The Little Mermaid (published in 1837) is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most enduring and beloved tales. While re-popularized with a Disney re-write in 1989, it left Ariel living happily ever after in the arms of her prince, a vastly different ending to the original story of unrequited love. Hans Christian Andersen begun penning fairy tales in 1835, a time when the Grimm brothers (and many others) were already reviving the medium with their folkloric collections. Unlike his peers though, Andersen was one of the first to consciously create new fairy tales as opposed to collecting existing ones. It was a unique method, and it also bypassed the fairy tale definition; a story that had both derived from the “common” people and filtered through the collective by way of tradition. Revisiting some of Andersen’s stories through Jackie Wullschlager’s biography Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller highlights how deeply personal his stories were, and how they paralleled with the story of his own life. Of all of his tales, perhaps none is as powerful and as tragic as The Little Mermaid
Andersen’s stories were filled with auto-biographical elements. He was obsessed with his own story, writing three published non-fictional autobiographies throughout his life, the first at just 27 years old. The son of a poor shoemaker, Andersen developed an obsession with both shoes and feet that was reflected in stories like The Red Shoes, The Galoshes of Fortune, and The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf, among others. The Ugly Duckling is another of Andersen’s transparently auto-biographical fairy tales that harks back to his own childhood. Like the ugly duckling, Andersen was no stranger to cruel taunts; he was an awkward and unattractive man once described thus: “His arms and legs were long and thin and out of all proportion, his hands were broad and flat, and his feet of such giant dimensions that it seemed reasonable that no-one would ever have thought of stealing his boots. His nose was in the so-called Roman style, but so disproportionately large that it seemed to dominate his whole face” (Wullschlager 7). But just as the ugly duckling finally grew into a beautiful swan, Andersen likewise finally grew into his own skin, finding money and fame in a world that appreciated him for his talents.
The Little Mermaid is deeply biographical on many levels; both the Little Mermaid and Andersen grew up feeling trapped. The Little Mermaid was stuck, restricted to the bottom of the ocean, much like Andersen felt confined within his small hometown of Odense. Upon turning 15, The little mermaid is finally allowed to surface, and able to explore the world. Likewise, Andersen finally left Odense at a similar age, and headed for Copenhagen, a place which he had similarly longed for. Despite finally being free, there is still the essence of the outsider in them both, and each of their stories conveys a sense of alienation. As much as they longed to join the outside world neither quite fits in when they are finally able to. The little mermaid has her tail which keeps her bound to the water, while Andersen’s lanky awkwardness and social unease kept him apart. Andersen also famously died a virgin, and The Little Mermaid reflects his inability to understand and create functional adult relationships.
Wullschlager suggests that that Andersen felt safe in the fairy tale format; that they appealed to him because they “derived in some sense from his feelings of exclusion from the adult world around him. For Andersen, the fairy tale was a form in which he could express forbidden emotions and thoughts without, as it were, being caught” (153). This fits with Andersen’s love of portraying himself within an air of innocence, but also his inability to express himself. This feeling of voicelessness is mirrored in The Little Mermaid, where she sacrifices her voice to the sea-witch in return for a pair of legs. As much as the prince adores The Little Mermaid, without her voice she is nothing more to him than a little pet he can dress up and have follow him around. Eventually he falls in love with another, mistakenly thinking she is the girl that saved him, and the little mermaid cannot tell him that she is the one he should love.
Andersen’s writing of The Little Mermaid coincided with his own obsessive love for his longtime friend Edvard Collins, and Edvard’s own marriage. Collins was the son of one of Andersen’s main patrons and Andersen spent a lot of time with the family while he was starting his career. Andersen was never exclusively homosexual, he fell in love with both women and men throughout his life, but he seemed to prefer those who he could never truly obtain. He often created love triads, where he would fall in love with a woman that he could not have, and then establish a close relationship with a male figure in her life based on his unrequited passion. While this could be speculated as a method invoked to cover his homosexual leanings, it also gave him distance. By adding a third person to the relationship Andersen avoided direct intimacy, giving him a way to keep love firmly in the realm of fantasy.
Andersen was distraught at the marriage of Edvard and Henrietta, and the loss of his fantasy. He wrote to Edvard just before his wedding proclaiming “No one have I been so angry at as you! No one have I wanted to thrash as much as you, no one has brought more tears to my eyes, but neither has anyone been loved so much by me as you” (Wullschlager 161-162). This echoes in The Little Mermaid, for no matter how much she loves the prince, no matter how much she has sacrificed to be with him, he loves another and promises himself to her, completely oblivious to The Little Mermaid’s pain. She suffers in silence, dancing at his wedding despite the knife-like pain coursing through her legs and remaining true to him even when it means she will die. The Little Mermaid willingly suffers through her love because her love is true, even when unrequited, and she chooses her own death over his.
In his letters to Edvard, Andersen expressed his desire for them to be re-united in eternity, and a hope for their future in death: “Oh, is there an eternal life… there we shall learn to understand and appreciate each other. There I shall no longer be the destitute one, needing friends and appreciation, there we shall be equal” (Wullschlager 162). While The Little Mermaid lost her own prince forever, Andersen hoped that with Edvard he had not. At the time of his death, he was buried in a triple space, requesting that Edvard and Henriette be buried with him. They eventually were, and it seemed for a moment that Andersen may have a second chance at getting his happily ever after, but heartbreakingly Edvard and Henrietta were later moved into the Collins family plot. Poor Andersen remains buried, all alone in a triple plot with only their ghosts for company.