While walking through the city at night, a pair of lovers stop outside a brothel drawn to the terrifying yet transfixing scene inside. Through the blinds of the windows, the couple watches prostitutes dance with and for their clients. Although usually depicted as a scene of sinful revelry, Wilde paints a more sinister picture with a simple rhyming structure and vivid images. The women are described in industrial terms as "automatons" and "mechanical grotesques" thereby comparing them to the most unnatural: factory machines. Thus, the harlot house has become the underworld where " ÔThe dead are dancing with the dead, / The dust is whirling with the dust.' "
Yet, the couple is relegated to the position of voyeurs: they can hear only fragments of the music and laughter and can only see "The shadows raced across the blind." This inability to comprehend the entire scene horrifies the narrator but seduces his lover: tantalized and intrigued, she enters the brothel.
But she — she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.
But, right after she walks through the door, "The tune went false." Perhaps, the scene of seduction viewed through the veil of blinds from the outside was attractive but inside, only the loss of innocence and death wait. From afar, Wilde implies, lust is more seductive than love but once inside, it loses its appeal as "The dancers wearied of the waltz." The only human-like character in the poem is the dawn, which, unlike the couple who were transfixed by the brothel, filters slowly through the street "like a frightened girl."
1. Is this a critique of prostitution and eroticism? Why would Wilde, a proponent of sexually decadent behavior, liken sexuality with death?
2. How have the decadents reinterpreted the Pre-Raphaelite theme of the fallen woman?
3. J.D. Thomas finds two places where the rhythm of the poem breaks: "But She — she heard the violin" and "Upon the steps like a live thing." He argues that Wilde tried many different arrangements but was unable to find one with the correct cadence (487). Can you think of any other reason for the rhythm break?
4. How do the prostitutes compare the Sphinx in Wilde's "The Sphinx"?
Thomas,J.D. "The Composition of Wilde's 'The Harlot's House'" in Modern Language Notes 65 (1950): 485-488.
Last modified 28 November 2006