"The Nightingale and the Rose" has clear allusions to Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "The Nightingale." Published in 1843, Andersen's "The Nightingale" became one of his most famous fairy tales, all of which were widely read in Victorian England and Ireland and would have been known to Wilde. The tone of "The Nightingale and the Rose" is heavily influenced by Andersen, especially since its fusion of fantasy and social commentary is very similar to what readers might find in Andersen's fairy tales.
More specifically, Andersen's "The Nightingale" is about a Chinese Emperor who, after first being entranced by the song of a real nightingale, receives a mechanical, bejeweled bird and loses interest in the real thing. This preference for things that are artificial shows up in Wilde's story, since the professor's daughter rejects the natural beauty of the rose for the worldly value of the jewels.
However, in Anderson's story, when the mechanical bird later stops working and the Emperor becomes ill, the real nightingale's song is able to restore him to health. This outcome affirms the value of the real bird and shows the limits of artificial wonders. The restorative power of Andersen's nightingale is mirrored by Wilde in "The Nightingale and the Rose," since the Nightingale's song is also life-giving in its ability to forge the rose.
Like many of Wilde's fairy tales, "The Nightingale and the Rose" contains strong allusions to Christianity. For example, the idealist, natural setting of the story immediately references Christianity with its allusion to the Garden of Eden. The garden's associations with both beauty and darkness refer back to the classic battle between virtue and vice detailed in the story of Adam and Eve. In the same way that Eve plucks the forbidden fruit and thus signals the fall of man in the Bible, the Student in "The Nightingale and the Rose" "lean[s] down and pluck[s]" the red rose. Though the rose is not forbidden to the Student, his plucking of it represents a certain carelessness that ultimately spotlights his shallow and flawed worldview.
The strongest allusion to Christianity comes when the Nightingale gives her life for the sake of the Student's love, which references Christ's self-sacrifice for his love of all humanity. The piercing of the Nightingale's breast on a thorn alludes to Jesus's bleeding on the cross. What's more, the thorn itself is a possible nod to Jesus's crown of thorns.
Wilde also makes a reference to Jesus's death when describing the Nightingale's song as she sacrifices herself:
For she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.
The idea of a love that lives beyond the grave alludes to Christ, who rose again after his death. Such allusions add a certain gravity to the story, since Jesus Christ is such a prominent and powerful figure. What's more, they help emphasize the selflessness of the Nightingale's sacrifice for the Student. By calling to mind Christ's willingness to die for others, the story encourages readers to view the Nightingale as a deeply generous and loving soul.
The "Nightingale and the Rose" contains allusions to classical myths, creating a sense of timelessness and grandeur that elevates the story’s focus on love and sacrifice. When considering her sacrifice and musing on the beauty of life, the Nightingale talks about how pleasant life is, saying:
"Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl."
Here, the image of the sun in his chariot alludes to the ancient Greek god of the sun, Helios, who—according to myth—drove a fiery, horse-drawn chariot through the sky from east to west every day. This reference to mythology gives the Nightingale’s speech an agelessness that adds grandeur to the sacrifice she's about to make. The reference to Helios, who is a personification of the sun, also mirrors the whimsical world of "The Nightingale and the Rose," where every piece of nature has its own life and its own anthropomorphized personality.
The story alludes to another mythical figure, Echo, when describing the Nightingale’s final song:
The red rose heard it, and it trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air. Echo bore it to her purple cavern in the hills, and woke the sleeping shepherds from their dreams. It floated through the reeds of the river, and they carried its message to the sea.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the goddess Juno curses Echo, a nymph who uses conversation to distract her from finding out about her husband's affairs. When Juno realizes that Echo has been keeping her from discovering the truth, she curses Echo, making it so she can only speak by repeating the last few words somebody has said. This, in turn, makes it difficult for Echo to communicate with Narcissus, with whom she falls in love. Narcissus doesn't return her feelings, and he dies without ever reciprocating her love. In the aftermath of his death, Echo withers away until only her voice remains. By alluding to this story, "The Nightingale and the Rose" plays with the idea of unrequited love, since Echo (a rejected lover) is the one to carry the Nightingale's song through the land. In some ways, then, this allusion foreshadows the fact that the Student doesn't return the Nightingale's love, nor does the Professor's daughter return his love.
The connection to the Metamorphoses—a collection of tales that depict the creation of the world through origin myths about shapeshifting—is also significant because the Nightingale’s blood gives life to the rose in this story. Just as Echo becomes an actual echo and Narcissus becomes a flower, the fact that the Nightingale wastes away in order to give life to the rose is also a form of transformation.