By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ is an 1838 fairy tale by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. One of the shortest among Andersen’s well-known tales, ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ is about a toy soldier who falls in love with a paper ballerina, and who undergoes a series of hardships, seemingly as a result.
You can read ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Andersen’s story below.
‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’: plot summary
The steadfast tin soldier of the title is one of twenty-five kept in a box. Unlike the other toy soldiers, however, he has only one leg, supposedly because there wasn’t enough tin in the factory to fashion another leg. Nevertheless, the soldier is stoic – or ‘steadfast’ – about his lack of a second leg.
Among the other toys kept in the children’s nursery is a paper castle containing a maiden, also made of paper. She is a ballet dancer, who is standing on one leg, performing a ballet pose. The soldier is drawn to her because he believes that she, like him, is lacking one leg.
Another toy is a jack-in-the-box, which opens one night when the toys are all busy playing while the children of the house are sleeping. The goblin inside the jack-in-the-box spies the soldier looking longingly at the ballerina, and curses him, telling him he will regret looking at her like that the next day – presumably because the goblin also loves the ballerina.
Sure enough, the next day the steadfast tin soldier is placed on a windowsill and a gust of wind blows him out into the street, where he is picked up by some children who make a paper boat for him and set him into the water of the gutter. The soldier stoically accepts his fate as he is borne along by the water, even when he passes a fearsome water-rat who demands that he produce his ‘pass’ or pay a toll to be allowed through.
The gutter flows into a large canal, and the soldier realises his boat is going to collapse and he will go under the water. However, he is swallowed by a large fish, only to be freed when the fish is cut open; by some coincidence, the fish has been purchased by the family whose children owned the toy soldier.
The children retrieve the soldier, but shortly after one of them picks him up and throws him in the fire. The paper ballerina is subjected to the same fate. The soldier accepts his fate with stoic resignation, assuming the jealous goblin to be responsible for their unhappy fate among the flames. Soon, all that remains of the steadfast tin soldier is his tin heart, which somehow avoided the flames, and all that’s left of the ballerina is her spangle, ‘burnt black as coal’.
‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’: analysis
‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ was Andersen’s first original fairy story, and it sets the trend for what was to follow. It contains many of his trademark features, most notably the tragic central character and the doomed love between the soldier and the ballerina.
This aspect is thought, like many of the unhappy relationships (or relationships-that-never-were) in Andersen’s fiction, to be autobiographical, reflecting Andersen’s own failure to form meaningful relationships with the women he admired (among others, he was infatuated with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind at one point).
‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ is about the hopelessness of the soldier’s love for the ballerina. And yet is his love hopeless because it can never be, or simply because he so readily accepts that it will never be? The story’s title emphasises his steadfastness: his ability to endure, without complaint, any number of unpleasant or seemingly intolerable situations.
He is the epitome of the duty-bound soldier. At one point, he decides against shouting for help because it is not seemly to shout while in his soldier’s uniform. He would rather endure whatever fate will fall his way than risk committing an impropriety.
In this regard, then, ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ can be analysed as more than just a thinly veiled autobiographical account of Andersen’s own shyness around women: it is about the stiflingly proper etiquette of much nineteenth-century society and how it inhibits a true expression of emotion because one must always be seen to be doing ‘the done thing’.
Although it would be too far to describe Andersen’s story as the nineteenth-century equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, there are some striking parallels, such as the passivity of both male protagonists and their concern with what people think or say about them.
As a result, the steadfastness of the tin soldier is his undoing; so how far we are supposed to feel sorry for him as a victim of fate, and how far we are meant to feel frustrated with his unwillingness to change or even create his own fate, is open to discussion. Is the goblin really some magical sprite who brings about the downfall of both the soldier and his beloved ballerina? Or is the story merely a catalogue of unfortunate things which happen quite by chance, but which the soldier interprets as the work of his evil love-rival?
Furthermore, what are we to make of his failure to approach his love-interest, instead contenting himself with concealing himself behind the snuff box so he can peer at her unseen, turning her into the object of the male gaze and robbing her (as well as himself) of any agency?
And what about the symbolic significance of the fact that, when they are both chucked in the fire, all that remains of the tin soldier is his heart – the essence of himself, and of his love for the ballerina – while all that remains of her is her spangle, a superficial part of her which was, in a visceral sense, not really ‘part’ of her at all?
A more cynical critic might argue that Andersen was suggesting that his own unhappy experiences with women were somehow beyond his control, much as the soldier himself realises that it’s the goblin, rather than his own passivity, which ensures his demise in the fire. And that the story therefore contains a rather self-pitying tone, because we are meant to feel sympathy for the soldier but are instead left feeling as though he is more at fault than he is prepared to recognise.
But another way to analyse ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ is to interpret this distance and detachment between us and the soldier as deliberate: that Andersen is inviting us to feel sorrow and regret at the turn of events while also realising that the soldier didn’t exactly help himself by so readily resigning himself to whatever vicissitudes life threw at him.
And after all, his end would presumably have been the same: if his unfortunate fate was the result of the goblin’s evil machinations, then approaching the ballerina wouldn’t exactly have improved things; and if the goblin had nothing to do with the series of events that befell the soldier, the hapless tin soldier and his bride-that-was-not-to-be would still have ended up on the fire.