Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”

The selflessness of mercy (from the journal Children’s Literature)

Illustration by C.A. Robinson.

In an issue of Ladies’ Home Journal (October 1973), Bruno Bettelheim suggested that the virtue of children’s literature lies in the lessons it teaches about sacrifice. Bettelheim endorses Aesop’s “Ant and the Grasshopper,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Cinderella” because these tales advocate the repression of impulsive desires and show a child that pragmatic intelligence can plan for compensatory rewards. A clear understanding of the idea of sacrifice as a kind of self-discipline that provides for future rewards is essential to a critical reading of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” because the tale deliberately advocates mercy as an alternative to sacrifice. The compassion of the characters of the story radically juxtaposes the selflessness of mercy against the kind of utilitarianism that Bettelheim subscribes to where every sacrifice wins some personal benefit. In one sense, Wilde’s tale is an elucidation of Christ’s most frequent comment to the Pharisees: “Go learn the meaning of the words — What I want is mercy, not sacrifice“; and the similarities between the Happy Prince and Christ, we shall see, are abundant and specific.

Wilde’s theme of “mercy, not sacrifice” appears at several levels in the story and we can see it best if we divide the characters into three groups. The townspeople from the opening of the tale to its conclusion remain unchanged and reveal the shortcomings of the idea of sacrifice. The Swallow occupies the center of attention of the story and his metamorphosis seems to represent most clearly the transition from sacrifice to mercy that Wilde advocates. The Happy Prince himself, though he has undergone a change of heart before the story opens, remains throughout the tale an unchanged exemplar of the lesson and value of mercy.

I. The Townspeople

Sacrifice, as Bettelheim noted, is the pragmatic conclusion of common sense. It has two fundamental elements: repression (of impulsive desires for immediate pleasure) and compensation (the reward promised for this kind of behavior). These two elements are most clearly associated with the townspeople throughout the story. In many ways the poignant symbolism of “The Happy Prince” escapes them, and they stare as dumbly at the statue in the end of the tale as they did at its beginning.

As the tale opens the statue of the Happy Prince is for the Town’s adults, most clearly a symbol of repression. When he sees the statue, the Town Councilor, for example, experiences a delight which he feels is immoderate for a man like himself who must be concerned with the pragmatic, and so represses that delight rather than appear unpractical to others. A mother whose child is crying uses the statue for a remonstration since “The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything.” And for the disappointed man the statue is an occasion for speech full of the secret misery and falseness that comes from repression and envy: “I am glad there is someone in the world who is quite happy.”

Only for the Charity Children is the statue a symbol, not of eliminative repression, but of inclusive identification: it reminds them of the angels they have seen in their dreams. Their visionary innocence is far different from the stern repression required of them by the Mathematical Master who, like Blake’s Beadle in Songs of Experience, has charge over them.

This difference in vision at the tale’s opening is not unlike that at its close where the question is not one of repression but compensation. After the Happy Prince has given away all his gold leaf and jewels and the Swallow’s corpse lies at the statue’s feet consumed by their tireless exercises in mercy, the statue itself is naked and shabby. “In fact,” the townspeople observe, “he is little better than a beggar.”

The compensation the Happy Prince and the Swallow deserve is far different from what they receive at the hands of the townspeople. The Art Professor, by a pragmatic aesthetic, concludes: “As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful.” The Town Corporation, agreeing, discusses new uses for the metal. The townspeople are blind to the lesson of selflessness and instead argue selfishly about which of them will be portrayed in the next statue.

The true compensation that the Prince and the Swallow deserve is seen by God and his angels, who see as clearly as the Charity Children. This compensation, however, is not a reward that has been planned for by the Prince and the Swallow as if all their actions had an eye on the future and were pragmatic sacrifices; instead, the recognition by God and the Angels seems gratuitous (since unasked for), the gift of divine mercy.

