The Role of Victorian Society in Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose”
Oscar Wilde is widely known for his tendency for undermining the traditional values of his contemporary Victorian society. However, this statement normally referred to his “adult” prose and poetry, whereas his fairy tales were relatively warmly accepted in the 19th and the 20th centuries (Fido, 1973, p. 38). However, the analysis of “The Nightingale and the Rose” demonstrates that the author, by rejecting the classical Logos background of the fairy tale, harshly criticizes the Victorian society as superficial and materialistic and breaks the Victorian stereotype of beauty as a virtue in itself.
Primarily, it is important to explore the major characteristics of the fairy-tales, which existed in the Victorian context. According to Fido, the moralization purpose of each fairy tale is twofold: on the one hand, it includes the component of Logos, which can be equated to logic, revelation of mystery and arrival of new knowledge; on the other, a typical fairy tale has a strong orientation to Eros, or pathos, affections and true love in cross-gender relationships (Fido, 1973, p. 56). Logos is related to masculinity, whereas Eros-related archetypes can be categorized as implicit manifestations of femininity. As Fido writes, “The Victorian period, perhaps more so than our own, devalued Eros, the feminine principle. While it debated the so-called “Woman Question”, most middle-class women were denied the educational and career opportunities that middle-class men took for granted. In matters of emotions, a “stiff upper lip” tended to be the rule, certainly for men who ruled in governments” (Fido, 1973, p.64). Fido’s research suggests that the contemporary fantasy for children was dedicated mainly to adventures and righteous deeds and physical appearance pointed directly to the person’s inner world, according to the rigid masculine logic of the unity of shape and filling. Witches were able to curse people only when turning into old and ugly women, and beauty itself was viewed as a virtue, as an integral attribute of spiritual nobility. Moreover, in classical Victorian tales, the component of sensuality (detailed, artistic descriptions of human appearance and slight hints at sexual themes) was extremely rare. Due to the fact that tales always reflect the reality, one can assume that the society itself was Logos-oriented (androcentric), level-headed and mercantile. Wilde also proves that his contemporaries were excessively self-important to look under the surface (San Juan, 1967, p. 117).
Primarily, the author implicitly suggests that the Victorian understanding of art and music is not actually deep. In this sense, it is important to note that Wilde approaches music as a form of art guising the discourse of high existential problems under the beautiful form: “Be happy,” cried the Nightingale, “be happy; you shall have your red rose. I will build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with my own heart’s-blood. All that I ask of you in return is that you will be a true lover, for Love if wiser than Philosophy, though she is wise, and mightier than Power, though he is mighty” (Wilde, 2007, par.10) .However, the Nightingale’s songs are never understood by humans, as they objectively are a mere melody, produced by the bird. The Student represents the Victorian perspective on art as a means of communication, which allegedly bears emotions in itself, but is normally created with no feeling. However, the unfairness of this opinion is allegorically shown by the fact that the bird expresses her own feelings and is not able to sing without emotional inspiration. Notably, the protagonist begins to sing only after engaging with an interesting and touching undertaking, but the Student fails to identify the lyrical themes in the song and criticizes the animal singer for the purposelessness and lack of meaning in his melodies. Ironically, in the end it appears that the Student’s life itself lacks significance, as he fails to become aware of the fact of and reason for the bird’s sacrifice (San Juan, 1967, p. 134).
Furthermore, the rose, created by the Nightingale, can be itself viewed as a piece of art. In fact, the flower is composed of the bird’s blood and feelings, whereas the Student sees nothing but the beautiful plant: “Why, what a wonderful piece of luck!” he cried; “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” (Wilde, 2007, par.40). Thus, the character appreciates the beauty of the flower, but doesn’t try to consider the context of its emergence. In fact, the rose has grown from the sacrifice and its bright crimson color resembles blood, yet the short-sighted young man fails even to question whether there any events underlying the birth of the flower. It is also important to note that the Student is not able to see this piece of art through the nightingale’s eyes, which represent the true vision. The bird sees only a bare thorn and does not survive to the moment of blossom. As one can assume, the beauty as the Victorians view it, can not exist without the effort of art martyrs and their spiritual or physical suffering, whereas the consumption-oriented Victorians are indifferent to the sacrifice and seek to obtain and enjoy only its result.
As it has been mentioned, the component of Eros is emphasized throughout the novel and is used as a tool of representing the self-confident ignorance of his compatriots. In particular, the bird is referred to as “she” and embodies the ideal, unspoiled femininity with its inherent emotiveness, sensitivity and readiness for sacrifice: “Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley […] Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?” (Wilde, 2007, par.24). However, the true tenderness and love remaining in this world are so small, that people fail to notice it: the bird, as the author narrates, is never truly understood by people, given its size and alleged “insignificance”.
Finally, both human characters are depicted by the author as handsome, young and ostensibly well-mannered, as average Victorian youth. Student is very young and has large and deep eyes: “ No red rose in all my garden!” he [the Student] cried, and his beautiful eyes filled with tears” (Wilde, 2007, par.5). His sweetheart is obviously a light petite, perfectly dressed and well-groomed: “She will dance so lightly that her feet will not touch the floor, and the courtiers in their gay dresses will throng round her” (Wilde, 2007, par.7). However, both of them appear ungrateful, mean and materialistic, given the lack of respect for the Nightingale’s effort. When the girl sees the flower she says the rose is unlikely to suit her dress; moreover, she has already been invited by a man of higher social position who has brought her gems: “I tell you what, you are very rude; and, after all, who are you? Only a Student. Why, I don’t believe you have even got enough silver buckles to your shoes as the Chamberlain’s nephew has” (Wilde, 2007, par.46). As one can assume, in spite of her beauty and Victorian “glamour”, she reveals a number of faults: firstly, she tends to break her promise, secondly, she is materialistic and seeks to capitalize on her beauty and finally, she is rude an impolite. Student himself is also light-minded and careless person, as he easily betrays his feelings and appears to be unassertive. Furthermore, he tends to quickly give up and reject the painstaking work he has been doing: although he tried hard to find a flower, he easily throws it in gutter after the young lady refuses to dance with him. Given that they are the only humans participating in the fairy tale, they to great extent represent the contemporary society.
In his short fantasy narrative, Wilde manages to underline the major vice of his epoch, or the domination of sober reason and common sense. Through glorifying the sacrifice of irrational love and passion, he perfectly shows the superficiality of the Victorian approach to life.
Fido, M. Oscar Wilde. New York: Viking Press, 1973.
San Juan, E. The Art of Oscar Wilde. Princetin, new Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Wilde, O. “The Nightingale and the Rose”. Retrieved October 12, 2007 from <http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/178/>