The gilded statue of the Happy Prince stands on a pedestal overlooking a town. Covered in gold leaf with sapphires for eyes and a ruby on his sword-hilt, the statue receives admiration from all passersby, including town councilors who want to foster a reputation for artistic tastes.
This establishes both the prominence of the Happy Prince in the city and the admiration he receives. However, that reputation stems from superficial places—first of all, the statue is “gilded,” meaning that gold leaf has been added only to the surface. Secondly, the councilors care too much about their reputations, revealing their narcissism. This beginning sets up the central themes of greed and the superficiality of beauty, which the later plot will elaborate.
A Swallow flies over the city on his way to Egypt. He had been delayed after falling in love with a Reed, attracted to her slender waist and gracefulness. When she wouldn’t accompany his travels, the Swallow left alone, but ended up stopping under the statue of the Happy Prince to rest.
The Swallow’s backstory with the Reed establishes the centrality of romantic love as a theme in this story. However, his love for the Reed was also based on artificial qualities—her external beauty—rather than a deeper connection the two shared. His aspirations toward Egypt continue to show a relative selfishness on the part of the Swallow, as he puts his own needs and desires over either the health of his relationship or any loftier goals.
Surprised at what he takes to be rainfall on a clear night, the Swallow realizes that the Happy Prince has been crying. They introduce themselves, and the Happy Prince describes his childhood in a gated palace, when he lived in San Souci and played in a walled garden—a time full of superficial pleasures when he was ignorant of the suffering in his city. The Swallow is surprised to learn that the Statue is not made of solid gold, but he agrees to help the Happy Prince after he describes his pity for a seamstress sewing passion-flowers on the satin gown of a lady in waiting. She lives in the poor house and cannot care for her sick son, so the Swallow agrees to deliver the ruby from the Prince’s sword hilt to her.
Although the Prince bears an epithet describing his “happiness,” these tears and the story he subsequently tells show that this name is merely ironic. The Swallow’s initial surprise that the Prince’s beauty exists only on the surface shows his naivety—like the Prince in his boyhood, the Swallow fixates on superficial pleasures and beauty and cannot see beyond the surface. Nevertheless, he experiences pity—the first stage of compassion—for the Prince, and agrees to help him serve this seamstress. She represents the real irony of the town’s poverty, as her job is to beautify the world for the aristocrats, but she does not earn enough in doing so to protect her sick son.
On the way to deliver the ruby, the Swallow sees “old Jews bargaining with each other.” He delivers the ruby and stays in order to cool the feverish boy by flapping his wings. After delivering the ruby, the Swallow returns and describes feeling “quite warm” in spite of the cold, due to his good deed. He still intends to go to Egypt and describes to the Happy Prince what marvels await him there, from the river-horses to the God Memnon on his great granite throne. Nevertheless, the Prince begs him to stay and help a young playwright freezing in his garret. The man needs to finish a play for the theater director but has become too cold. In the end, the Swallow agrees to stay another night and plucks out one of the Prince’s sapphire eyes to deliver to the young man.
The observation of Jews bargaining betrays a more negative aspect of the story’s Christian roots, as it depicts a very stereotypical and anti-Semitic picture of Jewish individuals. However, the Swallow’s decision to help the boy in addition to delivering the ruby shows a positive spiritual transformation in him. In the Classical period, relationships between older and younger men existed which were both marked as romantic and pedagogical—Wilde clearly models the pairing of the Swallow and Happy Prince after these relationships, as the Swallow begins to receive a moral education (learning that it feels good to help others) from following the Prince’s requests. This first task has not completely diverted him from his plans to go to Egypt, where he paints an exotic picture of their fauna and religious traditions. This, combined with the Prince’s compassionate desires to assist the downtrodden townspeople, strengthen the story’s connection to Christian values. However, this time a playwright requires assistance, which indicates that even the artistic world succumbs to inequality and corruption—the very people producing art for the elite class languish in poverty.
The Swallow returns once more to bid farewell to the Happy Prince, who pleads with him to deliver his other sapphire eye to a little match-girl who has dropped her matches. Without any help, the child’s father will beat her. The Swallow agrees and promises also to remain in the town by the Prince’s side forever, as he cannot bear to leave him alone and blind on his pedestal.
This third instance of the Prince’s compassion reaches a climax of his willingness to sacrifice everything—even his ability to see—for the good of others. The victim in this case makes up the picture of innocence: a young girl undeserving of the suffering that has befallen her. The Swallow’s transformation into a morally upright being also culminates here in his promise to remain by the Prince’s side. This great act of sacrifice—as the Swallow knows he won’t survive the winter—proves the depth of his love and loyalty to the Prince.
