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Contradictory Perspectives In Nightingale And The Rose English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2166 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In order to explore in the domain of elaborated complications which Oscar Wilde designs and constructs in the form of drama, poem, or short story, the first point worth noticing is that all his writings have one prominent, common feature: all of them are telling complicated, controversial things in terms of a simple expression. In other words, what seems to be a social, somehow domestic play, or in this case, an ordinary romance, turns into a rhetorical treasury of multi-layered meanings. “The importance of being Ernst” is actually about the importance of having enough tolerance to response to crucial changes in life. Similarly, “Salome” is not a historical, mythical or religious tragedy – it is in fact a rather long love-song. Such a thing can be applicable to “The nightingale and the rose”, which proves to be quite different from what could have been judged at first glance.

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A young lover, a beautiful girl, a red rose and a nightingale with the sweetest voice and a most gentle heart – everything seems ready to set the scene for a simple but favourable romantic story: unless the writer, who is not a man of simple writing. Oscar Wilde was a genuine writer: his prose-writing was as clever and flourishing and rhythmic as his poem, and his stories were as dramatic as his plays. With a vast knowledge in ancient as well as modern literature and philosophy, Wilde was a multi-perspective viewer, who could observe and depict deepest layers of life. Many of his stories intentionally written in an old-tale format, which has given them a color of myth, just to redirect reader’s view into more profound meanings hidden in the story. In this sense, he actually tried to create an archetypical pattern in story-writing.

“The nightingale and the rose” reveals many of multiplicities which are found in Wilde’s work. With a whole bunch of contradictory elements, he produces a complicated conflict in his reader’s mind. These elements can be divided according to form and content of the text. The formal contradictions are displayed in a prose which looks rather like a long love-poem. A reader can hardly help wondering which one is there when they read, for example, “She passed through the grove like a shadow, and like a shadow she sailed across the garden.” [1] Wilde keeps using this poetic tone, reminding us of the strong stratum of Hans Christian Andersen in his story-telling, which has been confirmed by others. [2] This poetic manner takes the shape, and the looks, of sheer prose only in the last scene, when the young protagonist, together with readers, encounters the world of reality which is a cruel, materialistic place and rejects every talk of non-beneficial sentiments. Interestingly enough, this truth is expressed by a character who is supposed to accept a leading role in this love story:

“‘I am afraid it will not go with my dress,’ she answered; ‘and, besides, the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.” [3] 

This leads us to another formal contradiction, displayed through character roles. Almost all characters, despite every reason for being normally pictured, are not what they are usually expected to be: the girl is not sentimental; the tree is not generous; even the Student does not concentrate on his studies or his love. He doesn’t know patience and he doesn’t want to undergo any suffering, unlike most classic lovers. Like many heroes in great tragedies, he has the potential factor of his final defeat in his inner self – egotism and a materialistic look, caused by pure science and rationality. He wants the rose to win his girl; he values the price of the rose according to scientific categorizations:

“I have never seen any rose like it in all my life. It is so beautiful that I am sure it has a long Latin name.” [4] 

Another one of Wilde’s sarcastic ironies, hits the mind like a blow and prevents it from being drown in a lover’s usually absurd vows and overflows. Wilde clearly tells us that these two characters, who normally play the main parts in every romance, do not deserve either to love or to be loved.

As if he has not shown us enough, he gives the most prominent role of his epic to an animal: a bird. For Wilde, a very important starting point was his subjectivism. He believed that meanings are attached to a person, and having that in mind, he always tried to personify the ideas he was exploiting. His examples are so abundant that it is difficult to find any meaningless character in all his works. As a rhetorician, he started using this symbolization even from titles – “The importance of being Ernst” is just one example from many. He expresses meanings through personification, through ‘the self’. And being a human or an animal is not the most important part of constructing this self. The important thing is that the self should contain enough capabilities, enough potential to mirror the proposed meanings.

