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Materialism vs Idealism in Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and The Rose

29 May

Oscar Wilde, author of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, was ‘a flamboyant and sparklingly witty Anglo-Irish playwright, poet and critic’ (1) whose ideas and behaviour were often in stark contrast with the stale and conventional society he lived in. A dandy and an aesthete, Wilde was naturally drawn towards noble themes of beauty, sincerity and love, and his stories can be viewed as reflections of the decadent and pessimistic social landscape of fin de siècle. In ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, Wilde combined his typical eloquence with fairytale elements, interesting plot and lavishing symbolism.

One could argue that the fairytale, first published in May 1888 as a part of collection of children’s stories ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, is a true product of its time. In this fairytale, Wilde confronted two ideas or, rather, mindsets that sparked discussions amongst intellectuals in fashionable salons, and are present throughout entire art history – materialism and idealism; the Student represents the former, while the Nightingale represents the latter.

1879. A Girl and Roses by Auguste Toulmouche

Auguste Toulmouche, A Girl and Roses, 1879

*MATERIALISM

The Student, the main character of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, is a thinker who pursues knowledge and places logic and reason above all. In the very beginning he proclaims: ‘I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine…’ This excessively confident and rather naive remark indicates the Student’s true character, and instantly connects him to realist art movement whose key features are the emphasis on modern world and belief in the power of science. He is briefly distracted from his studies by a beautiful daughter of his Professor who promised to dance with him if he brought her red roses.

From the beginning he is presented as a materialist; fixated on the rose and not questioning the worthiness of his love pursuit. His thoughts upon listening to the Nightingale’s song reveal his incapability of experiencing true emotions: ‘…she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.’(2) In a true manner of literary realism, Wilde chose a student for his character, continuing the long line of student characters such as Balzac’s Rastignac or Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov.

1889. The Rose Of All Roses, Wilhelm Menzler

Wilhelm Menzler, The Rose Of All Roses, 1889

Professor’s Daughter, a haughty, vain, rude and ungrateful girl, is another character that represents materialism. Dr Jarlath Killeen claims: ‘As daughter of the Professor, the girl in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ is a powerful representation of the desire for knowledge allied with a profound commitment to materialism.” (3) However, the Student kept courting her, without realising her shallowness and class snobbery. When he found the rose, coloured beautifully by the Nightingale’s crimson red blood, he noticed its beauty, but only as a means of dancing with his beloved. He is incapable of appreciating beauty without expecting something material in return. When the Professor’s daughter received the rose, she stated: ‘I am afraid it will not go with my dress, (…) and, besides, the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.’ She makes it clear that she’s uninterested in love that doesn’t include wealth and social position, adding further ‘… who are you? Only a Student. Why, I don’t believe you have even got silver buckles to your shoes as the Chamberlain’s nephew has’.

Although she rejected him cruelly, he is not to be pitied because he got what he deserved. His preoccupation with reason, logic and knowledge, alongside his materialistic worldviews made him a bad judge of character. His feelings are artificial as is his character, and since his love wasn’t deep and sincere he quickly returned to his studies, proclaiming: ‘What a silly thing Love is, (…) It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not true. (…) In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.‘ (4) The Student is doomed never to be happy because he seeks refuge in reason and is incapable of experiencing true emotions. Blinded by his pursuit of knowledge, the Student fails to notice and admire beauties around him; sweet scent of the flowers, song of the birds, fresh air and sunlight.

1880s Jeune Femme, Adolphe Etienne Piot 1

Adolphe Etienne Piot, Jeune Femme, 1880s

* IDEALISM

The Nightingale stands as a contrast to the Student. She is a true idealist and a dreamer, who ‘night after night’ sung of a true lover and ‘told his story to the stars.’ The Nightingale is a gentle and kind creature, led by intuition and feelings. Consequently she decided to sacrifice her life for love because she places love above all; above material things and social conventions. Ideas of love and beauty typical for fin de siècle, have developed as a response to materialism, rationalism and positivism of the previous era which saw the height of the bourgeois class and realism being developed as a literary genre.

