The Happy Prince and Other Tales
An Elusive Utopia: Conflicting Christian and Socialist Themes in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales
Not many Literary Figures have retained notoriety quite as splendidly as Oscar Wilde has. His illustrious body of work continues to be heavily debated to this day. Although renown for his plays and sole novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote an influential collection of Fairy Tales he deemed suitable for “childlike people aged eighteen to eighty”. This disclaimer was likely made to avoid being accused of indecorous themes for children’s literature. Scholars have long concentrated on the homosexual allusions found in these tales which has repeatedly eclipsed their shrewd social commentary. The Happy Prince and Other Tales is a collection of short stories published in 1888. The Christian influences suggest he was partially inspired by Hans Christian Andersen. Unlike Andersen’s penchant for the transcendent powers of suffering, the end of Wilde’s tales often ring hollow. The Selfish Giant dies, the Happy Prince has idly given everything he has, and the Nightingale sacrifices her life in vain. There is no “Happy Ever After”. While it may seem peculiar that he would write such weighted pieces when he was a ardent believer in “art for the sake of art”, Wilde has never been an embodiment of consistency. He went as far as admitting that “Consistency was the last refuge of the unimaginative”. The myriad of Christian socialist references foreshadow his future marxist influenced work. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” written years later, Wilde presents an argument for an ideal society in which Socialism and Christianity are intimately intertwined. Wilde bases this premise from the distinctly singular perspective of an artist, in a setting in which Socialism has already reached it’s peak: Individualism. Self-Realization and Socialism are seldom seen as compatible, as one seems inherently selfish and the other fundamentally selfless. This may be the author’s way to compel society to accept him for being drastically different and to refuse settling for contentment. Wilde attempts to reconcile these antagonistic notions in The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
As one reads through the tales, it becomes apparent Wilde is disturbed by the rigidity of social expectations. They mirror the issues he perceives during the Victorian Era. The use of the Fairy Tale form permitted him certain liberties in expressing his contempt for social conventions, authoritarian institutions and charity. The first story in the collection is the best-known and titled tale “The Happy Prince”. The religious symbolism and socialist messages are vivid. The adorned statue of the Happy Prince, a once oblivious monarch living above his city and never having a care in the world, is confronted with the harsh living circumstances of his subjects. A swallow lands near him and notices the statue is shedding tears for he has come to the realization that he had not known of the misery plaguing his people while he was alive. He pleads with the swallow to do him favours, each of which demand an ornament be plucked out of him to be given to a poor family. The swallow reluctantly agrees to help the Happy Prince and carries out his wishes. Their love for each other grows as the story progresses and the swallow stays with the statue throughout winter. Eventually, the Happy Prince’s statue becomes ashen and the swallow passes away from the cold, causing the statue’s leaden heart to break. This echoes the altruistic death of Christ. The next day, the Mayor and councilmen pass by the statue and are taken aback by its’ lacklustre appearance. They melt the statue to make a new one in the Mayor’s image. While the council decides on the ways to proceed, an Angel brings the leaden heart and the lifeless bird to Heaven. Acknowledging their selfless sacrifice, God grants them access to his Garden for Eternity. As poetic as the ending of the tale is, Wilde makes a few perceptive remarks. The Happy Prince, as philanthropist as he may have been in death, was blissfully unaware of hardships in life, and attempts to remedy this by gifting gems till he has nothing left to give. When he is no longer considered beautiful, he is no longer considered useful and is melted to create another embellished statue, suggesting a vicious cycle. He may have helped those families to survive the winter, but social change does not come to pass. The swallow dies carrying out the Happy Prince’s egotistical attempts to atone for his past negligence. One may argue that the pair is given salvation and eternal life to spend with each other, but it seems difficult to dissociate the happiness of the few when the villagers are likely to continue living in aggravated circumstances. Wilde considers charity to be a selfish deed, as it only truly helps the benefactor sleep better at night. I do not believe Wilde condemns the idea of compassion but rather the blind importance of material over the continuously degrading systemic issues.
“The Selfish Giant” is another tale bountiful with Christian and anti-capitalist symbolism. In the Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Jack Zipes divides the tale in three stages. The first is the Giant, a metaphorical land owner evicting children from his Garden. He comes home after a seven year absence and is enraged to see children have trespassed into his beautiful garden. He scares them away. His actions causes the seasons to halt mid-winter on his property. His ungenerous disposition is punished as he cannot enjoy his barren garden. Spring, symbolic for new beginnings cannot come to pass. The second stage is the realization that his selfishness causes a small child’s misery and he understands why Spring would not arrive. Wilde emphasizes the beauty the children bring to garden. They are innocent, void of social constraints and thus inherently prone to self-realization. This is apparent when the only child not to run away is the one blinded by tears. He cannot see the Giant, and is therefore an uncorrupted judge. The last stage is the phenomenal changes the Giant and the Garden go through when he shares his property. The Giant finds happiness when he opens his Garden to the local children. This ensures the garden’s prosperity and becomes similar to Eden, a Garden free of impurity. The small child reappears wounded and bloodied many years later. He is and incarnation of Christ and has come to take the Giant up to Heaven. Wilde uses this love and compassion as a fundamental base for true socialism. It is not uncommon for many to interpret the kiss between the Christ-like figure and the Giant as a depiction of a homosexual relation. “The Selfish Giant” is the story of a sinner’s road to redemption. Wilde may have very well identified with the Giant, as he was a particularly large man. It is possible that he wrote this in the spirit that he too would be forgiven. However legitimate this argument may be, the allegory functions on many levels, the most conspicuous being the spiritual union with Christ.
