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Social Phenomena of The Victorian Era Found in Oscar Wilde's Short Story 'Happy Prince'

By: Fr. Aris Mada, SVD

Criticizing literature can bring one to find the social context behind the literature work because literature is a capture of social phenomena. In other words, what things appear in the literature is a portrait of the phenomenon that happens in society. Therefore, reading literature is an approach to comprehend the situation when the literature is written (Holis & Asmarani, 2019). “Happy Prince” is a short story written by Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde (1854-1900). Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland and became a famous playwright, poet and novelist and lived in the Victorian era. (Lucie, 2019). By reading this short story, one can understand the context behind the text because the process of writing is related to the author’s background (Holis & Asmarani, 2019). Specifically, the “Happy Prince” displays social phenomena during the Victorian era that consist of three phenomena: poverty, social class, and slavery of women and children.

The first social phenomenon is poverty. It can be defined as a lack of basic needs of life. This situation is experienced by the working class in the nineteenth century. According to Rose (1986), modernism in this century causes British society to be poor. This century was signed by economic growth increasing because of the industrial revolution which most of the people shifted their work as farmers and become laborers in manufactures. However, there was strong pressure because the population increased, many people were unemployed in the village and migrated to cities, together with laborer’s suffering conditions in their life and work circumstances (Lucie, 2019). This is evidence presented by Oscar Wilde in the “Happy Prince”. The title refers to the attitude quality of the happy prince. However, the story shows readers an irony. The prince statue is upset since what he experiences is very different from when he is still alive. Wilde (2000, pp. 1-2) writes, “I can see all the unhappiness of my city. My heart now is made of a cheap metal. But even that poor heart can feel, and so I cry” The word “unhappiness” refers to massive suffering and poverty in the city.

The second social phenomenon is social class. The fact that the industrial revolution created employers and workers, generated social class. According to Cody, in the Victorian era, people were divided into three classes, namely upper class, middle class, and working class. The upper class are those who are very rich, the middle class are those who are neither rich nor poor and the working class are those who live in poverty (as cited on Avrianty, 2014, p. 20).

Furthermore, capitalism shapes social class. Maurice Dobb opines that Marx discovers the cause of social class, namely capitalism. Capitalism means not only a production system for the market (a commodity system) but also a system in which the labor-power has become a commodity that is traded in the market as an object of exchange. The situation of the workers who are poor and receive unfair treatment in terms of wages is seen by Karl Marx as exploitation (Rahardjo, 1987). It means that social class happened not because of workers’ mentality but the economic system which exploits laborer’s power to give profit for employers. It appears in the “Happy Prince” that shows the contradiction of lifestyle between the upper class and working class. Wilde (2000, p. 1). states,

I lived in a palace where there was no sadness. In the daytime I played with my friends in a beautiful garden, and in the evening I danced. There was a high wall around the garden. But I did not know what lay on the other side.

In another part, Wilde (2000, p. 3) portrayed, a young writer in a little room at the top of a house. He is sitting at a table that is covered with papers. At his side, there are some dead flowers. He is trying to finish a story. But he is very cold and he cannot write. There is no fire in the room, and he is weak and hungry.

Social class causes inequality. While the majority of people are living in misery and suffering, some are living in happiness without caring for others. Even, people who are categorized in the upper class piled on profit and richness from the lowest class suffering (Sumbul, 2014). Wilde in the “Happy Prince” describes a swallow seeing the rich eating and drinking in a beautiful house while the poor are sitting at the gate. Then, the swallow flies into the dark streets and sees the hungry children. After that, under a bridge, the swallow sees two little boys are lying close together to keep warm and ask for food but expelled by a guard (2000, p. 4). What the author depicts in the “Happy Prince” is an inequality relationship between the social class that happens in society.

The third social phenomenon found in the “Happy Prince” is the slavery of women and children. Women during the Victorian Era did not have many rights. They were only supposed to be housewives and mothers to their children. However, women were forced into working positions outside of the household because many women need income to support their life. Consequently, these women workers were often not welcome in the workplace or society and got harassment (Barret, 2013). Through the Prince character in the “Happy Prince”, Wilde describes this situation when a woman who is very thin and has rough and red hands, sitting at the table. This woman is creating a dress for a dance in the palace for one of the queen's ladies. Her small kid is sleeping in the corner of the room on a bed. He's in a bad way. He's sobbing because she can only feed him river water (2000, p. 2). Moreover, Wilde describes there was a little girl selling eggs in the square below. The eggs had cracked when they fell. The little girl couldn't afford to invite her father. It will cause her father to hit her (2000, p. 3). The slavery of women and children becomes the author’s intention to be placed in a short story.

In conclusion, literature has never separated from the social context because it is connected to the author’s background. The “Happy Prince” is a short story that portrays the social phenomena behind the text during the Victorian era. It conveys people living in poverty, class differences in social structure and exploitation of class workers especially women and children.


Avrianty, D. (2014). The social classes in Victorian Era Reflected in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Undergraduate Thesis, English Language and Letters Department Faculty of Humanities Maulana Malik Ibrahim State Islamic University Malang.

Barrett, Barret, K. L. (2013). Victorian Women and Their Working Roles. State University of New York.

Dobb, M. (1987). Perkembangan Kapitalisme. In M. Dawam Rahardjo, (Ed.) Kapitalisme Dulu dan Sekarang. Jakarta: LP3ES, 1987, (p. 39).

Holis, N & Asmarani, R (2019). The Realization of the Bad Impact of Early Capitalism in Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”. Language Circle: Journal of Language and Literature 14(1).

Rose, M. E. (1986). The Relief of Poverty, 1834–1914. In The Relief of Poverty, 1834–1914 (second). Macmillan Education LTD.

Ševců, L. Wilde's Social Criticism of the Victorian Society in The Happy Prince And Other Tales. Thesis, Masaryk University Faculty of Education Department of English Language and Literature.

Sumbul, Y. ‘Wilde’ Times: A Marxist Reading of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” Pamukkale Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi Sayı 19, 2014, Sayfa 161-168.

Wilde, O. The Happy Prince. In “The young King and other stories” Essex, Penguin Books, 2000.

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