The Happy Prince | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Happy Prince | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Wilde wrote "The Happy Prince" as a children's story for his sons. It is an allegory or a literary tool that uses abstract or fictional characters to represent spiritual or real-world problems or issues. The story focuses on societal concerns during the late Victorian era (1820–1914). The late Victorian era was a time when society was largely class-based during Queen Victoria's reign in Britain, now the United Kingdom. "The Happy Prince" shows the upper class looking down on the lower class.

A Town's Pride

"The Happy Prince" begins with the townspeople admiring the statue of the Happy Prince that overlooks the town from the wall of the palace. The narrator describes the beauty of the statue. It is covered in gold leaf and has a ruby in the hilt of the Happy Prince's sword and sapphires in his eyes. The shallow and corrupt Town Councillors are merely interested in the statue to gain favor with town leaders by showing their admiration for fine art. People love the statue and praise the way it looks over the town. The statue shines bright with jewels in its eyes and a gold-covered sword, showing the wealth of the upper class.

The Happy Prince's Sadness

An honorable and spirited bird named Swallow flies over the city. As autumn begins he stays behind after his friends go to Egypt. He is in love with Reed and doesn't want to leave. Reed is a reed at the water's edge where Swallow lives. He falls in love with the way Reed moves even though the other swallows tell him it is futile, showing his shallow understanding of love. Swallow longs to travel and be with his friends but Reed refuses, so he gives up on her quickly. He heads toward the pyramids to find happiness with his friends. When he tires he takes a rest at the feet of the Happy Prince statue. He is happy with his decision but quickly becomes concerned when he feels what he thinks are raindrops on his head. When he looks up, he is surprised to see that the statue's eyes are filled with tears and more tears are running down his golden cheeks. Swallow has to discover the reason why.

The Happy Prince tells Swallow about who he was before he became a statue and what he has noticed while overlooking the town. He explains to Swallow that when he was alive, he never wanted for anything and never knew what heartache or pain was because he had never set foot outside the walls of his palace. He reminisces about how he would play in the gardens and dance in the Great Hall. He tells Swallow that he was nicknamed the Happy Prince because he was always happy and did not know the feeling of sadness. He says that the townspeople erected his statue to watch over the town after his death.

Swallow listens as the Happy Prince tells him details about the pain of the townspeople that he sees from his view. He realizes his life was sheltered from the real world and shows great compassion. He wants to help them more than anything. The Happy Prince describes a situation that vexes him regarding a seamstress who is exhausted while her son is ill in bed. He pleads with Swallow to help him by taking the ruby from his sword and giving it to her. However, Swallow explains that he has to continue toward Egypt. The Happy Prince continues begging until Swallow finally agrees. This is the start of their mission to scatter his riches among the people and give them hope and prosperity.

Swallow passes over the Queen's maid-of-honor and her lover on a balcony, and she remarks how she hopes her dress will be ready in time because she thinks seamstresses are lazy. Swallow continues to the seamstress's home and puts the ruby next to her as she sleeps and fans the boy's forehead before heading back to the Happy Prince. He gets back and comments that he feels warm. The Happy Prince says it's because he has done a good deed. Swallow thinks about that until he falls asleep.

Swallow goes down to the river the next day where the Professor of Ornithology sees him and writes a long letter because he is surprised to see a Swallow in winter. Swallow is excited to head to Egypt but wants to say goodbye to the Happy Prince. However, the Happy Prince asks him to stay one more night to help with his last good deed. Swallow says he will stay, and the Happy Prince tells him to take one of the sapphires from his eyes. Swallow reluctantly takes it and heads out to give it to a theatre student.

Swallow wakes up the following morning and flies down to the harbor to see the sailors and boats, and then returns to say goodbye to the Happy Prince. However, the Happy Prince once again pleads with him to stay. Swallow tells him that winter is coming and he has to head to Egypt because it will be warm there. He says he will come back next spring and replace the jewels they had given away. The Happy Prince tells him of a match-girl in the square whose father will be mad because she ruined her matches. She is very poor and this is the way her family makes money. He asks Swallow to take the other sapphire from his eye and give it to her. Swallow agrees to stay but doesn't want to take the last sapphire from him because it will blind him. The Happy Prince begs, so Swallow gives it to the girl. Swallow says he will stay with the Happy Prince forever because he is blind.

Swallow doesn't go anywhere on the third morning. Instead, he stays with the Happy Prince. He sits on his shoulder, telling him all kinds of tales about the things he had seen in his travels. The Happy Prince enjoys the stories but wants to know what is happening in his town. Swallow flies all over the city, gathering information about the townspeople. He tells the Happy Prince what he sees, and the Happy Prince asks him to take the gold off of him leaf by leaf and spread it among the people of the town.

