The Nightingale & the Rose Summary

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  • 0:03 Background
  • 0:48 The Problem of the Rose
  • 1:44 The Nightingale Finds a Way
  • 3:07 Rejection
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

Like its protagonist, the Nightingale, Oscar Wilde's 'The Nightingale and the Rose' might be small, but it's packed with a wealth of deeper meaning. This lesson will summarize the action in this short story.


When you think of children's tales, you might think of princes, giants, talking animals, and especially happy endings. However, Oscar Wilde didn't always adhere to these standards. His story 'The Nightingale and the Rose' is part of a collection called The Happy Prince and Other Tales published in 1888.

The five stories in the collection resemble children's stories, but they deal with philosophical and emotional issues that are beyond the understanding of most children. They don't even end happily ever after! So, even though they're called children's stories, that classification should be taken with a grain of salt. If you read them to kids, you might have a few bewildered looks and a lot of explaining to do. Let's look at 'The Nightingale and the Rose' and see.

The Problem of the Rose

The story starts out with a Nightingale that lives in the Student's garden. She overhears the Student lamenting that the love of his life will dance with him at a party if he brings her a red rose. Only, there aren't any red roses in the garden.

The Nightingale is impressed with the student, calling him a true lover. She feels bad for his dilemma because she sees love as a wonderful thing that she can only sing about. She will never experience it. She describes it as 'more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the market-place. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold,' she says.

Other animals and plants in the garden hear the Student crying out but are not moved. The Lizard even laughs at him. The Nightingale, however, understands the Student's suffering and decides to help him.

The Nightingale Finds a Way

The Nightingale visits three rose trees in the garden, promising to sing her sweetest song in exchange for a red rose. The first rose tree only has white roses. The second only has yellow. The third is a red rose-tree, but it doesn't have any blooms.

The nightingale pleads with the roseless red rose tree for a single bloom. He says that there is a way, but it is terrible. The Nightingale is not deterred, so the Rose-tree tells her that the only way to get a red rose is to 'build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart's-blood.'

The Nightingale must sing to the Rose-tree with her breast against a thorn all night until the thorn pierces her heart. In other words, she has to die for the rose. The Nightingale is a little dismayed at the price, but in the end, she decides that 'love is better than life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?'

She hurries back to the Student and tells him not to worry; she will get him a red rose. All she asks is that he, 'be a true lover, for Love is wiser than Philosophy. . . and mightier than Power.'' But the Student can't understand the little bird because 'he only knew the things that are written down in books.'

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