The Happy Prince and Other Tales

The Happy Prince and Other Tales Themes

Love is Pain

Love is a recurring theme in the tales of Oscar Wilde. Many critics have read homosexual undertones in a few of the depicted relationships, which explains why Wilde felt the need to disclaim these tales as directed to adult audiences rather than children. This did not dissuade the critics from vocalizing their issues with the kiss between the Swallow and the Happy Prince or the Giant and the Boy, as they deemed them inappropriate and perverse. Nevertheless, others have defended Wilde as simply using the kiss as a symbolic gesture of platonic love. The tales indeed teem with many facets of love. Whether it be romance, friendship, or even simple kinship, Wilde explores the dark side of these relationships, often by having the character who shows true love suffer immensely.

The Futility of Charity

In his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde declared that “Charity creates a multitude of sins.” This theme is one of the most prevalent in the tales, and Wilde makes it abundantly clear he is no believer in the virtue's putative merits. Charity is recurrently portrayed as ephemeral, because even when people are motivated by compassion, it rarely if ever solves the underlying problem: Man is self-centered. The Happy Prince may have been charitable in death and helped many families survive the harsh winter, but no true social change comes to pass. The Swallow becomes collateral damage, as he dies helping the Happy Prince atone for his past neglect. Granted, they end up spending eternity together, but the townspeople they helped are likely to continue living in wretched circumstances. Wilde is suggesting that charity is selfish as it only truly helps the benefactor sleep soundlessly.


Unlike the tales of Andersen, Wilde’s tales do not romanticize the transcendent powers of martyrdom. In fact, despite Wilde’s admiration for Andersen’s tales, he emulates the style only to subvert the original messages. There is no salvation in suffering. When Hans blindly puts his friend’s needs above his own life, it is commendable but ultimately meaningless, as his friend does not even recognize the sacrifices made. The nightingale gives her own life for an ingrate student. Few of the characters’ suffering ever results in real change for anyone.


Most of the tales in Wilde's collections have some, albeit sublimated, reference to homosexual love, pederasty, or the insufficiency of heterosexual love based on reproduction. He never indicates his interest in these issues outright, but rather undergirds his seemingly traditional morality tales with them. Women are vain, as the Reed in "The Happy Prince;" there is a romantic kiss between a male Swallow and a Prince, and another between a Giant and a boy; the Nightingale is penetrated by the Rose-tree, whose gender is not stated; the young King is a dandy with a coterie of handsome, effeminate pages; the Star-Child is a young Adonis besotted with his own ethereal beauty; the Water-Rat makes the case for friendship being more powerful and purer than romantic love. Through the framework of the fairy tale, then, Wilde is able to explore the world in which he was currently a part of in his own life.

Art and Beauty

It is no surprise that the aesthete Wilde permeates his tales with art and beauty. Beauty redeems the Giant; the Art of man is replaced with the Art of God to crown the Young King; the Infanta is never troubled by ugliness or pain within her palace walls; the Star-Child relinquishes beauty and art for morality. Wilde writes of gardens, flowers, rich clothing and gems, sensuously handsome youth, and more. The focus on beauty helps make some of the tales more adult, in that the adult reader sees the loss of it as a reflection of their current or future loss of youth. Ultimately, Wilde's message on both beauty and art is complex. He values art for art's sake, thinks that a focus on pure morality is deadening and ugly, and believes art and beauty can redeem the degenerate; however, he also sees the limitations of art and beauty and critiques Victorian society's artifice and ambivalence.


Christian morals are present in many of the tales, and Christian figures and biblical diction are present in a few. Wilde sees pure Christian love -that which the Priest in "The Fisherman and His Soul" evinces at the very end, as well as the Christ figure in "The Selfish Giant" and the Star-Child in the story of the same name—as worthy of approbation. Christianity offers a basic moral framework that can govern human actions and thoughts in a mutually beneficial way. Wilde was not concerned with specific dogma or even advocating more religiosity; rather, he was utilizing the most universal, recognizable principles.


In their essence, many of Wilde's tales promote classically moral behavior and condemn immoral behavior. Selfishness, pride, naivete, avarice, and capriciousness are decried while selflessness, kindness, sympathy, and generosity are lauded. However, Wilde is keen to indicate that shying away from the former and practicing the latter does not guarantee one happiness, fulfillment, or even the continuance of life. Many characters who behave nobly are not rewarded; many who behave badly never get their comeuppance. Wilde may cloak his tales in artifice and beauty, but the ugly reality that sometimes good people suffer and bad people prosper is quite manifest.