21 March 2017

[Book Review] Was the Happy Prince Really Happy?

one of english classics by gramedia

I’m not really a classics lover, but sometimes I love reading classics. The lucky thing is, classics e-books can be found easily in internet, such as Project Gutenberg which makes so many classic e-books available. But, sometimes I want to read and own the paperback version, and I can’t always found the classic paperback that is friendly enough toward my wallet. That’s why I preferred to buy Wordsworth classics. But Wordsworth can only be found in particular online shop and particular local bookstore. What if a domestic publisher publishes classics in their own original language?

Yeah, finally this year Gramedia made this happen. In early 2017, it has published four books in English classics series, and sells them with an inexpensive price, IDR 40,000 each. One of them, which I was holding right now, is Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales (the others are A Christmas Carol, Sherlock Holmes—Short Stories #1, and Daddy Long Legs). I love that the cover is cute and the book size makes my reading experience comfortable.

First published in May 1888, this story collection consists of seven tales. Now, I am about to unboxing this book’s seal. Beware, this is gonna be long. Originally, this book contained five tales, i.e. The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Selfish Giant, The Devoted Friend, and The Remarkable Rocket. But, in this Gramedia’s edition, there are two additions, i.e. The Sphinx without a Secret (first published in the newspaper The World in May 1887) and The Birthday of the Infanta (first published in the 1891 anthology House of Pomegranates).

aestheticism—you’re no longer useful if you’re no longer beautiful

Previously, I have read just one of Wilde’s works, i.e. the Indonesian-translated version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I found this tale collection’s soul in some degree, similar to the one in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was about the aestheticism, which was booming in Europe in Victorian era. Aestheticism first emerged in the mid of 19th century in Europe as an art movement. “Art for art’s sake” is one of the principles of the aestheticists. This saying implies that art is beyond everything and that pleasure can be found in beautiful things.

When the Art Professor at the University said in The Happy Prince, “As he [the statue of the Happy Prince] is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful,” (p. 21) Dorian Gray, who sold his soul so he could be young for ever, suddenly crossed my mind. And so in The Birthday of the Infanta, when the Flowers in the garden of the Spain King’s palace sneered at the Dwarf indignantly, “He is really far too ugly to be allowed to play in any place where we are.” (the Tulips, p. 117).

Even the flowers in the garden said that he was ugly, the Dwarf, in his self-confidence, kept dancing and was not really concerned in his appearance. But then, accidentally, he looked in the mirror and was so startled. He saw a monster in the mirror! After he was aware about his ugliness, he realised that the Infanta never loved him. And so, it was the end of him. In a way, it reminded me about Eve and Adam who had realised that they were naked. They became embarrassed in front of God. Whereas, before the awareness came to them, there was no problem of being naked. Ironically, the childish Infanta kept insisting on her wanting the Dwarf to dance again.
Mi bella Princesa, your funny little dwarf will never dance again. It is a pity, for he is so ugly that he might have made the King smile.
“But why will he not dance again?” asked the Infanta, laughing.
“Because his heart is broken,” answered the Chamberlain.
“For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,” she cried, and she ran out into the garden.
(p. 135-136)
Oh, poor Infanta! Did she not realise that her father’s heart was broken too since years ago? Finally, the King and the little Dwarf had a similarity. And, so did the Happy Prince and the Dwarf. Both of them finally died because their hearts were broken. The Happy Prince had the Swallow as his companion and the Dwarf had the Birds who liked him.

how materialistic and hedonistic the rich or ruling class were

It was pretty obvious that Wilde brought up the social injustice issues. The ruling class were materialistic and hedonistic, while the poor suffered a lot. The humorous Wilde even used the “sans-souci” idiom as the palace where the Happy Prince used to live. “Sans-souci” itself literally holds the meaning of “no worries”. You can read at Wikipedia that “sans-souci” is also the name of royal palace built by Henry I (King of Haiti in Cap Haitian) in early 19th century, also the name of the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia in Postdam, Germany.

Let’s look at how [the statue of] the Happy Prince introduced himself to the Swallow,
I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. […] Round the garden ran a very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everything about me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness. So I lived, and so I died. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot chose but weep.
(p. 9)
Thanks Wilde, at last the used-to-be ruling class could see all the ugliness and misery of his city. But, look at how the current ruling class acted, after they found out that the statue of the Happy Prince was now shabby. He became shabby after giving his ruby, sapphires, and even golden-coating to the poor people in the city through the Swallow who became his messenger. Then, the ruling class pulled down the statue and were quarrelling about the statue of whom which should be replaced the Happy Prince. And don’t forget when the Queen’s maid-of-honour in the palace sighed about how lazy the seamstresses who embroidered her dress were. Apparently, one of the seamstresses, the one who was noticed by the Happy Prince, was so worn out and so poor that she even couldn’t give anything to her son who was lying ill. Oh, I noticed that actually there is an almost-hidden narrator, who I discovered near the end of the story.
“When I last heard of them they were quarrelling still.”
(p. 21)
The materialistic character can also be found in the next story, The Nightingale and the Rose. The Nightingale heard the crying of the young Student about his love. There would be a ball given by the Prince and the young Student wanted to attend it with the Professor’s daughter as his company. But the girl would be his company if and only if he brought her a red rose. Unfortunately, there was no single red rose in his garden. The sincere and innocent Nightingale immediately became so concerned in his matter for she presumed and believed that he was a true lover. The spoiled and cry baby Student didn’t make any efforts to get a red rose. Instead, the Nightingale sacrificed her life in exchange of a red rose.

