The Nightingale and The Rose by Oscar Wilde
Author: Oscar Wilde
Genre: Fairy Tale, Short Story, Tragedy
“The Nightingale and The Rose” is a short story written by Oscar Wilde, part of his collection of short stories titled The Happy Prince and Other Tales, published in May 1888. “The Nightingale and The Rose” is another one of Wilde’s allegorical fables, about a lovestruck student who must give his lover a red rose to win her heart. The nightingale overhears his lament from a solitary oak tree and decides to help the poor young man. As she seeks the perfect rose for him, she comes across a rose bush without roses to offer. Consequently, she discovers that it is possible to create a red rose, but it comes at a grave cost.
1. The Nightingale and The Rose Synopsis
A nightingale overhears a young student lamenting that a professor’s daughter will not dance with him as he did not give her a red rose and decides to help him. When the nightingale visits the rose trees in the garden, a tree informs the nightingale of a way to grow one, but only if the nightingale is willing to sing the rose’s loveliest song through the night while sinking her heart into a thorn and risk her life.
The nightingale executes the ritual, suffering a cruel death after witnessing the student’s sorrow and placing his human life above hers. However, when the student gives the professor’s daughter the rose, she rejects him again. The student furiously dumps the rose, picks up his metaphysics book, and declares that he will no longer believe in true love.
2. The Nightingale and The Rose Summary
Sitting in her nest in an oak tree, a nightingale hears a student conversing somberly about his sweetheart, who has declared she won’t dance with him unless he gives her a red rose. The student cries in front of the nightingale as he laments the futility of his education in trying to gain the girl’s love. His beauty and misery move the nightingale. The nightingale has spent her entire life singing about an ideal lover, and the student fits her dream paramour.
The student keeps complaining about his unrequited feelings, vividly picturing how the girl will snub him at the Prince’s ball if he does not obtain a rose for her. As the nightingale contemplates love’s mighty and priceless power, the nearby animals and plants are perplexed as to why the student is sobbing over a girl.
The nightingale chooses to assist the student, flying to the rose tree in the middle of the garden to make her request. He declines as he only produces white roses, pointing her to his brother by the sundial. The nightingale visits this tree next, but he also lets her down as he produces yellow roses and suggests she try the tree below the student’s window.
When the nightingale pleads to the tree under the student’s window, the tree concedes that his roses are red, but he cannot grow a rose in the winter. When the nightingale persists, he finally reveals a way out: if she pierces herself with one of his thorns as she sings, the nightingale might coax a rose into blooming and tint it with her blood. Even though it hurts the nightingale to abandon life’s pleasures, she accepts the suggestion.
The nightingale returns to the student after making up her mind, telling him the good news, and asking him to respect her sacrifice by becoming a devoted lover. But the student fails to understand her. The oak tree, which the nightingale builds her nest, understands her and asks her to perform one more song before she passes away. The nightingale sings, but the student comments critically on her performance. He then returns to his house, indulging in romantic daydreams before sleeping.
The nightingale flies to the rose tree as dusk falls and perches against the thorn. A few vague petals appear on the tree as she sings about young love. The rose tree instructs the nightingale to cling tighter to the thorn because the day draws near. The rose starts to become pink while the nightingale continues to sing–this time of mature, romantic love.
The nightingale is encouraged by the rose tree to cling even tighter. Despite her deteriorating condition, she sings of selfless and unwavering love as all of nature listens. As the rose turns redder, the Rose tree tells the nightingale she has succeeded. Tragically, she has already died.
The rose is visible when the student looks out his window many hours later. He is delighted, declaring it the most stunning flower he has ever seen. The student picks the flower and delivers it to the girl’s home. The student offers the girl the flower, asking her to wear it at the ball.
The girl rebuffs his gift, claiming the rose will clash with her attire. She preferred the jewelry she recently received from the Chamberlain’s nephew. The student responds angrily, hurling the rose onto the road, and a passing cart crushes it. In return, the girl remarks that the student was disrespectful before rushing back inside her house.
As he leaves, the student reflects on how illogical and unrealistic love is, deciding that it would be wiser to spend his time learning philosophy. The story ends with him going back to his room to read from an old book.
The Nightingale – A hopeless romantic, she has devoted her life to singing about love, hoping to see it for herself one day. When she overhears the student’s plea for a red rose to win the girl’s heart, she willingly makes the ultimate sacrifice and bleeds her life away to stain the rose’s petals a deep red. Although the student fails to recognize her noble gesture, the story honors her brave act of selflessness. The nightingale’s story reveals the power of true love, proving that the ultimate act of love is to give without expectation of anything in return.
The Student – He starts as a sympathetic figure but eventually turns into the antagonist. The student professes his deep love for a girl and convinces the nightingale to give her life in exchange for a red rose. However, the student recklessly discards the rose after the girl rejects it and goes on a spiel about love’s pointlessness.
Throughout the narrative, the student demonstrates an unhealthy obsession with logic and reason to the point where he cannot comprehend the nightingale’s sentimental words. The student thus serves as an example of the drawbacks of high intellectualism; he is blind to “useless” attributes like selflessness or beauty due to his drive to comprehend everything based on rules and outcomes.
