The Devoted Friend by Oscar Wilde
In The Devoted Friend by Oscar Wilde we have the theme of selfishness, innocence, trust, friendship and self-importance. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Wilde may be exploring the theme of innocence. It seems to be a case that Little Hans is easily hoodwinked by Hugh the Miller. He believes every word that the Miller says to him and cannot see that he is being taken advantage of by the Miller. Despite all the work that Hans does for the Miller he never does receive the wheelbarrow that he was promised. It is as though the Miller is not only taking advantage of Hans but he also knows that Hans has a soft spot when it comes to his ‘friends.’ Something that the Miller is not to Hans. At no stage does the Miller show any generosity (in words or actions) to Hans. Everything that the Miller does is for his own gain. He is wealthier than Hans. Has more at his disposal than Hans does. Yet he gives Hans nothing. If anything the Miller is being selfish though he prides himself on his ability to give to others (Hans). However the reality is very different. The Miller is a predator who is taking advantage of Hans and Han’s innocence when it comes to friendship.
The words that the Miller speaks may be very fine but they are actually self-serving. The most important person in the Miller’s life is himself. He has no real interest in being Hans’ friend. He is only there because Hans has something that the Miller wants. First it is some flowers, then it’s the plank of wood and eventually Hans becomes a servant of sorts to the Miller. It is as though the Miller is empowering himself based on Hans’ innocence. At no stage of the story is the Miller there for Hans. Something that is noticeable during the winter and Hans is left to suffer in solitude without any assistance from the Miller. Who could have easily helped Hans but instead stuck to his self-serving definition of friendship. If anything friendship to the Miller is a one way street. With the Miller being on the receiving end at all times. It is true that Hans is being loyal and showing friendship to the Miller but he gets nothing in return from the Miller. As mentioned he is treated more like a servant by the Miller than a friend.
Hans also appears to trust the Miller’s judgement even though it costs Hans not only time but money too. He never questions his relationship with the Miller and does not see it as being self-serving to the Miller. All that Hans sees is that he has a friend in the Miller. Something that the Miller continually tells Hans. The fact that Hans is called Little Hans and the Miller is described as being ‘big Hugh the Miller’ may also be symbolically important as Wilde may be suggesting that those who are bigger or more powerful will take advantage of those who are little or smaller. Not only physically but in life in general. A lot of powerful people achieve power based on their ability to subdue those who might be considered weaker. Which is very much the case in the story. Hans is a very simple man while the Miller is more manipulative. Doing things that will be advantageous to him. Things like taking advantage of Hans’ innocence and generosity and at the same time giving nothing back.
The end of the story is also interesting as the Miller believing in his own self-importance leads the mourners for Hans’ funeral. Yet the truth is that the Miller has no sense of loss over Hans’ death. Instead he focuses on himself and blames his generosity with the wheelbarrow as being the cause of Hans’ death. When the reality is that Hans never received the wheelbarrow from the Miller. Instead he ended up serving the Miller. Doing tasks for him that the Miller himself was able to do but chose not to do because he knew that he could get Hans to do them. At all stages of the story the Millers intentions have not been to help Hans. Rather he has taken full advantage of Hans’ innocence and simplicity. Hans gave his life for what he thought was friendship however the reality is very much different. The Miller has never been a friend to Hans. He has taken and received from Hans what he wants. Acting selfishly for his own gains. All under the pretence of friendship. Though the Miller tries to act like a victim after Hans has died. The real victim in the story is Hans. Through his generosity towards the Miller he has given everything he has including his life. While the Miller has given nothing in return but hollow words and a strange definition of what he thinks friendship is. In many ways Wilde may be suggesting that the Water-rat is similar to the Miller. If it’s not about himself the Water-rat doesn’t want to know. Both the Water-rat and the Miller are selfish and inconsiderate towards others.