Attraction to the Strange

While reading “The Harlot’s House,” I was struck by the line “Like strange mechanical grotesques” (7). We discussed the significance of “strange” in Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature” and how the word suggests queerness. It is interesting that Wilde uses strange to describe grotesques because it suggests a fascination with them. While the grotesque is horrifying, it demands a viewer’s attention, like a car crash people cannot look away from. The grotesque brings Frankenstein to mind and Milton’s Paradise Lost as a result. Professor McCrea mentioned Milton’s Satan in our discussion last week and how the most wicked character in the poem is by far the most appealing. This connects to “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” where Wilde proposes “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” (1244). With that phrase in mind, “The Harlot’s House” is both an examination of prostitution and a deconstruction of the binaries of good and bad. We have talked about how the decadents emphasize style and form over significance, and I think that the word “mechanical” in this line highlights the lack of intentionality of the people dancing in the harlot’s house. They dance like “wire-pulled automatons / slim silhouetted skeletons” (13-14). The dancers are not considering the wickedness of their actions. While they are described as grotesques and skeletons in a poem laden with gothic elements and shadows, the puppeteering element dissolves any sense of agency they may have. There are no moral assignments in the poem, only transient figures and interactions. As the music stops and the figures return into the normal world, there is a sense that anyone could wander into the harlot’s house and back out. It is as if the mechanical grotesques and ghosts walk among us, and returning to Wilde’s philosophy, “good people” are no exception.  

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