Is ‘The Nightingale And The Rose’ just a child’s fairy tale or is it a more complex criticism of love and society?
The Nightingale and the Rose is a ‘fairy tale’ story written by Oscar Wilde, originally for his two sons, in the late 1880s.
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin (Ireland) 1854, and was well known for his wit and story telling. He was a famous poet, art lecturer, author and scriptwriter. But at the height of his success he was involved in a court case over a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.
Found guilty, he was sentenced two years hard labour and when he was eventually released, he was physically and psychologically broken.
When Wilde wrote The Nightingale and the Rose, he was working as an editor for a woman’s magazine (1887-1889), just before the height of his career. It was written as part of a collection of fairy tales: The Happy Prince and other stories and is a story, which focuses on a lovelorn student, anxious to find a rose to bring his love and a sympathetic nightingale, observing the student’s anguish.
As there is no rose, the student fears his heart will be broken. The nightingale then seeks a rose for the student, encountering a tree that can provide a rose, but only if the nightingale sacrifices itself, its own blood providing the redness of the rose.
The nightingale embarks on one final flight prior to its martyrdom, telling the student to only be a true lover, “…for love is wiser than philosophy.
” Here, the student attempts to analyse the bird, and while enjoying her singing, claims, “they do not mean anything or do any practical good.” The final outcome is tragic, the student’s love refuses the rose for jewels, the student throws away the rose and doesn’t realise how it was produced. So the nightingale’s sacrifice is not appreciated.
Many have described this story, including his son, Vyvyan, as “poems in prose” for example, Wilde creates a powerful image of the nightingale when she sacrifices her life in order to produce the rose:
‘And the marvellous rose became crimson, like the rose of the eastern sky. Crimson was the girdle of its petals, and crimson as a ruby was the heart … then she gave one last burst of music. The white moon heard it, and she forgot the dawn, and lingered in the sky. The red rose heard it and trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air.’
The way he uses the similar mannerisms of a poem; like the way in which the sentences flow with the use of similes, personification and repetition in the text, to portray the sad but beautiful ambience of the scene, all reinforce the opinion: “poems in prose”. But if it was written in a similar style as a poem, then does it also, like many poems, share the elements of symbolism? Does it have a deeper, more complex meaning than what first meets the eye? Is it merely a sophisticatedly written fairy tale or could it be a social criticism aimed at adults?
Wilde himself, states it is meant for children, but then later contradicts himself. In one of his letters (1888) he explains”…meant for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy, and who find in simplicity, a subtle strangeness.” But also states in another letter (1889) “…meant not for children, but for childlike people from eighteen years to eighty years!” So is The Nightingale and the Rose primarily aimed at adults as a symbolic short story or primarily aimed at children as a simple fairy tale?
Fairy tales are usually described as fanciful tales, written for children, which typically have a conflict and some sort of resolution or secure ending. Stories such as Sleeping beauty, The little mermaid, Snow white and the seven dwarfs, The three little pigs, etc. are all well known fairy tales. Throughout Europe there was a deep interest in fairy tales, not only were they traditional to tell children but enjoyable. The famous scientist, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) felt they were very important:
“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.”
When Albert Einstein was asked how to develop intelligence in young people, he answered: “Read fairy tales. Then read more fairy tales.”
In 19th century U.K., there was a renewed interest in fairy tales. This was partly due to Hans Christian Anderson, the famous author who wrote many fairy tales like The Ugly Duckling, The Snow Queen, The Princess and the Pea and The Little Mermaid. His work was first published in the 1840s (just before Wilde was born) and remained popular throughout England and Ireland for the rest of the 19th century and our still popular today. Therefore Wilde would have grown up with the popularity and interest in fairy tales, which would have more than likely influenced his style of writing, and in one of Wilde’s stories, The Devoted Friend, one of the characters is called ‘Hans’. Anderson and Wilde’s work are often compared, as they both usually have the similar literary styles, for example, romanticism and realism.
The Nightingale and the Rose can be seen as a beautifully written fairy tale for children, because not only was it written during a period where fairy tales were popular among the public but also because it shares the same ‘properties’ as fairy tales. For example:
‘”She said that she would dance with me if I brought her red roses,” cried the young Student; “but in all my garden there is no red rose.”‘
Taken from the start of the story, it has a small, simple and clear conflict easy for children to understand, because if it is aimed at children, like most fairy tales, it needs to capture there attention but without being too confusing otherwise they will lose interest.
