“The Nightingale and the Rose,” tells a sort of fable where a Nightingale goes on a quest to help a young man in love. There are a few themes that stand out in the text. The first is the sacrificial nature of love.
In the story, the Nightingale hears a student who describes his story of rejection. The professor’s daughter, the girl he seeks to woo, will not dance with him because he could not give her a red rose. The Nightingale cares deeply about what he refers to as a “true lover,” thinking that the student cares for the girl. The Nightingale goes on a hunt looking from tree to tree to find a red rose and eventually is told that the only way to get the rose is through the loss of his life. Seeing the sacrifice as worth it for the young love of the student, the Nightingale sings and is pierced in the heart by a thorn:
So the Nightingale pressed closer against the thorn, and louder and louder grew her song, for she sang of the birth of passion in the soul of a man and a maid.
The Nightingale’s sacrifice is what makes the rose, and it is what constitutes a real love. Love and passion hurt, they cost, and they require sacrifice—that is why the theme of love being a sacrifice is central to the story. Wilde weaves the tale of two types of love. The love of the student for the daughter is superficial and conditional, and it falls apart when something better comes along. However, the love of the Nightingale is pure and true—it requires profound art (the singing) and pure sacrifice of body and health for the sake of love. The actual cost of love, therefore, comes out as a theme in the story because the Nightingale has to pay for the love that he hopes will blossom among the young people.
Another theme in the story is the fickle nature of courtship. While the story of the deep sacrifice of the Nightingale is going on, the story of the young student’s courtship also comes to its conclusion. The student takes the rose to the professor’s daughter, but she rejects him because another suitor gave her jewels. The boy tosses the rose into the street where it was destroyed. The rose cost so much, but that cost was ultimately not worth it for the courtship of the young man and woman who ultimately do not know how to appreciate something as ineffable as love. Despite talking about love, the boy doesn’t understand how it costs something beyond tears, and the girl could care less about love—instead favoring the things that suitors give her. Wilde is explaining that people are often cold, and their coldness leads to the fickle nature of most courtship—people don’t appreciate real love, and they waste its sacrifices.