In the most unlikely places are literary themes that are eerily similar. Such is the case for “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” In Cold Blood, and “The Crucible,” a poem by Oscar Wilde, a novel by Truman Capote, and a play by Arthur Miller, respectively. Although each of these pieces of literature deal with different time periods and different experiences, each discusses the darkness inside the human soul, the piercing reality of very banal, human evil that burns inside most people. While Capote’s characters chase the ghost of a murderer around a complex, interwoven plot, Miller’s characters fight against a corrupt, hysterical system for their freedom and their lives. Wilde, imprisoned in jail for something he could not change about himself-- his homosexuality-- departed from his normally-witty, funny work to write a dark poem that comments extensively on the unfair nature of society as a whole.
In Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Wilde, as the narrator, is watching a man who is sentenced to death walk to the gallows. Although the poem begins as an expository examination of the process of execution, Wilde, while sitting in the cell and observing the process, seems to be unable to help himself: he begins to sympathize with the other prisoners around him, even beginning to identify with them. Anyone familiar with Wilde will know that Wilde’s prose and poetry is generally aloof, often almost allegorical; it rarely strays into the personal. While it is always impactful and witty, there is always a wall built between Wilde and the reader that is, frankly, not present in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” There is something about the act of being imprisoned that lowers Wilde’s walls and makes him appear more vulnerable. Wilde goes on to compare himself with Wooldridge, and even quotes that “Yet each man kills the thing he loves” which seeks to answer the question posed by Bassanio in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice when he asks “Do all men kill the things they love?” This prompts the following passage from the poem:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
While these lines may seem to reflect Woolridge’s own, personal story-- he did, after all, kill his wife with a knife-- it is also a deeper, more personal reflection on the nature of humanity as a whole. There is an allusion to the Bible in these lines, where Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek before betraying him to his death. It seems unclear, however, whether Wilde considers Woolridge’s actions to be brave or merely human nature; there is a deeper nature to these lines that cannot merely be expressed as a pure recounting of the execution of a single man. In the poem, Oscar utilizes rhyme persistently in conjunction with rhythm and repetition to disguise the effect of the hanging of Wooldridge to the reader, and creates an eerie atmosphere of hope on the reader part rather than inducing feelings of anger. Thomas Wooldridge accepted his crime and the consequences that came with it, whereas Perry, one of the murderers is “devoid of conscience or compassion” throughout his incarceration and death while Wooldridge had stated that he would have wished to “cleanse his soul from sin”. Rebecca Nurse had accepted her incarceration though she was still viewed as “the very brick and mortar of the church” while John Proctor continued to live free even after committing adultery and proclaiming it openly. His self-preservation epitomized the unjustness of the penal system. In Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the society is seen as being out up by man to kill the thing that he loves, justice. Society takes the blame for any crimes perpetrated while bad and evil prevail. And justice leads to taking of life, the very atrocity that it seeks to condemn.
The novel In Cold Blood, a work by Truman Capote, approaches the criminal justice system from another angle entirely. In this landmark piece of true crime work, Capote illustrates the tragic, and brutal murders of Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie who was physically ill and heavily affected by her chronic depression and two of their children (Nancy and Kenyon) that occurred on 15th November 1959. Two other children survived the family that hailed from Holcomb, Kansas. The perpetrators of this crime (Perry Smith and Richard Hickock) who were under parole were later captured and arrested and sentenced to a mandatory death. In this book, Truman tries to assess the psychological situation that the two perpetrators were in, the lives of the four family members and the effect that the murders had on their survivors and the community at large. The two murderers shared jail term with another inmate, Floyd Wells, a former farmhand of Mr. Clutter, who had informed Richard of a safe that was in the farmhouse, and in which Mr. Clutter kept cash. The information provided by Floyd, however, turns out to be completely false as Mr. Clutter did not own a safe in his residence, all his business transactions were conducted through cheque, and, therefore, he did not have any cash at hand at his residence. After entering the residence, the former jailbirds searched for a safe and, money to no avail and murdered the four occupants of the house, starting with Mr. Clutter, whos was shot at the head and then had his throat slit.
