Oscar Wilde's "The Harlot's House" was written in 1881, towards the latter part of the Victorian era. This genre is a poem containing 12 stanzas. The point of view in this piece is from the narrator's perspective early on, the narrative distance moves further distant in the fourth stanza, zooms in, then out again.
The narrator is walking down a street and pauses, with his companion, "beneath the harlot's house" (Wilde, Longman p. 2069: 1.3). In the next two stanzas Wilde transitions to the inside of the house depicting a partygoers atmosphere in "Inside, above the din and fray" (2.1) and shadows of the figures inside are projected onto the blind (3.3). This movie projector type visual picture gives this poem a choppy edited effect.
The imagery of this poem is vivid. The shadowy figures of the occupants at the harlot's house are portrayed as "mechanical" (3.1). The narrator and his companion watch at all that is happening at this house of ill repute. The reader gets the sense that both stand below the window for quite some time. Whether through fascination, or wondering how people live "on the other side of the tracks", clearly there is some allure to standing on this street watching the "ghostly dancers spin to sound of horn and violin" (4.1-2). There are two more dances described, a quadrille in the fifth stanza, a saraband in the sixth.
Wilde moves the picture from a fantasy like dream, with dances and gaiety, to a pointed change of stark reality he affects by wordage. In the 20th line, a "phantom lover" is pulled close to a "clockwork puppet" (7.1-2). The "horrible marionette" comes to the porch to smoke, "upon ...
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...ng hours and there was little to celebrate. "Britian grew richer, but it was not the poor who benefited from this revolution" according to the Longman Anthology (Longman p. 1818). "The overcrowded conditions in the cities created urban slums of unimaginable wretchedness" (p. 1819).
This wretchedness is mirrored in "The Harlot's House." The harlot's marionette is portrayed as alive but not really living, and the narrator who stands on the street thinks he condemns a wretched lifestyle. The irony is that, he is perhaps, just as lifeless as the marionette (only more so for being a hypocrite).
He is probably just as "dead" as the "dead dancing with the dead" at the house.
Damrosch, David, et al., ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Vol. B. Compact ed. New York: Longman - Addison Wesley Longman, 2000.
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