The Ballad of Reading Gaol | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol | Themes



The speaker conveys the harsh prison conditions that the prisoners endure which illustrates their pain, suffering, and loss of hope. The prisoners' emotions of sympathy for their fellow prisoner the night before the execution are articulated in Section 2 Stanza 5. Here, the speaker relays that "I and all the souls in pain, / who tramped the other ring, / Forgot if we ourselves had done / A great or little thing /, And watched with gaze of dull amaze / The man who had to swing." The concepts of freedom, mercy, fairness, and a second chance are all void as the men realize that hope is not an option.

The idea of hopelessness is further illustrated in lines 3–6 of Section 2 Stanza 13. They state, "The world had thrust us from its heart, / And God from out His care: / And the iron gin that waits for sin, / Had caught us in its snare." The speaker figuratively drives the idea of lost hope with the use of religion and the absence of God's care and grace. He summarizes lost hope by writing that "something was dead in each of us, / And what was dead was Hope." The speaker continually conveys the prisoners' loneliness, isolation, and suffering. The prison design of solitary confinement removes the hope for freedom from the imprisoned men.


The speaker describes the prison conditions as unjust and fearful for the men imprisoned in Reading Gaol. The idea that these men are condemned and isolated from the world they once knew illustrates the fear that they experience. Prisoners are haunted by the execution of their fellow prisoners, and the thought of their own day of judgment drives a relentless fear of the inevitable. The speaker compares the fear and anxiety to a madman's drum when he states, "But each man's heart beat thick and quick like a madman on a drum!" The prisoners face many hardships, but the idea of anticipating their own death and the death of those around them evokes fear.


The theme of empathy recurs throughout the poem. The speaker introduces this theme in the last lines of Stanza 1 when he refers to "the poor dead woman he loved, / And murdered in her bed." These lines humanize the murderer and display his ability to show empathy for his victim. They achieve this effect by using the word "poor" and mentioning that the dead woman was in the comfort of her own bed. The speaker follows these lines with a description of how men kill the things they love through bitter looks, flattering words, and kisses. He emphasizes however that "the coward does it with a kiss, / The brave man with a sword!" He suggests that although the man Charles Wooldridge committed this act, he still loved the woman and wanted the act to be quick and free from suffering.

The speaker and fellow prisoners are filled with empathy for the man in lines 1–2 of Section 3 Stanza 16. Here the speaker reflects, "Alas! it is a fearful thing / To feel another's guilt!" The speaker also expresses this sentiment in lines 1–2 of Section 2 Stanza 13 when he states, "A prison wall was round us both, / Two outcast men were we." In the latter lines, the speaker uses "we" and "us" to disclose that the prisoners are able to internalize others' guilt. They empathize that they have all been stuck with the "sword of Sin" and have remorse for the crimes they did not commit.

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