In her eyes, love is something that transcends even death. Wilde described her as singing of the ‘Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.’ (5) Although such sacrifice would seem pathetic in the age of realism, it struck a chord with decadent and disillusioned pessimists and aesthetes of fin de siècle. In this sense, Wilde spiritually takes us back to Romanticism – yet another age of idealism, when poets such as Lord Byron, John Keats and Shelley sang of love, beauty and death.

1878. Girl With a Rose by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe

Gustave Leonard de Jonghe, Girl With a Rose, 1878

Wilde’s choice of the bird nightingale as his character emphasises this symbolism even further; in his sonnets, Shakespeare compared love to the nightingale’s song, Keats compared this bird to a poet itself in ‘Ode to the Nightingale’, and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his essay that: “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” (6)

Dr Jarlath Killeen argues that Wilde presented the Nightingale as a secular Christ-like figure: ‘This Christian transformation of the Philomena myth would explain the clear references to the crucifixion in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, and Wilde’s association of the Nightingale with Christ who was willing to sacrifice himself for a beautiful idea the world was clearly not ready for.’ (7) Wilde presented the Nightingale as a doomed and sensitive creature rejected by the cruel world, someone who appears to be a loser, but is in truth a deeply noble individual whose sacrifice nobody understands.

In a sense, Wilde portrayed the Nightingale as an artist, and thus continued the long line of noble but lonely misunderstood individuals, ranging from Thomas Chatterton and John Keats all the way to Vincent van Gogh, and modern rock stars such as Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse. Just like those artists, the Nightingale sacrificed her life for her ‘art’ – the creation of a red rose. She gave her life for the idea. Even the Student places the Nightingale in the circle of artists, praising her song but decreeing her selfish: ‘In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.’ (8)

Wilde continues with a distinctly artistic imagery in description of the Nightingale’s opinion of love, which is rather different from the Student’s: ‘Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in market-place. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold’. Judging by the way the story ends, Wilde is subtly implying that the gentle ones are always crucified for their sensibility.

1880s The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire - Marie Spartali Stillman, Watercolour

Marie Spartali Stillman, The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, Watercolour, 1880s

* CONCLUSION AND MY VIEW

To summarise, Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ can be perceived not only as Wilde’s personal clash between “English materialism and Celtic idealism”, (9) but as a universal historical, artistic and social struggle between materialism and idealism, reason and intuition, classical and romantic, Logos and Eros, Apollonian and Dionysian etc. As every art movement is a reaction to the previous one, so these opposites took turns and shaped the world’s history from the age of Homer to now. Romanticism came as an answer to the overly rational Age of Enlightenment, then the excessive sentimentality of Romanticism had to be neutralised by realism which praised science and logic, and in fin de siècle people, already bored with it all, rebelled against materialism and rationalism, and embraced idealism and emotionalism. ‘Sad Prince’ of the aesthetes, Oscar Wilde, lived in these changing times and expressed these conflicts in his works.

In my opinion, the story perfectly captures the spirit of the times it was written, because its main themes are love, beauty and death – a trio that graced the artistic landscape at the turn of the century, and sparked conversations in opium and absinthe-laced clubs and salons of London, among intellectuals, artists and dandies. The Nightingale’s sacrifice appeals to me immensely because it’s something glamorous and rebellious. In the act of sacrifice I see a clear detachment of the artist from the ‘common people’. Thomas Chatterton committed suicide, Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, Lord Byron fought in Greece, the Nightingale gave her life for love – everything is better than a life of blessed mediocrity. I think Oscar Wilde took the Nightingale’s side because Aestheticism and dandyism are a stark contrast to materialism and logic, and her sacrifice is very artistic. At the same time, Wilde questions the value of the artist’s life. His quote confirms this: ‘The artistic life is a long lovely suicide’.

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(1) ”Oscar Wilde”, British Library

(2) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, n.d. Web

(3) Dr Jarlath Killeen, The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

(4) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, n.d. Web

(5) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, May 6, 1997, Web

(6) Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Literature Network, n.d. Web

(7) Killeen, Jarlath; The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

(8) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, May 6, 1997, Web

(9) Killeen, Jarlath; The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

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