Despite being children’s stories, some of Oscar Wilde’s work is rather dark. Stories like these two give conflicting moral endings despite their characters having roughly the same fate. In each, a beautiful and beloved prince is selfish, suffers a great deal and then helps many others. Each story shares a harsh reality with us- you are only useful and good if you are beautiful and kind, the latter of which each prince lacked. But what do these instances of suffering aim to teach us? In these stories, we are being conditioned to both accept and abhor the treatment of Others. We accept that ugliness is punishment, but pity those punishments still.
In our society, those who aren’t “normal” become targets for ridicule, abuse, and mockery. Ofcourse, being humans full of empathy, this recognition of ridicule and abuse against the disabled becomes patronizing pity. Neither of these attitudes are helpful to disabled people, and yet these attitudes are highly rewarded in both stories. Each prince sacrifices much to help the sick, the starving, and in turn is punished himself. Each boy sufferings willingly, self-righteously, but their rewards are different.
The Happy Prince, who knew nothing of his people’s suffering during his own life, does everything he can to help them all, down to every flake of goldleaf on his person and the life of his dear friend. The star-child, who was cruel and selfish without cause, gives his own food, his own body, and almost, his own life for a stranger. It can be debated, certainly, who’s sacrifice was greater, who’s suffering was more productive, and so forth, but instead we may focus on the moral value attached to each character, and what that in turn says about their suffering.
The star-child is not a character we are supposed to like from the beginning. We are inclined to be angry and disappointed that a beautiful child from the stars could be cruel, and when he is turned into a beast, this seems a fitting punishment. This differs from the sacrifice of the happy prince’s goldleaf, but both are treated poorly following their fall from beauty. This highlights how superficial the love gained from beauty is, and how deeply people are willing to be unkind.
But these lessons are undone and somewhat contradicted by the characters continuing to suffer. The Happy Prince still loses his dear friend, and is brought down from his pedestal so that he cannot see the fruits of their labor. The Star-child quickly passes within 3 years, but it is not highlighted that his final destination is heaven, as is the case in many of Wilde’s stories. For these reasons, I feel that both these stories are representations of the ways disabled people are unable to be completely included in society. Even those who make their best efforts to mask, to assimilate, to hide their own pain may not be ultimately rewarded. And if you are ugly enough, like the Star-Child, that deprivement will be seen as morally upstanding.