A Broken Heart

The snow comes and it is icy cold once the Happy Prince has no more gold covering him. Swallow is freezing but he refuses to leave the Happy Prince. He tries to stay warm but knows he won't survive, so he decides to say goodbye for good. The Happy Prince thinks he is saying goodbye because he is finally going to Egypt, but Swallow clarifies that it is too late and that he will die from the cold. The Happy Prince is sad because it is his fault.

Swallow kisses the Happy Prince and falls dead, which breaks the Happy Prince's heart. The next morning the Mayor is walking in the square, sees the statue, and is shocked at how shabby it looks with no gold or jewels. The Town Councillors agree to take the statue down and melt it since it is no longer beautiful.

A Heart of Gold

After the townspeople remove the statue, the overseer at the foundry remarks that it is strange that the broken lead heart inside the statue will not melt. He throws it in the dust-heap with the dead body of Swallow.

God asks an angel to bring him the most precious thing in the city. The angel brings back the dead Swallow and the Happy Prince's broken heart. God says the angel chose right. He puts Swallow in his garden of Paradise to live forever and puts the Happy Prince in his city of gold so he can praise God forever.

Analysis

The Happy Prince's Life

The difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is determined by things that happen around a person and joy is within the heart and does not depend on circumstances. The Happy Prince grows up inside the walls of the palace and is happy throughout his life because he never sees what the townspeople are going through. He finds the joy he never knew he lacked when his eyes are opened to their suffering.

The Happy Prince shows naïve happiness that can look like joy because he isn't exposed to anything outside the palace. His attitude is much like that of rich people in the late Victorian era (1820–1914), a time when society was largely class-based during Queen Victoria's reign in Britain, which is now the United Kingdom. Upper-class society was completely cut off from the outside world and the suffering of the lower classes. The upper class was oblivious to the concerns of the lower classes during the time Wilde wrote the story. They focused on their own society and happiness and didn't see the pain and suffering going on around them. They lived in lavish palaces surrounded by others who also lived the same way.

The Happy Prince plays and dances and never thinks about anything other than his personal happiness, much like upper-class society at that time. His needs are met instantly and he has no idea what is happening beyond the gates of the palace. The Happy Prince has a false sense of happiness created by his lack of information about the world. He represents the upper class in the Victorian era who never felt hungry or toiled away at hard work. They spent their time enjoying balls and elaborate dinner parties and showing off their wealth.

The Happy Prince is no different. He lives a happy life playing in the gardens and free of pain and suffering. The Happy Prince spends his whole life in a perpetual state of happiness, which is why he becomes known as the Happy Prince. His life is symbolic of the life of the upper class, insulated from the struggles, pain, and suffering of the lower class. The focus of the upper class during the late Victorian era was centered around wealth, prosperity, and materialism. During his life the Happy Prince was symbolic of the ideals and focus of the upper class who refused to even care or look outside their inner circle of high society.

After the Happy Prince dies, he is turned into a great statue overlooking the town outside the walls of the palace. He is covered in gold and three large jewels. The townspeople look up to his beautiful statue and admire the richness while they toil away at their mundane and mediocre lives. They mention how happy he is up there while they are sad and suffering, unable to fathom what happiness or joy feels like.

This is similar to how the poor admired the rich in the late Victorian era. At that time societal standards were beginning to change, and the poor had more opportunities because of the advances in science and technology. The poor were able to educate themselves so they could get better jobs, and people began to focus on gaining their own wealth and emulating how the rich lived. They worked hard to trade in their mediocre lives for more lavish lifestyles because they believed that was the key to happiness.

The Happy Prince is oblivious to what is going on outside his palace until he becomes a statue overlooking the town. He spends every day watching the suffering of the poor people as they struggle to feed their families. His compassion for their extreme needs grows stronger. The Happy Prince weeps for the lower class when he finally sees how they suffer.

The Happy Prince does not know what joy is until he and Swallow spread every last piece of wealth from his statue. He gives the townspeople happiness, joy, hope, and prosperity. He aches for them and feels a moral duty to help as many as he can so they can live better lives. He is filled with compassion and finds joy in helping others. His heart is pure.

Swallow's Life

Swallow also has a false sense of happiness because of his naïve understanding of the world around him. He lives his life surrounded by his friends and doesn't see what is going on with others. He thinks he finds superficial happiness with Reed, but she doesn't want the same things so he quickly leaves without giving it a second thought. He tells Reed "You have been trifling with me" before he leaves her. His happiness is shallow and revolves around his personal wants and needs until he meets the Happy Prince.

