We are familiar with reading about love as the most powerful, beautiful and most positive human experience possible, but Oscar Wilde, in the XIX century, didn’t have the same opinion. In fact, his marriage with a woman was a failure. Maybe because they had their own personal problems, but most likely because they married only for the sake of the maintenance of the bourgeoisie appearance, since he couldn’t marry the man he truly loved. For the century he was living in, he was quite open about it and expressed his true being without fear — this until he was imprisoned and accused of indecency, as they called it.
However, even if Wilde had a really pessimistic and negative view of love, he does not explicitly criticize the ones who do believe in true love, but, more specifically, he despises the superficiality of some relationships and ideas linked to love. Obviously, we can’t blame him.
“The Nightingale and The Rose,” from the work The Happy Prince and Other Stories, is a very special and odd short story. Let’s consider it for a second.
In the short story, Wilde explores the effects of self-sacrifice in the name of what one truly believes in — in this case, love.
In this story, the nightingale is a bird that hears a student complain about the fact that he can’t take a girl to a ball, because he can’t give her the red rose she wants, she requested a red rose from the student “as a token of true devotion.” The flower is the medium through which the young lady will accept or in any case respond to his love request (she is apparently his true love).
The nightingale is a believer in true and eternal love:
Surely love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds and dearer than fine opals.
She (this is the pronoun Wilde uses himself) decides to help the boy but finds no red roses in the garden. However, full of faith and optimism and determination to help in the name of love, she pinches her own heart against the thorn of a white rose in order to turn it red with her own blood. This obviously causes her death.
In the end, the nightingale’s sacrifice is useless. The young lady rejects the rose, and the student realizes the superficiality of the girl.
The questions we have to ask ourselves while reading are, “What is true love?” “Is true love real?” “Is it worth it?” We constantly ask ourselves these kinds of questions, and Oscar Wilde obviously did, too.
If we also take into consideration how he was treated due to his sexuality, the ambiguity and the fear of consequences, all of his works concerning love are instantly even more powerful, and for many humans out there, relatable.
We will probably never really know what Wilde actually thought about love, but he surely did not idealize it. Through the beautifully heartbreaking metaphor he creates, we can sense the illusion of love as eternally true and the bitter taste of his experience.