The final Fairy Tale examined is “The Nightingale and the Rose”, a tragic tale of unrequited love. Believing a student was destined to be a “true lover”, the nightingale decides to help him find a rose, even though it is out of season, so he may profess his love to the daughter of a Professor. The bird searches frantically for a red rose, and as she finds the adequate Tree, it cannot produce a rose as it is Winter. The Tree reluctantly offers the only solution by saying “build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.” Believing the student’s love is earnest she sings slowly piercing her chest while singing till the morning light. The student listens and notes the lack of sincerity in her notes. He only understands logic and cannot comprehend the passion behind the sacrificial song. When the Nightingale dies and the rose is born, the Student attributes the miraculous apparition of a rose in winter to mere luck. He presents it to the Professor’s daughter, only to have her reject it because it didn’t compliment her dress and adding she had received jewels from another suitor. The tale is a tragically ironic love story in which the only pure symbol of love is tainted by materialism and obtuse logic. Once again, Wilde end the tale on a decidedly somber note. The nightingale selfless suffering is not rewarded with spiritual release. Not only is this a comment on the shortcomings brought on by capitalism (materialism), it is a reaffirmation of Wilde’s stance on the Aesthetic movement. Firmly identifying beauty and art to be transcending reason.
Oscar Wilde does a masterful job of writing whimsical tales that are lighthearted in appearance. Andersen’s Tales are violent in comparison, but the moral ensures some form of salvation for selfless actions. Wilde’s Tales however, do not provide happy endings. The Happy Prince and Swallow spend eternity in Heaven yet the subjects continue to live miserably. The Giant is forgiven for his sins, but the sight of his lifeless body is the last image we are left with. The Nightingale pointlessly sacrifices her beauty, her talent and her life for a society with skewed priorities. Wilde will later describe Christ as a “man who abandons society entirely, or of the man who resists society absolutely,” and is therefore the paragon of Individualism. His arguments contradict each other considering that forgoing society completely would entail a physical distance from people. As social animals, I do not think one can have true Individualism and Socialism simultaneously. Wilde’s strive for a Christian socialist notion of Individualism is deeply rooted in his own desire to be accepted wholly by society but also maintaining a social conscience.
Quintus, John Allen. “Christ, Christianity, and Oscar Wilde”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33.4 (1991): 514–527. Web…
Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. Marvels & Tales 25.2 (2011): 392–394. Web…
Tatar, Maria. “Chapter 6, Oscar Wilde, Introduction.” The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man under Socialism. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 199. Print.
Zipes, Jack. “Inverting and Subverting the World With Hope: The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde, and L.Baum.” Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Wildman, 1983. Print.
A Moral Tale: Religion and Instruction in “The Happy Prince”
The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde tells the story of a personified gold statue that used to be alive, that slowly sacrifices himself in order to lessen the suffering of others. He asks the help of a bird, who also ends up sacrificing his life in order to fulfill the moral mission of the statue. For their sacrifices, God grants them an eternal spot in his “garden” and his “city of gold”. This story is a moral tale that reflects on the nature of happiness and the most moral way to conduct oneself—happiness comes from altruism, and the “best” people sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.
In the beginning of the story, the people of the city see the Happy Prince, the statue, as beautiful and happy. However, the statue cries because he sees all of the suffering in the city—he is not happy the way that people in the city view him, suggesting that the reasons that the city believe he is happy do not bring him true happiness. For example, “sad men looked at the statue and said, ‘I am glad that someone in the world is happy.’ However, the statue explains to the bird he meets that when he was alive, “I was called the Happy Prince. I was pleased with my little world. Now I am dead, and they have put me up here. I can see all the unhappiness of my city. My heart now is made of a cheap metal. But even that poor heart can feel, and so I cry.” The Happy Prince aches because of the suffering of the world, despite the way he was happy and ignorant of this in his past life. The bird says to himself in response to this, “He is not all gold—he is only gold on the outside.” This represents that the way that the Happy Prince found happiness in his past life was superficial, because it did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the world. Although he appears happy to outsiders, his soul is tormented because he finally understands the pain of the world.
