Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875), although a prolific writer of all types of literature (plays, novels, poems, etc.), is best remembered for his fairy tales. One of his most famous, “The Little Mermaid,” was published in 1837, as part of the book Fairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. Third Booklet. Andersen’s intention, according to his own statements, was to create stories for children that would contain a deeper meaning that could be understood (and enjoyed) only by adults. In this sense, “The Little Mermaid” can be read as an allegory of the different stages in a woman’s life in her quest for a higher, spiritual world – childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age/death (of course, this is not the only interpretation, nor the most exhaustive, it’s just something that popped into my head while re-reading the story).
At the beginning of the story, we see the titular character being different from her sisters:
“She was an unusual child, quiet and wistful, and when her sisters decorated their gardens with all kinds of odd things they had found in sunken ships, she would allow nothing in hers except flowers as red as the sun, and a pretty marble statue. This figure of a handsome boy, carved in pure white marble, had sunk down to the bottom of the sea from some ship that was wrecked.” (1)
We can see that from an early age the little mermaid wants to be more than she is, wanting to transcend her own condition:
“Nothing gave the youngest princess such pleasure as to hear about the world of human beings up above them.” (1)
At fifteen, an age at which girls used to marry, she is allowed to explore the surface. This is also an age at which adolescents know their first love, and that is what happens to the little mermaid. Her desire to become human, however, is fueled not merely by her love for the prince, but mainly by her wish to get an immortal soul and implicitly, to be closer to God.
The now teenage mermaid retains her childish naïveté, seeing the prince in an idealized manner, far from the actual reality:
“It was her one consolation to sit in her little garden and throw her arms about the beautiful marble statue that looked so much like the Prince.” (1)
The little mermaid’s decision to gain legs, knowing well that she would lose her tongue and she will be in constant pain for the rest of her life is a landmark in her path toward maturity – she has to make an adult choice that would mean physical sacrifice, but for a higher (spiritual) purpose.
The scene when the mermaid meets the prince on land represents her last symbolic change from an adolescent into a woman. While she still kind of sees herself as a little girl, it is the teenage boy’s gaze that makes her realize that she needs to cover her naked body:
“When the sun rose over the sea she awoke and felt a flash of pain, but directly in front of her stood the handsome young Prince, gazing at her with his coal-black eyes. Lowering her gaze, she saw that her fish tail was gone, and that she had the loveliest pair of white legs any young maid could hope to have. But she was naked, so she clothed herself in her own long hair.” (1)
From now on, the metaphorical adult woman living in the real, human world will know only pain and disappointment in her relationship with the real prince (as opposed to the perfect one she imagined him to be, the idealized version represented by the statue) – she is treated a little better than a slave, she has to wear clothes that are not quite fit for her, and in the end, the prince leaves her for another woman. And yet, she is not resentful, she still loves him with all her heart, being unable to kill him to save herself. She sacrifices her life and the possibility to gain an immortal soul for her love. However, she is given another chance (which can be seen as a sort of Purgatory), after her “death.”
This fairy tale has remained immensely popular over the years, being translated in almost every language and turned into musical theater, films, animations, by almost every country in the world. The little mermaid herself has become a symbol of Copenhagen through the statue that was unveiled in 1913. The story’s popularity is proof that it has struck a chord with audiences of all ages and of all nationalities that recognized its timeless and universally relatable human qualities.
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(1) Andersen, H.C., “The Little Mermaid” http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheLittleMermaid_e.html Last retrieved July 28, 2018