The Happy Prince was published in 1888 by Oscar Wilde.
In his 1891 essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Wilde described himself as an anarchist since he was heavily influenced by Russian philosopher and prominent anarchist Peter Kropotkin. In this work, Wilde proposes the establishment of Socialism in England to end social inequalities created by Capitalism.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century had a profound impact on Victorian economics and social life. Some of the essential topics of economic conditions of the Victorian age were child labor, class antagonism between working and middle classes, unemployment, and so on. The industrial capitalist Victorian age was placed under scrutiny by social problem novelists such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Benjamin Disraeli, and Charles Dickens, and economic theorists such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Wilde asserts that the tremendous economic gap between the poor working class and wealthy bourgeoisie in Victorian age England resulted from capitalist mentality. Wilde proposes the problems of inequality in British society.
Here, we’ll find his socialist perspective in his fairy tale collection of The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” narrates the story of a self-sacrificing titular character’s futile attempts to end economic problems in his society. One day a little Swallow, separated from his flock, comes and lies beneath the statue of Happy Prince. Three giant water drops fall into Swallow’s head, and when he looks up the figure of the Happy Prince, Swallow sees it is weeping. Then Prince tells his story: he lived and died within the borders of his Palace of Sans-Souci, without knowing what human suffering is.
He was so happy that his people made his giant statue and placed it at the top of his city after him. Even if Happy Prince is dead now, he “cannot choose but weep” while watching his people suffer because of many problems such as unemployment, poor health conditions, exploitation, and so on.
Happy Prince asks little Swallow to pluck a ruby from his sword-hilt and bring it to a poor sewist. She is now embroidering a satin gown to the Queen’s maids for the next Court-ball while her child is crying and suffering from high fever. Swallow picks the ruby and flies there. While flying, there is a beautiful girl in the palace.
Another day, Prince asks Swallow to pluck one of his sapphire eyes and bring a poor young playwright, who fainted due to hunger. After completing this humanitarian activity, Swallow is again asked to pluck Prince’s other eye and bring it to a little-match girl. “Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying,” says Happy Prince with one last sapphire eye.
After one last charity, Prince becomes blind and asks Swallow to look up to his city. Swallow flies and sees “the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while beggars are sitting at the gates.”
While writing this fairy tale, Wilde had an objective in his mind. This was, as Jones also indicates, to subvert simple moral principles of the British bourgeoisie. Throughout the story, Prince tries to help poor people with precious gifts, yet his private charitable activities do not make any difference in the economic establishment.
The story also points out the transformation process of Happy Prince. As Killeen asserts, Prince was unfamiliar with social injustice outside of his ivory tower. At the same time, he was alive, but he vainly sets himself into remedying the ills when he realizes human suffering.
Oscar Wilde observed the society he lived in and saw child labor, the unjust distribution of wealth, and the problem of unemployment, which all were direct results of an economic system that justifies the wealthy middle class’s exploitation of the working class as “progress.” Wilde criticizes social injustice in his later essay Soul of Man Under Socialism and a blend of fairy tale elements in “The Happy Prince.” He argues that the charity activities of Happy Prince –representing Victorian humanitarian activists– are in vain because charity does not make any structural difference in Capitalist society. Instead, it proposes only a limited and brief solution.
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