In fact, the idea that selfishness is attached to sacrifice and selflessness to mercy is illustrated throughout the tale in the lives of the townspeople. The small sacrifices of the palace girl who waits for the seamstress to finish her dress for the ball show a girl who thinks of the world in terms of utility, and her impatience is shown to be selfishness. On the other hand, the seamstress’ care for her sick son at her own expense is a commendable act of mercy. The Professor of Ornithology who pompously writes what is accessible only to a few can be compared with the playwright who writes for all but without the deserts of compensation that the Professor undeservingly receives. The abstemiousness of old Jews who count their coins in the Ghetto shows selfish repression by way of a Semitic stereotype that is far different from the selfless actions of the matchgirl who earns money for her tyrannical father.

Above all, it is through the unmerciful righteousness of the good burghers and townspeople that Wilde spells out quite clearly his rejection of sacrifice and his endorsement of mercy. Their righteousness is the vain result of lives where pragmatic sacrifices have played a great part both by ways of self-repression and by way of undeserved compensation that has been confused with moral worth. The result is that the rich make merry at the expense of the beggars and the Watchman scolds the two hungry boys of the tale as if poverty and reprobation were the same.

II. The Swallow

This same note of righteousness and practicality is found in the Swallow at the beginning of the tale, but it modulates as the Swallow undergoes a metamorphosis through the lessons of mercy he receives from the Happy Prince. His attachment to the Reed, for example, was selfishly imperious: “Shall I love you?” he has asked her. His friends have counseled that love for a Reed would be impractical, since he loves to travel, and the Swallow agrees, somewhat proud of his ability to sacrifice her, never thinking of sacrificing his desire for travel. His criticisms of the town (“I hope [it] has made preparations” for my stay) and the statue of the Happy Prince (“What is the use of a statue if it cannot keep the rain off?”) repeat the selfish pragmatic considerations shown in the townspeople.

The minor sacrifices the Swallow has to make in the “dreadful” Northern European clime of the town, however, will be abundantly repaid in the fantastical compensations he expects to find in Egypt. Europe and Egypt are wholly different places: one the land of dreary Puritanical sacrifices and repression of immediate pleasures and the other a fairy tale realm of jewels, lotuses, mythical kings, scented heavens — in short, the compensatory world of unalloyed pleasure so often insinuated and promised, as Bettelheim has observed, in children’s literature.

Each time the Happy Prince asks the Swallow to delay his migratory trip just a day longer to perform some small task, the Swallow must choose between the fabulous Egypt of compensation or another day of sacrifice in the repressive clime of Europe. Each time he reluctantly concedes one more day: to take the ruby from the Statue’s sword to the seamstress with the sick son, to take one of the sapphire eyes to the starving playwright, and finally to take the last sapphire to the matchgirl who has lost her matches.

The beginning of the Swallow’s metamorphosis can be marked after this series of trials from his decision to stay with the Happy Prince now that he is blind. Perched on the statue’s shoulder he tries to console the Happy Prince with tales of fabled Egypt as if it were a heavenly compensation the Prince could expect for his actions. The Prince listens politely to the stories of the Nile, red ibises and golden fish, the Sphinx, camels and merchants with amber beads, the ebony King of the Mountain of the moon who worships crystal, pygmies who war with butterflies, and more before he objects: “Dear little swallow, you tell me of marvelous things, but more marvelous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no mystery as great as Misery.” This substitution of the mystery of misery for the fantasies of compensation has, in a way, been prepared for in the Swallow’s discovery that the Happy Prince is not pure gold but alloyed gold and lead. The coincidence of happiness and misery is the mystery the Happy Prince shares with the Swallow. The Prince in effect asks him to see Egypt and Europe as one.

Sent on a mission over the city and experiencing this unific vision of the mystery, the Swallow now feels compassion instead of righteous repulsion for the beggars and children who are hungry. He returns to the Prince and they make a compact to strip the gold leaf off the statue which the Swallow will, not sacrificially and reluctantly, but freely and willingly give to the hungry. The approaching winter brings death for the migratory bird and the naked Prince, and the tableau of their dying creates the memorial to mercy that the townspeople judge unattractive.

Illustration by Walter Crane.