The Swallow sits on the Prince’s shoulder and recounts tales of Egypt and faraway lands. He tells of the red ibises on the Nile, the Sphinx, “who is as old as the world itself,” and a great green snake who “has twenty priests to feed it with honey cakes.” Though the Prince calls these stories “marvelous,” he asks for tales of the suffering townspeople instead, as “there is no Mystery so great as Misery.”
The Swallow tries to use these tales of art and beauty to distract the Prince and to improve his life now that he can no longer see. However, the most magnificent tales fail to resonate with the Prince, who prefers a harsh reality to beautiful fantasy. The reality they confront replaces mystery with misery—the real world is full of injustice and inequality, and one ought to treat knowledge of that as more valuable than ignorance and fantasy. This decision emphasizes the moral teachings at the heart of this story, while also connecting art with a desire for escapism and for luxury.
The Swallow flies over the city and reports of the rich making merry while beggars starve at their gates, including young boys trying to warm themselves under a bridge while a passing Watchman tries to clear them out. Upon hearing these tales, the Prince wishes to distribute the fine gold leaf gilding him, to alleviate some of this misery. The Swallow agrees to help him and he delivers sheets of gold leaf to the children. While the Prince grows “dull and grey,” the “children’s faces grew rosier and they laughed and played games in the street.”
Winter has just begun in this northern European town, making the contrast between the rich and the poor all the more acute—whereas the wealthy can celebrate and feast in warmth, those without resources suffer in the most unbearable conditions. Although those inside could be accused of mere ignorance, the Watchman who chastises the starving boys betrays his duty and displays gross corruption. While his job ought to entail protecting the weak, when faced with innocent children he chooses to admonish them for loitering—indicating that he would prefer empty streets and the appearance of peace to actually solving the problems caused by inequality. The Prince, of course, opts to sacrifice the very last of his finery—his golden skin—to feed the starving children, and this time the Swallow helps him without complaining, which indicates that his moral education is complete.
Winter finally arrives, and the Swallow grows far too cold. Knowing that only limited time remains to him, he asks to kiss the Prince’s hand. Instead, the Prince says, “you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you.” The Swallow does so and falls down dead at his feet, at which point the Prince’s leaden heart “snap[s] right in two.”
This moment, which had been foreshadowed all along, marks the tragic climax of the story. The Swallow dies due to his love of the Prince and his refusal to move somewhere warmer for the duration of winter, but he receives one final kiss. In the inverse of the healing fairy tale kiss of true love—as seen in Sleeping Beauty or Snow White—the final kiss does not save the Swallow, but rather precedes his and the Prince’s deaths. As dark as this ending might be, the kiss that the pair shares and their simultaneous tragic deaths illuminate how true and profound their connection was—the very tragedy of this moment highlights its worth.
The next morning, the Mayor spots the grey statue with the dead Swallow at its feet and complains of its shabbiness. The Town Councillors agree, calling the statue “little better than a beggar,” and they decide to have the Happy Prince melted down and recast into a new statue (though they fight as to whom he should represent—the Mayor wishes a statue of himself, but each of the town councillors think it should be of them instead). The Art Professor at the University goes so far as to say, “as he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful.”
For any reader of this story, the arrogance that the Mayor and Councillors display here is simply ridiculous—they make light of the enormous and touching sacrifices that the Swallow and Prince have made for the betterment of the town, and instead notice only that the Prince no longer appears beautiful on the outside. To emphasize their shallowness, they fight over whom the new statue should represent, caring only for their own reputations, and showing no regard for any other concerns or considerations. Their lack of compassion in comparison to the grand sacrifices of the Swallow and Prince marks them as antagonists in this story. Significantly, this problem extends past the government and into the university: the art professor claims that the statue lost his usefulness with his beauty, even though any reader knows that the Happy Prince’s real value was embedded in his compassionate heart and giving character.
The overseer of the workmen at the foundry melts down the statue but notes with shock that the broken lead heart refuses to melt. Giving up, he tosses the heart aside on a dust-heap along with the body of the Swallow. Soon after, God asks one of his Angels to bring the “two most precious things in the city.” The Angel brings the leaden heart and the dead bird, and God agrees that he had rightly chosen. The Happy Prince and the Swallow would be rewarded eternally in Paradise for their compassion and sacrifice.
The attempt to melt the leaden heart serves two purposes. It drives home the ignorance and inferiority of the townspeople, who wish to destroy the most valuable entities in the town—not out of evil or malice, but out of unfiltered ignorance. Second, it highlights the heart’s symbolic heft. In not melting, it proves to be steadfast and loyal—almost magical in its durability, the heart persists while all of the jewels and finery that were so admired disappear. God confirms this value in his final appearance when he chooses to reward both the Swallow and Prince with an eternity in Paradise. In this moment, the fairy tale alludes to Biblical parables. Whereas earthly pleasures disappear, actions undertaken out of compassion last.