Death and Rebirth in the Short Stories of Oscar Wilde

Death and Rebirth has become a major theme in the Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, and The Selfish Giant. It is reflected from all characters in the story that surely die. Most of them is rebirth and placed in God’s Paradise because they help other people. This kind of moral is clearly found in Children Literatures and it seems there are some reasons why Children Literatures oftenly have it.


The character in The Selfish Giant, is different from the other characters. The giant, indeed, cannot be classified as normal human, but we cannot refute that the giant has better qualities and more similar with human than the other character. Nevertheless, it is very clear that these three stories are located in different world and therefore it is obvious that it is fiction.


The main characters in other two stories, the Happy Prince and the Nightingale are inhuman. Therefore, the texts use personification to make them alive so that the reader can understand what they say and do. However, it makes many things look very contrast and seem to be forced. For instance, in The Happy Prince, the little boy says that “[t]he Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything” (Wilde, 2008: 9) which is very reasonable because the prince is a statue, a death thing. The Prince himself, indeed, clearly states that he is dead.


And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep. (Wilde, 2008: 14)


From the quote above, we can see that there are many strange things there. I cannot understand when the prince is able to weep. It is only lively being be able to weep. Moreover, the death prince can be able to all the hostility and all the despair of the city which cannot be seen by other lively human. We can see how the text contrasts death and life inside the prince. The text capsizes the concept of life and death and seems to create the absurd showing that the death thing can be livelier and more emotional than the lively human. Moreover, Nassaar in his journal article, Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates, says that The Happy Prince’s position “as an aesthetic object high above the city symbolizes the isolated, carefree, pleasure-seeking life he led before his death.” (Nassaar, 2002: 143)


However, The Nightingale prefers to sacrifice herself for the young student who wants a red rose. She sings songs all night long with her breast against a thorn. She chooses “Love… better than Life” (Wilde, 2008: 21) comparing the heart of a man which is better than the heart of bird. Moreover, The Happy Prince also sacrifices himself as states by Nassar that the Prince “develop[s] into a Christian, a child of light.” (Nassar, 2002: 143) He gives his ruby, his gold, and the jewels to paupers with the help of the Swallow sacrificing his aesthethic glory to help other  Both of the Prince and the Nightingale end their life with death. This kind of sacrifice probably can remind us with Jesus Christ’s sacrifice atoning for the sins of mankind. Therefore, we can say that both of the character, the prince and The Nightingale represent Jesus Christ as “the Man of Sorrows and his emphasis on feeling other’s pain as prelude to self-sacrifice.” (Goodenough, 1999: 8) As like Jesus Christ, both of them relive again. Jesus Christ is believed still alive and placed beside God. In two of the story, although the main characters, the Happy Prince, the Swallow, and the Giant, are dead, they are placed beside God as well as Jesus. God said that “for in my garden in Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me” (Wilde, 2008: 26) while the Giant “come[s] with me to my garden, which is Paradise.” (Wilde, 2008: 47) We can see how the texts construct death as the beginning of life not the end. Therefore, the texts have used the concept of rebirth and Paradise as the price of sacrifice their life. Goodenough in her journal article, Oscar Wilde, Victorian Fairy Tales, and the Meanings of Atonement, says that the text try to imaginatively construct “the figure of Christ and the social conscience that compelled [the text] to write on behalf of incarcreated juveniles.” (Goodenough, 1999: 3)


However, in two of the stories, the texts also use irony to show how absurd humanity is. After sacrificing his “life” to help people, the prince became naked without any jewel at all. The Town Councilors and the Mayor look at the statue say that “[The prince] is golden no longer… in fact, he is litter better than a beggar!” (Wilde, 2008: 24)


From the quote, we can see how people see things just from its outer beauty. Oftenly, the outer beauty is used to determine the quality of people. They determine people from their look. People who do not wear anything will be called as a beggar.


They throw the statue away “on a dust heap where the dead Swallow also lying.” (Wilde, 2008: 26) In the second story, the rose that has been made by the Nightingale by giving her life-blood is useless because the woman who the boy loves rejects him. She finds another boy who is richer than the rose boy. She prefers to choice jewels than the rose. Both of the people in the first story and the women represent humanity. Two of the text argues that human is greedy. When something “is no longer beautiful [it] is no longer useful.” (Wilde, 2008: 26)


Moreover, in The Nightingale and the Rose, when the Student sees the Nightingale singing, he cannot understand what she sings and what she sacrifices. Therefore, what the Student says about The Nightingale reflects who he really is.


She has form…- 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 not practical good. (Wilde, 2008: 32)


Unfortunately, what the Student says is the opposite of what the Nightingale does. He says that the Nightingale “would not sacrifice herself for others.” In fact, the Nightingale has sacrificed herself for him, but he does not know what it means.