This story is so heart-breaking for Nightingale gave her life for almost nothing. The young Student apparently barely knew about Love; he knew better about Logic and Philosophy. In the other side, the Professor’s daughter was more fucked up than him for she was so materialistic. And finally, I couldn’t blame them completely for they were still so young and know nothing about Love. (Yeah, Wilde used capital to write Love, Logic, Philosophy, Life, and many others.) Ironically, a bird understood what Love is, more than the human.
Death is a great price to pay for a red rose and Life is very dear to all. […] Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?
(The Nightingale, p. 28)
The most annoying character who was also materialistic and hypocrite was the Miller in The Devoted Friend.

One day, the Linnet, the Water-rat, and the Duck discussed about the duties of a devoted friend. The Linnet told a story about the friendship between the rich Miller and the little Hans. It was claimed that the Miller was Hans’ most devoted friend, but as the reader could see, it was completely otherwise. The Miller was so good at talk about the friendship theories, but zero at real actions.
Lots of people act well, but very few people talk well, which shows that talking is much the more difficult thing of the two, and much the finer thing also.
(The Miller, p. 50)
While the little Hans did everything to fulfil the Miller’s demands, the Miller never gave anything in return. Yet, he always claimed that he himself was the best friend of the little Hans. Finally, when the little Hans died, everybody went to his funeral because he was so popular, I thought it must be because of his good deeds toward others.
There is no good in my going to see little Hans as long as the snow lasts, for when people are in trouble they should be left alone, and not be bothered by visitors. That at least is my idea about friendship, and I am sure I am right. So I shall wait till the spring comes, and then I shall pay him a visit, and he will be able to give me a large basket of primroses and that will make him so happy.
(The Miller, p. 48)
Wilde wanted to criticise the moral decadence of the society. People sometimes do bad things to others, yet strangely they still think that they’re in the right side. The morality has been flipped. The poor give what they have to the rich, when it should be done conversely. The Miller continued to live comfortably while the little Hans passed away. Yet the Water-rat couldn’t grasp the moral of the story. The moral was gone in real life; even in the story it lasted no more. Or maybe it was all about the cunning would rule the innocent.

was […] really […]?

Was the Happy Prince really happy? And, was the Swallow still could be happy even though his migration to Egypt was cancelled? Yeah, I wondered they were indeed happy finally, as they were appreciated properly by God.

As I asked myself, “was Happy Prince really happy?”, I also wondered, “was Selfish Giant really selfish?”

At first the Giant really was selfish, for he allowed nobody to play in his beautiful garden except himself. But after he noticed that the Winter was lingering in his garden even though the Spring had come in all over the country, he realised that the laughs of the children would make the Spring come. And then, he allowed them to play in his garden and he suddenly loved a little boy. So he was very sad that later the little boy didn’t come anymore. In the end, the little boy apparently was the Christ. Wilde maybe wanted to echo the Christ’s saying that, “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Bible, New International Version, Mat 18:5). Yeah, maybe.
And then, was the Remarkable Rocket really remarkable? The Remarkable Rocket told about how supercilious the Rocket was, who didn’t even realise that he was not remarkable. This thing reminded me of the Miller in “The Devoted Friend”. He was absolutely not a devoted friend, yet he claimed the opposite.

It seemed that I couldn’t help but wondering again and again, was […] really […]. When I read The Sphinx without a Secret, I also asked myself that. Was Lady Alroy really like Lord Murchison’s suspicion about her? If I’m no wrong, in the Egyptian folklore, Sphinx was a creature who loved giving riddles. Could I say that a riddle always contains secret? If so, then Sphinx should always have a secret. Wait, what if the Sphinx had no secret? Lord Murchison was interested in Lady Alroy, for she acted like having secrets. He was interested in her mysteriousness. Unfortunately, after her passing away, Lord Murchison just had known the secret that she’d never had a secret. And so, the narrator, “I”, suggested the metaphor that Lady Alroy was like the Sphinx without a secret, who then invented one.


So far, I could grasp Wilde’s sense of humour. In The Remarkable Rocket for instance, I found myself chuckling on the part when the young Page did something delightful so that the King doubled his salary twice. The funniest part is, the Page received no salary at all; so, doubling his salary had no use. Hence, this good act was not really doing well at the Page at all.

Considering the moral of the stories, this tale collection can be and cannot be a children literature. For me, it is one of the my-age-lits that was camouflaged into a children-lit-like. Just like Penguin Random House’s saying, “A pleasure seeking prince, a selfish giant, and more: Wilde’s fairy tales, first published in 1888, for childlike people from eighteen to eighty.”

my rating:

book identity

Title: The Happy Prince
Author: Oscar Wilde
First published in Indonesia by: Gramedia Pustaka Utama
Published date: February 2017
Cover by: Staven Andersen
Editor: Nina Andiana
Number of page: 136 pages
ISBN: 978-602-03-3563-6
Price: IDR 40,000

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