Oscar Wilde's hard time in Reading Gaol? The Ballad of Reading Gaol - with a total of 109 stanzas divided into 6 sections of varying length - chronicles what was perhaps the most influential moment in Wilde's two-year sentence: the execution of another inmate.

The initial section introduces this man who had killed the 'woman whom he loved,' but it also establishes the recurring argument that each man kills the thing he loves. However, none have to suffer the laundry list of hardships that the narrator reports are found in Reading Gaol.

The second section of the ballad summarizes the inmate's six weeks on death row, during which he never seems to show signs of despair. Instead, he appears to be enjoying his remaining time and is often noted as looking 'wistfully at the day.' The narrator draws contrasts between everyday items and activities and their appearance to hanging, effectively condemning the practice as a cruelly ironic punishment.

The third and largest portion of Wilde's poem depicts the inmate as he remains nonchalant in the days leading to his death. He is seen to be sleeping soundly the night before his execution, while all the other prisoners seem tormented by specters who taunt them concerning their fates. However, the morning finally comes.

As dawn breaks in the fourth section, the other prisoners are taken out after the deed has been done, and they observe the fresh grave and the fire that will be used to burn the body. The hanged man is stripped and mocked by the prison staff before cremation, but the narrator claims he rests in peace despite any proper respect or rites.

This and other aspects characterizing the jailors' treatment of prisoners are deemed to be worse than any of the crimes they themselves may have committed. In the end, the dead inmate has been sanctified by his true contrition and rests eternally in Reading Gaol as the final section claims. The last stanza of the ballad then reiterates the sentiment one final time that all have sinned against humanity.

Analyzing The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Many of us have probably heard some rendition of Alexander Pope's famous quote 'to err is human,' and that's because many of us see imperfection as an inherent aspect of the human condition. Among those with this point of view is Oscar Wilde, or at least his narrator in The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

As its title states, Wilde's work is a ballad poem, or a verse work concerning typically tragic themes of love, war, adventure, and death. Of course, the most prominent death in Wilde's ballad is that of an inmate who had himself killed someone. The punishment for this crime seems cruelly ironic to the poetic narrator, as emphasized with the line 'each man kills the thing he loves,' which acts as a refrain, a phrase, line, or section of lines repeated throughout a poem, similar to the chorus of a song and characteristic of ballads.

Beyond the fact that each person has in some way irreparably damaged a loved one and has never had to answer with such a severe penalty, the narrator intimates that each man in this prison has done something worse than the man condemned to die. This applies not only to the inmates themselves, but also, and, perhaps especially, to their jailors. Wilde lingers for some time on the grueling hardships inflicted on the inmates by the jailors, who kill men daily by breaking their minds, bodies, and spirits. In short, every man there - prison staff included - is guilty of some great fault against humanity.

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