Oscar Wilde was notably committed to aestheticism and the aesthetic movement—associated with the mantra “Art for Art’s sake”—and this theme recurs throughout his literary works. The titular protagonist of “The Happy Prince” is himself a statue meant to decorate the city, and through him, the story explores the relationship between art and usefulness. However, “The Happy Prince” also demonstrates the darker sides of society’s obsession with beauty—that is, the extreme poverty and social inequality required to support decadent lifestyles for those living at the top of society. This turn to morality resonates with Victorian values while still condemning that society for its hypocrisy.
The initial description of the Happy Prince focuses on his aesthetic beauty: he is “gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold,” has eyes of “two bright sapphires,” and on his sword-hilt “a large red ruby glowed.” Although these descriptions focus on his outer beauty, the word “gilded” reveals that such beauty is superficial. Similarly, although the Prince’s name is “happy,” he weeps upon his tall column when the Swallow first meets him; the Prince’s name thus also disguises—or, perhaps, gilds—reality. The Prince goes on to describe to the Swallow his childhood in a palace “where sorrow is not allowed to enter,” where he was carefree because everything was “so beautiful.” They called him the Happy Prince, and he said he was happy “if pleasure be happiness.” True happiness, this quote hints, differs from pleasure, while beauty often hinges on obscuring suffering.
Indeed, the happiness of the Prince’s childhood was the happiness of ignorance. After dying and becoming a statue, he says, “they have set me up here so high 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.” The city, then, only seemed beautiful to the Prince when disguised by high walls—that is, when he couldn’t see the suffering that existed alongside his own pleasure. Beauty, at least in a shallow, physical sense, is thus tied to deceit and even cruel indifference.
Every time the Prince identifies someone living in poverty, meanwhile, the cause of their suffering ties back to some object of beauty. A seamstress living in the poorhouse embroiders “passion-flowers on a satin gown for the loveliest of the Queen’s maids-of-honour,” while her own little boy lies ill with a fever. Although he wants oranges, his mother “has nothing to give him but river water.” The tragedy of their situation is deepened by the luxury goods she is working so hard to produce—not only will she not be attending any balls herself, but her work to add flowers to this satin gown does not earn enough money to even buy oranges or medicine for her sick son.
Later, a young playwright “is trying to finish a play for the Director of the Theatre” but cannot move from cold—“there is no fire in the grate, and hunger has made him faint.” Even the town’s arts and culture are driven by deep social inequalities. Here, as in the Prince’s childhood palace, beauty is built on the backs of poor townspeople yet essentially masks their suffering.
Importantly, Wilde’s story doesn’t disavow beauty altogether. Instead, it critiques the fixation on outer beauty at the expense of compassion and also rejects the equation of such beauty with innate value. When the Prince readily gives up his beauty, in the form of his jewels, to help the poor, he is relieving himself of that which previously brought him such pleasure—and in the process, redistributing some of its power.
Notably, the jewels’ grandeur in and of itself proves less impressive than their simple usefulness. When the playwright finds a sapphire on his desk, for instance, he doesn’t marvel at this item “brought out of India a thousand years ago”; he merely celebrates his work being appreciated. When the match-girl finds a jewel, she says, “What a lovely bit of glass” before running “home laughing.” This emphasizes that, however lovely, the jewel is ultimately nothing more than a trinket; the true value of the jewels lie in their ability to protect the match-girl from her cruel father’s beatings, or to provide the playwright with much needed food, firewood, and moral support to, in turn, produce more beauty himself via his art.
In keeping with this complication of the idea that external beauty connotes inherent worth, it is the ugliest part of the statue—his leaden, broken heart—that leads him to the highest reward. At first, the Town Councillors dismiss the “shabby” statue as “little better than a beggar,” and pull him down, saying “as he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful.” This confirms the overriding opinion among this privileged class of people that outer beauty is what imbues things with value. However, because the Prince’s heart doesn’t “melt in the furnace,” it’s thrown “on a dust-heap where the dead Swallow [is] also lying.”
Though the Happy Prince has lost all outer beauty, and with it all his use and value in some people’s eyes, his heart’s refusal to melt demonstrates a durability and steadfastness that stems from inner goodness. That’s why, when God asks one of his angels for “the two most precious things in the city,” these items turn out to be the dead Swallow and the leaden heart. This conclusion proves that true value and external appearances are not always the same—the most precious things sometimes come disguised as the ugliest.
Beauty and Morality ThemeTracker
Beauty and Morality Quotes in The Happy Prince
High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt. He was very much admired indeed. "He is as beautiful as a weathercock," remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes; "only not quite so useful," he added, fearing lest people should think him unpractical…
The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and tears were running down his golden cheeks. His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little Swallow was filled with pity. "Who are you?" he said: "I am the Happy Prince." "Why are you weeping then?" asked the Swallow; "you have quite drenched me."
"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."
He passed over the river, and saw the lanterns hanging to the masts of the ships. He passed over the Ghetto, and saw the old Jews bargaining with each other, and weighing out money in copper scales. At last he came to the poor house and looked in. The boy was tossing feverishly on his bed, and the mother had fallen asleep, she was so tired. In he hopped, and laid the great ruby on the table beside the woman's thimble. Then he flew gently round the bed, fanning the boy's forehead with his wings. 'How cool I feel," said the boy, "l must be getting better"; and he sank into a delicious slumber.
"l am waited for in Egypt," answered the Swallow. "Tomorrow my friends will fly up to the Second Cataract. The river-horse couches there among the bulrushes, and on a great granite throne sits the God Memnon. All night long he watches the stars, and when the morning star shines he utters one cry of joy, and then he is silent. At noon the yellow lions come down to the water's edge to drink. They have eyes like green beryls, and their roar is louder than the roar of the cataract."
"ln the square below," said the Happy Prince, "there stands a little matchgirl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out my other eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her." "l will stay with you one night longer," said the Swallow, "but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then." "Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow," said the Prince, "do as I command you," So he plucked out the Prince's other eye, and darted down with it. He swooped past the match-girl, and slipped the jewel into the palm of her hand. "What a lovely bit of glass," cried the little girl; and she ran home, laughing. Then the Swallow came back to the Prince. "You are blind now," he said 'so I will stay with you always."
"Dear little Swallow," said the Prince, “you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there." So the Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates. He flew into dark lanes, and saw the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets. Under the archway of a bridge two little boys were lying in one another's arms to try and keep themselves warm. "How hungry we are!" they said. “You must not lie here," shouted the Watchman, and they wandered out into the rain.
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.
Early the next morning the Mayor was walking in the square below in company with the Town Councillors. As they passed the column he looked up at the statue: "Dear me! how shabby the Happy Prince looks!" he said. "How shabby indeed!" cried the Town Councillors, who always agreed with the Mayor; and they went up to look at it.
So they pulled down the statue of the Happy Prince. "As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful," said the Art Professor at the University.
"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."