The Ballad of Reading Gaol Literary Elements

The Ballad of Reading Gaol Literary Elements



Setting and Context

The poem takes place in a prison, at the end of the 18th century but no clear date is given.

Narrator and Point of View

The narrator is a first person narrator who presents the events from a subjective point of view.

Tone and Mood

Tragic, melancholic

Protagonist and Antagonist

The protagonist is the simple man and the antagonist is the unjust society.

Major Conflict

The main conflict is an internal one and it represents the internal battle between a guilty conscious and the desire to be at peace with the actions the narrator had done.


The ballad reaches its climax when the prisoner sentenced to death is hanged.


The description of the grave foreshadows the fact that at one point, everyone will have to face death and the consequences of what they have done while they were still alive.


At one point in the poem, the narrator tells the reader that it is sweet to dance with nimble feet above the ground while also mentioning hanging. This proves to be an understatement because only lines later, the poet notes the ugliness of a body after it was hanged.


At one point in the poem, the narrator compares the one who sentenced the prisoner with Caiaphas who betrayed Jesus Christ. Thus, this could be considered as being an allusion towards the Biblical text and that the prisoner sentenced to death can be seen as Jesus Christ, sentenced to death by the religious leaders of his time.


The narrator describes in great detail the inmate sentenced to death. The poet thus uses figures of speech that create a vivid image in the mind of the reader, describing a man at peace with himself and ready to face the consequences of his actions. This image amplifies as the ballad advances.


The way the prisoner who is sentenced to death is described can be considered as being a paradox. Despite knowing that he will die soon, the prisoner seems to be calm and at peace with himself. He doesn’t try to argue with those who sentenced him, nor does he laments his fate but rather he enjoys his last days alive. His attitude isn’t shared by those surrounding him, who seem hopeless and always worrying about what the next day would bring.


Throughout the poem, a parallel is drawn between the way the normal prisoners behaved and the way the man sentenced to death behaved. The narrator highlights constantly the differences between the two groups and adds his own thoughts to the description.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

When the narrator talks about the other prisoner, he simply refers to them as being souls. The collective term ‘’souls’’ is used when the narrator wants to talk about every prisoner.


The world had thrust us from its heart

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