Oscar Wilde was born as the second child of wealthy Irish Wilde family in Dublin in 1854. He went to Dublin Trinity College and then to Oxford. He published his short fiction book The Happy Prince in 1888.
In his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Wilde described himself as an anarchist, since he was heavily influenced on Russian philosopher and prominent anarchist Peter Kropotkin. In this work, Wilde proposes the establishment of Socialism in England in order to end social inequalities that are created by Capitalism.
This research aims to illustrate how Oscar Wilde employs major character of “The Happy Prince” in order to subvert and exemplify the problems of unemployment, social injustice and exploitation which were results of a highly Capitalist society in The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
Economic conditions of the Late Victorian age
Industrial Revolution of late 18th century had a profound impact on Victorian economics and social life. Between 1760 and 1830, Great Britain economy went through a rapid growth (Skipper and Landow par.1), but that period was followed by a severe economic depression towards 1840s. Some of the important topics of economic conditions of Victorian age were child labour, class antagonism between working and middle classes, unemployment and so on. Industrial capitalist Victorian age was placed under scrutiny by not only social problem novelists such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Dickens; but also economic theorists such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Concept of “exaggerated altruism” in Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism
Wilde asserts that the great economic gap between poor working class and wealthy bourgeoisie in Victorian age England was a direct result of capitalist mentality (Soul 19). Wilde puts forward a proposal concerning the problems of inequality in British society. This proposal is establishing a Socialist regime in Britain.
Wilde repeatedly criticizes futile charity attempts of humanitarian activists while fighting economic injustice. At first, Wilde illustrates the concept of exaggerated altruism by saying: “[People] find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation” (Soul 2) and “set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see” (Soul 3). However, Wilde argues, humanitarian entrepreneurs’ “remedies are part of the disease” (Soul 3) because helping the poor is just a temporary solution. Their helps do not change anything in long run or in the economic establishment.
Wilde’s socialist perspective can also be observed in his fairy tale collection of The Happy Prince and Other Tales. As Zipes points out, “the protest against social injustice and inequality, the sympathy with the poor and oppressed in Wilde’s Soul of Man Under Socialism” (550) is openly linked to “The Happy Prince”. Libertarian socialist writer Oscar Wilde employs Happy Prince character in order to challenge Victorian humanitarian enterprises in his children’s book The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
Criticism of charity enterprises in “The Happy Prince”
Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” narrates the story of self-sacrificing titular character’s futile attempts of ending economic problems in his society. One day a little Swallow, who is 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 statue 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 (“Happy” 5). He was so happy that after him, his people made his giant statue and placed it at the top of his city. Even if Happy Prince is dead now, he “cannot choose but weep” (5) while he is watching his people is suffering 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 to bring it to a poor seamstress. 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, he sees a beautiful girl in the palace. She says: “I have ordered passion-flowers to be embroidered on it; but the seamstresses are so lazy” (7-8). Other day, Prince asks Swallow to pluck one of his sapphire eyes and bring to a poor young playwright, who fainted due to hunger. He worked endlessly to finish his play because of his director. After completing this humanitarian activity too, Swallow is again asked to pluck Prince’s other eye and to bring it to a little-match girl. “Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying” (12) 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” (14).
All of the poor people who Prince and Swallow help are somehow victims of highly capitalist society. Poor playwright is depicted as “unappreciated by society and living close to complete poverty” (Killeen 31). Little match-girl is exploited by his cruel father and seamstress’ hard work is not appreciated by wealthy middle class girl.
While writing this fairy tale, Wilde had an objective in his mind. This was as Jones also indicates, to subvert superficial moral principles of British bourgeoisie (884). Throughout the story, Prince tries to help poor people with precious gifts, yet his private altruistic activities do not make any difference in economic establishment. His actions rather, as Killeen demonstrates, only provide “a local and temporary respite for some from the full rigours of the capitalist system which inevitably marginalises so many” (22).
Story also points out the transformation process of Happy Prince. As Killeen asserts, Prince was unfamiliar with social injustice that exists outside of his ivory tower (25) while he was alive, but when he realises human suffering he vainly sets himself into remedying the ills.
Oscar Wilde observed the society he lived in and saw child labour, the unjust distribution of wealth and problem of unemployment, which all were direct results of an economic system which justifies wealthy middle class’ exploitation of working class as “progress”. Wilde criticises not only social injustice in his later essay Soul of Man Under Socialism, but also with a blend of fairy tale elements in “The Happy Prince”. He argues that charity activities of Happy Prince –representing humanitarian Victorian activists– are in vain, because charity does not make any structural difference in Capitalist society, rather proposes only a limited and brief solution.
¹ Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921), Russian economist, evolutionary theorist, writer and philosopher. Later, in De Profundis, his letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde describes Kropotkin as one of “the most perfect lives” (96) he came across.
Wilde, Oscar. The Happy Prince and Other Tales. New York: Brentano’s, 1909. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man Under Socialism. London: A.L. Humphreys, 1912. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis. London: Methuen, 1915. Internet Archive. Alexa Internet, 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. <https://archive.org/details/deprofundiswilde00wildiala>.
Justin T. Jones. “Morality’s Ugly Implications in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 51.4 (2011): 883-903. Project MUSE. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Killeen, Jarlath. The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, October 2007. Print.
Skipper, James, and George P. Landow. “Wages and Cost of Living in the Victorian Era” The Victorian Web, 16 July 2003. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. <http://www.victorianweb.org/economics/wages2.html>.
Zipes, Jack. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: The Western Fairy Tale Tradition from Medieval to Modern. Oxford: Oxford U, 2000. Print.