- Sacrifice and Mercy in Wilde's "The Happy Prince"
In a recent issue of Ladies' Home Journal (October 1973) Bruno Bettelheim suggests that the virtue of children's literature lies in the lessons it teaches about sacrifice. Bettelheim endorses Aesop's "Ant and the Grasshopper," "The Three Little Pigs," and "Cinderella" because these tales advocate the repression of impulsive desires and show a child that pragmatic intelligence can plan for compensatory rewards.
A clear understanding of the idea of sacrifice as a kind of self-discipline that provides for future rewards is essential to a critical reading of Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" because the tale deliberately advocates mercy as an alternative to sacrifice. The compassion of the characters of the story radically juxtaposes the selflessness of mercy against the kind of utilitarianism that Bettleheim subscribes to where every sacrifice wins some personal benefit. In one sense, Wilde's tale is an elucidation of Christ's most frequent comment to the Pharisees: "Go learn the meaning of the words—What I want is mercy, not sacrifice"; and the similarities between the Happy Prince and Christ, we shall see, are abundant and specific.
Wilde's theme of "mercy, not sacrifice" appears at several levels in the story and we can see it best if we divide the characters into three groups. The townspeople from the opening of the tale to its conclusion remain unchanged and reveal the shortcomings of the idea of sacrifice. The Swallow occupies the center of attention of the story and his metamorphosis seems to represent most clearly the transition from sacrifice to mercy that Wilde advocates. The Happy Prince himself, though he has undergone a change of heart before the story opens, remains throughout the tale an unchanged exemplar of the lesson and value of mercy.
I. The Townspeople.
Sacrifice, as Bettleheim noted, is the pragmatic conclusion of common sense. It has two fundamental elements: repression (of impulsive desires for immediate pleasure) and compensation (the reward promised for this kind of behavior). These two elements are most clearly associated with the townspeople throughout the story. In many ways the poignant symbolism of "The Happy Prince" escapes them, and they stare as dumbly at the statue in the end of the tale as they did at its beginning.
As the tale opens the statue of the Happy Prince is for the Town's adults, most clearly a symbol of repression. When he sees the statue, the Town Councilor, for example, experiences a delight which he feels is immoderate for a man like himself who must be concerned with the pragmatic, and so represses that delight rather than appear unpractical to others. A mother whose child is crying uses the statue for a remonstration since "The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything." And for the disappointed man the statue is an occasion for speech full of the secret misery and falseness that comes from repression and envy: "I am glad there is someone in the world who is quite happy."
Only for the Charity Children is the statue a symbol, not of eliminative repression, but of inclusive identification: it reminds them of the angels they have seen in their dreams. [End Page 103] Their visionary innocence is far different from the stern repression required of them by the Mathematical Master who, like Blake's Beadle in Songs of Experience, has charge over them.
This difference in vision at the tale's opening is not unlike that at its close where the question is not one of repression but compensation. After the Happy Prince has given away all his gold leaf and jewels and the Swallow's corpse lies at the statue's feet consumed by their tireless exercises in mercy, the statue itself is naked and shabby. "In fact," the townspeople observe, "he is little better than a beggar."
The compensation the Happy Prince and the Swallow deserve is far different from what they receive at the hands of the townspeople. The Art Professor, by a pragmatic aesthetic, concludes: "As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful." The Town Corporation, agreeing, discusses new uses for the metal. The townspeople are...