“The Happy Prince and Other Tales” was published in May 1888, and Oscar Wilde was suddenly seen as a writer of fairy tales. After reveling in his new role as fairy-tale author in November 1891, he gave a more ornate presentation in “A House of Pomegranates,” for which he received considerable praise for these volumes of children’s stories.
“The Happy Prince” is a sermon on practical Christianity. But to critics and readers, there are some principal points about these fairy-tales that bear on their author’s nature.
The first point is that Oscar Wilde was becoming highly interested in Jesus Christ, which had been growing until often he spoke in parables. “What is the nature of the world as shaped by modern man?” “Is it possible to live in this world according to Christian ideals?”― Wilde repeatedly raised these questions in his fairy-tales.
The second point is Wilde’s sympathy for the poor and the oppressed, which eventually found direct expression in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” an essay that aroused the rich and powerful classes’ secret enmity whose house-parties he was an invaluable entertainer.
The third is that the dominant spirit of these fairy-tales is bitter satire differing widely from Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805-1875), whom Wilde’s literary manner so constantly recalls to us.
Finally, we observe his growing preference for the use of words merely for the sake of their sounds, which forms one of the most stylistic characteristics of Wilde’s fairy tales.
In “The Happy Prince,” Wilde deals more successfully with the burden of human suffering. First, he combines fairy-tales with saint’s legends to represent the problems in less realistic terms. Rather than replicating socio-economic reality, he sets the tale in another world, where birds and statues converse. Instead of adopting an intellectual overview, he presents isolated instances of poverty that can be alleviated according to the rules of the tale’s imaginary world. Only once, and with skillful indirectness, he finds the problem to its origin.
A poor seamstress, the mother of a sick child, is sewing a gown for one of the queen’s maids of honor. On his way to help the afflicted family, the Swallow passes first over the cathedral and then over the palace. And he overhears the maid’s murmur in conversation:
“I hope my dress will be ready in time for the State-ball … I have ordered passion-flowers to be embroidered on it, but the seamstresses are so lazy.” ( p. 287)
The flower’s symbolic significance is ironically suited to unfeeling materialism and indicates the tremendous spiritual distance that separates the palace from the cathedral. This indirect method of criticism blends more smoothly into the tale’s core than the political speeches in “The Young King.” By concentrating on simple solutions rather than the complexity of the problem, Wilde uses this style with a more significant effect, creating a more unified, harmonious work of art.
Like the King, the Prince converts from self-indulgence to Christian compassion:
“When I was alive and had a human heart,” answered the statue, “I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. In the daytime, I played with my companions in the garden, and in the evening, I led the dance in the Great Hall. Round the garden ran a very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it. Everything about me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was if pleasures are happiness. So I lived, and so I died. And now that I am dead, they have set me up here so high that I can see all ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart made of lead yet, I cannot choose but weep.”
Wilde duplicates the Prince’s conversion in his treatment of the Swallow. And through the bird’s attachment to Reed, he adds a fascinating version of erotic love. While the Prince looks back on a luxurious life, the Swallow has, in his past, a flirtation and, in his future, a sojourn in decadent Egypt. They reject these lower forms of pleasure as they come to realize the highest result of Christian love.
Whereas the King was magnificently transfigured, the Prince subjects himself to a gradual disfigurement, as he sacrifices himself for others. Having given his jewels and gold leaf to the poor, he takes upon himself the ‘misery and ugliness’ that were their lot. A relationship of mutual devotion purges the defect of self-love in both the Swallow and the Prince and offers a sharp contrast to the pretty flirtation with which the tale begins. The Swallow’s death causes the Prince’s heart to break ― a recurrent motif in the tales ― and both are delivered from their sufferings.
Divinity manifests itself less dramatically, but more effectively, in the tale’s coda:
“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels, and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird. “You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise, this little bird shall sing forever, and in my city of gold, the Happy Prince shall praise me.”
The unimaginative and materialistic mayor and council members have thrown “these two most precious things” to the dust heap. ( p. 291) Here, blinded by their selfishness, both the mayor and council members agreed to replace the statue with the New Happy Prince.
This merely becomes a division within himself, in the image of the heartbreaking so that Christ may enter it. The physical heart’s vision had to break to unite body and soul was Wilde’s own; his self had always been divided ― even in its language ― between the body and Victorian society.
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