The Nightingale and the Rose

The Nightingale and the Rose Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Oscar Wilde's The Nightingale and the Rose. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Oscar Wilde

Now famous as much for his personal life as for his literary contributions, Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin to Sir William Wilde and Jane Francesca Elgee, who was herself a poet. Under her influence, Wilde developed an appreciation for art and won academic scholarships first to Trinity College and later to Oxford. Wilde moved to London after completing his studies, where both his wit and his views on "art for art's sake" quickly attracted a following. His literary career began in 1881 with the publication of a volume of poetry but did not gain traction until the late 1880s; it was during this period that Wilde, drawing in part on the Irish folklore he had learned from his mother, wrote a collection of fairy tales that included "The Nightingale and the Rose." Wilde's success peaked in the early 1890s with works like The Picture of Dorian Gray, but scandal soon overshadowed his writing. Though married since 1884 to Constance Lloyd, Wilde had pursued several affairs with men throughout the 1880s and 90s. An ill-fated romance with Lord Alfred Douglas culminated in charges of "gross indecency," and Wilde was sentenced to two years' hard labor in 1895. Wilde left England following his release from prison but never truly recovered from the ordeal, dying in Paris in 1900.
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Historical Context of The Nightingale and the Rose

The 19th century was a time of rapid change in England. Building off the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and the scientific method, thinkers like Charles Darwin challenged traditional beliefs about the origins and purpose of human life. Technological progress, meanwhile, sped up the Industrial Revolution, which in turn transformed societal attitudes toward wealth and consumption; the ability to mass produce goods, for instance, encouraged a culture of materialism. By the mid-to-late 1800s, philosophy and art arguably had begun to mirror these broader social trends. Utilitarianism, for instance, attempted to explain ethical problems in terms of function. According to thinkers like John Stuart Mill, something is "good" simply if it has a net positive effect, rather than because it has any inherently good properties. "The Nightingale and the Rose" (as well as Wilde's broader embrace of Aestheticism) is in some ways a reaction to all of these changes. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wilde held out for the importance of intangible qualities like beauty in an increasingly rational and mechanized world.

Other Books Related to The Nightingale and the Rose

In style, "The Nightingale and the Rose" draws heavily on European folklore and fairy tales, including the work of Hans Christian Andersen. Its satirical take on contemporary society, however, more closely resembles Wilde's later works—particularly comedies like The Importance of Being Earnest. The story is also a defense of the artistic school of "Aestheticism," which asserted that art and beauty are inherently valuable. In England, Wilde was the main spokesperson for this philosophy, but the movement also influenced writers like Algernon Swinburne; in his poem "A Ballad of Death," for instance, Swinburne refers to beauty as a "good deed." Finally, by upending the reader’s expectations of what a fairy tale looks like, "The Nightingale and the Rose" is a precursor to many 20th-century re-workings of classic tales—for instance, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, which gives traditional stories a feminist twist.
Key Facts about The Nightingale and the Rose
  • Full Title: "The Nightingale and the Rose"
  • When Written: 1880s
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1888
  • Literary Period: Aestheticism
  • Genre: Fairy tale, short story, satire
  • Setting: A garden in an unspecified time and place
  • Climax: The Nightingale dies just as she creates the perfect red rose
  • Antagonist: The Student, as well as the larger value systems he embodies
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Nightingale and the Rose

Cross-cultural Influences. Persian poetry and folklore tells a similar story of a nightingale staining a rose with its blood, but in this tradition, the rose itself is the object of the nightingale's love. British fascination with the Middle East and Asia was running high in the 19th century as a result of imperialism, and writers and artists frequently borrowed from or depicted these regions in their work (often, unfortunately, in deeply biased ways). 

Literary Romance. During a 1982 tour of America, Wilde visited the American poet Walt Whitman at his home in Camden, New Jersey. Whitman was also rumored to have had relationships with men, and Wilde afterwards hinted that they had hooked up during his stay.