Last Updated on June 17, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 937
Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Nightingale and the Rose” follows a student who longs to dance with his beloved at the prince’s ball. His love interest, the professor’s daughter, says she will only dance with him if he can produce a red rose for her. The student has a garden yet no red roses. He mourns the missed opportunity. The inhabitants of the garden overhear him. The nightingale is touched by his distress, declaring the student to be a “true lover.” The nightingale, known for her singing, exclaims that this is the lover she has been singing about all this time. She has long been crooning songs of love, each night sharing her music with the night sky. Never before has she had a real-life reference for these melodies of love.
The student laments the prince’s ball that is to take place the following evening. He predicts the scene that will play out: the band will play music on the violin and harp, and his love will glide across the dance floor. She will dance so delicately and softly that it will seem as if her feet do not even touch the ground at all. He begins to weep, feeling hopeless because she will not dance with him.
The creatures and plants in the garden watch the student crying. A little green lizard asks why he is weeping, and a butterfly and daisy wonder the same thing. The nightingale explains that he is crying about the red rose. Since they do not know about the student’s unrequited love, the creatures begin to scoff at the student. They find it ridiculous that he would spend time being upset over a red rose. The green lizard even laughs cynically. Unlike the rest of the creatures, the nightingale feels she understands the student’s sorrow. She sits thoughtfully in the oak tree and thinks about love’s mysterious ways.
Suddenly, the nightingale soars over the garden. She is looking for a rose tree and finds one in the center of the grove. She begs the tree for a red rose, promising her sweetest song in return. The tree shakes its head and tells her its roses are white. He suggests the nightingale try a different tree by the old sundial. She goes and asks this tree for a red rose in exchange for her sweetest song. The second tree only has yellow roses, however, and suggests she try the rose tree beneath the student’s window. This third tree does indeed have red roses, but the winter has chilled it so that it cannot produce any. There is one way to obtain a red rose, but the tree says it is so terrible it does not want to say how it can be done. Upon the nightingale’s insistence, it finally explains.
To receive a red rose from the winter-stricken tree, the nightingale must form the rose out of the moonlight. She must stain it with her heart’s blood, singing to the tree all night long while a thorn pierces her heart. Her lifeblood must flow from her veins and into the tree. The nightingale reflects on life, saying that death is a great price to pay for love. She decides that love is better than life. The heart of a bird, she says, is worth less than the heart of a man. After these reflections, she agrees to do what the tree has told her.
She takes flight across the garden to find the student. He is still crying in the spot where she first left him. The nightingale tells him to be happy because she will make him a rose out of the moonlight and dye it red with her own blood. In return, she asks that the student be a true lover. Love is wiser than philosophy and more mighty than power, and he ought to remember this. The student listens but does not understand: he only knows what is written in books. The oak tree asks for one more song, and the nightingale obliges. The student listens but still does not understand. He critiques the nightingale’s art as he gets up to go. He says she is all style and no sincerity, that she would never sacrifice herself for others. The student calls her a selfish artist. She has beautiful notes, but he believes they are for nothing.
When the moon rises, the nightingale begins her final song with the thorn against her breast. She continues her song all night long, and slowly the rose forms. The tree encourages her to press closer to the thorn, as it is only her heart’s blood that will dye the rose red. The thorn pierces her heart as her song grows wilder. Even the moon lingers in the sky to hear her finish the song. As the rose turns crimson, the nightingale drops to the ground with the thorn in her heart, dead.
The tree calls to the student, who is ecstatic at his luck in finding a red rose. He rushes to the professor’s house and tells the professor’s daughter of his rose. She pushes him aside, telling him the rose will not go with her dress and that another suitor—the chamberlain’s nephew—has offered her jewels. Frustrated, the student tosses the rose into the street, where a cartwheel tramples it. The student leaves the professor’s home. He has decided that love is silly and not as useful as logic. He says that love is impractical and proves nothing, then opens up a dusty book.