The Rose trees – There are three rose trees, but the one outside the student’s window plays a vital role in the story. This tree informs the nightingale that it can make a red rose, but at the price of the nightingale’s life. Yet, the nightingale accepts and sings throughout the night while resting her breast against a thorn on the rose tree, gradually bringing a red rose to bloom and dying it red with her blood.
Even though he played a part in the nightingale’s death, the rose tree retains the nightingale’s sympathy partly because he is one of the few characters to understand her sacrifice and speaks lovingly as she slowly impales herself on the thorn.
4.1. Materialism, Intellectualism, and Emotion
Using the student and the girl as examples of intellectualism and materialism, Wilde creates his assessment of these ideologies. These views do not foster a realistic worldview; instead, they make the story’s characters ignorant of what is occurring to and around them.
Although the student publicly declares his intense love for the girl at the story’s beginning, it soon becomes apparent that he is more comfortable with his academics than his emotions. For example, the student’s attitude to the nightingale singing to the rose tree is of cold rationalism, as he perceives the nightingale’s actions as lacking sincere emotion.
In actuality, he could not be further from the truth in his appraisal of the nightingale, and the student is the one who lacks emotional heft. However, the intellectualism of the student has clouded his perception of reality. The student is unable to comprehend anyone who does not utilize reason as a guiding principle since he “only knows the things that are set down in books”—most notably the nightingale, whose conviction that “love is wiser than philosophy” emphasizes an “irrational” feeling.
In this way, the girl’s materialism and the student’s hyper-rationality are intertwined. The student only knows the world in terms of practicality and cannot comprehend selfless behavior because it is, by definition, not beneficial to the individual engaging in it.
The girl, a blatantly self-centered and greedy character, also happens to be the daughter of a professor, suggesting that emotionless reasoning will lead to materialism. Because jewels cost much more than flowers, she has a logical justification for rejecting the student’s red rose.
4.2. Art and Idealism
The nightingale can be identified by her voice, which she primarily uses to cheer others up. The nightingale’s songs similarly emphasize concepts above reality. From young love to passionate love to love that overcomes death, the nightingale’s lyrics express these in the most abstract manner possible. The lack of practical applications in the nightingale’s songs accentuates her idealism, further highlighting the link between her art and aestheticism.
On the other side, the student believes art should serve a purpose. Worse still, he dismisses the nightingale’s song because he considers it senseless and meaningless, a common criticism of aestheticism. He even accuses her of caring just about style.
He even refers to her art as self-centered, presumably because it has no meaningful impact on the environment in which she lives. That statement is false because the student will give the girl a red rose created by the nightingale’s song.
However, it is challenging to disagree with the student when he dismisses the nightingale’s song as entirely useless in real life. After all, neither the girl acknowledges nor the student appreciates the nightingale’s sacrifice when the girl rejects the rose. Conclusively, the nightingale’s method of creating art does not pay off.
4.3. Love and Sacrifice
“The Nightingale and The Rose” is about the nature of love. The student claims to feel love for the girl. The nightingale sacrifices her life to make a red rose because she believes doing so will help the student win the girl’s love.
However, the story’s significance is muddled because neither the student nor the girl understands the nightingale’s sacrifice. In the end, Wilde makes the case that while pure love may exist, most of what is popularly referred to as love is artificial and self-centered.
A clear example of this self-centeredness is the student, which is revealed at the end of the story. When the girl rejects his rose, he calls her ungrateful and deems love silly. But looking back, it is evident that the student’s love was self-centered all along.
“Thinking of his love” is a vague phrase that either refers to the student’s thoughts on the girl or it could suggest that he is narcissistically analyzing his own emotions. The girl proves to be similarly egoistic when she replaces the student with a more affluent partner, leaving only the nightingale to represent pure, profound love.
Ultimately, the story’s defense of love remains unchanged even though the nightingale’s sacrifice was motivated by a misunderstanding of the student’s emotions. The nightingale sings of “love that dies not in the grave” as she passes away, proving with her death that true love does exist and will outlive her.
5. Influence on Pop Culture and Legacy
5.1. Influence on Music
Over several decades, the text has been transformed into numerous operas and ballets. The Nightingale and the Rose was an opera written by Australian composer Hooper Brewster-Jones in 1927, but all that remains today is an orchestral suite. A ballet with the same name by English composer Harold Fraser-Simson also premiered in the same year.
5.2. Influence on Visual Media
The tale was made into a cartoon by P. Craig Russell from 2003 to 2004 for the fourth volume of the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde collection, which also contains The Devoted Friend. Del Kathryn Barton and Brenda Fletcher collaborated on another short film adaptation in 2015, which was shown at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
6. The Nightingale and The Rose Quotes
“Here at last is a true lover…Night after night have I sung of him, though I knew him not: night after night have I told his story to the stars, and now I see him. His hair is as dark as the hyacinth-blossom, and his lips are as red as the rose of his desire.”
“Surely love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the market-place. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.”
“‘Be happy,’ cried the nightingale, ‘be happy; you shall have your red rose. I will build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with my own heart’s-blood. All that I ask of you in return is that you will be a true lover, for love is wiser than Philosophy, though she is wise, and mightier than power, though he is mighty. Flame-coloured are his wings, and coloured like flame is his body. His lips are sweet as honey, and his breath is like frankincense.'”
“‘What a silly thing Love is,’ said the student as he walked away. ‘It is not as useful as logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.'”