The story begins with a description of the statue of the Happy Prince, which stood on a high pillar on a hill above the city. People truly admired him because he was covered with thin leaves of fine gold, and was adorned with eyes made of two bright sapphires. Even the hilt of his sword was beautiful as a large red ruby shone on it. One of the city councilors, who liked people to think of him as a real connoisseur of art, once said that the statue of the Happy Prince is as beautiful as the singer on the weather vane, but that it is not useful because the world may consider it impractical, even though he really wasn't.
One boy on the street was crying because he was not given the moon, and his mother asked him why he couldn't be like the Happy Prince who would never cry for something he didn't have. The happy prince was the only one who was always completely happy, and the residents of the Charity Children, dressed in their crimson robes and clean white aprons, said that the statue looked like an angel. The mathematics professor asked them how they knew what an angel looked like, and they replied that they had seen an angel in a dream. The professor frowned at that.
One night, a little Swallow flew over the city and fell in love with a Reed, so he stayed in the city, even though all his friends had already flown to Egypt six weeks ago. One summer he was flying down the river after a big yellow butterfly, so he saw Reed for the first time. The swallow was attracted by the thin figure of Reed, so he began to fly around her and court her by creating silver circles on the surface of the water. He courted her all summer, and that made some other swallows laugh, who chirped that it was a funny relationship because Reed had no money at all, and she has a lot of relatives.
"After they had gone he felt lonely, and began to tire of his lady-love. "She has no conversation," he said, "and I am afraid that she is a coquette, for she is always flirting with the wind." And certainly, whenever the wind blew, the Reed made the most graceful curtseys. "I admit that she is domestic," he continued, "but I love travelling, and my wife, consequently, should love travelling also.""
The swallow asked her if she would go on a journey with him, but she shook her head, so Swallow left her and went on his way to the pyramids; to Egypt. The swallow flew all day and found its resting place for the night right in the city; right between the feet of the Happy Prince. It seemed to him like a great position with lots of fresh air.
Just when Swallow thought that he had a golden bedroom and found a great place to stay, a large drop of water fell on him. There wasn't even a cloud in the sky, so the little bird was amazed at how the stars were quite bright while it was raining. He thought that the climate of northern Europe was really dreadful. After a few drops, he concluded that the statue was useless, it could not even protect him from the rain, so he looked up and saw something: big tears were rolling down the prince's golden cheeks, so the Swallow became sad and asked him why he was crying.
"His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little Swallow was filled with pity."
The happy prince said that he once had a human heart and was alive and happy, but now he is dead and stands at the height of the city from where he sees all the sadness and misery of his city. He lived in the castle of Sans-Souci, and sadness was not allowed to enter there. During the day he would play in the garden, and in the evening he would lead a dance in the Great Hall. A very high wall was built around the garden, so the prince never knew what was behind it, because everything around him was so beautiful and fairytale-like. His courtiers called him the Happy Prince because he was truly happy if contentment could be considered happiness. Now he is placed on a great height and sees all the troubles his city is going through.
Although his heart is made of lead, the prince cannot help but cry.
""Far away," continued the statue in a low musical voice, "far away in a little street there is a poor house. One of the windows is open, and through it I can see a woman seated at a table. Her face is thin and worn, and she has coarse, red hands, all pricked by the needle, for she is a seamstress. She is embroidering passion-flowers on a satin gown for the loveliest of the Queen's maids-of-honour to wear at the next Court-ball. In a bed in the corner of the room her little boy is lying ill. He has a fever, and is asking for oranges. His mother has nothing to give him but river water, so he is crying. Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow, will you not bring her the ruby out of my sword-hilt? My feet are fastened to this pedestal and I cannot move.""
After telling Swallow a sad story about a poor mother and a sick son, the prince asked him to take the ruby from the hilt of his sword to that mother because he cannot move. His feet were firmly fastened to the pedestal.
