The Nightingale and the Rose – OL English Literature Criticism/Analysis
Attitude towards love of the present society are reflected in the short story. Discuss with reference to The Nightingale and the Rose.
The short story was written by the British writer Oscar Wilde in the late 1800’s. It was a time which saw the rise of rationalism, science and reason. The writer was critical about the society’s obsession of intellectualism and materialism. In this answer I will explore how the student and the girl embody excessive intellectualism and materialism to the point where it blinds them to their humanity and love.
The student is blinded by his intellectualism and fails to comprehend the nature of human love. At the beginning of the story, he is portrayed in a rather melodramatic light. He ‘flung himself down on the grass, and buried his face in his hands, and wept.’ This line reveals the dramatic nature of his behaviour. The student is knowledgeable and well-read in all philosophical works. However, his book knowledge does not help him find a red rose. This suggests the inability of theoretical knowledge to generate much hope when it comes to love. He is unable to rely on his academic knowledge. Even when the nightingale sings, he fails to see the beauty and the meaningfulness in its song. Instead, he criticizes it saying that the notes ‘do not mean anything.’ This cynical and excessively critical attitude displays his obsession with facts and details, to the extent that he fails to appreciate the beauty and meaning behind the singing. Ironically, it is the singing of the nightingale which generates the flower which becomes his main hope in claiming the girl’s love. In his ignorance, he does not see this. His cynicism can be seen as a symptom of the present society where people have lost touch with their feelings as they are more obsessed with reason and science. This disposition tends to blind people from a sound understanding of love.
Even when he finds the flower, he muses over its ‘long Latin name.’ This implies his obsession with knowledge over the beauty of the flower. For him, the flower does not appear beautiful by virtue of its beauty. Rather, it is seen merely as a means to an end. The rose is a tool he wants to use in order to obtain the attention of the girl. This is why, when he gets bluntly rejected by the girl, he throws the flower into the gutter without a second thought. Once the flower does not get him what he selfishly desires, he has no use of it. The student does not understand the value or meaning behind the red rose as he is unaware of the sacrifice of the nightingale. This reflects how people tend to take love for granted and how they fail to see the sacrifice which is required to create something beautiful such as perfect love, which is symbolized by the red rose.
The girl embodies materialism which is another dominant symbol of modern society. Materialism is a threat to human values as it places material possessions over humanity. The girl desires a red rose and agrees to accompany the student if he is able to offer her one. It is clear then that her idea of love is that it is a tool for her to obtain the materialistic things which she desires. When the chamberlain’s nephew offers her real jewels, she shows no reluctance about breaking her promise, or about choosing another individual as her lover. It seems very casual, as if she was making a rational choice about which investment is more profitable. She says that
‘Everybody knows that Jewels cost far more than flowers.’
The girl is blinded by her materialism, and is unable to correctly assess what love is. Her attitude and logic in selecting her partner reveals her detachment from her emotions and from the true meaningfulness of human relationships. The character of the person is of little significance to her. It is the wealth of the chamberlain’s nephew which attracts her. The silver buckle in his shoe is one of the yardsticks she uses to compare the two potential lovers. When the student comes to her with the rose, she is ‘winding blue silk on a reel and her little dog was lying at her feet.’ The silk, an expensive material, stands as a status symbol, suggesting her upper-class preoccupations. The little dog is also another material possession for her, a costly pet to maintain. Taking all these into consideration, it is evident that the girl is characterized by her excessive desire for material things as well as maintaining her bourgeois image. This is applicable to the present society as well, where consumerism and individualism is rampant and dictates their dispositions.
The nightingale is the one who displays perfect love. In a world which venerates logic and material prosperity over meaningful, self-sacrificial love, her symbol of love, the rose, is thrown unceremoniously into the gutter and a ‘cart-wheel went over it.’ The nightingale suggests that true love is perfected in death. Her actions reveal that it is pure selfless sacrifice which causes this kind of love to grow. Metaphorically speaking, it is this letting go of self-interest, or in a manner of speaking, dying to your own self, which makes perfect love possible. It removes your selfish interests out of the equation and places the other above all else. While the nightingale offers this kind of rather idealistic love to the world (the student), the world is not ready to accept, understand or to embrace her perfect love as people are blinded and trapped by their selfishness.
Present day society valorizes the individual and the consumerist culture encourages self-love. These values are embodied by the student and the girl, while the nightingale and the rose embodies perfect selfless love. In present society, then, it is clear that this form of perfect love is not practical or profitable. It ends up crushed, in the gutter.