The Happy Prince is a fairytale from the collection of children's stories The Happy Prince and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde first published in May 1888. It has five stories: "The Happy Prince", "The Remarkable Rocket", "The Devoted Friend", "The Selfish Giant", and "The Nightingale and the Rose".
The story was written a few years before Oscar Wilde wrote his most popular novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" that was published in 1890, but in some ways, it could be seen as a fairy tale version of that later Gothic narrative, but with the central conceit turned upside down. While Dorian Gray will remain outwardly beautiful while doing ugly and evil deeds remaining young and handsome, the Happy Prince loses his outward beauty as he does more and more generous and selfless deeds.
Indeed, the Happy Prince achieves spiritual beauty, as evidenced by the last words in the story - spoken by God himself. And although some critics have detected undercurrents of male love in the growing friendship between the Swallow and the Happy Prince (who are both male and share a kiss before they die), this is a love between kindred spirits, two souls who selflessly help others. The swallow agrees to help the Happy Prince because he loves him, and the Happy Prince wants to give up his gold and jewels out of compassion for the poor in the city.
"The Happy Prince" has been dramatized on many occasions and remains one of Oscar Wilde's most famous works and perhaps his most beloved short story. Orson Welles and Bing Crosby even tried to turn it into a musical extravaganza but didn't get much of a success.
Oscar Wilde himself once said that his other fairy tales were mere attempts to mirror modern life in a form far removed from reality and to face modern problems in a way that is ideal rather than imitative'. In a way, we could think of "The Happy Prince" as a combination of Hans Christian Andersen's wistfully tragic fairy tales and Charles Dickens' social problem novel about child poverty. But these influences find themselves combined with a peculiar Wildean attitude towards life and art: a statue must lose its external beauty in order to be truly useful to society.
The fairy tale, whose moralism seems contrary to Wilde's aesthetics, is in harmony with Wilde's sense of art. The genre, which may seem as simple as the lines of an oriental drawing, additionally has an independent beauty: complete in itself and internally balanced. Paradoxically, form represents truth without slavishly imitating real life.
The short story, and especially the fairy tale, seems well suited to Wilde's talent as a storyteller. These forms are precise and, and can mix pure pleasure with surprising depth. Some critics, however, saw Wilde's success as a storyteller as a symptom of his emotional immaturity. Another point of view could be that Wilde was playing with his audience by presenting a serious message for adults in an apparently light-hearted form for children.
The paradox is an important element in "The Happy Prince" is that although the statue has a heart of lead, it is purer than the gold leaves that cover his body, and the prince's artificial heart is more sympathetic than the human hearts inside the supposedly democratic leaders of the city. A lead heart is closer to the biblical heart of flesh which was the heart of a living prince. A prince has a greater beauty after he is stripped of his external attractiveness; the nobility of his soul is greater than his blood. The supposedly democratic rulers of the city, the Mayor and City Council, lack this inherent nobility of action and show less concern for the poor than an aristocratic prince.
Finally, two of the most precious objects in the city are in a pile of dust; they seem useless to the inhabitants now that they have been used to improve the lot of the poor. It seems that all the good that the prince and the swallow did was not in vain, but it brings them a great reward.
Christian critics of the story saw the prince as a figure of Christ sacrificing for others. These critics also see "The Happy Prince" as a fairy tale about the transformation from selfish interest to agape, the highest form of love. The prince was only aware of aesthetic beauty; the bird cares only for itself. The sight of the unfortunate leads them to a complete and selfless expression of universal love for humanity. Like Christ, the prince eventually dies for his people.
Other recent critics have focused on elements of the story that seem to express Wilde's sexual orientation, and some view the story as a coded-out. The fact that the swallow leaves his lover and keeps company to a handsome young statue has received emphasis and attention, as has the fact that none of the marriages in The Happy Prince and other stories produce offspring.
Some theorists see childless marriages in literature as a way of masking homosexual union, and other scholars see the friendship between the prince and the swallow as an unmistakable indication of sexual orientation. This story is classified as another 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 prince's increasing sensitivity is also seen as distinctively homosexual issues. Those who rely on Wilde's biography note that he once remarked that his fairy tales were not only for children but also for a certain type of adult, the ones who could probably crack the code.
Wilde himself, however, argued that life imitates art, not the other way around, and he saw in this story a prefiguration of his transformation from a carefree, perhaps careless, celebrity into a wiser and more compassionate man emerging from Reading prison.
