Of Oscar Wilde’s various short works for children, ‘The Happy Prince’ (1888) occupies a special place as his signature tale, and is perhaps Wilde’s definitive statement about the relationship between inner and outer beauty. ‘The Happy Prince’ is a sad tale that clearly owes much to earlier fairy stories, especially the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. However, it is also a typically Wildean story.
You can read ‘The Happy Prince’ in full here. Below, we offer a shorter summary of the plot of this tale, followed by an analysis of the story’s meaning.
‘The Happy Prince’: summary
The Happy Prince of the story’s title refers to a statue, made of lead but painted all over with gold. The statue’s eyes are sapphires, and in the hilt of the sword he holds is a bright red ruby. The statue stands high above a city, and is admired by those who live there because he looks happy and ‘like an angel’.
One night, a Swallow flies over the city, having stayed behind 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. However, he begins to tire of the Reed, because she flirts with the wind every time it blows, and when he asks her if she will come away with him, she appears to shake her head.
The Swallow flies south, stopping the following night to rest. It just so happens that he arrives at the city where the statue of the Happy Prince is located. He decides to sleep underneath the statue of the Happy Prince that night, but when the statue starts to cry on him, he strikes up a conversation with it.
It turns out the Happy Prince isn’t so happy. In life, he had been a wealthy and privileged man who had been sheltered from the misery and hardship of ordinary people in the city. Only in death, when he became this statue looking down on the city and its inhabitants, has he come to realise how many people suffer and struggle.
He tells the Swallow to take the ruby from his sword hilt and deliver it to a poor seamstress whose son is ill. The Swallow reluctantly agrees. When he returns, he tells the Happy Prince what he has done and that he feels warm, even though the air is cold. The Happy Prince tells him that he has been warmed inside because he has done a good deed.
The next day, the Swallow prepares to bid the Happy Prince farewell as he must fly to Egypt to join his friends. But the Happy Prince persuades him to take the sapphire out of one of his eye sockets and take it to the poor young man who is so poor he is freezing in his garret and cannot finish the play he is writing. Once again, the Swallow does as the statue requests – though again, he does so reluctantly, this time because he doesn’t want to rob the Happy Prince of one of his eyes.
The next day, the Swallow once again says he must leave the Happy Prince and fly to Egypt, but the Happy Prince persuades the Swallow to remove the other sapphire from his eye socket and take it to little match girl who has dropped her matches in the gutter and will be beaten if she returns home empty-handed. The Swallow doesn’t want to remove the statue’s second sapphire because it will leave the Happy Prince blind, but the Prince insists.
Finally, the Happy Prince, having heard from the Swallow that children are starving in the city streets, insists that the Swallow remove his gold leaf that covers him and take it to the children so they can buy food with it. When the Swallow returns, having done this deed, he grows colder and colder, and, after kissing the Happy Prince on the lips, he drops down dead at his feet.
The Prince dies from a broken heart. The next day, the Mayor and his Town Councillors notice the lead statue without its gold coating and its jewels, and remark how ugly it looks. They also notice the dead Swallow at the foot of the statue, but express nothing but contempt for the dead bird. They have the statue of the Happy Prince torn down and decide that the lead will be melted down to make a new statue (of one of the Councillors, naturally).
But God, watching from heaven, 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 (which wouldn’t melt when the rest of the statue was melted down) and the body of the dead Swallow who loved the Happy Prince. God announces that the bird will song in heaven for evermore, and the Happy Prince will praise God in his ‘city of gold’.
‘The Happy Prince’: analysis
‘The Happy Prince’ was written several years before Oscar Wilde wrote his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), but in some ways it might be viewed as a fairy-tale version of that later Gothic narrative, but with the central conceit inverted. Whereas Dorian Gray will remain outwardly beautiful while he commits foul and evil deeds (because his portrait, kept out of sight in the attic, turns grotesquely ugly while Dorian Gray the man remains young and handsome), the Happy Prince loses his outward beauty as he commits more and more generous and selfless acts. (We have analysed The Picture of Dorian Gray here.)
Indeed, the Happy Prince achieves spiritual beauty, as the last words in the story – spoken by God himself – attest. And although some critics have detected undercurrents of male love in the burgeoning friendship between the Swallow and the Happy Prince (who are both male, and share a kiss before they both die), this is a love between kindred spirits, 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 gold and his jewels out of compassion for the poor and downtrodden of the city.
‘The Happy Prince’ has been dramatised on many occasions, and remains one of Oscar Wilde’s best-known works – perhaps his best-loved short story. Bing Crosby and Orson Welles, those giants of Hollywood, even tried to make it into a musical extravaganza, though not with any real success.
Wilde himself once said that this and his other fairy stories were ‘an attempt to mirror modern life in a form remote from reality – to deal with modern problems in a mode that is ideal and not imitative’. In some ways, we might regard ‘The Happy Prince’ as a combination of Hans Christian Andersen’s wistfully tragic fairy tales and Charles Dickens’s social problem novels about child poverty. But these influences find themselves combined with a peculiarly Wildean attitude to life and art: the statue must lose its outward beauty to be truly useful to society.
About Oscar Wilde
The life of the Irish novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is as famous as – perhaps even more famous than – his work. But in a career spanning some twenty years, Wilde created a body of work which continues to be read an enjoyed by people around the world: a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; short stories and fairy tales such as ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’; poems including The Ballad of Reading Gaol; and essay-dialogues which were witty revivals of the Platonic philosophical dialogue.
But above all, it is Wilde’s plays that he continues to be known for, and these include witty drawing-room comedies such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as a Biblical drama, Salome (which was banned from performance in the UK and had to be staged abroad). Wilde is also often remembered for his witty quips and paradoxes and his conversational one-liners, which are legion. They include, ‘Work is the curse of the drinking classes’, and ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius’ (when travelling through customs in America).
Wilde’s life – his generosity to others, his double life as a family man and someone who engaged with extramarital affairs with other men, and his subsequent downfall when he was put on trial for ‘gross indecency’ – has been movingly written about in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde and in the 1997 biopic Wilde, with Stephen Fry in the title role.