The theme of Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Nightingale and the Rose” could be said to be both the nobility in and futility of sacrifice. Wilde was an acerbic observer of Victorian social customs, and frequently satirized them. “The Nightingale and the Rose,” however, was part of a compilation of children’s stories by Wilde published in 1888. “The Nightingale and the Rose” has a somber tone. A nightingale sitting in a garden observes an emotionally distraught college student lament the absence of a red rose among the myriad plants before him. The red rose, he wails, is needed in order to win over the hand of his true love. The other animals and plants, however, are considerably more cynical, and do not share the nightingale’s sympathy for the morose student, as evident in the following passage:
“Why, indeed?” whispered a Daisy to his neighbor, in a soft, low voice.
“He is weeping for a red rose,” said the Nightingale.
“For a red rose!” they cried; “how very ridiculous!” and the little Lizard, who was something of a cynic, laughed outright.
But the Nightingale understood the secret of the Student’s sorrow, and she sat silent in the oak-tree, and thought about the mystery of Love.
The nightingale, as readers learn, will sacrifice its life so that the student may experience love with his chosen partner. The bird has flown among the trees and plants, seeking the elusive red rose only to discover, as explained by a red rose tree that cannot grow roses this year, that the only solution is to stain a different color rose red with its (the nightingale’s) blood. And, the nightingale must perform this suicidal act while singing to the tree, to all of which the bird cries, “Death is a great price to pay for a red rose.” The nightingale, however, overcomes any reservations regarding the sanctity of life and agrees to shed its blood for the student:
“Be happy,” cried the Nightingale, “be happy; you shall have your red rose. I will build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with my own heart’s-blood. All that I ask of you in return is that you will be a true lover, for Love is wiser than Philosophy, though she is wise, and mightier than Power, though he is mighty.”
This most noble of sacrifices is all for naught. The woman spurns the student despite his presentation of the red rose, explaining that the flower does not match her dress and that the Chamberlain’s nephew has presented her with jewels. She punctuates her rudeness by noting, “everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.” The bird has killed itself for nothing, and the student has humiliated himself, declaring his determination to avoid emotional entanglements in the future. He walks away declaring that love is “silly” and that it is “not half as useful as Logic . . . In fact, it is quite unpractical . . .”
With the story’s apparent moral that human emotions—or love, anyway—are impractical, and with the nightingale having killed itself on his behalf, one can conclude that the story’s theme is the futility of love and sacrifice. Only the student and the nightingale believed in true love: the student ended up alone and the nightingale dead.