Many of Oscar Wilde’s works contain allusions to homosexuality, in large part due to his own sexual preferences—he was famously put on trial and imprisoned in 1895 for his homosexuality, as Victorian society at the time was still notoriously conservative. In “The Happy Prince,” love—arguably including homosexual love—forms the central motivations for the protagonists. In contrast, narcissism drives the story’s main antagonists and leads people to make judgements about others—judgements that benefit their own worldview but cause moral impoverishment. Love and compassion, in turn, combat the devastating consequences of the status quo. As the story presents an extremely positive perspective on love and compassion, it also defends homosexuality as a positive form of love.
The Happy Prince’s compassion for the townspeople and the Swallow’s love for the Prince motivate their heroics. When the Prince initially describes his transformation into a statue, he outlines the feeling of compassion that seeing the townspeople’s suffering awoke in him. As he says, “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.” Seeing suffering leads him to weep, a clear proof of the compassion that will come to motivate him.
Although the Swallow starts out with more selfish motivations, the Prince evokes a similar sense of compassion in the bird. The Swallow at first expresses the desire to leave for the warmth of Egypt, but the Prince looks “so sad that the little Swallow” ends up promising to stay and act as messenger despite the cold. The allusion to the cold foreshadows the scale of sacrifice that remaining will demand from the Sparrow—it will eventually grow so cold that he will perish. However, the Sparrow’s compassion pushes him to overcome his fears in the name of helping both the Prince and those the Prince cares about.
Actions born of compassion also notably lead to personal feelings of pleasure. When the Swallow returns to tell the Prince about his success in helping distribute his jewels to those in need, he remarks, “It is curious […] but I feel quite warm now, although it is so cold.” The Prince replies, “That is because you have done a good action.” The story draws a direct connection between seeing suffering to compassion and from acts of compassion to feeling good about oneself.
The Swallow’s love for the Happy Prince also alludes to homosexuality, ultimately affirming it as a positive form of love and catalyst for compassion. Non-human characters throughout the story are gendered. For example, the Swallow had initially delayed his trip to Egypt for “he was in love with the most beautiful Reed,” yet he soon “felt lonely and began to tire of his lady-love.” Though the two characters are not human, their relations match a traditionally heterosexual pairing and present the Swallow as a creature in search of a romantic partner. When the Swallow initially meets the Prince, he sees him weeping and is “filled with pity.” He continues to delay his trip to Egypt to help the Prince, and ultimately promises “I will stay with you always” once the Prince is left blind. The extremity of this dedication and lifelong promise exceeds the bounds of platonic love—it also shows the ways that compassion can result in and harmonize with love.
The scene of the Swallow’s death, in turn, exposes the reciprocal love between the Prince and the Swallow. As winter comes and the Swallow begins to freeze, “he would not leave the Prince, he loved him too well.” He bids farewell and asks to kiss the Prince’s hand, but the Prince replies, “you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you.” In the end, he kisses the Happy Prince and “[falls] down dead at his feet,” after which “a curious crack sounded inside the statue […] the leaden heart had snapped right in two.” Not only does this death scene include a confession of love—the heartbreak that the Prince undergoes resembles similar conclusions in other heterosexual fairy tales, where love and heartbreak take on a mythical scope. Their love forms the heart of their ethical actions, which leads to a deep defense of the moral purity of homosexuality (in stark contrast to the strict homophobic norms popular at that time in Victorian England).
In the end, Wilde uses this story both as a subtle defense of homosexuality and a more direct proclamation of the centrality of love and compassion in human affairs. Love trumps all other values in this fairytale universe, from materialistic to artistic. Whereas beauty generates shallow pleasures, love leads directly to the eternal—to the kinds of actions that warrant praise from God, in this case. These conclusions, while quite optimistic on the surface, carry real nuance in the context of the difficulties that Wilde faced for his own sexuality—homosexuality would not have been seen as a theme appropriate for children, let alone a subject of proper morality.
Love and Compassion ThemeTracker
Love and Compassion Quotes in The Happy Prince
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.
"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.
But at last he knew that he was going to die. He had just strength to fly up to the Prince's shoulder once more. “Good-bye, dear Prince!" he murmured, "will you let me kiss your hand?" "l am glad that you are going to Egypt at last, little Swallow," said the Prince, “You have stayed too long here; but
you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you."
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."