The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde
Author: Oscar Wilde
Genre: Short Story, Tragedy
“The Happy Prince” is a short story by Oscar Wilde, part of his collection of short stories titled The Happy Prince and Other Tales, published in May 1888. Other short stories in this collection are “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Selfish Giant,” “The Devoted Friend,” and “The Remarkable Rocket.”
The story revolves around a magnificent statue covered in finery that stands guard over a city rife with injustice and inequity. Formerly a prince who lived a lavish but ignorant life, he is now frozen and can only bear witness to the problems of the city’s citizens.
The more he learns about their difficulties, the more he regrets being unable to assist them. The Happy Prince holds a special place as Wilde’s trademark story and may represent the author’s definitive declaration regarding the connection between inner and outer beauty.
In this modern fable, a statue of a prince made of lead is decorated with gems and golden leaves. He stands on top of a town full of suffering poor people, with sapphires for eyes and a ruby engraved on the hilt of his sword. He is doomed to gaze down upon them, unable to help anybody. He asks a lone Swallow to donate his ruby, sapphire, and gold leaves to the underprivileged. The Swallow is on its way to Egypt to avoid the coming winter but chooses to stay and help the Prince.
As the Swallow starts to donate the decorations, the Prince loses his splendor, rendering him helpless to fend off winter’s assault. His heart breaks when the swallow perishes due to the cold and bitter weather. The people intend to replace the now-plain monument with a new one because they are oblivious of what the two have done.
The Prince’s heart and the dead Swallow are left in a pile of dust as the statue’s metal is burned in a furnace. They are both taken to Heaven by an angel, where they are given immortality in God’s “City of Gold” and “Garden of Paradise.”
2. Story Summary
The gilded statue of the Happy Prince stands on a pedestal looking over a city. The statue, which is covered in gold leaf and has sapphires for eyes and ruby on his sword hilt, is admired by everyone who passes by, including town councilors who wish to establish a reputation for having good taste in art.
During his flight to Egypt, a Swallow passes above the city. A reed-bird attracts his attention, which causes him to be left behind by his flock. The Swallow sets out on his own after the reed-bird declines to journey with him and ends up resting under the statue. He feels a drop of water on him but does not know where it came from.
The Swallow notices that the Happy Prince is sobbing. They introduce each other, and the Happy Prince talks of his upbringing in an enclosed palace in San Souci and his time spent frolicking there as a youngster when he was oblivious to the misery in his city.
The Swallow agrees to assist the Prince after learning about his past and hearing him express pity for a seamstress sewing passion flowers onto a lady in waiting’s satin gown. The Swallow agrees to give her the ruby from the Prince’s sword hilt because she is unable to care for her sick son due to their poor living conditions.
The Swallow had made preparations to fly to Egypt the following night, but the Prince again asks for his assistance, telling the bird an account of a starving young playwright in an attic and an impoverished matchgirl. He instructs the Swallow to take his sapphire eyes and donate one to the youngster and the other to the girl.
The Swallow is unable to abandon the blinded Prince at this point. He stays, telling him tales of Egypt despite the weather getting colder and harder. The Prince requests the Swallow to soar over the town and report what he finds. Once the Swallow returns, he reveals that the place is rife with poverty. The wealthy are throwing parties while poor beggars starve at their gates. A passing Watchman gets a group of young lads warming themselves under a bridge to leave the premises.
The Prince wants to share the magnificent gold leaf gilding him to help lessen the suffering. The Swallow agrees to assist him, and he gives the children sheets of gold leaf.
When winter arrives, the Swallow becomes severely cold. He begs to kiss the Prince’s hand upon realizing how limited his time on Earth is. The Prince asks the Swallow to kiss him on the mouth instead because he loves the bird. The Swallow does it and instantly dies at the Prince’s feet, causing his lead heart to break.
The Mayor notices the grey statue the following morning and laments how shoddy it looks. The Town Council agrees, describing the statue as “little better than a beggar.” They decide to have the Prince melted down and reworked into a new statue, although they disagree on who he should represent. The Mayor wants a statue of himself, while the Town Council members all believe it should be of them instead.
The foundry supervisor in charge is astonished when the statue’s broken lead heart refuses to melt. He throws the Swallow’s body and the leaden heart into a pile of dust.
God then commands one of his angels to deliver the “two most beautiful treasures in the city.” The Angel brings the lead heart and the dead bird, and God commends him for doing so. The Happy Prince and the Swallow receive eternal rewards in Paradise for their kindness and selflessness.
Once a man who lived a luxurious life but was ignorant of the sorrowful lives people led outside his castle, he is now doomed to overlook the city while frozen solid as a statue.
He is adorned with sapphires, a ruby, and gold leaf. Knowing the suffering of the citizens drives him to ask the Swallow to donate all the gems he possesses. Ultimately, he is left entirely bare, and the Mayor orders him pulled down. In the end, he and the Swallow are united in heaven with God.
On his journey to Egypt, he rests under the Prince’s statue. Initially reluctant and standoffish when asked to help the townspeople, the Swallow eventually reveals himself as a generous, compassionate, and friendly creature. He grows to love the Prince and stays with him until his death.
