Gender Roles In The Harlots House

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The domestic sphere, or the house, is the main focus of the poem. While it represents a confining space and a confining societal role, the women inside of it represent a synthesis of the spheres in their activities. In the harlots, Wilde creates characters that exist in their gendered sphere, but also transgress it. The feminine sphere is akin to the idea of a perfect housewife: a woman who can cook, clean, take care of the children, and do it all with a silent smile. By making the location a brothel, Wilde presents the reader with the image of the Victorian angel in the house but makes her an Aesthetic portrait of womanhood. The image of the harlot is a twisted version of the angel in the house. She is not a perfect, modest housewife but in…show more content…
The harlots seem to take the humanity out of anyone they come into contact with. Sally Ledger discusses the popularity of this female character in Aesthetic literature and cites “numerous examples of the exoticised, vampire-like sexuality that became associated with […] the decadent movement more generally” (7). Wilde’s “The Harlots’ House” features this vampire-like sexuality. The speaker says to his lover, “The dead are dancing with the dead” (line 26). In this line, he associates the men who visit prostitutes and these women as the same; they are both dead somehow – dead morally or dead to society as deviants. The harlots have sucked the humanity from their visitor and themselves. In regards to women’s status in Victorian society, Jennifer Kelly writes, “the social structure encourages seduction while appearing to condemn it, and women are judged by a moral double standard: when a woman commits a sexual transgression, she is damned forever in the eyes of society” (368-69). The woman is always associated with her sexual activities; they define her – as their seductive dancing and mechanical sexuality define the harlots. Their sexuality is negative because they are not the traditional pure and innocent women. The speaker can only see them then as…show more content…
We see this through one of the themes in the poem that turns women into puppet or dolls controlled by a higher force. The obvious meaning of puppets is a moveable human-like doll, but it can also be a derogatory term for a woman lacking individuality (Oxford English Dictionary). The harlot’s are described as “wire-pulled automatons” (line 13), “a clockwork puppet” (line 19), and “a horrible marionette” (line 22). All have definitions with some reference to control. An automaton is a moving device that resembles a human. A clockwork puppet is a puppet that acts on a regular mechanical basis. A marionette is a puppet with jointed limbs operated by a string or a person who is easily controlled. Even the word harlot once meant actress, as well as strumpet (OED). The women are controlled in two ways. In her encyclopedia entry about brothels in Victorian England, Carolyn Egan writes, “brothels functioned as the women selling themselves had to work under the supervision of a madam or pimp.” Literally the harlots work under another dominant force in the form of a madam or pimp, and they also work under the constraints of society. The characters of the harlots have moved as far away as they could from a Victorian morality system, and yet are still judged by it and subjected to a form of domination. For example, the speaker criticizes the
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