Synopsis of the Book "The Nightingale"

by Robbin McClain
The Emperor wanted the nightingale to live at the palace but she needed to be free.

The Emperor wanted the nightingale to live at the palace but she needed to be free.

Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images

"The Nightingale," written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1844, tells the story of a Chinese Emperor who learns to appreciate real things over artificial ones. Andersen wrote "The Nightingale" as a tribute to his unrequited love Jenny Lind, an opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale. Over the years, the tale has been adapted for children's books, operas, musicals and television.


Set long ago in China, "The Nightingale" opens with a description of the Chinese Emperor and his palace, gardens and forests. A nightingale lives in the forest and her song is so beautiful that people stop to listen. Visitors from many countries visit the Emperor and all agree the nightingale to be the best part of their trip. Scholars write books about the emperor and his palace and always include the nightingale. One day, the Emperor reads such a book and demands to know about the nightingale. He orders that she appear in court that evening.

Search for the Nightingale

The lord-in-waiting searches high and low but cannot find anyone who knows about the nightingale. Finally, he finds a young girl in the kitchen who has seen and heard the nightingale. She leads the court through the forest and when they see the plain-looking bird, they aren't impressed. Once the nightingale sings, however, they become entranced. The girl asks the nightingale to come to the palace and sing for the Emperor and she agrees.

A Gift Arrives

At the palace, the nightingale sits on a golden perch and sings sweetly to the Emperor, who gets tears in his eyes. He offers her his golden slipper but she says his tears are her reward. Members of the court try to imitate the nightingale, but none can sing like her. The Emperor decides that the bird must remain at court. One day, the Emperor receives a box with the words "The Nightingale" written on it. He opens the box to find a wind-up nightingale covered with diamonds, rubies and sapphires, a gift from the emperor of Japan.

Songs of the Mechanical Bird

The mechanical bird sings the same waltzes over and over yet the court loves the songs. The real nightingale flies away and the Emperor banishes her from the Empire. The Emperor offers the mechanical bird gold and precious stones and keeps it close to him. A year passes and one day the bird stops singing. The watchmaker gets it going again but says the mechanics are worn and great care must be taken. The Emperor and his court grow sad when they learn they can only hear the mechanical bird sing once a year.

The Nightingale Returns

Five years pass and the Emperor grows ill. Everyone thinks he will die and so they select a new emperor. Death comes to the Emperor's bedside and takes his golden crown, sword of state and banner. The Emperor longs to hear music but his weakness prevents him from winding the mechanical bird. Suddenly, he hears a sweet song outside his window. The nightingale, hearing of his illness, has returned to sing for him. As she sings, the Emperor feels stronger and Death returns his items and leaves.


The Emperor asks how he can repay the nightingale and again she says his tears are her reward. He asks her to stay with him and vows to break the mechanical bird into pieces. She says she cannot live at the palace and promises to regularly come sing for him and give him news of the Empire. She asks for only one thing: that he not tell anyone that she comes and tells him things. He gratefully agrees.

About the Author

Robbin McClain has been writing professionally since 1992. She has written about beauty, fashion, health, business and crafts for "American Salon," "Redbook," "Woman's Day" and other publications. McClain holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Texas.

Photo Credits

  • Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images