The Happy Prince

The Happy Prince Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland and educated at both Trinity College, Dublin and Oxford. His mother, Jane Wilde, was a poet who wrote under the name “Speranza,” or hope, and his father, Sir William Wilde, was an ear surgeon. Wilde was baptized in a local Anglican church and remained dedicated to the Christian faith throughout his lifetime, in spite of the eccentricities of other aspects of his lifestyle. He was known for his dedication to the aesthetic movement, having published papers on aesthetic morality as early as 1874—he lauded decadence and the value of art for its own sake, a theme that recurred in his plays and fiction. However, Wilde also identified as a socialist, and published an essay called “The Soul of Man under Socialism” outlining his beliefs. Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884, whose annual allowance helped fund his luxurious style of living. The couple had two sons together, but their relationship was rocked by Wilde beginning to undertake homosexual relationships with other men, beginning with the journalist and art critic Robert Ross. Allusions, both subtle and explicit, to homosexuality began to recur in Wilde’s works—whole sections of The Picture of Dorian Gray were censored prior to publication, due to their scandalous content, and reviewers still described the finished book as excessively decadent and even unclean. Ultimately, Wilde was put on trial in 1895 for gross indecency; after his conviction, he served two years in prison before moving into exile in France, where he ultimately passed away at the age of 46.
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Historical Context of The Happy Prince

The peak of Wilde’s literary career, as well as his trial and death, coincided with the final years of the Victorian Period. Victorian England saw radical and drastic changes in many areas, from technological developments to scientific discoveries and shifts in social norms. Charles Darwin published his findings on evolution in On the Origin of Species in the middle of the century, around the same time that Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto and Capital in Germany. These texts, among other developments in philosophy, rocked the established norms in Western Europe, prompting revolutions against inequality as well as atheistic movements. The London Underground was built in the 1850s, along with the first telegraph systems, drastically accelerating the movement of goods, people, and information. Wilde was born into this world in flux and rose to fame during the transition to modernism—the Victorians were known for strict social norms, from the temperance movement to devout anti-sodomy laws and the medical insistence on female hysteria. Although Wilde and his friend group paved the way for the loosening and shifting of social values that really blossomed in the interwar period (the 1920s and 30s), he perished in exile without truly witnessing these changes.

Other Books Related to The Happy Prince

Wilde drew inspiration for “The Happy Prince” in part from the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which function both as forms of social criticism and stories for children. The genre of children’s literature began during the Victorian period in England around the time of Wilde’s birth, with the publication of novels like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Another contemporary would be Rudyard Kipling, whose stories and verses for children, including The Jungle Book, contain stories with deeper themes such as abandonment or freedom. Later works that similarly reflect Christian religious themes include C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series. For other texts that reflect critically on the impoverishment and social stratification rife in urban settings in Western Europe, look to Charles Dickens (for example, Oliver Twist), Thomas Hardy (Jude the Obscure), Émile Zola (Les Rougon-Macquart, but particularly Germinal), or many of the works by George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier).
Key Facts about The Happy Prince
  • Full Title: The Happy Prince
  • When Written: 1880s
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1888
  • Literary Period: Victorian Literature, Aestheticism
  • Genre: Children’s Literature, Fairy Tale
  • Setting: An unnamed town
  • Climax: The Swallow and Prince kiss before the Swallow perishes from cold, and the Prince’s lead heart cracks.
  • Antagonist: Poverty, Inequality
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Happy Prince

The Happy Prince. Rupert Everett directed a biographical drama about the life of Oscar Wilde (whom he also played in the film), which was released in 2018. The film focuses on the final, tragic years of Wilde’s life, when he lived in exile after being convicted for “gross indecency” due to his homosexuality. As in the story, the name “The Happy Prince” therefore bears a strong irony.

Kiss of Death. Oscar Wilde is buried in a tomb decorated with a Sphinx in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Every year, fans of his work and life flock to his grave to leave lipstick-kisses on the tomb—although a glass barrier added by the government in 2011 makes that practice perhaps prohibitive.