The story also contains talking animals like many fairy tales, making it less realistic and more interesting and fanciful for children:
‘”Why is he weeping?” asked a little Green Lizard,…
“Why, indeed?” said a Butterfly, who was fluttering …
“Why, indeed?” whispered a Daisy to his…’
In this extract, there is also repetition, which is used a lot in fairy tales and usually helps to interest the child by emphasising a problem. For example, in The three little Pigs repetition is used when the pigs run to each house, and when the wolf tries to persuade the pigs to let him in. Anderson used repetition in his stories. For example, The Ugly Duckling when the duckling is repeatedly insulted in some way by animals or people he comes across at the start.
Many fairy tales also include a hero or heroine and a villain. In The Nightingale and the Rose the nightingale is comes across as the heroine, sacrificing her life for the student, and winter could be seen as the villain, depriving the tree of the rose therefore causing the nightingale to make the choice of sacrificing herself or leaving the student in peril:
‘”But the winter has chilled my veins…nipped my buds… broken my branches, and I shall have no roses all this year.”
…cried the Nightingale…is there no way in which I can get it?”
“There is way,” answered the Tree; “but it is so terrible I dare not tell it to you.”
“Tell it to me,” said the Nightingale, “I am not afraid”‘
Wilde enhances the nightingale’s bravery and the winter’s evil, just like fairy tales do with heroes and villains.
The ending of the story however, like a lot of fairy tales seems to be a happy ending, but then there is a sudden turning point, which is where more realistic elements come to the fore:
‘…cried the Student. “Here is the reddest rose in all the world… it will tell you how I love you.”
But the girl frowned.
“I am afraid it will not go with my dress,” she answered; ” and…everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.”‘
The turning point then, the new sense of realism, opens up the question of whether it is really just a fairy tale or a symbolic story. Instead of a happy fairy tale ending suitable for children, it is more real to life ending, possibly criticising the public; and at this point it seems, criticising the materialistic attitudes of women. But could there be more of his criticisms and opinions? Wilde comments on The Nightingale and the Rose:
“I like to fancy there may be many meanings in the tale…”
If it is more symbolic than it first seems, then maybe that could answer the question of why it appeals not only to children but also to adults and why fairy tales are popular stories, well known and retold throughout generations. Some psychoanalysts believe that fairy tales contain archetypes (unconscious mental images) that appeal to the collective unconscious mind, which is why some short children’s stories become ‘classics’ and appeal to all age groups. A poet, W.H. Auden claims: “[a fairy tale] is a dramatic projection in symbolic images of the life of the psyche.” And a Jungian psychoanalyst, Marie-Louise Franz states: “Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes” So, many fairy tales are in fact symbolic, with a deeper meaning, and more likely to be an opinion or criticism from the author.
But is this true for The Nightingale and the Rose? The only way to prove it true would be to look at what Wilde is trying to portray, what the story is symbolising.
However Wilde believes:
‘All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril.’
In The Nightingale and the Rose notice how in the opening scene, what the characters could possibly be symbolising, can be established. For example:
‘”No red rose in all my garden!” he [the student] cried, and his beautiful eyes filled with tears. “Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy is are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched.”‘
This is very similar to an example of the saying ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ because the reason why people try hard to achieve highly in academics is to gain a well-paid career, yet although it earns you money, it may not earn you happiness. Love is usually associated with this saying as the resolution, as what can give you happiness in life. So the rose represents Love and the student represents someone in society. However, in the story, rather than being referred to as a student, he is referred to as The Student. The use of capital letters, almost seems as though ‘Student’ is a title and suggests he represents more than one person: people in society, the public. It is interesting as to why Wilde chose a student to represent the public instead of just a grown man. Students are thought as in-experienced and young, so naï¿½ve. So the story symbolises how Wilde feels adults relate to love. For example:
‘”She said that she would dance with me, if I brought her red roses,” cried the Student; “but in all my garden there is no red rose”‘
This could show that Wilde feels the public are incapable of finding or seeing love, because the student can’t find a rose. But, the reason why he is looking for a rose is not only for the girl but also for him. Because he thinks that, if he gives the girl a rose he will have the pleasure of her company, if he gives he will get something in return. So he is doing it for himself and not truly understanding love. Therefore Wilde could be criticising adults, not only as naï¿½ve in love, but also selfish in love, unable to understand love and incapable of finding or seeing love, like the student is, in the story.
