Posted by: avaprovolo | September 20, 2021

Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” and the visual construction of terror

Oscar Wilde’s lengthy poem, “Ballad of Reading Gaol”, is highly concerned with visuality in relation to being an inmate. The main character of the poem, so to speak, is one of the prisoners who killed his wife and peculiarly has a “wistful eye” meaning although he is aware of the inevitability of death, his perception allows him to be less fearful; this is particularly unnerving for the narrator as he is someone who is very focused on the visual and cannot comprehend how in the panopticon, one could ever escape the adoption of the fixated eye that is cast on them. That is to say, there is an adoption of the “master’s tools” whereby an individual who is the object of the gaze naturally becomes the gazer of another person. The panopticon’s design encourages a reciprocation of the gaze where it is not just the guard in the central tower who is intently watching the inmates but also the inmates exchange gazes amongst each other because of the circular structure: “He does not sit with silent men/Who watch him night and day…” (Wilde, lines 61-62).

Internalized Authority and the Prison of the Mind: Bentham and Foucault's  Panopticon
Photo courtesy of Brown University.

As you can see in the above photograph, it would be understandable for an inmate to fixate on another inmate; thus, it is no surprise that the narrator of Wilde’s poem becomes almost obsessed with this other inmate especially because this man’s humanity has not yet been completely depleted like that of the narrator. The utilization of the panopticon in conjunction with the proliferation of photography as a tool by police cements how the concept of “terror” became suddenly, and overwhelmingly, visual; in other words, what once was an idea was now a ubiquitous image of
“the terrorist”. Wilde emphasizes that terror is a part of the inmates’ souls, something immovable and tangible: “And Horror stalked before each man, and terror crept behind” (Wilde, 12.3.5-6). In this passage, the narrator personifies terror where the boundary between human and capital ‘t’ Terror becomes blurry; and so thus, like with photography of criminals, the image of “the terrorist” develops into one image in the collective minds. In their essay on Fenian photography, Mac Suibhne and Martin describe it perfectly when they posit that “the ‘panorama of faces’…was that they could not be easily differentiated…” in which this collection of indistinguishable faces not only incites more fear because anyone could then be positioned as a terrorist but also foments a psychological essentialism that negates the individuality of each person (Mac Suibhne and Martin, 118).

Wilde, Oscar. “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” 1897.

Mac Suibhne, Breandán, and Amy Martin. “Fenians in the Frame: Photographing Irish Political                            Prisoners, 1865-68.” Field Day Review, vol. 1, Field Day Publications, 2005, pp. 101–20,


  1. I really appreciated the focus on the shift from terror as more abstract to terror as “suddenly, and overwhelmingly, visual.” Including a picture of the panopticon definitely helped root your words in visuality. Your mention of Wilde’s personification of Terror was also interesting; I wonder if the idea of it being visual is helped by having a semi-concrete personification in the poem as Horror and Terror rather than an abstract idea.

  2. I really like how well you articulate the concept of constant and always possible (so probable) surveillance through the architectural device of the panopticon in relation to Wilde’s repetition of terror. I hadn’t noticed how the meaning and growing of paranoia and hopelessness in his poem was anchored with that word which in turn you pointed out leads to this abstracted fear of terrorism. Makes me think of security cameras and suspicion, and the cold objectivity of an eye that you can’t see back into.

  3. I also find it useful how you explain terror within your post. The most interesting point to me that you make is how the person who is gazed upon becomes one who gazes, therefore creating this cycle that started with the panopticon. I think it mirrors how we all use social media to look and be looked-upon, though maybe we’ve already made that point in class – I don’t remember.

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