By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Little Mermaid’ (1837) is one of the most layered and fascinating fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen. At once the quintessential fairy tale and a curious subversion of the fairy-tale form, ‘The Little Mermaid’ requires some careful analysis to unpick its various strands and meanings. Before we offer an analysis of the story, though, it might be worth recounting its plot.
The Little Mermaid: summary
First, a brief plot summary of ‘The Little Mermaid’. Deep down at the bottom of the sea live the mermen and mermaids. Six sisters live there, all of them princesses, the youngest of whom is quieter and more thoughtful than her older siblings. Each of the mermaids has their own little garden under the sea, but whereas the others decorate theirs with all sorts of things they have salvaged from shipwrecks that have drifted to the bottom of the sea, the little mermaid has just some roses and the statue of a beautiful boy. They are all intrigued by the world beyond the sea, but this youngest sister – the little mermaid of the story’s title – is more interested in the world above the sea than her other sisters.
The sisters are looked after by their grandmother, who tells them that when a mermaid reaches the age of fifteen, she can rise to the surface of the water and explore the world above the surface. In turn, each of the sisters reaches that age and goes up to the surface, returning below the sea to tell her sisters what she has seen. When it’s finally the turn of the little mermaid, she notices a ship, which contains royalty. The people on board are celebrating the birthday of a handsome prince. The little mermaid is instantly attracted to him.
There is a storm, and the ship sinks. The little mermaid is initially delighted when she sees the prince sinking beneath the water – as it means he can join her – but then she remembers that humans cannot survive underwater, so she rescues him and takes him to shore at a temple, where some novice girls appear and one of them restores the prince to consciousness. The mermaid sinks back under the water, with the prince entirely unaware of her existence, or that she has saved his life.
The little mermaid asks her grandmother about humans. She learns that humans don’t live as long as mermen (who can live for up to three hundred years), but that they do have immortal souls which float up to heaven when they die, unlike the mermen who don’t have souls. The little mermaid says she would trade three hundred years of life as a mermaid for one day as a human, if it meant she would have a soul and live forever. The grandmother tells her not to think about such things, because the only way a mermaid could gain a soul is if a human loved her so much that his soul would merge with her and she would gain one.
But the little mermaid realises that she so loves the handsome prince that she could give anything to be with him and gain an immortal soul. So she goes to visit the one woman who might help her: the sea witch. The sea witch says she will make the little mermaid a potion which the mermaid must take onto land with her and drink. It will turn her fish’s tail into two human legs, and she will not be able to transform back into a mermaid again. It will also hurt her every time she walks. If the handsome prince will not marry her, she will not gain an immortal soul; and she will die and become foam upon the water (as is the fate of soulless mermen) the day the prince marries another.
The little mermaid is so desperate to marry the prince and gain a soul that she readily agrees, despite this gamble; she also agrees to the sea witch’s demand for a payment, which is to possess the mermaid’s beautiful singing voice. This means the little mermaid will be able to become a woman, but a mute one, unable to sing, or speak.
She floats up to the surface and drinks the potion, and falls unconscious. When she wakes, the handsome prince is standing over her, asking her where she came from, but because the sea witch has taken her tongue she cannot answer. He takes her into the palace and finds her the finest clothes to wear, and her beauty is much admired by everyone at court. She grows closer to the prince, but at night she often sees her sisters, who float up to the surface and tell her how she saddened them when she left them behind.
The little mermaid learns that the prince is fond of her, but has fallen in love with the pretty girl at the temple who brought him back to consciousness on the night of the shipwreck. Unaware that the little mermaid was the one who’d dragged him to shore, he thinks that the novice girl at the temple saved his life. Being mute, the mermaid cannot tell him that she was the one who saved him.
The prince is told to undertake a voyage to a neighbouring kingdom, because his parents wish him to marry the princess in that kingdom (to forge an alliance). The little mermaid undertakes the journey with him, and when the princess appears, it turns out to be the very girl who had ‘found’ the unconscious prince on the temple steps, the night the little mermaid had saved his life. Believing the princess to be the one who had saved him, the prince declares his love for her and they travel home to his kingdom, to be married. The little mermaid realises that, having failed to gain a human’s love, she will die the next morning, without having gained a soul.
