Major characters: Happy Prince, Swallow, Reed, the little match girl, God
Minor characters: the woman in the poor house, the playwright, the Mayor, the Town Councilors
The character of the happy prince is both the story's namesake and its protagonist and its namesake. Once a protected prince who led a happy life, the Happy Prince was turned into a gilded statue after his death and placed on a pedestal overlooking his city. The prince is described as extremely beautiful with gilded leaves, sapphires for eyes and a ruby on the hilt of his sword.
Although his external beauty impresses everyone around him, his true beauty lies much deeper - his true worth lies in his compassion for his citizens and his willingness to sacrifice for them.
The Happy Prince suffers, however, because of his compassion for all the misery he can see from his high place. The "happiness" of his name is therefore ironic, as the prince describes experiencing only false happiness in his previous life of pleasures, when he was unaware of the true misery that surrounded him.
The prince is ultimately a Christ figure, looking over humanity and sacrificing his life (in this case beauty) to ease their pain. Descriptions of the prince also indicate classical interpretations of mentorship and wisdom. The character of the prince, with his eloquent rhetoric and affinity for morally upright behavior, represents classical Greek and Roman ideals that we can often see in Greek and Roman literature - especially the relationship he develops with Swallow alludes to classical mentor/protégé relationships.
The second protagonist of "The Happy Prince" is Swallow, a bird that is on his way to Egypt for the winter. His journey is initially delayed by his temporary infatuation with Reed, hinting at the thematic importance of love in this story. Although he wants to join his comrades in the sunny land of Egypt, he grows to love the Prince and stays in the city to help him deliver jewels and gold to the citizens in need.
Although he is not as selfless as the Happy Prince - he keeps stressing his desire to go and enjoy all the beautiful things abroad - Swallow grows to love the prince and realizes the value of doing good.
In the mentor/protégé relationship that develops between the pair, the swallow plays the role of the younger protégé who needs to be guided on the right path. In the beginning, he expresses trepidation about delaying his own gratification for others, speaking in the context of the typical Victorian ideals that Wilde criticizes throughout the story. However, his love for the prince helps him grow and proves that moral behavior can be learned.
In the end, the swallow makes the ultimate sacrifice out of love - because the prince went blind after giving away his sapphire eyes, the swallow decides to stay by his side forever, even though he knows that staying over the winter will mean certain death. This sacrifice ultimately grants him a place in heaven for eternity, reinforcing the moral of the story that anyone can change and choose to do good over selfish behavior.
Although it appears relatively shortly in the story, the reed still plays an important role. The shadow at first falls in love with her because of her slenderness and beauty and postpones moving to warmer regions to wait for the reed. However, all his friends do not approve of this because of her poverty. She decides not to go with the swallow, which ends their relationship and drives him to the city where he meets the Happy Prince.
However, this romance sets the stage for romantic love between the sparrow and the prince. The unrequited love between the reed and the swallow also introduces the theme of false judgment by appearance and the negativity of gossip and peer judgment.
Little Match Girl
A young girl selling matches on a street corner whose father will beat her if she doesn't bring home money. Having dropped her matches, she appears to be in a tragic situation until the Happy Prince sacrifices his other sapphire eye to help her. Although she plays a relatively small role in the story, the narrator emphasizes her youth and innocence in contrast with the evil and neglectful adults that populate the town and is closely connected to the fairytale The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen.
God appears in the last lines of the story to save the swallow's body and the leaden heart of the happy prince and promise them eternity in paradise for their sacrifices. Although his mention is brief, God reinforces the theme of Christianity and explicitly proves that the narrative takes the side of compassion over corruption and sacrifice over greed.
Woman in the Poor House
A seamstress sews a passion flower onto a satin dress for one of the queen's maids. Too poor to buy an orange for her sick son, this woman inspires the Happy Prince to give a ruby from the hilt of a sword.
A young man who writes plays in his attic (an attic room with a hole in the roof). He fights cold and hunger until the Happy Prince gives up one of his sapphire eyes to help him.
Although it appears only at the very end of the story, the mayor's narcissistic attitude epitomizes the problems of government. He wants the Happy Prince melted down and remade in his own image and wants to issue a proclamation banning the public death of birds.
It is often discussed in the collective, city councilors represent the deepest corruption in this city. Obsessed with their reputation, they ignore anything that doesn't seem beautiful or useful for their self-promotion.