Although I have now only read two literary fairy tales by Oscar Wilde – the first being this week’s required reading of “The Selfish Giant” and the second being the subject of this blog posting, “The Happy Prince” – the theme of selflessness seems to be a privileged one. In “The Selfish Giant,” a selfish giant (sorry to be repetitive) finds children playing in his garden and banishes them with a giant wall. The winter comes and freezes everything, but it is not until the children sneak in through a little hole in the wall that the giant realizes that the winter has been unnaturally prolonged (supposedly as a reflection of his icy heart). The giant decides to be nice to the children and to let them play there always, even being so nice as to befriend a mysterious little boy in the corner of his property. The giant is saddened when the little boy never returns (punishment for the giant’s heretofore icy heart?), but then one day, the boy returns bloodied. He turns out to be an allegorical representation of Jesus, and he takes the giant to the afterlife as a token of appreciation.
In “The Happy Prince,” the golden statue of a prince watches over a city and realizes that the conditions are not as perfect as he thought they were when he was alive. He sees poverty and anguish and opts selflessly to donate his golden hide, the ruby jewel on his hilt, and his sapphire eyes to those people in the city that need them. As a statue he cannot move, so he befriends a swallow who is late for his seasonal migration to Egypt. Together, the swallow and the statue work anonymously to help the impoverished people of the city until, eventually, they have nothing left to give. For having lingered, the swallow dies, and for having nothing opulent left, the city melts the statue to construct a new one. At the end, God tells his angels to bring him the two most precious things in the city, and he is brought the statue’s remaining lead heart and the dead bird.
The interesting thing about these tales is that not only do they moralize, but they do so through a distinctly Christian lens. The tales of the Brothers Grimm are predicated consistently on a general moral (in the sense of right and wrong), and the protagonist must learn his/her lesson for having not obeyed it. In these two tales, Oscar Wilde seems to propagate protagonists whose earthly redemption is rewarded with spiritual redemption in heaven. (Note: Because these are the only two fairy tales by Oscar Wilde I have read, I cannot assert a definitive solution that represents his entire œuvre. “The Happy Prince” first appeared in 1888, so perhaps there are contextual implications (Tatar 246).)
As a result, the Christian tenet of “Love thy neighbor” becomes exacted. Especially in the case of “The Happy Prince,” Wilde intends to set up identification between readers and the selfless statue and swallow and to vilify the Mayor’s and Town Councillors’ vanity and selfishness. The Art Professor at the University is an equally unlikeable character, as he agrees with the Mayor and Town Councillors that the statue must go, since “as he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful” (260). At the bottom of the page, Tatar makes the note that Oscar Wilde famously said, “All art is quite useless” (260). Nevertheless, an inert, artistically opulent statue has just dedicated all of his riches to the poor.
It is interesting to note that the Other to whom good deeds are done in these Oscar Wilde fairy tales is persistently a youth. In “The Selfish Giant,” the giant’s deeds are done for the sake of children; in “The Happy Prince,” the golden statue and kind swallow help a sick little boy (and his mother), a young man, and a little match-girl, in order. Is this just another story proclaiming moralistically the beauty of the inner self, or does the statue’s subservience to youth indicate the significance of preserving youth, who is often synonymous with beauty?