The bird dies and the Happy Prince is thrown out, but God accepts them into his paradise, which suggests a religious lesson in addition to a moral one—people should sacrifice themselves for others while on Earth in order to find happiness and to live in paradise after death. The Happy Prince slowly destroys himself for the sake of helping other people. He asks the bird to take the jewels and stones from his body, and then finally asks the bird to take the gold off his body and give it to the people of the city. He makes these sacrifices because sacrificing himself like this is the only thing that feel fulfilling to him, he cannot feel happiness while he has riches that other people do not. The bird sacrifices himself by helping—he needs to go to Egypt for the winter, but dies in the cold because he chooses to help the Happy Prince instead. At the very end of the short story, the Happy Prince’s heart, which is all that is left of him, is thrown away by workmen along with the bird’s body. However, God rewards this sacrifice. He asks his servants, “Bring me the two best things in the city,” and the servants bring him the Prince’s broken heart and the dead bird’s body. Thus, God allows them to live in eternal paradise. Without the religious component to the story, the reader may have questioned whether the sacrifices that the Happy Prince and the bird made were worth it. After all, they both gave their lives, and they may not have made much of a difference in the overall living standard of the city. Their sacrifices on Earth were not recognized—the workmen threw out the bird and what was left of the Happy Prince. However, God ultimately rewarded these sacrifices.
The lesson of The Happy Prince is clear: Sacrificing oneself for others is a moral and religious duty. The Happy Prince began his life being happy because of the riches of his life, but soon realized that he could not be happy while others suffered. The bird he met helped in his sacrifice, and both of them gave their lives. These deeds were not rewarded on Earth, although they made the lives of others easier, and they did not receive any sort of recognition for their sacrifices until God recognized them. The intent of this story is for the reader to draw parallels to their own lives—a person should not do good deeds because they want to be rewarded, they should do them because it is the right thing to do, and that God will ultimately reward this moral behavior.
The Foolishness of Love: Instruction in “The Nightingale and the Rose”
“The Nightingale and the Rose” by Oscar Wilde is a children’s story within his collection, “The Happy Prince and Other Tales.” In this story, a student pines over a romantic interest who ultimately rejects him, despite the help he receives from the Nightingale and despite his efforts to win her over. In the process of attempting to win her over and being rejected, the student learns a valuable lesson about his own values. Like other stories in the collection, this tale is intended to impart a lesson on the child reader. “The Nightingale and the Rose” teaches the reader that education and logic are more important than romantic love.
In this narrative, the student is in great emotional pain because of his feelings for his unrequited love interest, which is intended to teach the reader that they should not invest so much energy into romance. The student weeps at the beginning of the story, and says, “It’s amazing how happiness depends on such little things. I’ve read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy, but my life is wretched because of a red rose.” Despite having knowledge of the secrets of life, the student experiences severe emotional pain because of a love interest. This suggests that the student believes that romantic love is more important than his studies, because he places his feelings over logic and knowledge. However, this turns out to be a folly. At the end of the story, the student’s love interest rejects his advances, which worsens the student’s pain and makes him very angry. This suggests that the student should not have invested so much energy into the love interest. and he should have placed logical thinking over emotional thinking.
The Nightingale’s sacrifice and work are ultimately useless, suggesting the uselessness of love. The Nightingale understands the student’s romantic feelings. According to the narrator, the nightingale, “understood the secret of the student’s sorrow.” The Nightingale says to himself, “Surely love is a wonderful thing. It’s more precious than emeralds and diamonds and gold.” The Nightingale holds romantic love in high esteem and sacrifices himself for the love that the student feels. He goes through great lengths to ensure that the student receives his red rose, and ultimately dies because of this sacrifice. The student doesn’t understand the sacrifice, thinking that he has found the red rose by himself. This suggests the uselessness of the sacrifice. The red rose, in turn, is useless to the student, because his love interest rejects him. This further suggests that it was foolish for the bird to sacrifice himself for the sake of romantic love. Because the Nightingale’s actions in the name of love are useless and foolish, we can extrapolate that in this story romantic love is useless and foolish.
At the end of the story the protagonist chooses to read a book instead of continuing to pursue romantic love, which suggests the moral lesson of the story: logic and education are more important than love. In the final paragraph of the story the student says, “What a silly thing love is….It’s not half as useful as logic, and in fact is quite unpractical. I shall go back to philosophy.” He then goes back to his room and begins to read. This is a remarkable change from how we are introduced to the student’s character—he is pining over a woman and hopes that he can find a red rose to give to her in order to win her over. In the end, he throws the red rose in the gutter. Throwing the red rose in the gutter signifies that he is abandoning the pursuit of romantic love. After he throws away the rose, he goes to read his book, which represents logic and knowledge. The obvious symbolism and the actions of the narrator at the end of the story suggests the moral lesson.
“The Nightingale and the Rose,” a didactic children’s story, suggests that pursuing romantic love is not a useful endeavor compared to pursuing education. In stories where there is a moral lesson, we often see that the protagonist has undergone a change because of what he has learned throughout the story. At the beginning of the story, the student understands his feelings of romantic love to be more important than anything else, including his stories. The Nightingale attempts to help him pursue his romantic interest and dies in the attempt. The student’s romantic interest rejects him. The student symbolically casts aside the red rose that the Nightingale died to bring him, which demonstrates the lesson of the story: romantic love is useless, and a person should focus on logic while investing their energy into obtaining knowledge.