Despite its fairy-tale setting, "The Nightingale and the Rose" engages with the real-world debates taking place in the late 1800s. The Enlightenment of the preceding century had inspired great confidence in humanity's ability to solve scientific, practical, and even moral problems with reason. Rapid industrialization (and the wealth it generated) lent further credence to these ideas by "proving" the success of 18th-century scientific innovation and free-market economics. Nevertheless, there was significant pushback against these trends throughout the 19th-century, particularly from writers and artists. In "The Nightingale and the Rose," Wilde develops his own critique of materialism and intellectualism, as these traits are embodied by the Student and the girl. Far from promoting a realistic worldview, these philosophies actually blind the story's characters to what is happening within and around them.
It is no coincidence that the Student is a student. Although the story begins with the Student loudly professing the depth of his feelings for the girl, it quickly becomes clear that he is more at ease with his studies than he is with emotions. When the Nightingale sings to the Oak-tree, for instance, the Student's response is one of cold rationalism; he jots down critical notes on what he takes to be the Nightingale's lack of genuine feeling. In fact, his assessment of the Nightingale could not be further from the truth, and it is the Student himself who lacks emotional depth. The Student's intellectualism, however, has distorted his ability to see the world clearly. Because he "only knows the things that are written down in books," the Student is quite literally incapable of understanding anyone whose guiding light is not reason—most notably the Nightingale, whose insistence that "Love is wiser than Philosophy" prioritizes an "irrational" emotion.
In this sense, "The Nightingale and the Rose" links the Student's hyper-rationality to the girl's materialism. Because he understands the world solely in terms of "practicality," the Student can't make sense of selfless behavior, which by definition does not benefit the person (or bird) practicing it. Significantly, the most obviously selfish and greedy character in the story—the girl—is the daughter of a professor; the implication is that rationality inevitably produces materialism if it is not tempered with emotion. Her rationale for rejecting the Student's red rose is, after all, logical: "Everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers."
Ultimately, however, Wilde suggests that the intertwined worldviews of intellectualism and materialism fail even on their own terms. While it is certainly the case that the Student and the girl consistently misread the emotional significance of the world around them (e.g. the rose and the Nightingale's song), it is equally clear that they lack self-knowledge. The story ends with the Student rejecting love as "impractical" and resolving to study metaphysics instead. Metaphysics, however, is arguably the branch of philosophy least concerned with practicality, since it involves abstract questions about mind vs. matter, the purpose of existence, and the nature of identity. The Student, then, does not appear to have a good grasp even on the philosophy he claims to support—a point further underscored by the fact that the book he pulls down to study is "dusty," implying that it does not see much use.
Materialism, Intellectualism, and Emotion ThemeTracker
Materialism, Intellectualism, and Emotion Quotes in The Nightingale and the Rose
Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the market-place. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.
"He is weeping for a red rose," said the Nightingale.
"For a red rose?" they cried; "how very ridiculous!" and the little Lizard, who was something of a cynic, laughed outright.
The Student looked up from the grass and listened, but he could not understand what the Nightingale was saying to him, for he only knew the things that are written down in books.
She has form…but has she got feeling? I am afraid not. In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish. Still, it must be admitted that she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.
What a wonderful piece of luck…here is a red rose! I have never seen any rose like it in all my life. It is so beautiful that I am sure it has a long Latin name.
The daughter of the Professor was sitting in the doorway winding blue silk on a reel, and her little dog was lying at her feet.
What a silly thing Love is…It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and…in this age to be practical is everything.