Oscar Wilde was a proclaimed socialist and lived in London during a time when millions of the impoverished residents risked dying of starvation. At other points, he wrote texts like “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” outlining anarchistic beliefs and a criticism of charity as opposite to a socialist reordering of society. According to “The Happy Prince,” the majority of humanity leads lives of great misery and suffering in order to support the greed of the few with money and power. The greed of the wealthy causes immense suffering, and this story takes a scathing stance against the state of inequality that forces so many people into lives of destitution and hardship. Because problems of corruption extend so widely throughout the empowered classes in society, remedies to this inequality require acknowledging the flaws in their values.
The politicians and individuals responsible for the town’s welfare use their power for selfish and corrupt reasons, instead of fulfilling their duties to serve the wider community. Wilde portrays the Town Councillors in the most negative light. At the start of the story, they are presented as people with selfish motivations, like the Councillor “who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes.” This emphasis on his reputation betrays both a narcissism and a shallowness underpinning his desires—not only does the Councillor disregard his political responsibilities, his relationship to art is also borne only of appearances.
A strain of corruption and superficiality extends into the academic realm as well. When a professor of Ornithology decides to write a long letter about the Swallow, “Every one quoted it, it was full of so many words that they could not understand.” Rather than seeking out knowledge, both the Professor and the people citing him focus only on their reputations and the appearance of intelligence.
Even the teachers and policemen responsible for children disregard their suffering. A Mathematical Master scolds the Charity Children “for he did not approve of children dreaming.” Later, in winter, “two little boys were lying in one another’s arms to try and keep themselves warm.” When they complain of hunger, a passing Watchman merely shouts in reply, “You must not lie here.” In both of these instances, the very people entrusted with social welfare choose to disregard the innocent suffering of children out of their own spite.
In contrast to the portrayal of politicians as cruel, the suffering townspeople appear hardworking and innocent. The Prince has no interest in superficial stories or appearances—even when the Swallow tries to distract him with positive stories, he says, “you tell me of marvelous things, but more marvelous than anything is the suffering of men and women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery.” This quote simultaneously establishes misery as the story’s focus and targets the behavior and blindness of all of the town’s officials who are able to disregard that misery.
In the winter, the Swallow flew “and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates.” Although the rich could look right outside and see the suffering, they remain ignorant of it—which seems almost impossible, given the proximity that the Swallow describes. After the Swallow dies and the Prince’s heart breaks, the Mayor remarks, “how shabby the Happy Prince looks!” Even worse, “How shabby indeed!” cried the Town Councillors, who always agreed with the Mayor.” The Mayor calls the Prince a “beggar” and deplores the dead bird at his feet, saying, “We must really issue a proclamation that birds are not to be allowed to die here.” To the very end, these figures appear ridiculous in their cold-heartedness and superficiality.
The selfishness and shortsightedness shown by privileged individuals in this story reveal the deep flaws behind hubris and conceit. Human greed and obsession with appearances result in evil and true ugliness. These corrupt tendencies extend to all parts of society, from education to politics to art and justice—counteracting them requires that all people open their eyes to the realities “at the gates.” Although Wilde was a proponent of a decadent and wealthy lifestyle, this story demonstrates his consciousness of the costs that can be wrought by profound inequality. Ultimately, those who choose to ignore the brutal realities outside their doorsteps ought to be condemned, as the most important questions humanity struggles with involve suffering.
Poverty, Inequality, and Greed ThemeTracker
Poverty, Inequality, and Greed 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…
"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.
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."