The Happy Prince has a heart made of lead, which breaks when his beloved Swallow dies of the cold. At first, this lead heart appears to emphasize the superficiality of the Prince’s beauty, though it later comes to symbolize the steadfast nature of love. In the beginning of the story, the lead heart reveals that the gold decorating the Prince’s outside does not carry through his insides. This advises one to avoid judging by appearances, as they can be deceitful. However, as beauty comes to represent illusion and even corruption or deception itself throughout the story, the ugliness of the lead heart does not prevent it from engendering compassion and goodness—as the Prince himself declares, “though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep.” Unlike in many other fairy tales, such as Snow White, Wilde does not support the conventional pairings of beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil. This inversion truly centers on the heart, at once the least objectively valuable and most truly precious part of the Happy Prince.
Although town officials try to melt the heart down and repurpose it with the rest of the statue, it refuses to melt. And when at the end of the story God asks for the two most precious things in the city to be brought to him, the lead heart, although broken, ends up being one of them. The lead heart thus ultimately represents both the steadfastness of true love and the value of compassion. By refusing to melt, the heart also indicates that some things persist beyond one’s own life—that is, that there exist values greater than the sum of a life.
The Lead Heart Quotes in The Happy Prince
"When I was alive and had a human heart," answered the statue, "l did not know what tears were, for I lived in the Palace of Sans Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. In the daytime I played with my companions in the garden, and in the evening, I led the dance in the Great Hall. Round the garden ran a very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everything about me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness. So I lived, and so I died. 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."
At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two.
"What a strange thing!" said the overseer of the workmen at the foundry. "This broken lead heart will not melt in the furnace. We must throw it away." So they threw it on a dust-heap where the dead Swallow was also lying. "Bring me the two most precious things in the city," said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird. "You have rightly chosen," said God, "for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me."