When Selfless Turns Selfish: Or Does Selfless Even Exist?
About two days ago, I was listlessly sitting at the piano in my living room, banging at the keys occasionally to make it sound like I wasn’t doing precisely what I was, and staring at the bookshelf to my left. I must have stared at those same thirty or so books for half an hour before I actually got around to reading their titles and then finally, their authors. Brushing past various tomes of Henry James, Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Anton Checkhov, E. M. Forster, and even Charles Kingsley (who are all great men in their way, but did not write the kind of thing you just randomly decide to open in order to entertain yourself while supposedly practicing Clementi), I lighted on a name which ever since fifth grade and my first encounter with The Importance Of Being Ernest has been synonymous with a sharp wit and a good laugh: Oscar Wilde.
All too often have I professed myself to be a great fan of Wilde, but really in all fairness, I was a fan of The Importance of Being Ernest, not of Wilde for I had not read enough of his work (having only read the aforementioned play and Lady Windermere’s Fan). With this in mind (as well as the promise of a laugh that would free me from the constraints of a long-dead composer’s legacy which I had been forced to stare at on and off since the ripe old age of seven) I pulled The Happy Prince and Other Tales down from the shelf.
The moment I read ‘High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince” (Wilde, 1), I remembered a conversation with my mum about this very story in which she had told me that every time she read it, she cried. “Wonderful,” I thought sarcastically, “and just when I was looking for a laugh.” But for some reason, I can’t say what, I decided to read it anyway.
For those who don’t know, Oscar Wilde was not only a playwright, but also a writer of fairytales (and even one novel). The Happy Prince (a sadly ironic title) was one of his fairytales, as was made quite clear by the language and style it was written in. However, half a page in I started to notice that Wilde’s use of Anderson-esque speech was not in all seriousness, but rather a parody of the traditional method. This became more and more apparent as I continued and the story conveyed fewer and fewer traditional fairytale themes in that flowery but simple language and more and more of Wilde’s political, social, and in general world views.
In a daze I completed the mere fifteen pages of intense love and sadness and then turned back to page one and began again. I read it three times before I stopped and really gave my brain a chance to catch up with everything I had just read. A funny thing about the ‘aftermath’ of having read Wilde’s short story was that I couldn’t marshal my thoughts. Not that I normally am able to file them away in neatly color-coded files marked by subject and then arranged perfectly in file-cabinets or drawers—no, that I leave for people like my English teacher—but normally I could give a person the basic idea of what I thought. Not that I thought. For really after reading that story all that I knew was that it made me think. About what? I couldn’t say.
Now I’m sitting at this computer, staring at what I’ve written, and realizing that I still haven’t made any type of point about this story that so deeply affected me. And again I ask myself why it affected me. But it’s not enough to just answer “It did”. I could turn the entire thing around and tell you, my dear readers whoever you are, that sometimes things just affect you very deeply and you can’t say or know why, and pretend that was my point all along. But I won’t because I still have some faith in my ability to sort through the heaps of thought rattling around in my brain.
The Happy Prince deals with a statue of a prince who sits high atop a column and must stare out across his city day after day, witnessing the miseries of its people, but having no power to alter any of it. A swallow, late in migrating to Egypt, alights one day on his shoulder and speaks to the prince who tells the little bird of the sufferings of the people. The swallow then agrees to delay his journey to Egypt and help the impoverished seamstress mother of a sick child by taking the ruby from the prince’s sword hilt and delivering it to her. Once this is done, the prince convinces the swallow to stay longer and complete two more such missions, using the sapphires that are the Prince’s eyes. After this, the swallow stays with the prince out of love and loyalty, performing one more task to help the people of his city before the harsh winter kills him. As his little friend breathes his last breath, the prince’s leaden heart cracks and the next day he is taken away and melted for he is no longer beautiful having given his jewels and gold leaf to the poor.
Perhaps the most obvious point Wilde makes in this story is that about the deplorable position of the impoverished in the world at his time, and indeed the point holds true into this year, 2010, a little over 120 years later. However, I think such a point should be canvassed in quite a different way than I have begun here, when I have not already exceeded the suggested number of words by 800 (or so), and have not already written a preamble about nothing much.
Therefore I will examine the selflessness portrayed in the story by both the prince and the swallow. The prince sees the suffering of others and does not hesitate to give what he has to aid them in their plight, even at risk of his own ‘life’. The swallow remained in the cold, bitter winter to at first aid the prince and thereby the people and later out of his love for the prince. This seems about as selfless as it gets, right? That’s what I thought too, and even, I guess, still think on some level. but when I really began to examine the motives of both the prince and the swallow, I began to question (as it is my nature to question anything and everything) whether either of them were really ll that selfless.
According to Merriam-Webster, selfless is and adjective meaning a person ”concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with [their] own”. Okay, sounds about right. But is that truly what either the swallow or the prince were? First I shall attack the poor little swallow’s supposed ‘selflessness’. The swallow at first refused to aid the prince in his—what shall I call it?—charity work, in the first case aiding a poor mother care for her sick son. The swallow tells the prince that he will not aid him, saying “I don’t think I like boys” (Wilde, 7). This is obviously very selfish; he is not by any definition putting other’s wishes before his own. Now one might argue that “Oh, he had a change of heart, he saw what good he could do in the world.” I don’t think so. He actually only ever agrees to aid the prince because he sees that he has made the prince sad. He goes out of his way to help someone he claims not even to like for the prince. Later on, we see that indeed the little bird loves the prince, that being his motivation for staying in the first place. And is not love an entirely selfish emotion? The swallow, it seems, had no real thought for the people, but only for the prince. If he had really cared about ending the sufferings of the poor, he would not have protested at the prince’s decision to give his eyes and skin to the cause. But he did. So doesn’t it seem fair to argue that the noble little bird was in fact guilty of the most selfish crime of love?
Now I can see people reading this and picturing me as the meanest, coldest, most uncaring misanthrope there ever was. And if you know me, I hope you realize that I didn’t get brainwashed this weekend. I merely am questioning the swallow’s motives, not his acts. His acts are as noble and unquestionably true as they could possibly be and I appreciate him and love him for it. Nor am I suggesting that love is a bad thing. Not in the slightest! Love makes the world go round, after all (and I really do like my seasons!). I really just want to question whether love is, by nature, selfish and whether, indeed, then such a thing as selflessness truly exists. For aren’t we humans a self-obsessed lot by nature as well?
The whole thing is most complicated and deserves more thought and discussion than I can give it here. But I hope, what small confusion I have given voice to here can express part of the turmoil I felt during the reading of The Happy Prince.
A/N: I know that this is long and rambling and I probably should have just deleted paragraphs 3, 4, 5, 6, and perhaps 8 upon their completion, but I felt that they were an important part of the process I went through to figure out what on earth I felt about The Happy Prince and should therefore be spared.