'The Devoted Friend' by Oscar Wilde is a captivating fairy tale intended for children and was first published in the collection "The Happy Prince and Other Tales" in 1888. The story delves into the deceptive nature of friendship, focusing on the exploitative relationship between a Miller named Hugh and his supposed friend Hans.
The structure of 'The Devoted Friend' follows a frame story format, where a character within the tale narrates the story to another character. In this instance, a Linnet recounts the events to the Water-rat, revealing the dynamics between two friends.
The tale introduces the honest man named Hans and the Miller named Hugh, who initially appear to be close companions. However, it becomes increasingly apparent that Hugh's professed devotion to Hans is nothing more than a facade. Instead of being a true friend, Hugh manipulates Hans by constantly demanding favors from him without offering anything in return.
Hugh takes advantage of Hans's generosity by helping himself to fruits and flowers from Hans's garden, and Hans willingly allows him to do so. However, when winter arrives, leaving the garden barren, Hugh conveniently stops visiting his friend.
With the arrival of spring, Hugh resumes his visits to Hans and promises to give him an old wheelbarrow that Hans needs. Yet, despite frequently mentioning the wheelbarrow, Hugh never fulfills his promise. Instead, he exploits Hans further by using the promise as a means to guilt-trip him into performing more favors.
Tragically, these ongoing favors lead to Hans's untimely demise. One fateful night, the Miller requests Hans to fetch the Doctor after his son sustains an injury. Although Hans agrees, he asks to borrow Hugh's lantern to navigate the darkness. In a selfish act, Hugh refuses, fearing damage to his new lantern.
Regrettably, on a stormy night, Hans loses his way and drowns in one of the water-filled holes on the moor, unable to see where he's going.
During Hans's funeral, Hugh insists on being the Chief Mourner, emphasizing his supposed friendship. However, he complains about the presence of the unused wheelbarrow cluttering his home, revealing his callous nature.
The story concludes as the Water-rat in the pond, accompanied by the ducks, listens to the Linnet's narration. When the Water-rat discovers that the story carries a moral, he grows irritated and retreats into his hole.
'The Devoted Friend' exemplifies the traits of a moral tale, a common characteristic of children's literature. However, Oscar Wilde skillfully refrains from explicitly stating the moral, allowing young readers to deduce it for themselves.
The story explores the theme of true friendship and emphasizes the significance of actions over mere words in demonstrating genuine devotion to friends. Hugh the Miller goes to great lengths to proclaim his friendship with Hans, but the vast disparity between his words and actions becomes increasingly evident. The wheelbarrow, acknowledged by Hugh as useless to him but valuable to Hans, becomes a manipulative tool to coerce Hans into performing endless favors.
Significantly, Hugh never reciprocates these favors. Even his role at Hans's funeral is driven by self-aggrandizement rather than genuine friendship.
Wilde's portrayal of friendship in 'The Devoted Friend' can be compared to his depiction of art in 'The Remarkable Rocket.' Both the Rocket and the Water-rat (as well as the Miller, Hugh, in the inset story) are self-absorbed and fond of talking about themselves. However, the Rocket is consumed by self-obsession and boasts about its own brilliance, while the Miller and the Water-rat enjoy emphasizing their devotion to others.
In both cases, their actions fail to align with their words. Hugh the Miller and the Water-rat fall short in practicing what they preach.
Thus, 'The Devoted Friend' appears to convey a clear moral: genuine friendship entails being good friends to each other rather than merely professing friendship. However, the story's events do not fully support this moral. Poor Hans pays the ultimate price for his kindness towards Hugh, sacrificing his life to help him.
Contrastingly, Hugh faces no real consequences except for the inconvenience of possessing a wheelbarrow he never intended to give to Hans. Hugh does not experience a transformative change of heart or an epiphany where he realizes his wrongdoings and resolves to make amends for his mistreatment of Hans.
From this perspective, 'The Devoted Friend' can be seen as a satirical take on moral fables and fairy tales, rather than a straightforward moral tale. Wilde playfully punctures the earnestness and didacticism found in the works of Hans Christian Andersen, a Danish master of fairy tales known for moral messages and tragic occurrences.
In conclusion, Wilde's 'The Devoted Friend' challenges the conventional notion of moral tales. While it implies the importance of genuine friendship through actions, the story's outcome undermines the moral message, presenting a satirical commentary on the genre itself.