The Ballad of Reading Gaol Themes

The Ballad of Reading Gaol Themes


The poem focuses on the pain a man suffers when he is deprived of liberty. That man begins to wither away and slowly loses all hope in the future and becomes a man who waits to die. For him, the time spent in prison becomes an endless night spent while being tormented by a guilty conscious. The poet highlights the condition of the prisoner by describing the man who was sentenced to die and the other prisoners. While the man who died seemed calm and free, the other appeared as being plagued by guilt and restless, always looking over their shoulders.


A recurrent element in the poem is the references made towards religion and faith. The poet transmits the idea that while in prison, the majority of the prisoners found their faith and return to God. This seems to be a result of the environment they are forced to live, a place where everything is dark and where it seems that hope doesn’t exist. Because of this, the prisoners are forced to look for hope in religion and pray that they may be forgiven in the afterlife.


The Ballad of the Reading Goal can be considered as being the ballad of a dying man, as it tells about the last days of a man executed for killing his family. As a result, the poem contains reflections upon death and life and the way the idea of an imminent death affects a person’s behavior. The poet uses numerous images to reflect the ugly side of death and to emphasize the feelings he felt while he was forced to see people who were just waiting to die.

Prison conditions

The poem also offers a clear a description of the conditions the prisoners were forced to endure while being incarcerated. Oscar Wilde based his description on the time he spent in prison and the description he offers paints the prison life a being cruel and unjust for those trapped in it. The poet talks briefly about the food, working conditions and living conditions the prisoners had to suffer through.

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