The Ballad of Reading Gaol Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Ballad of Reading Gaol Symbols, Allegory and Motifs


Sky is associated with freedom and becomes a symbol for the outside world for those who are in prison. But the sky symbolizes freedom only when it is blue. For the inmate who is sentenced to death, the sky is no longer blue but rather the same color steal has because for him there is no hope left for him. For that prisoner, the sky is a painful reminder that he will never be free again and that he will never be able to see the outside world.

The condition of man

The normal prisoners had to see each day the man sentenced to die. For them, the person who was sentenced to death was a living reminder that the same thing could happen to them. Because of this, the man who died became a symbol which served as a reminder that life is cruel and that one day, if a person doesn’t change his or her ways, may end up in the same place, waiting to die hanged.

The hanging tree

The narrator describes the tree as being an unwilling participant who has to fulfill its duty nevertheless. The hanging tree becomes a symbol for the prisoners and it reminds them that they may soon have to face it as well. For them, the hanging tree is a symbol for fear and terror while also symbolizing a cruel fate.


There are numerous references towards the idea of religion, in particular prayer inside the poem. The prisoners turn towards God when all hope is lost and the narrator notes how even those who didn’t believed in God before being sent to the Goal find comfort in praying and asking for help from God.

Guilty conscious

A recurrent motif that appears in the poem is the idea of a guilty conscious. The poem presents the effect a guilty conscious can have on a man and how it can produce a prolonged suffering. The poet talks more often about the suffering produced by someone’s guilt than he talks about the harsh conditions that exist in prison, thus transmitting the idea that a mind tortured by its own guilt is more painful than any other type of punishment a man can imagine.

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