Review: The Happy Prince and Other Stories

Literature for mature readers does not always contain a moral; it tends to thrive on ironies and conundrums. The kernel of children’s stories, however, is more likely to take the shape of better-defined lessons. In Oscar Wilde’s endlessly brilliant The Happy Prince and other stories, practical teachings are ensconced in dazzling tales of imaginative lustre. While most of the tales found here have happy endings or come with a bittersweet flavour, Wilde does not spare his young reader from witnessing painful injustices and human suffering.

This small story-collection is preoccupied with the theme of status and class, in a quiet indictment of society’s noxious hierarchies. Wilde sets a couple of the stories in the world of princes and kings, where differences in privilege and favour are most entrenched. In The Young King, a boy who is waiting to be crowned orders for his robe and crown and sceptre to be made with the finest jewels and by hand of the most famous artists of the time, until three separate dreams confront him with the austerity endured and perils faced by slaves and labourers involved in the project. The Happy Prince, of the title story, is a statue mounted on a tall column in memory of the former royal. He is gilded with gold and studded with gems. From that height the Prince gets to see the sorrow and misery in his city, all that he was protected from when he was alive. Enlisting the help of a Swallow, he gifts the precious stones and golden leaves with which he is adorned to the poor and the destitute.

His unparalleled creative talent means that Wilde’s writing is never dour or prosaic. For example, prior to meeting with the Happy Prince, the gentle-hearted Swallow had stayed behind when his friends had flown to Egypt for the cold season, because he was attracted to a graceful Reed with “slender waist”. “So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings and making silver ripples. This was his courtship.”

Most of Wilde’s protagonists are rewarded for their virtuous attitudes. In The Model Millionaire, Hugh Erskine, despite his exceptional looks and personal charm, is incapable of marrying the lady he loves, since her father would not hear of any engagement until the young man has 10,000 pounds. An altruistic deed, nevertheless, with the only sovereign in his pocket would change Hugh’s fate forever.

Still, the author does not shield us from ugliness of the real world. In spite of declaring himself little Hans’ best mate in The Devoted Friend rich Miller takes advantage of him at every turn: plucking flowers from Hans’ garden, thus depriving him of his livelihood; demanding that he gives Miller his only plank of wood; and sending the obliging Hans off on hazardous errands. In this story-within-story narrative, one character says about an angry listener of his anecdote, “The fact is that I told him a story with a moral.” “Ah, that is always a very dangerous thing to do,” replies another.

So far has humankind fallen in our regard of right conduct.

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