In Oscar Wilde's "The Harlot's House," the narrator describes the dancers like mechanical figures. Frequently associated with puppets, marionettes, and automatons, the partiers seem controlled by some outside force:

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

The figure "seems like a live thing" because it behaves very much like a human. The rhyming scheme indelibly associates the "marionette" with the action of smoking "its cigarette" but separates it from "a live thing," thus further alienating the partiers. This rhyming scheme continues throughout the poem:

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Again, Wilde connects the dancers' "spin" and the sound of the "violin" but separates them from the natural image of the "black leaves wheeling in the wind." Overall, the poem seems to alienate both the narrator and the reader. The action ends and begins quickly, rushing through the story at a rapid pace before we learn anything concrete about the characters. Wilde instead presents a group of anonymous figures which could represent any partiers.


1. Why do you believe the poem emphasizes the juxtaposition between the natural and mechanical?

2. Wilde relates the dancers to "grotesques" and "arabesques":

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

Grotesques and arabesques can relate to art, in addition to dance. What purpose does this association between dance, literature and art accomplish? How does it relate to the poem overall?

3. Why do you believe the poem begins and ends at the same location? The poem begins with the sound of dancing drawing them down the street and towards the party:

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot's house.

However, by the time the poem ends, the party has finished and the dawn has arrived:

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

What has changed? What does this change state about the overall theme of the poem?

4. For most of the poem, the narrator seems removed from the description, an almost impartial observer. However, towards the end of the poem we begin to see emotion creep into their delivery:

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

Do you believe the repetition of "she" indicates hesitation? If so, what does this hesitation mean within the context of the poem?

5. How does this poem's views on the natural versus mechanical compare to Carlyle's in "Signs of the Times?" In particular, how do Carlyle's views on intellectual collaboration compare to Wilde's poem when he states, "in these days, more emphatically than ever, 'to live, signifies to unite with a party, or to make one.' Philosophy, Science, Art, Literature, all depend on machinery?"

Last modified 27 April 2009