“The Nightingale and the Rose” by Oscar Wilde is a story about a young man who has fallen madly in love with a girl. This is the first difference between these two stories: in Wilde’s story, the boy tries to win the girl’s affections, whereas in Hawthorne’s story, the two main characters, Aylmer and Georgina, are already a couple. Therefore, Wilde uses the theme of rejection to explore love and to ask what true love really is, whereas Hawthorne uses the theme of imperfection to explore love within an already existing relationship.
Throughout the story, Wilde questions if it really can be true love when one party makes the other party suffer. The young man wants nothing more than for this girl to dance with him, but for this to happen, he needs to find a red rose: “She said that she would dance with me if I brought her red roses.” He is in emotional agony—as the nightingale puts it, “what is joy to me, to him is pain.” Wilde answers the question at the end of the story: this kind of love is not true love at all. The girl is only interested in material things, and she rejects the young man for another man simply because the other man gave her presents that are more expensive: “some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.” This makes the student give up on love and instead seek solace in his studies, as he finds love “a silly thing.”
Hawthorne, on the other hand, uses the theme of love in order to explore whether true love can be tied to physical appearances. In “The Birth-Mark”, Aylmer wants to improve his wife’s appearance. He suggests his wife has her birthmark removed: “has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?” To Aylmer, the birthmark spoils his wife’s otherwise perfect looks—it is a “symbol of imperfection.” Instead of viewing the birthmark as an endearing feature, “a charm,” he becomes so obsessed with this perceived imperfection that he eventually ends up killing his wife in an attempt to remove it. Therefore, Hawthorne uses a different theme than Wilde to explore love: the theme of appearance and perfection.
Hawthorne also explores the connection between love for science and love for a fellow human being. Aylmer is a scientist and is so much in love with his science that he loses sight of what really matters: true, unconditional love between two people. He wants to improve his wife by using his scientific knowledge. Therefore, knowledge and love are clearly interlinked in the story. In “The Nightingale and the Rose,” on the other hand, knowledge is seen as the clear contrast to love. Having been rejected, the student returns to the study of knowledge as he has given up on love: “I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.” In Wilde’s story, love and knowledge cannot exist together—one can only fully devote oneself to one or the other.
Hawthorne and Wilde use different techniques in order to develop the theme of love. Wilde uses personification as a technique to explore love. The nightingale speaks and acts like a human would. It is through the nightingale that the reader experiences the full extent of the importance of true love, as the nightingale is even willing to sacrifice itself for it. Hawthorne, on the other hand, uses the technique of allegory in his story to explore the true extent of love. Aylmer’s dream, for example, can be seen as an allegory for his increasing desire to improve his wife’s appearance and, thus, his decreasing love her.