What is also interesting about the idea of the public not understanding or seeing love, is that it is more likely to be a love that is generally known for being misunderstood or looked down on, especially in the 19th century: Homosexual love. Wilde could be centring his criticism on this, as this story was written not long before the court case of his homosexual affair.
What the nightingale represents can also be established soon after, and not only by how she reacts but also what she is, a singer:
‘”Here indeed is the true lover,” said the Nightingale. ” What I sing of, he suffers: what is a joy to me, to him is pain. Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals…It may not be purchased of the merchants nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.”‘
Because of how the nightingale sings about love, and the strong feelings she has for it, it suggests that she represents love as feelings and actions: romance. So the story is also about the combination of love (the rose) and what you should do and how you should feel when you’re in true love, therefore romance (the nightingale). In this extract one can already see that the nightingale jumps to the conclusion that the student is a true lover, so Wilde could be suggesting the idea similar to ‘love is blind’, but on the other hand show how, in romance, when you’re in love, you see the good in people, like the nightingale did in the student.
Wilde also shows the contrast between the feelings people have towards love, depending on whether they are in love or not, when the nightingale says ‘what is a joy to me, to him is pain’ Wilde could be suggesting that if you are not truly in love, but you are selfish in it and don’t understand what it is to love, then you shall suffer for it. But if you are in love then you will enjoy it.
There are a few characters in the story that could represent stereotypical characters in society:
‘”Why is he weeping?” asked the little Green Lizard, as he ran past with his tail in the air.
“Why, indeed?” said a Butterfly, who was fluttering about after a sunbeam.
“Why, indeed?” whispered a Daisy to his neighbour, in a soft low voice…”For a red rose!” they cried; “How very ridiculous!” and the little Lizard, who was something of a cynic, laughed outright.’
Because the story mentions that the lizard is a cynic then he would obviously represent someone who believes everyone does things for themselves but he would also. He also is described as green, which could be associated with envy, envy of love. Maybe Wilde was showing that people like the lizard are missing out on love, but they are unwilling to admit it and they want to appear as right (the tail in the air). The butterfly would represent the type of person who cares more about money or their status in society rather than love because it is after a sunbeam, which suggests something higher up or golden, therefore, gold or money.
The daisy whispers to his neighbour, he seems to be an innocent, little white flower, when in fact talks about people behind their backs which suggests he represents the kind of person that is ‘two-faced’. When one considers the idea of the story containing criticisms on society’s view on homosexuality, the creatures could represent those who are homophobic, who look down on homosexuality, are disrespectful and ‘bitch about’ or bully homosexuals
Here Wilde shows the reader the some stereotypes in society that look down on love and don’t truly understand it, therefore don’t enjoy it, and can make it more difficult for other people (i.e. the nightingale).
When the nightingale goes to seek a rose for the student, she comes across a couple of other rose trees before reaching the one she needs. This could be more than just repetition for children’s enjoyment:
‘”Give me a red rose,” she cried, “and I will sing you my sweetest song.”
But the tree shook its head. “My roses are white…”
So the Nightingale flew over to the Rose-tree…”
But the tree shook its head. ” My roses are yellow…”
So the Nightingale flew over to the Rose-tree that was growing beneath the student’s window.
“Give me a red rose,” she cried, “and I will sing you my sweetest song.”
But the tree shook its head.
“My roses are red…but the winter has chilled my veins…and I shall have no roses at all this year.”‘
Knowing that the rose represents love and the nightingale represents your actions/feelings when in love – what you would do for love – then the repetition, which may have originally been seen as just a way of sustaining a child’s interest, becomes something very different. It becomes an opinion Wilde has on what you should be willing to do for love, and that is not give up, even when you may be set back a great deal after coming so close (i.e. the Nightingale finding the rose, but the wrong colour or none available). Also the right rose tree being under the students window, also highlights how in modern society, it is difficult for the public to find love even if it is right under their nose. And maybe winter represents how they live their life, and their coldness can deprive them of their rose, of love.
