As a Nightingale sits in her nest in an Oak-tree, she overhears a Student speaking mournfully about his sweetheart, who has said she will not dance with him unless he brings her a red rose. While the Nightingale watches, the Student begins to cry, lamenting the fact that all his learning is useless since it can't win him the girl's love. His beauty and sorrow, however, impress the Nightingale, who has spent all her life singing about an idealized "true lover."
The Student's first appearance in the story relies heavily on fairy-tale conventions that Wilde will later upend. His physical attractiveness and tearful declarations of love suggest that he is a quintessential romantic hero, so it is not hard to see why the Nightingale considers him the answer to her songs. In fact, it's almost as if her art has actually conjured an ideal lover into being. It is significant, however, that the Student also draws attention to his intellectualism, since this will ultimately prove to be more important to him than his feelings for the girl.
The Student continues to bemoan his unrequited love, imagining in great detail how the girl will pass him by at the Prince's ball unless he finds a rose for her. Meanwhile, the Nightingale reflects on how powerful and priceless a force love is. The other animals and plants in the vicinity, however, do not understand why the Student is crying over a rose.
In retrospect, the Student's lavish descriptions of how heartbroken he will be at the ball seem over-the-top. The Nightingale, however, sees the Student's self-absorption as an indication of how deep his feelings run, contrasting his "real" love with her happy songs. She also suggests that love is wonderful mostly because it has no material value, which is an idea Wilde will play with throughout the story; the girl's affections most definitely can be bought, but it is not clear that those affections are what the Nightingale (or Wilde) means by "love."
The Nightingale decides to help the Student, and flies to the center of the garden to speak to the White Rose-tree. She asks him for a red rose, but he tells her that he has none, and directs her to his brother by the sun-dial. Accordingly, the Nightingale visits the Yellow Rose-tree, but he also disappoints her, advising her to try the Rose-tree underneath the Student's window.
Fairy tales often obey the "rule of three," and this one fits the pattern. In this case, however, the fact that the Nightingale strikes out twice before finding a tree that can help her is also a way of demonstrating her persistence and dedication—both qualities the Student lacks.
When the Nightingale states her case to the Red Rose-tree, he confirms that his roses are red, but says that he cannot grow one in winter. The Nightingale presses him, however, and he eventually admits that there is a possible solution: by singing as she impales herself on one of his thorns, the Nightingale can bring a rose into bloom and dye it with her own blood. Although it pains the Nightingale to sacrifice the joys of life, she agrees to the Rose-tree's plan.
Red roses are symbolic of romantic love, so by having the Nightingale give up her own life to create one, Wilde begins to present an alternative to the Student's shallow feelings for the girl. From her description of the sensual pleasures of nature, it is clear that thee Nightingale enjoys life—much more, in fact, than the Student, who ends up shutting himself inside his room. Nevertheless, she is willing to sacrifice all of this for love—and not even her own, but someone else's. The fact that it is her "heart's-blood" that will dye the rose further underscores the connection between love and sacrifice, since hearts are symbols of both romance and life.
Her mind made up, the Nightingale flies back to the Student and tells him the good news, asking simply that he honor her sacrifice by being a true lover. The Student cannot understand what she is saying, but the Oak-tree asks her to sing one more song before she dies
When the Nightingale asks the Student to be a true lover, she explicitly compares love to intellectual pursuits (i.e. "Philosophy"), arguing that love is ultimately "wiser." The story immediately doubles-down on this idea with the Student's response, which is one of total incomprehension. Because the Nightingale's emotional language isn't in any of his books, he can't even hear her request, much less honor it.
After the Nightingale sings, the Student criticizes her performance, saying that it is stylistically impressive but emotionally shallow. He then returns to his home, where he falls into romantic reveries and, eventually, sleep.
The Student's reaction to the Nightingale's song lends further credence to the idea that his intellectualism is actually clouding his ability to see the world clearly. In a nod to criticisms made of Wilde himself, the Student complains that the Nightingale only cares about style, and that by not dealing with real-world issues or emotions, she is being self-indulgent. Clearly, however, nothing could be further from the truth: not only is the Nightingale singing to bring the Oak-tree happiness, but she is preparing to sacrifice her life for the Student's own benefit.
