Oscar Wilde is arguably one of the most versatile writers in English Literature. His works include literary masterpieces in nearly every literary genre one can think of. Among his works, his short story “The Happy Prince” (1888) occupies a special place. It is known for the signature style of writing of Oscar Wilde where he makes a definitive statement about the relationship between inner and outer beauty.
‘The Happy Prince’ is a sad and tragic tale with a profound moving message towards which earlier fairy tales are always indebted to, especially the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
Summary of ‘The Happy Prince’
The Happy Prince is the story of a statue made of lead but painted all over with gold. It’s eyes are made of sapphires, and in the hilt of the sword he holds is a bright red ruby. The statue stands in the center of the city high above admired by all passerby for its majestic look . People admire its beauty and say its looks happy and ‘like an angel’.
One night, a Swallow flies over the city having overstayed in northern Europe when his friends flew south to Egypt for the winter. The Swallow had stayed behind for love: he is in love with a Reed he had met in the spring. The Swallow stops to rest in the city and seeks shelter where the statue is. He decides to sleep underneath the statue but soon gets engrossed in a conversation with him. The Swallow learns that the Happy Prince is infact sad. In his life, the Happy Prince had led a wealthy and luxurious life safeguarded from the harsh realities of daily life. It is only after his death when his statue is raised does he realize the sufferings of people. He wishes to ease the suffering of people by offering what precious he has. He asks the Swallow to deliver the sapphire eyes, ruby from his sword hilt and the gold leaves that cover him. One by one he is stripped of his adornments to help the poor. Each good deed warms the heart of the Prince.
The Happy Prince though blind and now in lead is happy in the true sense due to his acts of kindness. On the other hand, the Swallow grows weaker and colder after each trip helping the poor. The Swallow is unable to fly south to Egypt and dies at the feet of the Prince.
The Prince too dies from a broken heart. The next day, when the Mayor and his Town Councillors see the lead statue ripped of its gold coating and its jewels they and remark how ugly it looks. From being a Happy Prince it becomes a Ugly Sad Prince. On noticing the dead Swallow at the foot of the statue they express nothing but contempt . The statue is torn down and it is decided to melt the lead to make a new statue. A strange thing happens. The whole statue melts except his heart which doe snot melt. God watches from heaven and tells one of his Angels to bring him the two most precious things in the city. The Angel brings him the lead heart from the Happy Prince and the body of the dead Swallow who loved the Happy Prince. God announces that the bird will sing in heaven forever and the Happy Prince will praise God in his ‘city of gold’.
Even though the short story ‘The Happy Prince’ was written several years before Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) it can be seen as a much simplistic fairy tale version of the Gothic narrative (Dorian Gray). The only difference being that the central characters are inverted, their conceit is inverted. In the Happy Prince, the Prince loses the superficial outward façade of beauty with each selfless act of kindness. On the other hand, Dorian Gray remains outwardly beautiful even when he commits foul and evil deeds. In the meanwhile, his portrait which is kept in the attic turns grotesquely ugly. Dorian Gray the man remains young and handsome all the while.
The description of The Happy Prince shows the superficial attitude of the society in general which cares more about outward beauty than the heart of a person. Eg: the statue is “gilded,” meaning that gold leaf has been added only to the surface. We also see that the councilors care too much about their reputations, title and status which is reflective of their narcissism. This marks the central themes of human greed and the superficiality of outward beauty.
The Swallow’s love story with the Reed puts forward romantic love as a running theme in the story. Here to we can observe that Swallow’s love foe the Reed is based on the artificial qualities of external beauty and also a male liking for submissiveness since the Reed is shown to only respond in bows and has no voice. There is no actual deep bonding or connection between the two.
The Prince bears an epithet Happy yet he is far from being happy. This shows that his name is merely ironic and a comment on the society which values outward beauty. Like the Prince in his boyhood, the Swallow too is unable to look beyond the superficial outward beauty. It learns to value actual beauty of heart when it experiences compassion and pity like the Prince and sees the Prince beyond its gilded exterior.
The Swallow’s initial surprise that the Prince’s beauty exists only on the surface shows his naivety—like the Prince in his boyhood, the Swallow fixates on superficial pleasures and beauty and cannot see beyond the surface. Nevertheless, he experiences pity—the first stage of compassion—for the Prince, and agrees to help him serve this seamstress. She represents the real irony of the town’s poverty, as her job is to beautify the world for the aristocrats, but she does not earn enough in doing so to protect her sick son.
The Happy Prince achieves spiritual and inner beauty attested by God himself. There is also mild undercurrent of male bonding as seen in the friendship between the Happy Prince and the Swallow. It can also be seen as love between kindred spirits, or two souls selflessly helping others. The Swallow agrees to help the Happy Prince because he loves him, and the Happy Prince wants to give up his rich façade out of compassion and pity for the poor and downtrodden of the city.
Pick it up or read the book here. Hope you enjoy like I did.