By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Devoted Friend’ is one of the fairy tales for children written by the Irish author Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). It was published in the 1888 collection The Happy Prince and Other Tales. ‘The Devoted Friend’ is about a Miller named Hugh, who professes to be devoted to his friend Hans, but in actual fact he uses Hans and insists on his performing endless favours for him without Hugh giving anything back in return.
You can read ‘The Devoted Friend’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Wilde’s tale below.
‘The Devoted Friend’: plot summary
‘The Devoted Friend’ takes the form of a ‘frame story’ whereby a character within the tale tells the story to another character. In this case, a Linnet tells the Water-rat a story about two friends.
These two friends are an honest man named Hans and a miller named Hugh. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Hugh the Miller is not Hans’s true friend, even though he talks a great deal about what a great friend he is to Hans. Instead, it soon becomes obvious to the reader that the Miller uses Hans, taking from him and giving nothing in return.
So the Miller regularly helps himself to fruits and flowers from Hans’s garden, with Hans giving him his blessing to do so; but when winter comes and Hans’s garden is bare, the Miller stops coming round to see his friend.
When spring returns, the Miller starts paying Hans regular visits once again, and promises to give him an old wheelbarrow which Hans needs. But although he repeatedly refers to the wheelbarrow he is going to give to Hans, the Miller never does so. Instead, he repeatedly uses the promise of the wheelbarrow which he is definitely going to give to his friend, in order to persuade (or guilt-trip) Hans into doing favours for him.
Eventually, these favours cost little Hans his life. One night, the Miller comes round and asks Hans to go and fetch the Doctor, after the Miller’s son has an accident. Hans agrees to do so, but when he requests to borrow the Miller’s lantern to help him see his way in the dark, the Miller says he would prefer not to lend his new lantern in case anything happened to it.
Unfortunately, it’s a stormy night, and Hans, unable to see where he’s going, loses his way and wanders off onto the moor, where he drowns in one of the deep, water-filled holes. At Hans’s funeral, the Miller insists on being Chief Mourner because he was such a great friend to Hans, although he complains that now Hans has died he doesn’t know what to do with his wheelbarrow, which is cluttering up the place at home.
The story ends by returning to the Water-rat in the pond, who has been listening to the Linnet telling him and the ducks this story. When the Water-rat learns that the story has a moral, he grows annoyed, and disappears back in his hole.
‘The Devoted Friend’: analysis
Many fairy tales have a moral, since they are aimed at children and children’s literature (Lewis Carroll aside) tends to have a moral message. ‘The Devoted Friend’ may not be a ‘fairy tale’ in the strict sense of the term, since the story contains no supernatural activity or characters (although it does feature talking animals). Nevertheless, the story is loosely in the ‘fairy tale’ tradition, so we might expect a moral.
What is the moral of ‘The Devoted Friend’? Wilde cleverly refuses to spell it out at the end of the story, despite having the Linnet explicitly state that the story of Hans and the Miller has a moral. He thus leaves his young readers to work it out for themselves.
‘The Devoted Friend’ is about true friendship, and how, as the old adage has it, actions speak louder than words when it comes to demonstrating our devotion to our friends.
Hugh the Miller goes to great lengths to remind Hans what a good friend he is to him, but we are aware of what Hans is too trusting and kindly to accept: that there is a vast gulf between Hugh’s words and his actions. His wheelbarrow – which, he freely acknowledges, is of no use to him, but could be of use to Hans – becomes a bargaining chip, something to use in order to cajole Hans into performing endless favours for him.
But Hugh never performs any favours in return. Even his role at Hans’s funeral is framed as an opportunity for self-aggrandisement.
Wilde’s treatment of friendship in ‘The Devoted Friend’ might be productively compared to his treatment of art in ‘The Remarkable Rocket’. Both the Rocket and the Water-rat (and, for that matter, the Water-rat’s counterpart in the inset story, Hugh the Miller) are self-absorbed and love talking about themselves, but whereas the Remarkable Rocket is obsessed with his own genius and performance, the Miller and the Water-rat love nothing more than to talk about what devoted friends they are to others. In both cases, their actions fail to support their words – or, as Hugh the Miller would put it, their practice falls short of their theory.
So, ‘The Devoted Friend’ appears to have a clear moral: that we should be good friends to each other, not simply say what great friends we are. And yet the action of the story doesn’t fully bear this out. Poor Hans pays the ultimate price for his kindness towards Hugh, giving his life in order to help him. Hugh, by contrast, suffers no losses except for the mild inconvenience of being lumbered with his wheelbarrow (which he never had any real intention of giving to Hans in any case). Hugh does not undergo any Scrooge-like change of heart or epiphany where he is shown the error of his ways or vows to make amends for the way he treated Hans.
Viewed this way, ‘The Devoted Friend’ is actually more of a satire of the moral fable or fairy tale than it is a moral tale itself. Indeed, in giving his hapless character the name Hans, Wilde was almost certainly poking gentle fun at Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish master of the fairy tale in which moral messages and tragic occurrences both loom large.
Wilde’s story, in the last analysis, might be regarded as a playful pricking of Andersen’s bourgeois high-seriousness, in which a moral – like a friendship – is proudly stated but never acted upon.