The swallow said that his friends were waiting for him in Egypt, a place where the king lies in a painted sarcophagus, wrapped in yellow cloth and anointed with fragrant spices. Around his neck is a necklace of light green jade, and his palms are like withered leaves. Moreover, he doesn't really care about the boy because, last summer, the two miller's sons threw stones at him at the river.
""I don't think I like boys," answered the Swallow. "Last summer, when I was staying on the river, there were two rude boys, the miller's sons, who were always throwing stones at me. They never hit me, of course; we swallows fly far too well for that, and besides, I come of a family famous for its agility; but still, it was a mark of disrespect.""
However, the little bird took pity on the prince, who asked her to be his messenger. He took out a big red ruby from the prince's sword and started flying over the city roofs, past the cathedral tower and the castle.
Flying past the palace, Swallow heard music and saw a beautiful girl with her lover. He told her about how wonderful the stars are, the same as the power of love. The girl said that the dressmakers were lazy and that she hoped her dress would be ready for the State-ball. Then the little bird flew over the Jewish ghetto and saw old Jews haggling and weighing gold coins on copper scales.
Finally, the Swallow reached the house of the poor boy; the mother fell asleep from exhaustion, and the boy tossed and turned on the bed from fever. He dropped the ruby at the woman's thimble and flew around the bed and cooled the boy's forehead with his wings, and the boy already felt the freshness and recovery.
The swallow proudly returned to the prince and told him what he had done. He admitted that he was now feeling warm, so in the morning, even though it was winter, he went to bathe in the river. This unusual phenomenon was noticed by an ornithology professor when he was crossing the bridge, so he wrote a long letter about it for the local newspaper.
"Every one quoted it, it was full of so many words that they could not understand."
The swallow bathed and cheered up at the thought of going to Egypt that evening. After that, Swallow sat on the church bell tower for a long time, the chirping of sparrows followed him everywhere which suited him because he was considered a classy foreigner.
When he saw the moon, he flew again to the Happy Prince and asked him if he had any messages for Egypt because he was leaving, but the prince asked him to stay with him one more night because he saw an exhausted young man in the attic of a house:
"He is leaning over a desk covered with papers, and in a tumbler by his side there is a bunch of withered violets. His hair is brown and crisp, and his lips are red as a pomegranate, and he has large and dreamy eyes. He is trying to finish a play for the Director of the Theatre, but he is too cold to write any more. There is no fire in the grate, and hunger has made him faint.""
The swallow had a good heart, so he stayed and wanted to take the prince's ruby to the young man in the attic, but he no longer had them; only his eyes remained.
Prince's eyes were made of rare sapphires, precious stones, brought from India a thousand years ago. Prince told the little bird to take a sapphire from his eye and take it to the poor young man. He will sell it to a jeweler, get the necessary food and wood and thus finish his play.
The swallow in tears carried one eye to the attic of the unfortunate student. The roof had a hole, so he entered the house without any problems, and the young man didn't even hear the bird because he was holding his head in his hands. Looking up, the young man saw a beautiful sapphire next to the withered violets and beamed. He was instantly happy because he could now finish his play.
""I am beginning to be appreciated," he cried; "this is from some great admirer. Now I can finish my play," and he looked quite happy."
The next day, swallow flew to the harbor, sat on the mast of a large vessel and watched the sailors who were pulling out heavy crates from the ship's hold. As soon as the little bird saw the moon, he flew back to the Happy Prince and tried to say goodbye to him, saying that it was winter and that cold snow soon will cover everything, while in Egypt the sun warms green palm trees and crocodiles lie in the mud lazily. His friends have already built nests in the Temple of Baalbec, and pink and white doves are watching them and cooing among themselves.
Nevertheless, the Swallow stayed with the Happy Prince one more night because the prince now felt sorry for the girl selling matches:
""In the square below," said the Happy Prince, "there stands a little match-girl."
She dropped the matches in the gutter and now they are wet and ruined. Her father will beat her if she doesn't bring home some money and she's crying. She has no shoes or socks, and her head is bare. Prince asked Swallow to take out his other eye and take it to the little girl, even though it will mean that he will now be completely blind.
