Arguably the most popular of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, “The Happy Prince” is the first story in The Happy Prince and Other Tales, which was published in 1888. The narrative, which has been favorably compared to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang, tells of the transformation of a swallow and a young prince.
The story begins with the swallow’s decision to leave his earthbound wife, a reed, to join his fellow birds in Egypt. Having waited in the hope that his wife would accompany him, the bird migrates alone. After a day’s flight, he seeks shelter from the elements beneath the bejeweled statue of a young man and falls asleep. Falling water awakens the swallow, who finds that the annoying moisture is not rain but teardrops from the statue’s sapphire eyes. The beautiful prince explains that he grew up removed from ordinary concerns in the palace of Sans Souci and knew only human happiness; however, since he was now outside that cultivated environment, he saw the grief of the people he had ruled and wept for their sorrows, despite having a leaden heart.
The swallow becomes, reluctantly, the prince’s messenger. The bird takes the rubies that adorn the prince’s sword to a seamstress whose son is ill, delivers the prince’s sapphire eyes to a poet starving in a garret, and gives the gold leaf that covers the statue to the poor of the city. Eventually, however, the bird dies in the cold, and the statue of the prince grows shabby. The mayor tears down the statue and has it melted for a new monument. As the mayor and the town councillors squabble over which of them deserves the honor, a workman notices that the leaden heart has not melted and discards it. An angel from heaven finds the dead bird and the rejected heart to be the most valuable items in the city, and God grants the bird and the prince eternal life in the garden of paradise.
The fairy tale, whose moralism seems antithetical to Wilde’s aesthetic, is consistent with Wilde’s sense of art. The genre, which may seem as simple as the lines of an Oriental drawing, has additionally a self-contained beauty: complete in itself and internally balanced. Paradoxically, the form presents truth without a slavish imitation of real life.
Short narrative, and the fairy story in particular, seem well suited to Wilde’s talent as a raconteur: These forms are compact and to the point, and they can blend sheer delight with surprising depth. Some critics, however, see Wilde’s success as a teller of fairy tales (whatever their appeal to an adult audience) as a symptom of his emotional immaturity. Another view might be that Wilde was playing with his audience in presenting a serious message for adults in a seemingly frivolous form for children.
Paradox is an important element in “The Happy Prince.” Although the statue has a heart of lead, it is purer than the gold leaf that clothes the body of the statue, and the prince’s artificial heart is more sympathetic than the human hearts within the presumably democratic leaders of the town. The metal heart is closer to the biblical heart of fl esh than the living prince’s heart was. The prince has a greater beauty after stripping himself of his outward attractions; the nobility of his soul is greater than that of his blood. The allegedly democratic rulers of the town, the mayor and the council, lack that inherent nobility of action and show less concern for the poor than does the aristocratic prince. Finally, the two most precious items in the city are on a dust heap; they seem to the inhabitants to be useless now that they have been used to improve the lot of the poor. All the good the prince and the swallow have done seems to have been for nothing, but it earns them a great reward.
Christian commentators on the story have seen the prince as a Christ figure who empties himself as a sacrifice for others. These critics also see “The Happy Prince” as a fable of a transformation from selfish interest to agape, the highest form of love. The prince has been aware only of aesthetic beauty; the bird cares only for himself. The sight of the unfortunate brings them to express a generalized love for humanity fully and unselfishly. Like Christ, the prince ultimately dies for his people.
Some have seen in this story a blend of Pater’s valuation of ancient Greek ideals with Christian principles. The emphasis on physical beauty comes from Pater’s thought, while the later emphasis on spiritual beauty comes from Christianity. Other recent commentators have focused on the elements of the story that seem to express Wilde’s sexual preference, and some look at the tale as a coded coming out. The fact that the swallow leaves his wife and keeps the company of a handsome young man has received emphasis and attention, as has the fact that none of the marriages in The Happy Prince and Other Tales produce offspring. Queer theorists see childless marriages in literature as a way of masking homosexual union, and other scholars have seen in the friendship between the prince and the swallow a veiled but unmistakable indication of sexual preference. They class this story with other Victorian literature in which strong same-sex friendship is a cover for homosexual love. The emphasis on the aesthetic beauty of the prince’s statue and the growing sensitivity of the prince are also seen as peculiarly homosexual concerns. Those who draw on Wilde’s biography note that he once remarked that his fairy stories were not just for children but also for a particular kind of adult, one who presumably could break the code.
Wilde himself, however, argued that life imitates art, rather than the reverse, and he saw in this tale a prefiguring of his transformation from the carefree, possibly careless, celebrity to the wiser and more compassionate man who emerged from Reading Gaol.
Duffy, John-Charles. “Gay-Related Themes in Wilde’s Fairy Tales,” Victorian Literature and Culture 29 (2001): 327–349.
Knight, G. Wilson. “Christ and Wilde.” In Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Ellman, 138–149.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1969. Martin, Robert K. “Oscar Wilde and the Fairy Tale: ‘The Happy Prince’ as Self-Dramatization,” Studies in Short Fiction 16 (1979): 74–77.
Wilde, Oscar. Complete Shorter Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.