I was saving the one by Oscar Wilde like a rare coin—I knew it was going to be good. Now, halfway through my 30 day challenge of reading and reporting on short stories, I present to you one of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful short stories I have ever read. (Highly recommend it! Readable online at the link below.)
“The Nightingale and the Rose” by Oscar Wilde
“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.”
A Student mopes in his garden, bemoaning its lack of red roses. Were it that the garden held but a single bloom! His heart’s desire promised she would dance with him at the Prince’s ball the next evening if only he brought her red roses; because he has none to give he must instead sit alone and watch her glide across the floor with others. He is heartbroken just thinking about it and falls and weeps in the grass.
The animals of the garden hear his cries. “Why is he weeping?” they ask. The Nightingale, who has been listening from a branch overhead, answers: “He is weeping for a red rose.” The other animals scoff, calling the Student ridiculous, but the Nightingale understands his pain. Pain is the other half of what she so joyously sings of each night: Love.
The Nightingale resolves to help the student.
She flies from one Rose-tree to another. “Give me a red rose,” she says, “and I will sing you my sweetest song.” But one tree bears white roses; the next bears yellow; the third bears red, but has lost its buds to the harsh winter.
The Nightingale pleads. She only wants one, she says—is there no way she can get it? “There is,” the Tree replies. “But it is terrible.”
For a red rose, the Tree says, the Nightingale must sing to him with her heart against a thorn. She must sing to him all the night, heart pierced, and her blood must flow into the Tree’s veins.
The Nightingale considers this. At length she decides that love is greater than life, and that the heart of a man is greater than that of a bird. She will do it.
She flies down to the Student, still in the grass, and tells him to be happy: she will make a rose for him. But with one caveat: in return he must be a true lover (for love is wiser than philosophy and mightier than power). The student looks up and listens, but does not understand. Even when the Nightingale sings (the Tree that keeps her nest has heard her plan, and requests a final song) the Student perceives her through an academic lens, noting in a journal that she has form, but not feeling; style, but not sincerity. He sees neither meaning nor purpose in her song, and goes inside to sleep.
The moon comes out and the Nightingale goes to work, singing of love with her breast again the rose Tree’s thorn. Song by song petals begin unfurling, but still the rose is pale. “Press closer,” bids the tree, “or the Day will come before the rose is finished.”
The bird heeds the advice and presses closer, so that the thorn pricks deeper into her body. The petals begin to go pink as she continues singing, but still it is not enough; the thorn has not yet pierced her heart. The tree bids the Nightingale press closer once again.
Finally the thorn pricks the bird’s heart, and as she is cut by bitter pain the Nightingale’s song grows wilder: becomes a verse about Love that does not die even with Death. Her blood seeps into the rose, finally turning it crimson.
When the rose is finished, the bird lies dead in the grass.
The next day, the Student looks out his window and sees the rose. Quickly he dashes it up and takes it to the home of the girl he pines for.
“Here is the reddest rose in the world,” he says, producing the rose when the door opens. He offers it as a symbol of his affection; suggest that she wear it that night and know how he loves her.
The girl frowns. She says it will not go with her dress, and besides—another suitor has sent her jewels.
The boy, angry, calls the girl ungrateful and casts the rose into the street; the rose is trodden flat by the wheel of a passing cart.
The Student concludes that Love is a silly, useless thing—not half as useful as Logic or Philosophy—and goes back to his room to read.
(Alright, it’s really more of a passage this time…but Wilde just has too much great imagery and writes too beautifully to include any less!)
“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” cried the Nightingale, “and Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”
This breed of fable is an interesting one: animals speak, but humans don’t understand them. This serves a purpose, of course: the inability of the Student to understand the Nightingale’s sacrifice says something about love (perhaps even plays back to her creed that Love was greater than Philosophy or Power) and makes her noble act all the more heart-breaking. What a wretched lesson in love! I mean, I had heard that Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories were depressing, but this has got to be one of the most heart-wrenching short stories EVER! (And yet, it’s so beautiful and poignant—I love Wilde all the more!)
As far as fables and parables go, I am constantly learning more: one of the keys to keeping a story timeless, it appears, is using basic characters (be they human or animal or plant or object) who have both been present in the past and are present today. The more generic, the more timeless. One object, and one object only, I felt, dates The Nightingale and the Rose: a “cart-wheel” running over the eponymous rose near the end. Now, that doesn’t diminish the story for me at all—it’s just an observation. Actually, it begets a question: are the best parables/fables/folklore timeless? Or do we associate them with a certain time period: the middle ages, perhaps?
Wilde is THE MAN when it comes to maxims and pithy sayings. After reading The Picture of Dorian Gray I wanted to write nothing but Lord Henry-style witticisms! My observation with aphorisms is that, though they don’t always use absolutes, they tend to take a position and are said with confidence. In this story, for example: “In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity.”
As observed with past parables and children’s tales, the language here is simple and designed for a broad, youth-inclusive audience. No new words here.
Right-o. It’s going to be hard to top this one. We’ll see what tomorrow’s short story brings… 🙂