Symbolism – Wilde Interpretations

The Nightingale and the Rose (1888) – Oscar Wilde

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Introduction summary –

Within Oscar Wilde’s 1888 classic, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, the two characters noted in the title perform as the story’s main symbols. The narrative begins with the Student, who wishes to dance with the Professor’s daughter at the ball (a girl he considered to be the most beautiful in the land) wishing that he had a red rose. The word around town was that in order for any man to dance with the Professor’s daughter, they were to bring her the reddest rose in their garden to declare their love. Disappointed by the absence of this particular flower, the Student begins to disagree with the nature of courtship and love and doubts that he will ever find what she wants. Meanwhile, a nightingale sits in a tree nearby and hears the Student’s worrying, sparking a deep passion to discover the ‘mystery of love’. Discovering that he is after a red rose, and wanting to achieve his true love, the nightingale sets out into the night to find the reddest rose in the world.

The beginning of the story introduces the first major symbol used by Wilde – the Nightingale. In literature and art, a bird is often used to symbolise the rise above material objects, the immateriality of the soul and the knowledge of the unconscious basis of wisdom. By utilising the image of a bird next to the hopeless needs of a Student, Wilde portrays the modesty and purity of nature and true emotion. The wings of a bird have been used many times to depict the divine spirit, and by analogy, the human soul – meaning that in Wilde’s classic, the symbol could potentially have been portrayed as the departure from consumerist and materialistic ideals. The nightingale specifically is most often referred to as ‘the bird of love’ and is known for its sweet song sung at the beginning of springtime. The story utilises the bird to reflect love’s gentle nature, and it’s great effort despite the bird’s small size. From time immemorial, mankind has considered the bird as a representation of eternal life and the immortal soul. As the nightingale’s main intent in Wilde’s story is to pursue true love, the reader is given the sense that such a thing lives on forever and cannot be broken by death.

Whilst the Student in Wilde’s classic is harrowed by the absent rose, the nightingale visits the life of the forest and asks where she can find such a thing. As she visits personified elements of nature such as the Green Lizard, the Butterfly and the Daisy, she is told that love is a ridiculous thing. The nightingale ignores such statements and flies on through the night, desperate to give the Student what he wished for. Here, we see a comparison between passionate emotion and logic, the bird representing the former and the Student pursuing the idea of love rather than the feeling itself. Once he is rejected after barely attempting to find the red rose, he becomes quickly disgusted and resorts back to ‘philosophy and books’ whilst the nightingale persists at her task after being both refused and ridiculed. This is Wilde’s incorporation of the semantic fields of knowledge and love, as well as the eternal presence of nature with it’s all-knowing eye.

After the nightingale visits many different characters throughout the story who come to be no use to her, she finds a white rose that has been bitten by the winter’s frost and has lost its color. The rose requests that if she wished for the reddest rose in the world, she would need to return before the sun came up, sing the rose her most beautiful song and pierce her heart into its thorns. Wilde’s introduction of the three roses that feature within the nightingale’s journey connotes to Christian iconography where it has been used to symbolise the chalice into which Christ’s blood flowed and is placed in the center of the cross to represent his heart or the Sacred Heart. The white rose specifically is most commonly used to reflect aspiring love, and originally the rose was known to be a white flower by the Ancient Greeks until Aphrodite’s lover Adonis was mortally wounded in battle. She turned the blood that dripped from his wounds into the reddest rose as a memorial of their love. As well as this, the white rose has been utilised as a symbol of monastic wisdom and of renunciation of the world. In contrast, the red rose represents ardent love, acts as a sign of pure immaterialistic beauty and denotes the attainment of perfection or unsullied fulfillment. It represents the soul, the heart and love itself.

The Nightingale’s death takes place at night as she is requested by the rose tree to sing her song by moonlight. In the Greek and Roman poets there are standard features of nightfall connoting silence, loneliness, death and dreams. Classical literature has since utilized night to represent the end of things, transcendence or isolation. In Wilde’s classic, the Nightingale loses her life and blood to the rose’s petals within the night time unbeknownst to the ignorant Student who laid sleeping in his bed. This motion of transformation and simultaneous loss is encouraged all throughout the story in nature’s elements and Wilde potentially exposes the wisdom of the Earth and its great sacrifice for those who walk it. Furthermore, it portrays the nature of love, as it can change us but also bring us to emotional deaths. The passion of the Nightingale in stark contrast to the student’s logic is Wilde’s intention to show the power of emotion and love and how it is often ignored by those who had money, credentials, assets, top education etc. Ultimately, the ‘Philosophy and books’ that Wilde refers to is posed as a communication of the upper-class and their conventional, materialist lives. This is made clear in the scene prior to the Nightingale’s death when she speaks to the Student:

“Be happy,” cried the Nightingale. “You shall have your red rose. I’ll build it out of music by moonlight and stain it with my own heart’s blood. All that I ask of you in return is that you will be a true romantic, for love is wiser than philosophy.”  

The student looked up from the grass and listened, but he could not understand what the Nightingale was saying, for he only knew the things that are written in books. 

Less apparent symbols are utilised within Wilde’s classic such as the moon and the oak tree. When the Nightingale sings her song to the rose and stains its petals with her heart’s blood, the ‘cold moon leaned down and listened’, ‘shone in the heavens’ and ‘forgot the dawn, and lingered on in the sky’. This beautiful personification of the moon reflects femininity as if its light acts as a mother’s guidance as well as having eternal and immortal connotations. As it is the literal darker side of Nature herself, its presence during the Nightingale’s song foreshadows her ultimate demise but encourages the idea of an immortal soul being carried into the earth – the realm between consciousness and unconsciousness and middle ground between the light of day and the darkness of night.

As well as this, Wilde incorporates the Oak Tree within the classic as the watcher over the fragile Nightingale as well as the home of her nest. Generally in literature, the tree can be interpreted as a symbol of protection. The Vedic school of thought believed trees to be a sacred and primary form of living beings possessing great knowledge (having witnessed the rise of civilisation and the tendencies of the human race). In the Nightingale’s attempts to communicate ‘the mystery of love’ to the Student who could not be a ‘true romantic’, the Oak Tree ‘understood, and felt sad, for he was very fond of the little Nightingale who had built her nest in his branches’. Here, we see the absence of judgement in nature and how the protective oak didn’t argue with her wishes for it can wisely comprehend the forces of such things:

“Sing me one last song,” he whispered. “I’ll be lonely when you’re gone.”

The oak specifically from all species of trees most commonly symbolises steadfastness and endurance; the mighty oak stands strong through all things and thus acts as a natural protector over the little Nightingale.

  • done for Myths and Symbols assessment – PART II to two-part essay
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