I am a member of The Little Mermaid generation of girls. When the Disney movie premiered in 1989, I was smitten; it was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I loved Ariel, the spunky red–headed heroine, and Sebastian, her singing–crab sidekick. When I went home, I made myself a mermaid's tail from a sheet of butcher paper spangled with sequins and glitter. I was five years old.
It wasn't until many months later that I learned the full story of The Little Mermaid. We had a tattered picture–book copy of the original translation of Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 tale. For some reason, my mother always insisted on reading it aloud to me, rather than encouraging me to read it out loud to her, as she so often would do with other stories. When she read the book to me, it always ended happily: the mermaid gives up her voice to follow her true love, and is rewarded for her persistence with marriage. My mother told me a fairy tale of a fairy tale.
Imagine my surprise to discover, upon having the story re–read to me by a babysitter, the exquisite variety of tortures Andersen actually inflicted upon his protagonist. Her "little tongue" is cut off as payment to the sea witch; in exchange, she receives legs for which each footfall is like "stepping on piercing needles and sharp knives." "Her tender feet bled so that even her steps were marked," but she merely waits until "all the household were asleep," when "she would go and sit on the broad marble steps, for it eased her burning feet to bathe them in the cold sea–water."
After sacrificing all this, we are told that the prince only loves her "the way that one loves a dear sweet child," and it "never occur[s] to him to make her his queen." When the prince falls in love with another, he tells her he expects that "You will be happy that I'm so happy, because you love me best of all." In the end, the mermaid has the opportunity to regain her family by killing the prince, but she refuses and chooses instead to lose her life, dissolving into foam. As Maria Tatar observed in her introduction to Andersen's work in The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism: "Of all Andersen's characters, it is probably the little mermaid who is the real virtuoso in the art of silent suffering."
Andersen perhaps would not disagree: he himself allowed that he was moved by the little mermaid's story even as he was writing it. In an 1837 letter to friend and mentor Bernhard Severin Ingemann, he admitted that The Little Mermaid was "the only one of my works that has affected me while I was writing it. . . .I suffer with my characters, I share their moods, whether good or bad, and I can be nice or nasty according to the scene on which I happen to be working."
During the writing of The Little Mermaid, Andersen must have suffered greatly indeed. As Tatar notes, much representational energy was spent on dramatizing the mermaid's agony, both physical and emotional. This is perhaps best exemplified in the image of the mermaid, secretly brokenhearted, celebrating the marriage of her beloved prince to another woman. During the festivities, she:
Whirled into dance, gliding like a swallow when it is being pursued. . . .It was as if sharp knives were cutting her delicate feet, but she did not feel it; the pain that pierced her heart was far worse. She knew that this was the last night that she would see the prince — the one for whom she had left her family and her home, given up her beautiful voice, and suffered endless torment every day without his knowing it. It was the last night that she would breathe the same air as he, that she would see the deep ocean and the starry blue sky. Eternal night, without thoughts or dreams, awaited her, she who didn't have a soul and could not win one. . . .The mermaid laughed and danced, her heart filled with thoughts of death.
Not only does the little mermaid suffer, but she must suffer in silence (having given up her voice) and alone (having abandoned her family and home).
The pain showered on the mermaid seems a particularly monstrous kind of anguish. P. L. Travers, in What the Bee Knows: Reflection on Myth, Symbol and Story, agrees:
How much rather would I see wicked stepmothers boiled in oil — all over in half a second — than bear the protracted agony of the Little Mermaid. . . .There, if you like, is cruelty, sustained, deliberate, contrived. Hans Andersen lets no blood. But his tortures, disguised as piety, are subtle, often demoralizing.
"Disguised as piety," Travers notes, because the mermaid does not yearn only for the prince. The prince is also the means to an end: an immortal soul, which merfolk lack. Although it is her love of the prince which motivates her initially, the idea of obtaining a soul is always present in her mind.
As the story progresses, Andersen's emphasis on the obtainment of a soul comes to the forefront. In his mind, he did the little mermaid a favor: he allowed her the chance to have a soul even though she was rejected by her human love. Andersen was quite proud of this development, telling Ingemann:
I have not, like de la Motte Fouqué in Undine, allowed the mermaid's acquiring of an immortal soul to depend upon an alien creature, upon the love of a human being. I'm sure that's wrong! It would depend rather much on chance, wouldn't it? I won't accept that sort of thing in this world. I have permitted my mermaid to follow a more natural, more divine path. No other writer, I believe, has indicated it yet, and that's why I am glad to have it in my tale.
Undine, originally published in Germany in 1811, is the story of a water–sprite who can only gain a soul by marrying a human. She falls in love with a knight and marries him, only to later be betrayed. Unlike Undine, Andersen's mermaid is allowed another option; when the mermaid refuses to kill the prince, she dissolves into foam and becomes a "daughter of the air" (Andersen's original working title for The Little Mermaid), able to earn a soul through "good deeds. . .struggle[ing] for three hundred years to do what good [she] can."
Yet, the winning of a soul does seem to be the booby prize in this equation, after all the mermaid suffers through. As Rosellen Brown writes in "It is You the Fable Is About" in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, The Little Mermaid is "a painful story 'redeemed'. . .by another noble ending which I didn't remember because its fake good cheer never registered on me." Andersen may have tried to use the story of The Little Mermaid to express the ideals of Christian faith and redemption, but the emotional (and literary) meat of the story is in the mermaid's yearning for the prince and the world above.
Art top to bottom: Illustration by Marja Lee Kruÿt, Illustration by Margarent Tarrant, Illustration by Edmund Dulac, Illustration by Arthur Rackham