The Happy Prince | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Happy Prince | Themes


Compassion for Others

"The Happy Prince" 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 the compassion of a beautiful statue and the loyalty of a common bird. Neither of them knows the suffering and pain of the common townspeople until they see it from the palace wall. The Happy Prince weeps for the people. When he is inside the palace walls, he has no idea what is happening to the people in the town and how they suffer as they try to provide for their families. Swallow finds compassion for the Happy Prince and becomes loyal to him. They use the jewels and gold that encase the statue to help many people in the town.

The rich people in the town don't understand compassion and never even think to help the townspeople. One of the Queen's maids-of-honor even goes so far as to say that the seamstresses are lazy. The seamstress whom the Happy Prince and Swallow help is sore, tired, and in pain as she toils away, trying to get the dress done while neglecting her son lying sick in bed.

The story was written 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. The social landscape was changing as more lower-class people were able to work outside their homes and help better the lives of their families. The Industrial Revolution had begun, which led to more education and career advancement for some people. This was not possible before the shift because families previously stayed home to work their farms and focused on their religious beliefs.

Wilde was a product of the newly booming middle-class society, and he wrote this story when his sons were young. He wanted to teach them that they would be much happier if they were morally superior and focused on having compassion for others rather than spurning those who need help.

Keys to Happiness

Wilde wrote "The Happy Prince" so his sons could better understand how to be happy in the ever-changing landscape of the Industrial Revolution during the late Victorian era. After the Happy Prince dies, the town erects a golden statue with jewels to honor him. That is when he finally sees what is happening outside the walls. He is left with a moral issue. He knows he did nothing to help them during his lifetime, so he weeps for their pain and needs. He has to do something. When he meets Swallow, the Happy Prince begs him to help with the task of distributing the gold and jewels among the poor people. Swallow finally agrees to help and feels warm because he has done a good deed and knows that helping others is the key to happiness.

People of the upper-class society in "The Happy Prince" find happiness in their material possessions much like people in that time. They are oblivious to how much the poorer people endure. One of the Queen's maids-of-honor has commissioned a seamstress to make a beautiful gown for her to wear to a ball. The maid-of-honor stands on a balcony with her suitor, and he remarks that he thinks the power of love is wonderful. The keys to happiness for those who are part of the upper class are much different from those of the lower classes. Wilde wrote the story to show the vast differences in classes. Those vast differences are their keys to happiness.

The Happy Prince realizes after his death that the reason why people called him the "Happy Prince" is because he knew no pain or suffering. The cruelty in that realization is that he is no longer happy and feels so much compassion for the townspeople that he weeps for them. He also realizes that the true key to happiness is to help others and spread his wealth, which is much different from how he lived his life.

The Shallowness of Upper Society

"The Happy Prince" was written in a time when the upper-class society was desperately trying to keep their footing as the most important and richest class. However, more people found themselves with opportunities to work outside the home during the age of the Industrial Revolution when many advancements were made in the technology and science sectors. There is a clear difference in the upper-class lifestyle and the lower-class lifestyle.

The upper society doesn't care about how hard it is for the lower part of society to survive. It isn't until after the Happy Prince dies that he sees the suffering of the lower classes and immediately begins to weep for them. He convinces Swallow to help him because he wants to change the lives of those who suffer. It's the only way they can feel some of the happiness he always knew, which in turn makes him happy. He realizes how shallow and meaningless his life was. He is willing to change, which Wilde shows in the story was not normal for upper-class people during that time.

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