By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ is a fairy tale by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), included in his 1888 collection The Happy Prince and Other Tales. Whereas ‘The Selfish Giant’ (from the same collection) deals with Christian love and the title story is about socialism and kindness towards others in society, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ is about romantic love.
You can read ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the tale below.
‘The Nightingale and the Rose’: plot summary
‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ is about a Student who is in love with a woman, a Professor’s daughter. She has told him she will dance with him if he brings her red roses, but the Student’s garden does not contain any roses. The Nightingale listens to the lovelorn student lamenting his hopeless love, and feels sorry for him.
She knows how rare true love is, and she knows it when she sees it. The Prince is giving a ball the following night, but although the Student and the woman he loves will both be there, she will not dance with him without a red rose.
A Lizard, a Butterfly, and a Daisy all tell the Nightingale that it’s ridiculous that the young Student is weeping over a red rose, but the Nightingale sympathises with him. She flies to a nearby grass-plot and asks the Rose-tree to give her a red rose, and in exchange she will sing for it. But the Rose-tree says it produces only white roses, so cannot give her what she wants. It suggests going to the Rose-tree by the sun-dial.
The Nightingale proposes the same deal with this tree, but it replies that it only produces yellow roses, so cannot help. However, it directs her to the Rose-tree right under the student’s window. However, although this Rose-tree does produce red roses, the winter has frozen its branches and it cannot produce any.
The Nightingale asks if there is any way she can get one red rose for the Student. The tree replies that the only way of producing a red rose is for the Nightingale to sing by moonlight while allowing a thorn to pierce her heart, so her blood seeps through to the tree and produces a red rose. The Nightingale agrees to this, because she believes Love to be more valuable than Life, and a human heart more precious than hers.
She goes and tells the forlorn Student what she is going to do, but he doesn’t understand her, because he only understands things written down in books. The Oak-tree, in which the Nightingale has built her nest, does understand her words, however, and requests one last song from the Nightingale. She sings, but the Student, taking out his notebook, is rather unimpressed, because the bird’s song has no practical use.
That night, the Nightingale sings with her heart against the thorn, until it eventually pierces her heart while she sings of love. Her heart’s blood seeps into the tree and produces a red rose, but by the time the flower is formed the Nightingale has died.
The next morning, the Student opens his window and sees the red rose on the tree, and believes that it is there thanks to mere good luck. Plucking the rose, he goes to the house where his sweetheart lives, and presents her with the red rose. But another suitor, the Chamberlain’s nephew, has sent her jewels, which are more valuable than flowers, so she says she will dance with him instead at the ball that night.
The Student denounces the girl for her fickleness, and she calls him rude. He throws the red rose into the gutter, where a cart rolls over it. As he walks home, he decides to reject Love in favour of Logic and Philosophy, which have a more practical use.
‘The Nightingale and the Rose’: analysis
In a May 1888 letter to a friend, Wilde wrote of the meaning of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’: ‘The nightingale is the true lover, if there is one. She, at least, is Romance, and the Student and the girl are, like most of us, unworthy of Romance.’ He added: ‘I like to fancy that there may be many meanings in the Tale – for in writing it […] I did not start with the idea and clothe it in form, but began with a form and strove to make it beautiful enough to have many secrets and many answers.’
So, like many fairy tales, we can say with confidence that ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ is ‘about love’, or even, ‘about true love’: the Nightingale believes in true love, but gives her life in a pointless gesture, because the solitary rose that stems from her sacrifice does not achieve what it was designed to achieve, and is discarded by the Student after the Professor’s daughter rejects it.
Many of Wilde’s fairy tales are about characters sacrificing themselves: the Happy Prince allows himself to be dismantled, piece by piece, to help the poorest and most needy in the city, for instance. This is a trope he may have learned from Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairy tales he knew well.
Indeed, Andersen even wrote a fairy tale, ‘The Nightingale’, which is about nature and art, and these two themes are never far away from any Oscar Wilde story. The rose is, in a sense, a beautiful work of art which doesn’t spontaneously grow from the tree but must instead be created by the fusion of the Nightingale’s song (art), the power of nature (the moonlight), and the artist’s willingness to sacrifice herself (the piercing of the bird’s heart).
So, viewed this way, the Nightingale’s sacrifice is not so pointless, since it produced a work of art. Artists often talk about ‘putting a lot of themselves’ into their art, or ‘pouring their heart out’ or ‘giving themselves’ to their art.
The Nightingale is the symbolic and total embodiment of this impulse. The problem is that, as so often in Wilde’s work, the modern world is too practical-minded to appreciate art for its own sake (‘art for art’s sake’ was the unofficial slogan for Aestheticism, a movement for which Wilde was a prominent spokesperson).
We would do well to remember one of Wilde’s most memorable aphorisms from his 1891 ‘Preface’ to The Picture of Dorian Gray (a novel we have analysed here): ‘All art is quite useless.’ The fact that the red rose turns out not to be of any practical use, Wilde would doubtless remind us, is not the point. It was the fact that she gave all of herself to create something beautiful.
‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ contains many of the features we commonly associate with traditional fairy tales: a hero (the Student), a love interest (the Professor’s daughter), a helper (the Nightingale). But Wilde subverts these common character types, making the Student unromantic and boorish, and the love interest fickle and materialistic. In earlier fairy tales, the hero often has to produce a special gift to win the heart (and hand) of the heroine; but usually this is because he has to impress the girl’s father, rather than the girl herself.
So Aladdin, for instance, has to convince the sultan that he is fit to marry the sultan’s daughter by producing platters of gold and beautiful, precious jewels; if the vizier’s son can produce a more valuable gift, the sultan will allow him, instead of Aladdin, to marry the princess. (We have analysed the tale of Aladdin in a separate post here.)
But in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ it is the girl herself, rather than her father, who rejects the hero’s gift when he is outbid in her affections by someone with a more expensive and impressive present for her. The gift represents not a dowry which will guarantee that the hero can ‘keep the daughter in the manner to which she has become accustomed’, as the old phrase has it, but a token of affection.
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.
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.
It may be Wilde’s well-founded expose of the grasping, treasure-seeking, true, fickle nature of the fair sex or would that be somewhat simplistic.