Although technically not a novel in the fictional sense, Capote takes some artistic merit with the story of the Clutters, and thus, writes one of the first “true crime” novels in the English-speaking world. The way he delves into the mental state of the characters involved in his text is truly groundbreaking, and gives the reader a good sense of the different levels of evil and debauchery in society--that every man and woman in the piece has some level of evil or crookedness about them, and that this is the nature of our shared humanity.
In “The Crucible,” American playwright Arthur Miller once again examines the nature of the criminal justice system and the individual’s sense of right and wrong within society. undations that held the members of these society started to fall apart. The witch-hunting mania that resulted brought out the ills in the society that included “land-lust,” in a community that caused “neighbors and old friends to suddenly emerge overnight as hell’s own furies secretly bent on the torture and destruction of Christians” (Miller). In the play, Miller points out the irony in this as he tried to explain the link between the witch hunting and anti-communism by stating that “three hundred years apart, both prosecutions were alleging membership of a secret disloyal group” which had led to an “outbreak of distrust, alarm, suspicion and murder” (Miller). However, John Proctor views himself as “a sinner not only against the moral fashion of the time, but against his own vision of decent conduct “. Self-preservation on his part is clearly shown in that the sole purpose of the penal system is to bring transgressors to sentencing and punishment and make them feel remorse for the actions they perpetrated yet Proctor is well aware that he is at fault for committing adultery by taking advantage of a naïve girl because he saw his marriage as dead since the wife was ill and even goes ahead to announce his faults in court.
The progress of characters in the play is well-documented and illustrated from the point of characters’ introduction and subsequent first appearance to the climax of the play; the characters’ “shred of goodness”. This is highly contrasted by the lack of continuity in The Ballad Of Reading Gaol and In Cold Blood, but both indicate constantly, the change of events, with Truman constantly utilizing a rapid change between the guilty and the innocent characters and incites suspense on the part of the readers by not fully explaining the crime he had cited; while Wilde diverts his attention, as indicated earlier, from one prisoner to the entire lot. Wilde, through his strategic use of words, implies that the court system and human compassion cannot go hand in hand. Through this poem, he seeks to appeal to the readers to feel sympathy for the inmates by describing his ordeals while in prison in a way whose sole intention was to break the “heart of stone” of the reader. He shows how men are subjected to inhumane treatment such as the ones he withstood while within the prison walls, where prisoners are seen as a mere “herd of brutes” (Wilde).
In the novel In Cold Blood, the author views the effects and consequences of discrimination while “The Crucible” shows oppression in the society can create an environment conducive for crime to develop. The play is set in a period when “religion was not a department or phase of social life; it was the end and aim of life; and to it, consequently, all institutions were subordinate”. Though this, the Puritan community did not recognize religion, in it, “a strikingly beautiful girl, an orphan, with an endless capacity for dissembling”. This girl, Abigail uses the power she seems to possess over men in high position, and after Proctor snubbed her advances, she plots to kill his wife who had fallen ill. Abigail and her followers had been punished for the crime of “dancing like heathen in the forest”. The society had been unable to penalize a petty crime, and seeing as such, the execution of the innocent people would not have happened should there have been a system in place to regulate against occurrence of such. The reason for such an occurrence might have been the fact that Salem as a society consisted of “bigoted fanatics, self-important, and without intellectual distinction” individuals (Miller).
The people however, based the occurrence of God. They saw it as bringing people close to God and His glory while serving him at the same time, but seeing as “life is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however, glorious may justify the taking of it”, the same beliefs and faith foIn questioning whether the death penalty is justification enough for the crime committed. In writing ‘In Cold Blood’, Truman Capote fictionalized some of the real occurrences. He diverts his attention from the murdered family to the two parolees. By describing Dick as “authentically tough, invulnerable” and Perry as “an undersized, over-muscled half-breed” and Mr. Clutter as “known for his equanimity, his charitableness”, he deems the judgment as unfair because the society did not consider part of the testimony (Capote).
In these three case scenarios, the writers and the playwright depict that the penal system is an unjust one as it dehumanizes those convicted through the legal proceedings and the adverse conditions of the prisons. Also, they go ahead to show that the death sentence handed out to those found guilty is ethically and morally wrong. The community includes various individuals with a responsibility towards improving bad lives “but all of us are responsible for the community we live in”, however, only individuals have the decision to make on whether or not to commit crimes. For instance, it was not the community that committed the murders in In Cold Blood but the two former jail mates.