When Swallow heads south in autumn, he finds the statue of the Happy Prince who is weeping for the people of his town. Swallow is curious why a beautiful statue covered in gold and jewels would be sad since he seemed to have everything. Swallow is much like the lower class society, who think the upper class has it all and that their lives must be easy. Swallow feels for the statue and becomes a loyal friend because he sees that the Happy Prince is not like the typical upper-class citizen who lacks understanding of the hardships of the lower classes.

Swallow helps the Happy Prince by becoming a messenger who doles out the statue's riches to various townspeople so the lower classes can have easier lives. Swallow feels warmth in his body when he helps the first person, showing that Swallow may not have ever felt such joy before. The Happy Prince tells him "That is because you have done a good action." This shows the reader and Swallow that the Happy Prince has a larger view of the world and that he does understand the suffering of the lower classes. Swallow stays by the statue's side even though he knows he shouldn't because he cannot survive the approaching cold winter. He wants to continue to help because he realizes how rare it is for an upper-class person to help the lower classes.

Swallow is representative of the growing middle class at the time who worked for the rich upper class. Members of the lower class never became part of the upper class, but they still strived to make their superiors happy. Swallow's loyalty is shown as a good character trait, but it's so strong that it becomes a fault. Many lower and middle-class people of the late Victorian era became so focused on creating a happy existence focused on material wealth that they lost sight of the joys of spiritual wealth. Yet Swallow finds spiritual joy and happiness by helping the Happy Prince find his joy and happiness.

The Death of the Happy Prince and Swallow

Swallow knows he has stayed too long by the time he and the Happy Prince finish distributing the jewels and gold. He is sad and tries to tell the Happy Prince that he will not make it, but the Happy Prince is naïve and has no idea that Swallow is going to die. It is too late by the time the Happy Prince finally understands. Swallow kisses him and dies at the Happy Prince's feet. The kiss is a beautiful part of the story because it shows how much Swallow and the Happy Prince mean to each other. There is not much mention of love in the story, but this moment shows they mean a great deal to each other. Swallow's loyalty by staying to help the Happy Prince even though he knows he will die emphasizes his love.

Swallow and the Happy Prince's relationship is representative of lower- and middle-class society who work until the end of their lives to help rich business owners even though they don't seem to see how that work takes a toll on their subordinates. However, it is interesting to note the Happy Prince's response. Swallow's death breaks the Happy Prince's heart because he not only loses a friend but also doesn't realize just how detrimental it is for Swallow to stay. The Happy Prince is so focused on his own joy that his heart breaks when Swallow dies due to the cold.

The Happy Prince and Swallow's Afterlife

The moral of the story is that while outward appearances are pretty and were considered important in the late Victorian era high society, God looks to the inward appearances and wants beautiful hearts to be with him in heaven.

The Town Councillors are loyal to their morally corrupt ways and do not show any compassion or heart. They destroy the statue when it no longer looks beautiful because they can't have something that isn't beautiful looking over the town. The Town Councillors represent the people of lower upper-class society who were shallow and tried very hard to make themselves look better by forcing high standards on everything. They did this to show the upper class that they understood what they liked in the hopes that they could become part of the elite. The Town Councillors only care about the superficial views of society's standards and don't even notice or care to understand why the heart inside the statue is broken and won't melt. Instead, they throw it in the trash with Swallow, showing no compassion or care for anything that doesn't live up to their corrupt and shallow standards. The Town Councillors are representative of some of the loyal, morally corrupt upper-middle class who worked for the upper class in the late Victorian era. They would do anything for their bosses even if it meant they were hurting themselves in the long run.

The story ends with God asking an angel to bring him the most precious thing in the city. Moral standards were changing during the late Victorian era, and many people were looking outside their homes and religious lifestyles for what made their heart happy. Financial gain makes people happy in this story. However, this story shows that God is always watching and that what may feel good for the heart at the time is not good for the heart in the afterlife.

The Happy Prince Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Townspeople stand around and admire the Happy Prince statue.

Rising Action

2 Swallow heads to Egypt because of his wife Reed.

3 Swallow rests on the Happy Prince statue and notices tears.

4 Swallow gives a seamstress the Happy Prince's ruby.

5 Swallow gives a student the Happy Prince's sapphire.

6 Swallow gives a match-girl the Happy Prince's sapphire.

7 Swallow gives the Happy Prince's gold to the townspeople.

8 Swallow dies because of the freezing temperatures.

Climax

9 Town Councillors see the statue is ugly and melt it down.

Falling Action

10 Angel takes Swallow and the Happy Prince's heart to heaven.

11 God has Swallow sing forever in the garden of Paradise.

Resolution

12 The Happy Prince praises God forever in the city of gold.

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