Throughout ancient history, the sphinx was revered as both powerful and wise. The sphinx of Greek history was half lion, half woman and she devoured those who failed to answer her question correctly. The sphinx is another image of the femme fatale, indeed, her half-human nature gives her an added dimension of foreignness and unnaturalness.
In Oscar Wilde's "The Sphinx" however, his narrator presents a much domesticated and mute sphinx:
A beautiful and silent Sphinx has watched me
through the shifting gloom.
Inviolate and immobile she does not rise she does not stir.
This sphinx is not a lion but rather a cat. An exotic and wondrous cat, but an animal all the same whom the narrator commands to "Fawn at my feet, fantastic Sphinx! And sing me all your memories!"
Here, the narrator completely inverts the Classical space between the man and the Sphinx. Instead of approaching the sphinx as a supplicant, the narrator occupies the power position throughout the poem. The sphinx is no longer larger than life, but rather reduced to a creature that the narrator can stroke and pet. Moreover, the sphinx has no voice; the narrator poses all the questions and gives the answer to the riddle of the sphinx.
Ultimately the riddle is not about the sphinx's lost, devouring or faithless love, but rather centers on the narrator's dilemma between sensual delights and cold faith:
Get hence, you loathsome mystery! Hideous animal, get hence!
You wake in me each bestial sense, you make me what I would not be.
You make my creed a barren sham, you wake/
foul dreams of sensual life.
In answering the riddle of the sphinx, the narrator awakens a question that he himself would rather not answer.
1. The narrator compares his short "twenty summers" with the "thousand weary centuries" of the sphinx. From the Basilisks to Isis and Osiris to Thoth and Io and finally to "the Jewish maid who wandered/ with the Holy Child," the narrator contextualizes his questions and understanding of history within religious figures. Why does the narrator conceive of these long centuries within a strictly religious, if not strictly Christian, narrative?
2. Wilde's treatment of Christianity in "The Sphinx" is flippant at best. The narrator points out that "Only one/ God has ever died./ Only one God has let His side be wounded by a/ soldier's spear." Yet at the poem's end, the narrator rejects sensuality for his "crucifix." The poem is composed largely of the narrator's rhetoric questions and answers, can we understand this to be a dramatic monologue? Is the narrator Wilde, or someone else? And does this matter?
3. While the narrator occupies the position of power through his voice throughout the poem, he remains able to admire the sphinx's terrifying animalistic beauty. Her body is "spotted like the Lynx," her "curving claws of yellow ivory" and "the tail that like a monstrous Asp coils round your heavy velvet paws!" Can we still understand the sphinx to be a femme fatale? Is this image of the beautiful, terrifying and mute woman (animal) a departure from the Victorian femme fatale? From PRB femme fatales?
4. The poem is sharply divided into questions and answers. While the structure of the poem is relatively uncomplicated, the lines describe ancient Egypt in lavish and sensual detail. Given this detail and description, why the simple and repetitive structure? For instance, the repeated use of "sing," and "did" as well as "and" and "or" to link lines.
Last modified 29 November 2006