Heartbroken, the little mermaid is travelling back on the prince’s ship when her sisters appear above the water, their hair cut off. They know their sister’s fate, and tell her that they have sacrificed their hair to the sea witch in exchange for a magical dagger, which they hand to their sister. The little mermaid must plunge it into the heart of the prince, so that his blood will touch the little mermaid’s feet and merge them together to form a fish’s tail. Then, she can dive back under the water and be with her sisters and her grandmother, who is at her wit’s end.
But when the mermaid sees the prince and his bride sleeping together in his tent on the ship, she cannot go through with it, and hurls the dagger into the sea before diving overboard and dispersing into foam on the surface of the water. Her spirit floats up into the air and she is informed by other mermaid spirits or ‘daughters of the air’ that, whilst they cannot gain a soul, they have a chance to do so if they provide a useful service to the world by bringing cooling breezes to the hot winds in warmer parts of the globe.
At the end of their three centuries of service, they can create their own everlasting soul – and they can shorten the period of time it takes to earn one. Each house they travel into on the breeze, if they find a good child who is a credit to its parents, one year is taken off their three hundred. But if they travel into a house where a bad child is bringing shame to its parents, a year is added onto their time in this ‘limbo’. And that is how the story of the little mermaid ends.
The Little Mermaid: analysis
‘The Little Mermaid’ is that rare and paradoxical thing: a tragic tale with a happy ending. Although the mermaid fails in her quest to gain the prince’s hand in marriage and thus a human soul, she does learn when she dies that there is ‘life’ after being a mermaid, and that her kind actions in her life (saving the prince’s life, and then letting him live even though it will mean her own death) carry some (long-term) reward.
This is one of the aspects of ‘The Little Mermaid’ which make it such a rewarding tale (see the picture above for the popular statue in Copenhagen depicting the title character). Andersen avoids the (perhaps expected) happy ending whereby the prince and the little mermaid are married and live happily ever after, with her gaining a soul and truly joining the world of humans. Instead, the rather more bittersweet ending is more mature and realistic: we cannot make people love us if they do not, and we have to live with that fact. The best we can do is to act well towards them, and to the world at large.
Although modern readers in particular may blanch at the final sentences of the story (which, one wonders, may have been on J. M. Barrie’s mind when he came up with the idea of a fairy dropping down dead every time a child lies), and they seem an odd fit for the rest of the tale’s moral thrust (why should the ‘daughters of the air’ be blamed for other people’s children being naughty?), the conclusion to the story does manage to be both satisfying and unexpected.
On this note, it’s worth reflecting that Andersen initially ended the story with the mermaid’s dissolution on the surface of the waves; he revised it to give it a more hopeful conclusion. And indeed, the little mermaid’s tears of happiness when she learns she has become a daughter of the air confirm what we have suspected all along: that what she really wants is a soul, and she sees the prince as her chance to gain one.
It’s true that she loves him before this, and she saves his life before she knows he can be of practical value to her; but once she learns that he may be her royal road (as it were) to souldom (to coin a word … or perhaps ‘soulhood’?), her focus seems to be on this, rather than on any happiness she will necessarily enjoy with the prince while she is still alive once she has joined the human world.
So, taking all this into account, what does the story of the little mermaid actually mean? Should we analyse ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a tale about love, or about immortality, or about selflessness, or about religion (the little mermaid wants to ‘live’ forever through some spiritual or supernatural means)?
Or should we offer a feminist interpretation of the tale, which sees the price that young women pay for marriage and motherhood (the intense pain to her lower body which the little mermaid must undergo if she is to join the prince) being muteness, physical pain, the loss of an outlet for her talents (giving up her singing voice), and a curtailing of her freedom? That she must leave behind the world of her family to marry into his?
One of the reasons why ‘The Little Mermaid’ is such a rich tale is that it invites these and other interpretations. It might be reductive to view the little mermaid’s actions as solely motivated by love, especially since she appears to long for ‘something more’, something beyond, and that this is reflected from the beginning of the story when we learn that she was more quiet and thoughtful than her five sisters, and that she has a statue of a beautiful boy as the sole ornament in her personal garden. This can be interpreted as a sign that she yearns for love – but it also reflects her interest in humans, and in the human world above the surface of the ocean.
In the last analysis, then, we should avoid reductive interpretations of the story because ‘The Little Mermaid’ is that rare and true thing: a text which contains many different meanings beneath its symbols and plot details. It is more than a love story, not just a tragedy, more than a fantasy, more even than ‘just’ a fairy tale.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.