“Wilde believed that the self is plural and that it develops through being the many disparate selves it contains… he did think that an author tries to masks ‘for the self’s sake’, and so he did not restrict the identities that the self can assume in a work to that of artistic maker… Wilde’s subjectivism makes it appropriate that the self appearing in the work display a variety of aspects… for Wilde the self that comes into being with the work has a concrete, embodied character resembling that of an actual person.” [5] 

The nightingale represents, and takes a role similar to, an angel. Having heard the passionate complains of the Student, she thinks that she has found a “true lover”, the hero of all those love-songs she is singing, and decides to help him. In this very scene, Wilde uses an old but effective technique in artistic social critique through literature: microcosm. This miniature model of real world, which is created by an author as a comprehensive representation of a special group or society, has been used by a variety of writers as a symbol of the world from their perspectives. In this sense, a house can symbolize a real society, with appropriate roles for each of its members. For example, a father can symbolize a king or ruler, and his children who suffer under his ill-tempered manners can appear as subjects. The characters introduced in this interlude of culminating despair, with the Student faced down the earth weeping, are a Green Lizard, a Butterfly, and a Daisy. All of them enter the story with an act which looks like compassion, but proves to be curiosity. When they all find out that the Student is weeping “for a red rose”, a thing contains nothing extraordinary for them, they just show a sign of astonishment and the cynic Lizard begins to laugh. But the nightingale who understands love and passion, wonders silently about the mysteriousness of love. Wilde uses this contradictory confrontation, or rather juxtaposition, to put emphasis on the contrast between the ignorance and shallow-mindedness of ordinary mass of people, who just live a plant- or animal-like life, and the awareness of conscious elite, who care about hidden meanings of the universe and life – and suffer of this understanding and the loneliness resulted by it.

Another enlightening contrast is to be found straight at the moment when the determined nightingale “suddenly” spreads “her brown wings for flight” and soars “into the air”. Here again, a huge difference between the one who acts and the one who lives in illusions conducts a reader’s mind to this premonition that who deserves the title of hero in this kind of romance. Because in traditional structures of fairy-tales, it’s usually the young lover himself who sets out to pass the trials and fulfils the conditions through his hard and painful efforts to win his girl. Through this contradiction between a pragmatist and an illusionist, Wilde tells us who the true hero of a romance is.

The trial before the nightingale sounds all but traditional. It consists of three stages, like many of its counterparts in other famous fairy-tales. These counterparts are quite popular in, though not confided to, Celtic tradition in literature, of which Wilde was one of the leading figures. He was both a classicist writer and an enthusiast of the most prominent philosophical and scientific developments of his day. In fact, a great part of his vast knowledge derived from this enthusiasm.

“Wilde was a scholar and intellectual… As prophet of the new aestheticism and self-professed leader of the Celtic school of literature, Wilde advocated a symbolic reaction against the rationalism and materialism of the age…” [6] 

So the nightingale starts her three-stage quest, which is not dissimilar to the famous mythical account of Holda, the German goddess known as Holle or Hulda, in Jacob Grimm’s version of this old folkloric tale. In Holda’s tale, each of the young heroines encounters three stages on her way to find her lost spindle, the third being to meet and then serve Mother Holda. But the two girls are quite opposite each other in their ways: the industrious but modest one act cleverly and wholeheartedly, the lazy and spoilt one is difficult to deal with. So they are paid wages according to services they offered. The former receives gold and the latter “Pech” (=tar, misery). [7] 

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Since “the nightingale and the rose” is retold by Wilde, it is obviously expected to be told in quite a different way. Wilde doesn’t even give the honour to the Student to be compared with the nightingale in a three-stage rivalry. The nightingale passes these stages all alone, flies from one rose-tree to another, seeking a red rose. She finds what she wants, but she has to pay a heavy cost for it:

“‘If you want a red rose,’ said the Tree, ‘you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.” [8] 

Assuming such a tragic sacrifice as a rather usual element in fairy-tales, one only needs to go a bit further to encounter one of the most unusual things which can happen in a romance: a cruel, cold-hearted art critique, and by a character who is traditionally, even in Wilde’s terms, supposed to be very sensible to art and beauty. The Student evaluates the nightingale’s singing as follows:

“She has form… that cannot be denied to her; but has she got feeling? I am afraid not. In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others.” [9] 

And the last, but not list, contradiction comes right then and there: The nightingale, in her last wish, asks the Student to be a “true lover”, because “Love is wiser than Philosophy”; and the Student betrays her in a most bitter way. After being rejected by his beloved, and throwing out the rose which had cost the nightingale her life, he just goes back to his tedious books, saying:

“What a silly thing Love is… It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything… I shall go back to Philosophy…” [10] 


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