The poem "The Harlot's House" by Oscar Wilde presents contrasting images of the nature of love and lust. The narrator appears both disgusted and fascinated with what he sees in the window of the harlot. A song representing true love plays in the harlot's house while skeleton-like creatures of lust dance with "the dead." This tune eventually "turns false." The women, described as ghostly and slim, wire-pulled and lifeless, serve as the physical manifestation of the decay of true love and the focus on lust. They attempt to emulate real feelings but cannot get beyond being bound to their mechanization.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

The prostitutes try to dance but can only sidle (creep or slither). They laugh but their laughter comes out thin and shrill. They even try to sing, but fail. Their male partners, described as phantoms, have no true passion within them either. They seem only motivated by sexual desire. Sexuality and death repeatedly appear together.

Despite the narrator's opposition to the grotesque scene before him, the poem also presents these women as fascinating. He describes them as strange and fantastic and watches them from night until dawn. The narrator's absorption suggests that though he finds their treatment and situation appalling, something about them entices him. The poem presents further complications for the man when his own love enters the harlot.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
'The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.'

But she--she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Considering that characters in the harlot are those only of lust, it seems strange that the narrator's "love" finds the music so entrancing that she also enters. This act shows not only the lure of sinful lust, but also may suggest the narrator's own part the theme of the downfall of true love. The narrator seems to show conflicting feelings towards this sort of depraved sexuality. He calls his female companion "my love", walks with her alone on a romantic moonlit evening and refers to the two of them as "we." Yet in the end, the women he claims to have loved, enters a house of prostitution. He was under the guise that his relationship had more meaning than just decadent lust, perhaps the same guise held by the dancers. The paradox exists within the harlot, while the musicians play a song about love, only mechanized lust exists. The flimsiness and falsity of their relationship, aligned with the poor attempts by the dancers to emulate real emotions, suggests that the narrator condemns a lifestyle he may also take part in.

Questions

The mechanization of man, a theme in this poem, appears in many other works written in the Victorian Era. How does the use of machinery compare or contrast to the ways it is used in Thomas Carlyle's "Signs of the Times"? What other works present this theme?

How does the concept of the marionette relate to the poem "Porphryia's Lover" by Robert Browning? In both poems there seems to be a reversal in characters, where the controlling character becomes the controlled character. How is this similar to the ending of "The Harlot" in which the narrator is drawn to and part of the very behaviors he finds disgusting?

What aspects of Oscar Wilde's life emerge in the poetic description of a man grappling with love and lust? What was the progression of Wilde's own sexual lifestyle and how might that have affected his writing?

How does the rhyme scheme contribute to the overall reading and theme of the poem? Consider the effect of the rhythm, the consistency, and the speed of the poem.

What purpose does the tiring of the dancers and the coming of dawn serve?

What sort of social commentary, particularly in relationship to sexuality, does Wilde intend to convey with this poem?

How did Wilde feel about prostitution? What might his attitude imply about the themes in the poem? In other words, would he have agreed with the messages of the poem?


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Last modified 13 April 2009