4.1. Beauty and Morality
The Prince is first described from his outward appearance: he is embellished with tiny leaves of exquisite gold, has sapphires for eyes, and a ruby on the hilt of his sword. Although these descriptors accentuate his physical beauty, such beauty is only surface-level.
Before the Prince became a statue, he could only admire the city’s beauty when he was behind towering walls, rendering him unable to recognize the sorrow that dwelt alongside his joy. Consequently, deception and even harsh indifference are associated with beauty in a superficial, physical sense.
It is important to note that Wilde’s narrative does not strictly denounce beauty. Instead, it is critical about the cultural obsession with superficial beauty at the expense of compassion. The Prince willingly surrenders his beauty to aid the underprivileged, demonstrating his generous character.
The Prince’s heart refuses to melt even though his outer beauty has vanished, along with his function and value. This tenacity shows that the Happy Prince has inner goodness that gives him endurance and constancy.
Because of this, when God commands one of his angels to bring him the two most precious things from the city, they end up being the leaden heart and the dead Swallow. The most valuable items can appear to be the ugliest, which illustrates how physical appearances do not always represent inner, genuine value.
4.2. Love and Compassion
Love – even queer love – is the main driving force behind the protagonists in “The Happy Prince.” The disastrous effects of greed and narcissism are countered by love and compassion. The narrative advocates homosexuality as a healthy expression of love since it offers a highly positive outlook on compassion and love.
The Prince shows immense sympathy for the villagers and inspires the Swallow to feel compassion, despite the bird’s initially self-centered intentions. Despite expressing a desire to depart for Egypt’s warmth, the Swallow eventually promises to stay and serve as a messenger despite the coming cold after the Prince appears dejected.
Significantly, acts motivated by compassion can produce positive sentiments within the individual. The Swallow describes a feeling of warmth blooming when he successfully distributes the gems to those in need. The Prince responds that it was because he committed an act of kindness. The narrative creates a strong relationship between showing compassion and feeling good about oneself.
The Swallow first encounters the Prince as he is weeping and feels touched. He constantly puts off going to Egypt to aid the Prince, but when the Prince goes blind, he finally makes a vow to remain by his side eternally. Beyond platonic love, this promise demonstrates how compassion may lead to and enhance love. The Swallow’s love for the Prince also implies homosexuality, validating it as healthy and a source of empathy.
Consequently, Wilde utilizes this tale to both subtly advocate for homosexuality and, more overtly, declare the need for love and compassion in humanity.
4.3. Poverty, Inequality, and Greed
Most of the town’s inhabitants live in extreme misery and suffering, while the rich continue being fueled by wealth. This narrative takes a harsh stand against the injustice propelling so many individuals into disadvantaged and difficult lives. Politicians are portrayed as ruthless, while the suffering townspeople remain honest and kind.
The Swallow observed the wealthy throwing parties while the poor beggars were starving outside. Even while the privileged could glance outside and witness the hardship of the impoverished, they choose to remain indifferent.
In “The Happy Prince,” the selfishness and imprudence displayed by those in positions of privilege demonstrate how human greed and fixation with appearances lead to wickedness and ugliness. People should try to resist such corruption, which affects every aspect of society from education, politics, and justice.
The eponymous Prince is a Christ-like figure who promotes parables similar to Christian teachings. The Prince chooses to give himself up to ease the pain of the impoverished and disadvantaged, much like Christ in the Bible. The story’s religious undertones and the Happy Prince’s Christian roots are subsequently proven, as God rewards the Prince in heaven.
As such, the story’s intended religious parallels show readers the significance of making sacrifices for people who are bound by poverty and unable to speak up for themselves.
5. Influence on Pop Culture and Legacy
“The Happy Prince” remains an enduring ode to selflessness and universal love, which many have tried to bring to life through various mediums.
5.1. Influence on Radio and Music
The first adaptation was a radio play produced by Columbia Workshop and broadcast on December 26, 1936. The Mercury Theatre and Orson Welles then broadcast a version on their “Christmas Show” in 1941. On August 21, 1945, Orson Welles also recorded an album, starring Bing Crosby as the Prince and himself as the narrator.
A rock opera based on the tale was recorded and performed in 1969 by the New Zealand group The La De Das. In 1967, band members Bruce Howard and Trevor Wilson came up with the concept, with Australian poet Adrian Rawlins in charge of the music and storyline.
5.2. Influence on Film
The story was adapted into an animated movie in 1974, with Christopher Plummer playing the Prince and Glynis Johns playing the swallow.
Meanwhile, Ed Koch portrayed the Prince in Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, a rendition of the titular tale, which was set in New York City, and Cyndi Lauper played “Pidge,” a street-smart pigeon (in place of the Swallow).
6. Quotes from The Happy Prince
The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and tears were running down his golden cheeks. His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little swallow was filled with pity.
Leaf after leaf of the fine gold he brought to the poor, and the children’s faces grew rosier, and they laughed and played games in the street.
‘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.’
Dear Prince, I must leave you, but I will never forget you, and next spring I will bring you back two beautiful jewels in place of those you have given away.
Any place you love is the world to you.
‘I am not going to Egypt,’ said the bird. ‘I am going to the House of Death.’ He kissed the prince and fell down dead at his feet.