Setting: the unnamed city with scenes of classical Europe during the middle age, possibly London
Point of view and Narrator: a third-person narrator
Tone and Mood: sincerity and comedy with the central tragedy
Style: conversational with vivid descriptions
Protagonist and Antagonist: protagonists are the prince and the swallow while the story doesn't have a main antagonist, this role takes the society
Major conflict: when the prince was aware that he was dead and he knew he couldn't do anything to help the people in need.
Climax: the climax of the story is when the swallow dies and the prince's heart breaks
Ending: the happy prince and swallow sacrifice their lives to help the poor.
Symbols and Metaphors
Before being a statue, a prince was once a real person. He lived happily while he was still alive. The statue of the Happy Prince was presented as a symbol of the happy and joyful life of the prince while he was still alive. Everyone in the city, as well as the councilors, admired and looked at the statue, dreaming that one day they would have a fulfilled life as a prince. This is seen when the woman tells the boy not to cry because the Happy Prince would never cry. However, the statue could also represent principles of beauty placed on outward appearance. As told in the story, although the statue was gilded in gold, it had a heart of lead, but no one ever paid too much attention to notice it, because everyone was amazed by its exterior look.
The Lead Heart
The happy prince has a heart of lead, which breaks when his beloved swallow dies of cold. At first, this leaden heart seems to emphasize the superficiality of the prince's beauty, though later it comes to symbolize the steadfast nature of love. At the beginning of the story, the leaden heart discovers that the gold that adorns the prince's exterior does not pass through his interior. This advises avoiding judging by appearance, as it can be deceiving. However, as beauty begins to represent an illusion, and even corruption or deceit itself throughout the story, the leaden heart's ugliness does not prevent it from engendering compassion and kindness - as the prince himself declares, "and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot chose but weep."
Unlike many other fairy tales, such as Snow White, Wilde does not support the conventional conflation of beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil. This inversion really focuses on the heart, at once the least objectively valuable and truly the most precious part of The Happy Prince.
Although the city authorities try to melt the heart and repurpose it with the rest of the statue, it refuses to melt. And when, at the end of the story, God asks for the two most precious things in the city to be brought to him, the heart of lead, although broken, ends up being one of them. The leading heart thus ultimately represents both the constancy of true love and the value of compassion. By refusing to dissolve, the heart also shows that some things exist beyond one's own life - that is, that there are values greater than the sum of life.
Although this story is set in an unknown city in northwestern Europe (probably London), Swallow's desire to migrate to Egypt and his many stories about that country turn him into an evocative and powerful symbol of shallow pleasure. The Swallow describes Egypt using rich imagery, noting "yellow lions" with their "eyes like green beryls," as well as "pink and white doves" cooing in the temple at Baalbec and "King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal."
The swallow uses this exotic image to contrast Egypt with the poverty, cold, and filth he sees in this European city. It should be noted that these images consistently racialize and objectify, as they treat Egypt as an environment symbolic of its beautiful natural resources and alien religious traditions as opposed to an equivalent civilization.
However, this image represents the strength of Swallow's desire to live for herself and for pleasure - Egypt does not exist as a place for her, but rather a series of aesthetic or artistic images that can bring pure pleasure. As the prince criticizes the connection between pleasure and happiness and dismisses these wonders as less powerful than human misery, Egypt begins to represent a pleasure-seeking mindset that blinds what is truly important in the world, just as the palace of Sans-Souci blinded the prince during his lifetime, because is "everything about me was so beautiful".
The prince's ambivalence towards pleasure colors every interpretation of Swallow's magnificent story of Egypt - what on the surface appears to be a positive description turns out to be dangerously superficial. Egypt thus continues to represent an escape from one's own local context and the possibility of perpetuating ignorance. As a flock of swallows has already migrated there, it also represents collective decisions and group mentality rather than individualism.
Wilde often uses children and youth as symbols of innocence and goodness in The Happy Prince. The prince advocates only for children or young people - he chooses a seamstress because of her need to care for a sick son and emphasizes the youth and playwrights of the little match girl. On various occasions, children make poignant observations about their suffering only to be rejected by an adult (who should be responsible for their well-being). At one point, two children sleeping under the bridge in the winter exclaim "how hungry we are!" only for the guard to yell at them, "you must not lie here!"
Wilde invokes children as a symbol of innocence to emphasize the corrupting force of society - evil is not born but learned. Furthermore, because these children are innocent, they cannot deserve any suffering or misery they are forced to undergo - the fact that children are forced to suffer exposes the toxicity at the root of civilization. This kind of appeal to children to expose corruption has a long history in literature, a resonant example would be Ivan Karamazov's speech in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, where his horror at the suffering of children shakes the foundations of his faith in God. For Wilde, children are the ultimate symbol of suffering, as their freshness and youth preclude any possibility of guilt.