Today’s guest entry from Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” course comes from Kenna Galloway, who tells us about the meaning behind the Little Mermaid’s actions.
By Kenna Galloway
In Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Little Mermaid, we are given a poignant portrayal of a young girl’s superficial search for love and freedom, juxtaposed with an intrinsic quest for an immortal soul. It is this quest, Anderson suggests, which is an internal need and hope for our heroine. On the surface, the story is an aching narrative of silent despair and unrequited love. The little mermaid sacrifices her family and the only home she has ever known, to obtain only the friendship of the prince and have to mutely watch him sign her death warrant as he marries someone else.
The little mermaid (it is taking serious restraint for me not to call her Ariel) is a character of conflicting traits. Largely, the girl beneath the sea is completely different than the girl above the sea. The implications of her actions down below tell us certain things about her character: For years she pines for her fifteenth birthday so that she can see the world above- passionate; she puts herself in substantial danger by saving the prince from the shipwreck- brave; she leaves her entire family and her home for an unknown land where her very existence hangs in the balance- daring, and perhaps a little foolish; she thinks nothing of how her departure will affect her family- not wrong by any means, but definitely a selfish characteristic . The picture that these details conjure in our heads, a modern heroine’s illustration to be sure, are proved time and time again to be wrong once she reaches the land. The little mermaid makes no gestures to win over the prince. She is devoted to him, but any traces of her passions are gone. She seems content to watch him look at her as simply a friend, and to marry someone else. Logic seems to suggest she would find another means to communicate with him yet no measures are taken. She is as thoughtful as she always was, yet now she is selfless and a figure of quiet suffering and pain. In the end, she sacrifices her own life and saves her prince who ignorantly ruined her life. The passionate daring child of the sea is gone, replaced by a young woman who has experienced great heartbreak.
This journey of character, and the very end of the Anderson’s story, suggests greatly that the little mermaid’s life has been a quest for an immortal soul.. The trials she experiences as a human—her tongue being cut out by the sea witch, the pain and mutilation of her tail into legs, that each steps she takes will feel as if she is walking on knife points—these experiences are the quintessential example of obstacles set before a hero on a quest. And it is these obstacles that prompt the question For what? The answer to this is not the humanly reward of love or earthly happiness, but instead the heavenly hope of an afterlife. She is given three hundred years to become pure, with the eventual pay off, if she works hard enough, being the obtainment of a soul. If she is virtuous, she can achieve a fate greater than becoming sea foam, thoughtlessly floating on the waves. This, I believe, is what Anderson is attempting to relay to children. That the little mermaid was a soulless creature who cast aside passion and selfishness to live a life of piety and quiet self-sacrifice so that she may gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven. And most importantly—she did not obtain this opportunity by snaring a husband, but instead by self-sacrifice and silent devotion to virtue. Attempting to find a happy motivation in this story is impossible and I am at a loss as to why Anderson would inflict the idea of such quiet suffering on children. But it is clear through his writing that the little mermaid’s journey from the sea to the land, and ultimately to the sky and heaven, is one of great depth and religious meaning.
Kenna is a graduate student at the University of Florida.