The Nightingale and the Rose

by Oscar Wilde

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There are several instances of irony in this story. Perhaps the most notable example involves the student, who calls the professor’s daughter ungrateful. While this is not untrue, he is also quite ungrateful himself. He does not know the nightingale’s plight. He accepts the rose outside his window as an instance of sheer luck rather than an endeavor that cost the nightingale her life. When he and his rose are rejected by the professor’s daughter, he drops the rose into the street. It is trampled and forgotten about with no regard from the student. This is an act of extreme ungratefulness, but the student does not care or even notice. He lacks the self-awareness to see that he behaves just as the professor’s daughter does. Furthermore, the student fails to see reality in many instances. He believes himself to be in love but does not see any warning signs in his beloved. He thinks nothing of her agreeing to dance with him only if he can offer her material goods. Although this indicates a love that is not true and robust, and instead shallow and superficial, he does not see it as a problem. There is tension here between the characters’ perceptions and the reality of the situation, and this is emphasized by Wilde’s use of irony.

Wilde’s story champions the role of art and the artist and also raises questions about appreciating artistry. Wilde himself was a well-known eccentric who advocated for self-expression in the form of art, whether it be through short stories, plays, books, music, or theater. Wilde’s works—and his personal life—were certainly subject to criticism, much like the nightingale’s singing. The student claims that the nightingale is merely like most other artists: selfish, with all style and no sincerity. It is unfair that he labels her this way. Wilde seems to be arguing in favor of art for art’s sake, the central tenet of his philosophy of aestheticism. Others need not understand or validate works of art in order for those works to mean something. There will always be people who do not feel as deeply or who do not see the world in the same way—characters like the green lizard, the student, and the professor’s daughter fall into this category. But amid these cynics are artists and individuals who appreciate work that comes from the soul. Creativity, love, and sacrifice are not necessarily understandable through logic and academic study, yet this does not mean that they have any less value. Life without art lacks meaning, Wilde seems to be arguing, so it is well worth it to create in spite of everything. Love, too, remains precious even when others might misunderstand or criticize it.

“The Nightingale and the Rose” is written as a fairy tale or fable, and as with many other fairy tales, readers are meant to learn a lesson from the story. In this tale, the significance of the conflict between emotion and logic plays out prominently. Wilde certainly champions the role of emotion and artistry, portrayed here by the nightingale. He also seems to suggest that pure feeling without some logic may lead to tragedy. The Nightingale has a romantic idea of life and idealizes the student and his dilemma as the pinnacle of true love. She is willing to die for the student’s ability to love without taking the student’s attitude into account. The student is scholarly and intelligent but does not seem to understand the emotional side of life. Both characters are somewhat imbalanced, however well-intentioned and courageous the nightingale’s efforts are and however learned the student is. Life cannot be black and white—all emotion or all logic. It must be both. Otherwise, emotion is erased altogether (as for the student, who swears off impractical things), or knowledge and discernment are ignored (as for the Nightingale, who fails to see the student as he truly is). When individuals are too swayed by either logic or emotion, they fail to accurately perceive reality. This leads people to project falsehoods and see attributes in others that are not really there. Art is important; there is no doubt that Wilde agreed with that. Art without connection or authenticity, however, can be seen as a doomed endeavor. Similarly, logic without feeling leads only to callousness and superficiality. It may even be illogical, Wilde seems to argue, to ignore the significance of art and emotion.

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