Oscar Wilde explores some pretty deep thoughts in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose.’ In this lesson, we’ll delve in and analyze some of what he has to say about love, sacrifice, true faith, and materialism.
In stories like fairy tales or fables, it’s not uncommon to find nonhuman characters, especially animals. The author often compares the good behavior of these nonhuman characters with human characters in order to make a point about how humans should behave. This is certainly the case in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose,’ Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale about a bird with an unshakeable belief in love.
What’s the Story?
First, let’s go through a brief summary of the story for some context. It all starts when a Nightingale hears a Student crying in his garden because the girl he loves, the daughter of the Professor, said she will only dance with him at the party that night if he gives her a red rose. The problem? You guessed it: there isn’t a single red rose blooming anywhere in his garden. The Nightingale is a whole-hearted believer in love, and so feels really bad for the Student. She feels so much sympathy that she’s willing to kill herself in order to ‘build’ a red rose for him. Unfortunately, while her death does create the flower, when the Student brings it to his love she refuses it, saying it’s not as valuable as the gifts she’s received from another man.
The Student decides love is ‘unpractical’ and vows to stick to philosophy and metaphysics from now on. Worse, he throws the rose into the gutter where it is destroyed.Pretty heartbreaking, right? Well, that’s kind of the point. Wilde is using this plot to make some important points about love and sacrifice, true faith, and materialism. Let’s analyze some of these ideas in the story.
Some of them overlap a little bit, such as love requiring sacrifice and believing whole-heartedly, but each are important in their own right.
Love Requires Sacrifice
One theme, or main point in the story, revolves around what real love involves. Like most of us, the Nightingale values love pretty highly. She thinks it is more valuable than anything, ‘wiser than Philosophy’ and ‘mightier than Power.
‘ In other words, nothing is better than love! But what does real love require of us?Wilde contrasts two characters in order to get across his idea that real love includes sacrifice, or giving something up that means something to us. On the one hand, we have the Nightingale, who believes so strongly in love that she’s willing to die for it. On the other hand, we have the Student, who is so stung by the rejection of his rose that he’s willing to throw in the towel on love. His treatment of the rose itself also shows his love wasn’t real. Because we as readers sympathize with the Nightingale rather than the Student, we identify her love as real while his isn’t.
While her sacrifice may be a bit more extreme than one we might have to make in real life, it’s the extreme nature of her sacrifice that drives Wilde’s point home.
Perseverance for Belief
Closely related to the idea that love involves sacrifice is the idea that someone will only be willing to make sacrifices for something if they truly believe in it. If a person has true faith, they will be willing and able to persevere through even the most difficult situation to make these sacrifices.As we noted earlier, the Nightingale is willing to sacrifice her own life for love. But it isn’t that easy. She doesn’t just say, ‘Ok, I’m willing to die for love’ and then poof, she painlessly dies. First, the Nightingale’s faith has to be tested because only a true believer will be able to go through with it.
Instead of a painless or easy death, the Nightingale has to sing to a Rose-tree all night long while pushing herself into a thorn until she is stabbed through the heart. In case we don’t grasp how hard this is, Wilde writes how the Rose-tree encourages the Nightingale to ‘press on’ throughout the night. Because she truly believes, the Nightingale perseveres and makes her sacrifice for her faith in love. By showing the Nightingale get tested this way, Wilde makes his point that a person who truly believes will persevere.
One more theme Wilde expresses is the idea that materialism, or the valuing of material possessions over things such as love, is evil. Like the other themes we’ve mentioned in this lesson, Wilde doesn’t just come out and say, ‘Don’t be materialistic.
‘ Instead, he shows us by comparing the Nightingale’s selfless giving nature with the greediness of the girl the Student loves.When the Student presents the red rose to the girl he claims to love, she rejects it even though she was the one to originally ask him for it. Her reason? Not only is she vain and worries it won’t match her new dress, but another man ‘has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.
‘ If we weren’t already convinced of her shallowness and greed, she goes on to say the Student is inferior to this other man because he doesn’t have ‘silver buckles to your shoes.’ Her lack of appreciation and valuing material goods over the results of the sweet Nightingale’s sacrifice sends a clear message to readers that greed and materialism are terrible traits.
As you can see, Wilde tackles some pretty heavy stuff.
When the Nightingale is willing to give her life for love, she’s showing us that love requires sacrifice. Connected to this theme of love and sacrifice is his idea that the Nightingale is only able to make this sacrifice because she has true faith. And finally, he gives us a powerful illustration of just how bad materialism is by comparing the sweet Nightingale and the greedy daughter of the Professor.