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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

The story begins as the Chinese emperor reads in a book about the best thing in his empire being a little nightingale that sings in a wood. He then demands that the bird be found, and after all the royal minions have failed, an assistant kitchen maid leads them to the bird.

The little nightingale is brought to the court, given a golden perch, and sings so beautifully that tears come to the eyes of the emperor. That is enough reward for the bird, who declines the gift of a golden slipper. The nightingale is put in a golden cage. Its daily walks are monitored by servants, and the bird believes that its freedom is gone.

The emperor of Japan sends a gift of a magnificent bejeweled mechanical nightingale to the Chinese court. A duet is arranged between the live bird and the mechanical one. The live nightingale is, after the failed duet, banished. The artificial bird, thought to be superior, is placed next to the emperor’s bed. It plays the same song over and over, and in time, a wheel in its workings breaks. Even after repair, the bird can sing only once a year.

Five years pass, and the emperor is mortally ill. As the author puts it, “Death was sitting on his chest and had put on his gold crown and held in one hand the imperial gold sword, and in the other, his splendid banner.” The emperor’s good and wicked deeds come as troublesome images. A replacement emperor has been chosen. The emperor cries out to the mechanical bird to sing, but there is no one to wind it up.

The live nightingale returns to a branch outside the window and makes a bargain with Death—a song for the gold crown, a second for the gold sword, and a third for the splendid banner. As the bird sings about the quiet graveyard, Death’s garden, watered by mourner’s tears, Death drifts away in a cold white mist.

The emperor, fully recovered, understands when the nightingale tells him that he must fly free and “sing of good and evil which is kept hidden from you.”

Written as both an allegory and a tribute to Jenny Lind, this tale is frequently cited as Andersen’s best. It contains ironic references to the hierarchical social system; it has humorous touches; it speaks to the superiority of nature over mechanical, artificial copies of reality; and it appeals to all ages.

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