When we see it from The Nightingale’s view, the student becomes heartless because he “threw the rose into the street, where it fell into the gutter, and a cart-wheel went over it.” (Wilde, 2008: 37) He says about himself not the Nightingale. Then, we can see that the Nightingale’s sacrifice is useless. Consequently, after observating the people in the Happy Prince and the Nightingale, we can realize that “[b]rooding on the moral wrongs of their social betters has literally turned these people into monsters.” (Jones, 2011: 892)


However, we cannot fully blame the student, the Mayor, and the Town Councilors for their lack of understanding. They, in fact, cannot understand what the inhuman characters say because they cannot communicate with them. It seems that only the inhuman characters and the readers who mostly know whole narratives even though the inhuman characters are still more limited than the readers. Therefore, we can see that there are a bound that the texts use to the human character that make them blind except one, the Charity School children. Although limited, the children can recognize the Prince “like an angel…in our dream.” (Wilde, 2008: 9) However, the Adult does not approve children dreaming which make a relation between the Adult and the death is broken up, Therefore, it creates many contrast between death and lively things, and death and rebirth. When the Adult chooses not to believe the children, it creates a limitation for them to understand, to open their eyes and it makes another inhuman character suffers. We consequently, can argue that this limitation is used to make the texts “us[ing] death as an ironic reward for the moral characters in his tales; rather than frightening young readers into morality with the grisly deaths of the immoral characters.” (Jones, 2011: 888)


Nonetheless, the third story, The Selfish Giant, has some contrasts with the last two stories. The Giant, indeed, is almost same with the Student, the Mayor, and the Town Councilors because as a human being he “cannot understand why the Spring is so late in coming” (Wilde, 2008: 42) to his garden. It is normal as what we have discussed above that the human being cannot speak with inhuman being. The Giant cannot understand the Snow, the Frost, the North Wind, and the Hail. However, differ from the other characters in two last stories; there is an addition character, a little boy. The boy is a messenger. He does not talk to the Giant, but he reflects what happening which make the Giant finally realizes.


[The Giant] saw a most wonderful sight…And the trees were so glad to have [the little boy] back again that they had covered [him]sel[f] with blossoms, and were having [him] arms gently above [the boy’s] head. The birds were flying about and twittering with delight, and the flowers were looking up through the green grass and laughing. It was a lovely scene. (Wilde, 2008: 42-43)


After the Giant sees the boy, “now [he] know why the Spring would not come here” (Wilde, 2008: 43) and at that time the mirror has succeed to show the Giant about himself, “[h]ow selfish I have been!” (Wilde, 2008: 43)


The boy has a role as a messenger. Probably, it is more precise to say him as a mirror than a messenger because the boy does not say anything to the Giant. He just reflects. However, this is the device that the last two stories do not have. Probably, in the Happy Prince, there is the children who should be the messenger, but they are fail. This messenger device is used by the third text to straighten the way of the main character and change him from selfish to care. Moreover, differ from the last two last stories, in The Selfish Giant, the main character is human not inhuman. It will be strange if the main character is a bad person in the end because the children literatures usually have a agenda to give children moral lessons.In other words, the text should use the way to change the Giant from bad person to good person. Consequently, in the end, the impression of human is better than the last two stories.


However, there is always a garden in three of the stories, both garden in earth or garden in Paradise. Talairach-Vielmas in her journal article, A Giant’s Garden: Special “Fairy Tales” Issue, argues that “the apt motif of the garden is used by [the texts] to encapsulate the ambivalence of Wilde’s tales, simultaneously pure and innocent but also depicting the violence of man’s control over nature and the artificality of beauty.” (Talairach-Vielmas, 2011: 392)


Therefore, It is not only the sacrifice which makes the Happy Prince able to go to Paradise, but also what people have done to him. In The Selfish Giant, the giant who finally allows children to play in his garden is invited to His Garden as well. We recognize whether the human control bad or good, in the end, the main character will be invited to Paradise. It makes sense when we connect it with The Nightingale which is never invited by God to Paradise after death. The only reason is that the Nightingale sacrificing herself by her own hand. There are no control of man directly there. Probably, it is called suicide and it makes the narrative never serves the Nightingale never going to Paradise. Therefore, the text shows how the contribution of Man in death is very important both for the dead or lively thing to rebirth and go to Paradise.


When we reflect three of the stories in human life, we will find that the role of messenger (let me use the word messenger) is very important especially in religion. For instance, in Abraham religion, Islam, Judaic, and Christian, the prophet has a big role. All prophets are messenger. We know Moses, Noah, Christ, and Mohammad. However, It only Christ who sacrifices himself  even though I think it is hard to say it sacrifice when we believe that He is still alive.


The concept between sacrificing and sending message seems to be contrast here as well. Both of the way can lead to Paradise, but in two of the story, the Happy Prince and the Nightingale and the Rose, sacrificing self does not change the way people think which make the sacrificer became selfish, only want to go to Paradise alone. However, in the Selfish Giant, the people, the children, change better and it is reflected in the Giant’s self which change from selfish to care. It will be arguable to direclty say that the sacrifice represents Christ while the messenger represents Mohammad. However, what is clear is that the concept of sacrifice and messenger has a big role to make the texts work. Therefore, when the reader realizes the concept, it will help them to find the relation between death and rebirth in the story easier.


Work Cited:


Goodenough, Elizabeth. “Oscar Wilde, Victorian Fairy Tales, and the Meanings of Atonement.” The Lion and the Unicorn 23.3 (1999): 336-54. Print.

Jones, Justin T. “Morality’s Ugly Implications in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales.” Studies in English Literature, 1500 – 1900 51.4 (2011): 883-903. Print.

Nassaar, Christopher S. “Wilde’s the Happy Prince and Other Tales and a House of Pomegranates.” The Explicator 60.3 (2002): 142-45. Print.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. “A Giant’s Garden: Special “Fairy Tales” Issue.” Marvels & Tales 25.2 (2011): 392-94,405. Print.

Wilde, O. (2008). The happy prince & other stories. London: Collector’s Library.


Leave a comment

Filed under Prose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s