Because You Missed Reading Old Dead White Men: An Analysis of Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” by Melissa Alter

So, what is “The Nightingale and the Rose” even about?

(Note: if your answer is “It’s about a nightingale and a rose”, congratulations! You successfully managed to read all five words of the title. Now go back and read the rest of the story, because spoilers are ahead.)

“The Nightingale and the Rose” tells the story of a boy in love with the daughter of the Professor. He desires a red rose to present to his love, hoping that it will make her want to dance with him; however, his garden is freshly out of stock in red roses. Miserable, the boy laments this tragedy and starts weeping.

However, unbeknownst to him, a nightingale is listening to his tale of woe and takes it upon herself to get him the red rose, believing that love is the ultimate source of meaning, more important than even life. Determined to find the red rose even at the cost of her own life, the nightingale discovers a tree that will produce red roses but requires her heart-blood in return.

The nightingale returns to her own garden for a final time, conveying her desire for the boy to be a true lover, for she believes that love is the wisest and most powerful thing in the world. She sings her Oak Tree a farewell song; the boy, listening in, admits that she has a nice voice but ultimately determines that art is useless and not as practical as math or science.

That night, the nightingale goes back to the rose tree and, pressing her chest against a thorn, starts singing. The Tree constantly reminds her to press harder against the thorn, as the song must be completed before daybreak. Finally, the thorn pierces her heart, and the red rose is crafted at the cost of the nightingale’s life.

Come morning, the boy discovers the red rose. He brings it to his lover’s house, only for her to reject him in favor of the Chamberlain’s nephew, who gave her jewels. Disgusted, the boy throws the rose onto the street, where it is run over by a cart. Deciding on the inherent uselessness of love, the boy decides to go back to his studies, focusing on science instead of love.

Wait, why am I so emotionally invested in these characters? And how can I play with other people’s emotions like this?

Option 1: Become Oscar Wilde.

Option 2: Use elements of his craft in your own work. For example, look at Wilde’s use of dramatic irony. The nightingale initially says that love is more important than life! (Foreshadowing: to warn or indicate a particular event.) After the nightingale’s sacrifice, the red rose the boy’s been longing for just so happens to pop up outside his window? Yeah, real coincidence right there! And then you just throw the rose under the wheel of a cart? I’m sorry, did the nightingale’s sacrifice mean nothing to you?

Um, are you okay?

No, I most certainly am not! Oh, and another reason we’re emotionally invested: Wilde brings up modern-day issues and debates: is love more important than life? What are you willing to die for? Which is more important — science or love?

Alright, alright, moving on: When I Google “symbolism of a nightingale”, the first result that pops up says that “the nightingale sings of love, but it is also a symbol of the connection between love and death[1]”. And I know that a rose symbolizes love as well. Do these things have any connection to Wilde’s message?

…I thought you said that you read the story.

It’s not plagiarism if you cite your sources: What we can “steal” from Oscar Wilde.

The things from above are totally applicable. Dramatic irony. Posing timeless questions. But we can also look at some of his other craft elements. First, let’s check out his use of image by tracking the rose’s purpose throughout the story.

Initially, it’s the “goal” of the main character. He desires it because it’s a tool used to achieve his greater purpose – dancing with the Professor’s daughter. Thus, it becomes the goal of the nightingale to get the rose for the boy, which she achieves but, in doing so, she ultimately loses her life. Now it’s the cause of a character’s death as well. Then the boy takes the rose to the Professor’s daughter, but she rejects him; dismayed, the boy throws the rose into the street, where it is crushed by a wagon’s wheel. The use of the rose as a controlling image a) took a relatively common symbol for love and used it in these unique ways, and b) emotionally distressed the reader by essentially rendering the nightingale’s sacrifice useless. By making a character’s sacrifice irrelevant, and amplifying it by another character (the boy) not even realizing her sacrifice evokes emotion in the reader.

Now, let’s check out the point of view in this story. As readers, we get to see the entire spectrum of thoughts – the boy’s, the nightingale’s, and the trees. We understand all of these elements (which is good, because otherwise we’d be wondering why the heck a bird committed suicide and how a single flower bloomed in winter). But then we stop for a moment to examine the language barriers within the story itself. On page six-ish[2], the nightingale sings a song to her Oak Tree, and the boy is listening in. He admits that she has a good tune, but doesn’t understand the words she’s saying. Of course, this serves to further emphasize the science vs art argument, but it also builds tension, because we know that she is planning to sacrifice herself for him as he critiques her singing. We should also note the fact that the nightingale can understand the boy (as he complains about his love life), but he can’t understand her. Which leads to the third point: nature’s role in the story.

So, how does nature drive the story? We could analyze it on a symbolic level and determine the meanings of the rose and the nightingale (See section “Alright, alright, moving on” above). But it also plays a role in terms of plot. It’s chilly outside, and Winter Is Coming (you’re welcome, Game of Thrones fans). Because of this, the rose is physically unable to bloom. This part is necessary in the story – if it were springtime, he’d just go outside and pick one off his tree, and we’d be left with a story about a boy being rejected and turned into a beast and the petals of the rose are tied to his life force until a French girl named Belle comes along – oh, wait. Wrong story. Sorry. Anyways, though, winter is vital to the central conflict in the story. But, lo and behold, it also provides a resolution! The boy does get his rose, thanks to the nightingale and the tree, which are both naturally parts of nature – and that makes me wonder if nature is being exploited to preserve man. I mean, the nightingale literally questions, “what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”. So I’m reading some environmentalism themes in here, too. (By the way, if I were to read too deeply into this, I could argue that the cart’s rolling over the rose at the end also suggested man’s conquest of nature as shown through an industrializing world. But I’m not going to do that to you guys. Although the girl’s notion of jewels as superior to roses seem to lead towards materialism… as well as the whole belief in “science over natural beauty”… hmmm….)

Your turn! Questions for you:

  1. We discussed Wilde’s message about nature and environmentalism. Looking through the lens of social classes and gender roles, what does Wilde attempt to convey about humanity in this story?
  2. Was the red rose tree wrong to tell the nightingale how to grow the rose (i.e. sacrificing herself)?
  3. What is Wilde’s argument about the relative importance of science versus art? How is your perception impacted by the fact that the boy, the scientist, loses his love, while the bird, the artist, loses her life?

[1] http://www.octarium.org/programs/nature-notes.html

[2] This is the technical term.

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