Ambiguity in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid"

Jacob Bøggild & Pernille Heegaard

(summary for pages 311-20)

This paper will discuss certain difficulties that one of Andersen's most widely read fairy tales, "The Little Mermaid", raises for various interpretative approaches. The author's ideas are thus not only derived from an analysis of the tale, but also from a discussion of the Danish reception of Andersen's work, as expressed in a number of interpretations of "The Little Mermaid", from Hans Brix's (1907) to Erik A. Nielsen's (1968). These interpretations, in fact, constitute a circular movement, in which the critics' wish to draw upon Andersen's biography can somehow never be reconciled with their need for rendering a coherent reading of the tale. Not even a more formalist approach (Søren Baggesen 1967) is able to obtain such a coherence. It is one of the aims of this paper to establish the reason for this.

One of the crucial aspects which any interpretation must confront is the final sequence of the tale, in which the little mermaid, against all odds, is redeemed from immediate damnation and accepted into the spiritual sphere, where the "daughters of the air" reside. In this, she is apparently promised the "immortal soul", which it has been her main motivation to obtain - along with the prince, of course. This ending has baffled critics because the narrative that precedes it points rather to a tragic conclusion than to a happy one. Therefore it has been common to disregard Andersen's choice, and thereby the conclusion of the tale, as a mistake. This mistake is believed to result from the fact that he had been carried away by his "good heart" and subsequently given way to sentimentality, his belief in "a good, just God" that is often claimed to be a main constituent of his personality. This view is held by a number of the afore-mentioned interpretations, from biographically founded ones to more psychoanalytic ones; the authors in fact argue that Andersen's strange life might haunt the Danish reception of Andersen to an extent where it ceases to be helpful, and rather becomes a burden, at least for attempts to rethink the basic tenets of this reception. This is an important point, because any biography of a person from an earlier century is bound to be a 'text' of sorts. Bound, in other words, to be not only founded on fact, but probably also on a certain amount of fiction, especially if, as in Andersen's case, we are dealing with a famous and complex character.

In their alternative reading of the tale, the authors attempt to pay due respect to Andersen's literary form, since they claim that it is ambiguous and ironic to an extent beyond that believed to be the case by the majority of his critics. A close reading of the tale might reveal that, from the very beginning, it is doubtful whether the little mermaid's project is a religious one, because it is left uncertain whether her reason for leaving her wet element is predominantly spiritual, or whether it is too libidinous to be just that. Furthermore, 'misreading' is directly thematised in the tale, as the little mermaid falls in love with the prince because he reminds her of the statue she kept in her garden. Furhtermore, the Prince mistakes the princess whom he marries for the girl who saved him from drowning - who, of course, was the little mermaid. Finally, it is by no means certain that the ending is as happy as it seems to be. The 'good' God might not be entirely just, because the salvation of the daughters of the air depends on the behaviour of the children (who, supposedly, are listening to the story). There is an economy of punishment inscribed within the apparent economy of redemption. It could be that Andersen is hereby addressing his audience and thus breaking the literary illusion in true romantic fashion, with an irony that is more subdued, but not less pointed, than the one which can be found in the previous description of life at the court at the bottom of the sea. This ironically founded parallelism between the various worlds, or spheres, in the text, proves to be a serious obstacle for any attempt to understand the tale from a psycho-biographical, as well as from a formalist position. In fact, as Derrida has argued, the formalist approach and the hermeneutic one often support each other, united in a mutual blindness to textual ambiguities or displacements. Therefore it seems that the best approach would be to accept that it is impossible to determine whether the narrative offers a redemption, or, alternatively, a damnation, since both conclusions are problematized, even subverted, by the text itself. Thus Andersen's acknowledged scepticism could be linked to the general mistrust of "the Symbol" which critics like de Man have uncovered in a great number of romantic texts; a mistrust, of course, that is expressed by just that ambiguity which we are exploring here.

In order to substantiate their arguments, the authors conclude their analysis by pointing to the final sequence of Andersen's last novel, Lykke-Peer, which can be read to demonstrate a similar ambiguity, again disrupting the established hierarchy between artistic/spiritual aims and more worldly/libidinous ones and likewise unsettling the common view of the relationship between the artist and his audience. Thus we might gain a neat coherence as regards the whole oeuvre of Andersen.

In conclusion, the authors will argue that such a reading will not necessarily be entirely in opposition to traditional Andersen scholarship, nor to what we know about his life. That Andersen had a complex relationship to his own writing, even to writing as such, and to his audience, is more or less an established fact. We also know that the writer of fairy tales was extremely well-read, if not systematically schooled, and admired the irony of, for example, Hoffmann. The crux of the author's argument is that he put his experiences of contemporary Biedermeier culture, as well as his reading, to a fuller and more subtle use than many of his later interpreters have been willing to acknowledge.