Wilde was a dedicated Christian throughout his life, and religious themes run through “The Happy Prince.” The titular Happy Prince represents a Christlike figure who supports analogous teachings to those of Christian parables. Much like Christ in the Bible, the Happy Prince chooses to sacrifice himself to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and downtrodden. Ultimately, God rewards the Prince in paradise, confirming both the narrative’s religious subtext and the Christian roots of the Happy Prince’s values. Although the intended parallels between the narrative and Christianity lie in its values, the story also portrays other religions using stereotypes. In doing so, religious values in “The Happy Prince” sometimes fall flat. Ultimately, the intended religious influences in this story teach one to value making sacrifices for those who are oppressed by poverty and cannot advocate for themselves.
The story draws clear thematic parallels to biblical teachings, centered on its Christlike central figure. The heroic statue in “The Happy Prince” spends the story sacrificing his beauty to save the citizens of the town from poverty. The statue gives up the ruby from his sword-hilt for the seamstress and one of his sapphire eyes for the playwright, and even gives up his other eye for “a little match-girl” who “has no shoes or stockings” and will be beaten by her father if she comes home with no money.
The Bible includes many examples encouraging great sacrifice—from Jesus giving his life on the cross to an old widow sacrificing her last two coins in Luke’s gospel. In this story, as in the Bible, the wealthy end up greedy and corrupt whereas those living in poverty are industrious and generous. The Christian God himself appears at the end of this story, in fact. He asks one of the angels to bring “the two most precious things in the city,” and says the angel has “rightly chosen” for bringing “the leaden heart and the dead bird,” 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.” The Happy Prince receives the gift of eternity in paradise for his sacrifice, which confirms the importance that the narrative places on trying to protect and save people oppressed by poverty.
Despite the altruistic roots of its Christian moral teaching, the story also shows its loyalty to Christianity through its treatment of other religions. Many of the Swallow’s stories about Egypt paint an exoticized picture of the country’s culture and values. He describes how “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.” He also cites his companions as “building a nest in the Temple of Baalbec.” These references to Egyptian religion do not provide an accurate picture of their faith, but rather some exotic color to situate the story’s town as Western and Christian in contrast.
Even depictions of other religions in the town contain stereotypes. In a short cameo, Wilde describes an arguably anti-Semitic—but certainly stereotypical—scene in Jewish ghetto. The Swallow “passed over the Ghetto, and saw the old Jews bargaining with each other, and weighing out money in copper scales.” The association between Judaism and moneylending has a long history in European literature, and these anti-Semitic stereotypes led to prejudice and violence at various points in history, from the Crusades to the Holocaust.
While the story’s religiosity primarily shines through its moral dedication to combat poverty, there is a darker undercurrent. On the one hand, Wilde presents a parable of Christian teachings of compassion, martyrdom, and care for the oppression of the poor. On the other hand, there is some hypocrisy in the story itself—for a story that condemns judgment, especially appearance-based judgment, the matter of religion remains mired in stereotype. In this case, Wilde’s intended evocations of religion—Christianity, specifically—clash with his treatments of other religions.
Religion 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.
"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.
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."
"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."