When evening falls, the Nightingale flies to the Rose-tree and perches against the thorn. As the Moon listens, she begins to sing about young love, causing a few indistinct petals to appear on the Tree.
Significantly, it is not enough for the Nightingale simply to give her life: to create the rose, she also has to sing. The fact that her song (i.e. her art) has a tangible effect on the real world is in one sense a very literal rejection of the Student's claims that art is useless. It is also, however, a statement about the intrinsic value of art, since Wilde depicts singing about love and the actual act of loving as one in the same thing.
Warning that day is fast approaching, the Rose-tree tells the Nightingale to press herself further onto the thorn. The Nightingale continues to sing, this time about mature, romantic love, and the rose begins to turn pink.
As the Nightingale continues to sing, it becomes clearer and clearer that she is dying not so much for any particular pair of lovers, but more for love as an ideal. Her songs trace a kind of hierarchy of love, moving from youthful infatuation through marriage to sacrificial love. Appropriately, it is only this last, highest form of love that can put the finishing touches on the rose.
The Rose-tree encourages the Nightingale to press closer one last time. Although rapidly weakening, she sings about sacrificial and undying love as all of nature listens on. The rose reddens, and the Rose-tree tries to tell the Nightingale that she has succeeded. Sadly, however, she is already dead.
The sexual imagery Wilde uses throughout the Nightingale's death scene culminates in this passage, with the rose "trembl[ing] in ecstasy" as the song reaches its conclusion. Ultimately, this underscores the idea that the Nightingale's sacrifice is an act of love—in fact, the act of love, since her death is a total sacrifice of selfhood, and therefore "selfless" in a very literal sense. Furthermore, the response of the world around her confirms the meaningfulness of her sacrifice, with even her "killer"—the Rose-tree—appreciating the beauty of her song and actions.
Hours later, the Student looks outside his window and sees the rose. Delighted, he says that it is the most beautiful flower he has ever seen, and that it must therefore have a complicated scientific name.
The Student's response to finding the rose, like his response to the Nightingale's song, foreshadows his ultimate shallowness. For one, he does not realize where the rose has come from, and he attributes finding it to a stroke of luck. Even more importantly, he proves incapable of recognizing the rose's beauty, either as a symbol of sacrifice or even simply as an aesthetically pleasing object; for the Student, this beauty only counts if it reflects a complex, intellectual concept.
The Student plucks the rose and takes it to the girl at her father's (the Professor's) house. When he arrives, the girl is sitting outside spinning silk, and the Student presents her with the flower, saying she will wear it that evening at the ball. The girl, however, objects that the rose does not match her dress, and that she in any case prefers the jewels she recently received from the Chamberlain's nephew.
The girl's callous rejection of the rose marks the major turning point in the story. Her preference for costly jewels blinds her to the symbolic significance of the rose, while her comment about matching the flower to her dress suggests that it is she—not the Nightingale—who is only concerned with surface appearance. The fact that the girl is spinning silk—a luxury good—further associates her with greed and consumerism. All in all, Wilde suggests that materialism (aided by extreme rationalism, in the form of the girl's father) has made fairy-tale happy endings impossible.
In response, the Student huffs that the girl is "ungrateful," and throws the rose into the street to be run over by a cart. The girl retorts that the Student is "rude," making fun of his relative poverty before storming into her house.
When the girl rejects him, the Student shows his true colors. Far from being the true lover the Nightingale hoped he would be, he quickly turns on the girl and calls her "ungrateful"—a comment that suggests he saw the rose not as a symbol of love, but as a way of "buying" his sweetheart. He therefore casually discards the flower once it is clear that it will not be useful to him. Meanwhile, the girl's reactions further emphasize the materialism underlying the entire interaction.
As the Student walks away, he thinks about how irrational and impractical love is and concludes that he would be better off devoting his time to studying philosophy. He therefore returns to his room and begins to read from an old book.
The Student's complaints about love get to the heart of Wilde's critique of rationalism and materialism. He rejects love on the grounds that it is impractical, arguing that it "make[s] one believe things that are not true." His decision to embrace abstract philosophy, however, implies that he is either not interested in practicality after all, or that he does not even understand the rationalism he himself is praising. Either way, the final image of the Student reading from a dusty (i.e. seldom used) book reveals the hollowness of the Student's worldview; far from being engaged with real-world matters, he is shut up alone in a room reading obscure theory.