The swallow flew to the poor girl and dropped the gem on her hand. The little girl thought how beautiful this piece of glass was and ran home smiling. The swallow returned to the prince and promised him that he would stay with him forever.
""I will stay with you always," said the Swallow, and he slept at the Prince's feet."
All the next day, Swallow sat on the prince's shoulder and told him about everything he had seen in foreign countries. He told him about the red ibises that stand in long lines on the banks of the Nile and catch goldfish with their beaks. Then he told about the Sphinx who is about as old as the world itself, lives in the desert, and knows everything. He met merchants walking slowly next to their camels and carrying amber beads in their hands. Then he told him about the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony and worships a large crystal. He didn't forget to mention the huge green snake that sleeps in the palm tree and the twenty priests who feed it with honey-cakes. How he also saw the pygmies who sail on leaves over the big lake and are constantly at war with butterflies.
However, the prince was interested in what was happening in his town:
"Dear little Swallow," said the Prince, "you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there."
The swallow flew over the city and saw the rich rejoicing in their beautiful houses, while the beggars sat at their front doors. In the dark streets, he saw the faces of starving children staring blankly into the darkness around them, and under the arch of a bridge, he saw two hungry and poor boys lying next to each other so that they could at least get a little warm. The boys were chased by the Watchman and got wet in the rain.
When the Swallow told the prince about the sad scenes he had seen, he decided that the Swallow would take all the gold leaves off him, piece by piece, and give it to the poor.
"Leaf after leaf of the fine gold the Swallow picked off, till the Happy Prince looked quite dull and grey. Leaf after leaf of the fine gold he brought to the poor, and the children's faces grew rosier, and they laughed and played games in the street. "We have bread now!" they cried."
The first snow arrived, and everything froze, so the little Swallow knew that it would get colder and that he would die.
"But at last he knew that he was going to die."
Although he knew what fate awaited him, Swallow didn't want to leave the prince because he loved him too much. All that was left of the little bird were the crumbs outside the baker's door and the strong flapping of its wings to keep him warm.
When nothing helped anymore, the Swallow decided to sit on the prince's shoulder for the last time and say goodbye to him. The prince was thinking that Swallow is finally going to Egypt.
"I am glad that you are going to Egypt at last, little Swallow," said the Prince, "you have stayed too long here; but you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you."
In a sad voice, the little bird explained to the prince that he was not going to Egypt, but to the House of Death, and he called Death the sister of the Sleep. He fulfilled the prince's wishes, kissed his lips, and fell dead at his feet. Something broke inside the prince; the leaden heart split in two.
"At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost."
The next morning, the Mayor walked around the square in the company of Town Councillors. Looking at the statue, he said that it looks miserable, only a little better than a beggar:
""How shabby indeed!" cried the Town Councillors, who always agreed with the Mayor; and they went up to look at it.
"The ruby has fallen out of his sword, his eyes are gone, and he is golden no longer," said the Mayor in fact, "he is little better than a beggar!"
"Little better than a beggar," said the Town Councillors."
The Major said that they need to issue a proclamation that birds are not to be allowed to die here, and the art professor concluded that Happy Prince is no longer beautiful and therefore not useful. Then they removed the statue of the Happy Prince.
They melted the statue in a blast furnace, so the Mayor called a meeting of the Corporation to decide what to do with the metal. Of course, another statue had to be installed, so each of the city councilors wanted it to be his statue, and a heated argument ensued.
The overseer of the workmen at the foundry said that a very unusual thing had happened; the broken lead heart could not be melted in the furnace, so it would have to be thrown away. That's how the prince's heart was thrown into the garbage together with his beloved Swallow.
""What a strange thing!" said the overseer of the workmen at the foundry. "This broken lead heart will not melt in the furnace. We must throw it away." So they threw it on a dust-heap where the dead Swallow was also lying."
God told one of his angels to bring him the two greatest treasures from that city, and the angel brought a heart of lead and a dead bird.
""You have rightly chosen," said God, "for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.""