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Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince: Fairy tales for the 'real' world

Updated: Feb 29


Image Credit: Pinterest


Dear Reader,

Do you feel that the human condition is shrouded in eternal dullness?

I do.

If one is fortunate enough to be disentangled from the calamities of the rat-race for power in this world, then their life would have taken a stable course with the future looming on the horizon. A predictable path is by no means uninteresting to a traveler. But everyday? Even the most scenic of routes may begin to sag their mind.


Arabian Nights and Grimm’s Fairy Tales were my escape routes from the painful consequences of childhood insolence into a world full of joy and prosperity. Life never felt dull when my eyes were glued onto the adventures and mishaps of characters in stories that have stood the test of time. All of it seemed like a distant memory, until I stumbled upon Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince & Other Stories.


Oscar Wilde is known for his wit and humor. His aphorisms are quoted countless times. Primarily known for his plays, which have not left the theaters even after a century, Wilde’s ideas still drive conservative societies wild. In this collection of five fantastic short stories, Wilde exposes the world of its shame. As a proponent of the aesthetic movement, Wilde firmly believed in the idea that art is for art’s sake. It is well illustrated in his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, this short story collection shows another side of Wilde’s multifaceted literary talent- art for creating a social change, for the betterment of humanity as Leo Tolstoy had envisioned. Perhaps, Wilde didn’t mean to. Nonetheless, The Happy Prince & Other Stories have shed light on the shadows of the fairy worlds.


Unlike the popular fairy tales, having countless adaptations on print as well as screen, all five of Oscar Wilde’s tales in this collection have miserable endings. All stories begin with a dreamy theme: Good defeating Evil, triumph of love over Apathy and Hatred, and Sacrifice eclipsing Selfishness. Alas, if only the stories ended before the dream!


(spoiler ahead!)


In the titular story, a statue of the Happy Prince with a leaden heart, sapphire eyes, a sword with a ruby on its hilt, and a body gilded with fine leaves of gold meets a swallow who was traveling to Egypt. The swallow gets drenched by the tears of the Happy Prince and inquires the reason for his sadness. The Happy Prince, as he stands tall, bears witness to the miseries of the entire city. The prince persuades the swallow to take the ruby from his sword-hilt to the mother of a fever-stricken young boy, needing to buy oranges. In a similar manner, the prince, with the help of the swallow, gives his sapphire eyes and body of gold to the ones in need. The swallow, unable to bear the cold any longer, drops dead at his feet as the prince’s leaden heart snaps into two. Seeing this sight the next morning the mayor comments,


“We really must issue a proclamation that birds are not to be allowed to die here.”


Although Wilde offers the readers a glimpse into the ‘real’ world on many occasions in the story this is where the dissonance between the two worlds strikes one the best. On one hand we have two lives trying to cure the world of its miseries. On the other, the ones whose only misery is others not having any; the ones who are so in love with authority and power that they are adamant that even miseries of others should follow their rules.


The story ends by God asking one of his angels to bring the two most precious things in the city. The angel brought him the leaden heart and the dead bird. The world of God and angels may always have a happy ending. But what about the world of mortals?


This trend continues in the rest of the four stories. We are being invited to Wilde’s magical world where rockets and candles have life, children play in the garden of an ogre, and linnets tell stories. The protagonists, either on their heroic battle for greater good or on a journey for redemption almost succeed in their quests. Almost. Through the miserable endings of his protagonists, Wilde reminds his readers that the world we live in is not a fairy land. Even though it could be!


The hardest of hearts would melt after reading The Nightingale and the Rose. This story portrays the perfect disambiguation of the dual world that coexists in Wilde’s stories. The reader has to suffer through the distance between the two worlds: a world of apathy and a world of love. Even if you are someone like our dear friend water-rat in The Devoted Friend, the fourth story, who is tired of moral tales, you can still enjoy this collection by basking in the sheer beauty of Wilde’s artistry where words flow like a jungle creek. One can’t help but follow it along.


In The Selfish Giant, the third story, we can see the transformative power of love. The redemptive strength of an act of kindness turns the frozen garden into the courtyard of spring. Complementing this one is the last story, The Remarkable Rocket, in which the protagonist believes that he is the center of the universe. This tale is a meditation on the follies of self-centeredness. Is living in delusions a good substitute for a life filled with dreamlike achievements? Well, our dear friend the Remarkable Rocket seems to think so!


In our world, stories may not always have happy endings. But with a little kindness, a touch of love, and a nudge of support we can all begin writing a happy story- a happy life. I hope we all will seek to let harmony prevail over the tall waves of time.


 

By: Akhil Thekkepat

Akhil Thekkepat is an aspiring novelist from Kerala. He likes to read, feel, imagine, write, and think. When he isn’t doing any of these, you can find him on the football ground or on the badminton court. His hobbies also include cycling and playing chess. Akhil was part of the twelfth cohort of the Young India Fellowship and holds a master’s degree in physics.

 

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