The Nightingale and the Rose

by Oscar Wilde

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Characters

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The Nightingale

The Nightingale is the main character of this story, as all the action centers on her. She is a romantic. When she hears the student’s tale, she immediately sympathizes with him. Night after night, she has been singing love songs, even though she herself has never experienced love. So, when she hears the student’s story, she is enthralled by the possibility of having encountered a “true lover.” Even though the other creatures scoff at the student, she finds beauty in his lover’s plight. She represents an artist among cynics. She has beautiful songs to sing yet has never before had a muse. The other animals and plants in the grove think she is silly and do not understand her feelings about the student’s dilemma. It is suggested, however, that her fascination with love is ill-placed. She determines that death is an appropriate price to pay for love, since life seems to be nothing without love. By sacrificing herself, she has proven her dedication to the idea of true love rather than the actual manifestation of it. She has misplaced her empathy and talent for the benefit of the student’s red rose, and now the world must go on without her artistry. The nightingale is misunderstood and unappreciated, and her fate is tragic. She has given up everything for the student’s love, and even this is in vain.

The Student

Though he claims to be in love, the student is really focused only on logic and knowledge-seeking throughout the story. He laments that his love will not dance with him at the ball unless he has a red rose. Although this seems like a shallow reason not to dance with someone, the student still believes himself to be in love. He possesses knowledge gleaned from books but lacks the genuine feelings that drive love forward. He seems to revel in his unhappiness and does very little to try and obtain the rose before the ball. Not only does he wallow in his despair, but he is also easily persuaded out of love. The student is quick to write the professor’s daughter off as ungrateful. All these signs indicate that he does not have the real, dynamic emotions to truly experience love.

When the nightingale sings for the student and the oak tree, the student spends his time critiquing her. While he admits she is an artist, he decides to label her as selfish, unwilling to sacrifice, and not doing any practical good. The student believes himself to be very learned and above the emotional experience of being in love. He is critical of the professor’s daughter and her lack of gratitude, though he himself is ungrateful. He knows nothing of the nightingale’s sacrifice. Even when she speaks to him, he cannot understand what she means, because he knows only books and the works of scholars. It seems as if he identifies so strongly with his studies that they overshadow the possibility for anything else in his life, hence why his character is referred to only as “the Student.”

The Professor’s Daughter

As the object of the student’s desire, the professor’s daughter promises to dance with the student only if he can produce a red rose for her. Yet she rejects the student’s rose when he eventually does bring it to her. She tells him it does not go with her dress and that the chamberlain’s nephew has offered her jewels. The professor’s daughter is clearly not motivated by the true love the nightingale sings of. She promises the student that she will dance with him if he brings her a rose, then goes back on her word and insults his efforts and his person. Her actions serve as a critique of materialism and insincerity, and contrast sharply with the nightingale’s act of sacrifice.

The Oak Tree

Although it does not play a central role, the oak tree seems to be the only character in the tale who truly understands the nightingale. The student and the other creatures cannot appreciate her talent and her dedication to her song, but the oak tree can. The tree has provided the nightingale a place to nest for many seasons and cares deeply for her. It does not try to hold her back when she decides to sacrifice herself for the red rose. Instead, it supports her and asks for one last song to remember her by. It will miss her when she is gone and will especially miss her artistry. The oak tree respects the nightingale’s talent and her choices in a way that no one else does.

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