III. The Happy Prince

The townspeople never come to see beyond the sacrifice, and the Swallow only begins to understand that his separation of Europe and Egypt, of repression and compensation, must give way to the unifie mystery of misery and the gift of mercy. The Happy Prince, however, preaches for the duration of the story Christ’s message to the Pharisees: “Go and learn the meaning of the words — What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.” But it was not always so with him. In his account of his personal history and how he came by his name, the Prince tells the Swallow that as a child he used to live in the land of Sans Souci. It was a world not unlike the Swallow’s Egypt where infantile and absolute (if not autistic) pleasure was assured by a gardenwall boundary that excluded (as effectively as repression) whatever was painful. The Prince reports he was “happy” there “if,” he most pointedly adds, “pleasure is indeed happiness.” Now, in his second life as a statue, the Prince descries the misery and pain of the world in the alloyed mystery he speaks of to the Swallow.

If the fact that the Prince is “dead” to the land of Sans Souci (which implicitly and symbolically is maintained by repression) does not clearly imply that he is unconcerned with sacrifice, then his treatment of his jewels makes this fact far more obvious. Jewels have always been associated with those compensatory heavens of children’s literature and, more particularly in this tale, they play an important part in the Swallow’s Egypt: jade, beryls, amber, crystal, etc. The Prince’s merciful liberality with his jewels is not the result of a Puritanical asceticism but of commiseration for the poor, and not the result of pragmatic planning for compensation but of guileless selflessness.

There are a number of resemblances between the Prince and Christ which give the theme of “mercy, not sacrifice” a particularly religious ring: as a statue the Prince is a representative, he shows us the way to be happy, he is a “prince of peace,” he is twice-born, his death is a merciful gift to others. But perhaps less obvious is the Prince’s role as the “bread of life.” The gift of his jewels provides food for the seamstress and her son and for the playwright; and when the hungry children receive the statue’s gold leaf they pointedly rejoice: “We have bread now.” The Prince in effect says, “Take, eat, this is my body, which I have given up for you.”

In terms of this mythic interpretation the Swallow’s gift is a “partial” one. The Prince who surrenders his body to be eaten makes the “total” gift; the Swallow plays the role of an assistant, a disciple. His sacrifices are reluctant and the Prince must constantly ask him, “will you not stay with me for one night,” as Christ at Gethsemane asked his disciples to watch the night with him. Since the Swallow’s death is that of a disciple and is “partial” compared to the “total” gift of the body as food, he participates in the ritualistic eating of the Prince’s body only through partial and symbolic mitigation: he eats only bread.

The Prince’s sacrifice is total. He makes of himself not only a gift of food but a gift of fire. As the tale concludes he has been consumed by the hungry and his metal is consumed in a fire. And as he has been the gift of food for some, he has also been the loving gift of fire to others: to the unappreciated playwright who can afford no fire, to the unloved matchgirl who has lost her matches.

Pragmatic sacrifices depend upon repression and compensation. While Bettelheim is perfectly correct in his endorsement of children’s literature that teaches sacrifice as means of providing “armor” against adversities (as in “The Ant and The Grasshopper” or “The Three Little Pigs”) or insinuates the promised “jewels” of well-being to the ungrudging (in “Cinderella”) he fails to see that sacrifice produces the righteous “armor” of the townspeople and the selfish orientation of the Swallow’s Egyptian “jewels.” Mercy is selfless. The Prince surrenders both the “jewels” and the gold plate that constitute the “armor” of the self. He ceases to exist as “he” but through mercy exists everywhere, diffuse, as food for others.

This essay, one of my first, appeared in Volume 3 (1974) of the journal Children’s Literature (subscription needed). It was also translated into Italian and appears as “Sacrificio e pieta nel Principe felice di Wilde” in “La Grande Esclusa” di F. Butler e G. Niccolai (Milano: Emme Edizioni, 1978). Bettelheim’s remarks, which were excerpted in Ladies Home Journal, appear in his The Uses of Enchantment. Finally, I am embarrassed to say it only occurred to me a few years after this was published that what is echoed here–for example, in the prince growing up in the Land of San Souci–is the story of Buddha.

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12. December 2016 by
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