Most heroism deals with promotion of virtue and reproach of vice. Sloughing off from such a hackneyed, yet widely used frame of thought, the novel ‘The Happy Prince’ (1888) by Oscar Wilde connects heroism with compassion. With a subconscious reminiscent between ‘courage’ and ‘hero’, compassion is generally not a primary association with a strong image of a hero. Oscar Wilde however, through utilization of ‘the happy prince’ as a mechanism, conveys the idea of compassion and sacrifice which consists of happiness and beauty under a plot of heroism.
The compassion felt by the Happy Prince can be distinguished in two levels of analysis: on himself and on the poor. The Happy Prince, once a real prince who lived within absolute extravagance, had a life far from poverty, hunger or servility. Upon encountering the inferior reality of civilian faces after becoming a statue, the Happy Prince expresses his compassion on himself by saying: “My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness.
(5)This distinction indicates the realization of the Happy Prince on the difference between aesthetic happiness and materialistic pleasure. It also foreshadows the displacement of the Happy Prince’s compassion from his own past self to the poor, which causes heroic action by the Happy Prince. The jewels sent by the Happy Prince to the poor in the novel are not just simple sapphires or gold. Rather, they are ‘true’ jewels resulted from self compassion.
Such open-mindedness of the Happy Prince allows him to be penitent for his past misdeeds and sacrifice himself to supplement such faults, which resulted in promotion of the common good. History tells us that those who are titled as ‘leaders’ sacrifice themselves for others. Regardless of how much sacrifice they burden, all leaders have a certain extent of private loss to yield common welfare. Similarly, the story ‘The Happy Prince’ also depicts heroism based on sacrifice.
In the novel, the Happy Prince, having beauty as a single reason for its production, sacrifices himself to the non haves on the streets by distributing his jewels through the help of a sparrow. Since the purpose for its existence diminishes, the mayor of the city eventually destroys the statue of the Happy Prince. The point Oscar Wilde makes at this part is that action for others with sincerity and truthfulness overwhelms the loss one gets through such action.
As Erich Fromm, a German philosopher wrote in his book, ‘To Have or To Be’, property without purpose loses the value of it and absence with a purpose is more valued than its presence. Having firm belief on his action, the Happy Prince was able to practice his heroism. Mother Theresa said she lived a happy life. Her ‘happy life’, Mother Theresa said, seems to overlap with the life the Happy Prince lived as a statue. They both gave everything they had for others and earned happiness as exchange. Compassion and sacrifice may be a true key to opening a treasure box full of happiness and beauty.