Abigail appeals to the reader as a bold leader while in the real sense, this is contradicted by the fact that her actions towards the people of Salem were out of rebelliousness and vengeance. She is also shown not to be as bold as the reader is made to think because she develops a desire for Proctor. This serves as her major weakness that renders her unstable as a villain. In the text In Cold Blood, Mr. Herbert Clutter was a self-made and hardworking man who employed 18 people on his farm and was largely respected by the community. However, Perry was portrayed as one who was weak, with “chunky, dwarfish legs, broken in five places and pitifully scarred” after a motorbike accident. He was raised in an orphanage and children’s shelter where he was constantly ridiculed by the other children, nuns and nurses alike because of his Indian roots. He was portrayed as damaged and mentally inadequate. Smith, Perry’s partner in crime was shown as the emotional of the two, and even went on to claim, though verbally, that it had been him who had committed the murders. The two were hanged in Lansing, a correctional facility that Truman defines as “the coffin-shaped edifice”, a contradiction in that, though the physical characteristics of the center are imposing enough, it has failed to carry out its intended mandate of upholding ethics and morality in ensuring inmates live in humane conditions. He quips that Dick and Perry are guilty of the murders, but the society should also be held accountable for being incompetent in upholding its sole mandate of ensuring that members are accorded respectable deaths at the very least.
In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the society is seen to be unforgiving in that it does not seek to stand up against the unjust judicial system. That’s why through this work, Oscar Wilde tries to gain sympathy for the inmates from the reader in a bid to show how back then, the society neglected these people as savage beasts who were of no value, alive or dead yet the reader is clearly aware that no life is more superior when compared to another. In “The Crucible,” the life of a just and morally upright lady, Rebecca Nurse is found to be inferior to the life of a man who involves himself in adulterous activities with naïve girls as “an everlasting funeral marches” through his marriage, to imply that he considered his marriage dead since the wife was ill. The man places himself in a class above the rest, and so to him, the laws of the common people cannot be used in his case. Proctor, who is a good man but with only one flaw, having committed adultery with Abigail. This comes to haunt him once the hysteria begins and he realizes the only way to stop her is to proclaim in public his adulterous deeds. An action which would ruin his public image, and reputation, he does this when he proclaims so and calls her a “whore”. He is then arrested and convicted as a witch. He later denounces the witch trials, seeking, eventually and his integrity over reputation.
Thomas Wooldridge, after cutting his wife’s throat, surrendered to the police without struggle or planning to escape. The jury however had passed judgment after only two minutes of deliberation. He went on to show remorse over his actions but did not want to seek any further to appeal the trial; he had already accepted his fate. Dick and Perry were sentenced to death after a forty-five minute court hearing. They then appeal the sentence in a five-year long appeal before being hanged. Perry, the remorseful of the two tried to starve himself to death while Dick spent his time in jail writing letters to organizations to seek their help in the matter. He was not remorseful, even in the time of his death.
There are a number of themes that are shared across these three pieces of literature, although it may seem, at first glance, as though they are very different. Wilde’s experience as a writer in jail is formative for him as an individual; he like the characters in “The Crucible,” is jailed for a part of his being that is beyond his control. This strikes him as remarkably unfair, and he begins to feel as though he sympathizes with the other prisoners in the jail. He begins to see, perhaps, the light and dark in everyone. As Wilde describes the way in which the prisoners look upon the little patches of sunlight and blue sky that shine through the bars of the prison, the reader can almost feel the longing for freedom in him. Similarly, when Miller’s characters are jailed, they begin to experience similar feelings of despair and longing for freedom, a feeling that is so intense it can only be considered universal.
Capote, on the other hand, writes about the other side of the criminal justice system: the side of the police, and of those who live their lives in fear that bad things will be done to them. In In Cold Blood, Capote writes extensively about the murder of two innocent people, and how sometimes people do bad things-- even heinous things-- for reasons that make little sense. Although Capote may have fabricated certain things in his novel, he also wrote quite frankly about the human side of the criminal justice system in such a way to ensure that his readers sympathized heavily with the victims.
Capote, T. (1966). In Cold Blood. New York: Random House.
Miller, A. (2003). The Crucible. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books.
Wilde, O. (1909). Poems. London: Methuen & Co.