But then Wilde extends on the idea of not to give up for love:
‘”There is a way,” answered the Tree, ” but it is so terrible I dare not tell it to you.”
“Tell it to me,” said the Nightingale, “I am not afraid.”
“If you want a red rose…you must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.”‘
The Nightingale is asked, not only sing one song, but also sing all night long and give up her life for the rose, the rose motivated her to do it. So not only does the story suggest you should never give up on love but you should be willing to go past your limits: ‘”Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” cried the Nightingale, “and Life is very dear to all… Yet Love is better than Life…’ in true love you should be willing to give up anything for love, but true love should motivate you to do that anyway. Notice the phrase ‘…your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.”‘ In the story, to produce the rose, you need the Nightingale’s life-blood. To produce true love, you need Romance; you need to show your love.
When the nightingale tells the student what she is going to do for him, he doesn’t understand and this is equivalent to people in society who don’t understand love (heterosexual or homosexual) and why people go to great lengths for love:
‘”Be happy,” cried the Nightingale, “be happy; you shall have your red rose…All that I ask of you in return is that you will be a true lover, for Love is wiser than Philosophy…” The Student looked up from the grass, and listened, but he could not understand what the Nightingale was saying to him, for he only knew the things that are written down in books.’
It may also suggest that many people don’t understand love because words can’t describe it, because it can’t be scientifically explained. But because those who can’t understand it can’t explain it, they criticise it:
‘”She has form,” he said to himself…”that cannot be denied to her; but has she got feeling? I am afraid not. In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish. Still, it must be admitted that she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.”‘
The student is criticising the nightingale’s singing, when he doesn’t understand what she is doing for him. So not only does this suggest people criticise love when they don’t understand it but opens up the debate of whether it is right or not to judge others in love, when they cannot understand them, and are not empathetic. This is also the case with homosexuality; society criticises it because the public can’t understand it.
It could also be seen as suggesting that because society can’t understand love and true love is sadly so alien to modern society, that when love does appear you don’t realise it. The same idea comes up again when the student finds the rose, his reaction: “Why, what a wonderful piece of luck!” The student failed to realise the nightingale sacrificed herself for him, like some people in society may not realise they are in love, they take it for granted. The nightingale is laid in the grass, dead, unnoticed by the student. For the nightingale, love brought her joy and happiness at the beginning of the story, brought her death at the end. Wilde could be questioning whether love actually brings people happiness at all. Particularly homosexuality, because it was illegal during the 19th century, so love would bring more problems than happiness (which it did for Wilde later on in life).
The ending scene of the story opens up the idea of love as a whole, in modern society, rather than different opinions of different aspects of love.
‘”You said that you would dance with me if I brought a red rose,” cried the Student. “Here is the reddest rose in all the world… it will tell you how I love you.”
But the girl frowned.
“I am afraid it will not go with my dress,” she answered; ” and, besides, the chamberlain’s new nephew has sent me real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.”‘
This brings us back to the point in the story where, it becomes more realistic. The girl chooses jewels over the rose in the story, just as many people would choose money over love in modern society.
“…He [the student] threw the rose into the street…”What a silly thing Love is, ” said the Student as he walked away. “It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.”
So he returned to his room and pulled out a great dusty book, and began to read.’
The student would prefer to go back to his books, where he understands them and is secure, rather than try again for love, despite the nightingale repeatedly trying for him. This could suggest that people in society are too lazy to take risks for love, something that may even scare people because they don’t understand it; they are not willing to try again, even when someone has already done so for them. The student threw away the rose in the same way some people in society see love as insignificant. But why should these people deserve love if they are not willing to make sacrifices for it?
Wilde could also be suggesting that modern society revolves around money and careers rather than love and happiness, like the girl chose jewels over the rose, and the student threw away the rose and returned to his books.
The sudden change to realism, a discomforting ending, rather than a happy, fairy tale ending, makes The Nightingale and the Rose most questionable as children’s literature, and more likely to be aimed at adults.
Johann C. Friedrich von Schiller comments:
“Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”
One can understand what he means by this, when the possible meanings of fairy tales are considered. They allow one to think about and question theirs and others view. Not only is The Nightingale and the Rose a criticism of love and society, but it also, in a way, questions whether true love, heterosexual or homosexual, can exist in modern society, whether love itself is realistic or fanciful like fairy tales.