LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Little Mermaid’s Character Quest for Immortality

on January 17, 2013 1:46pm


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.


3 responses to “The Little Mermaid’s Character Quest for Immortality

  1. I agree with you that the motive behind Hans Anderson’s A Little Mermaid was to touch on the religious morals of the church. Being that the heroine received no earthly gifts but instead suffered for the good of her neighbor shows that she was being a good Christian and not expecting earthly blessings. Like what was mentioned by the post, she wanted to gain favor in heaven by becoming a pious, non-self seeking person in order to gain favor with God. I agree when you say that he wanted children to learn this lesson. She seemed very unselfish by her actions and Anderson wanted to show children that by thinking of others instead of yourself that you will gain favor with God and be considered a good Christian. I also believe that the silent suffering mentioned is because during that time period, children were to be seen not heard. They were supposed to only speak when spoken to, and were expected to almost be perfect. Thus, this story reflects the desired actions of children.

  2. mpak504 says:

    Kenna, I grew up with the Disney version of The Little Mermaid so you can imagine the reaction I had after reading Anderson’s version. Obviously Anderson’s version is very different, and one may even argue that it is really depressing. Reading his version was like The Little Mermaid on steroids. As I was reading it, I kept picturing the red-headed cartoon, Ariel, getting her tongue cut out by Ursula the sea witch, and her tail being mutilated into legs, and her leaving bloody footprints everywhere she walked. It is really strange to picture your Disney princess like this.

    Reading a different version of The Little Mermaid has not only provided me strange and violent images of Ariel, but it has also helped me realize significant underlying motifs, such as religion for example; which is why I really enjoyed reading your blog post. You made a valid point about Anderson’s Christian influences in the story, which I never thought about. I agree with you that Anderson attempts to inflict Christian morals to his audience by portraying the little mermaid’s journey for immortality and obtaining a soul. Her desire for a soul and for an afterlife is indicative of being close with God.

    However, you may also want to consider that Anderson also indicates religious undertones through the use of word play. The sun imagery in the story portrays the little mermaid’s desire to ascend higher and higher, and this indicates her need to be close with God. Besides its locational value, the sun also suggests word play due to its pronunciation. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The word “Son” and “sun” sound the same, does it not? I think that Anderson uses the image and sound of the word “sun” to pertain to the “Son,” therefore implying that The Little Mermaid possesses religious influences.

    Also, you said that you are at a loss as to why Anderson inflicts quiet suffering on children? I am not sure if he condones quiet suffering on children or not, however, I do know that the idea of suffering in his literary works is a reflection of his tragic life. He may have been bitter when writing The Little Mermaid. We learned in class today that Anderson continuously fell in love with unattainable people, including both men and women. Maybe he wanted to portray his suffering of unattainable love through the little mermaid? The little mermaid, after all, does not attain the Prince romantically.

  3. cpaik1 says:

    I especially enjoyed your interpretation of this story, Kenna.

    Though most of the original content of fairy tales and other stories were lost when Disney created their own renditions, the case of Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is one where it is obvious that major details were changed or completely voided. In Anderson’s version, the mermaid encounters dangers, obstacles, and eventually mortal death. Though the time period in which Anderson wrote this story was one in which such themes were commonplace, Disney obviously felt that such details were too strong, even traumatizing for children of the modern age. Thus, examining the story in close detail allows for us to made comparisons of what the author really meant to teach during that time since Anderson is one writer that focused his stories specifically to children.

    I see your interpretation mentioned that Anderson put a strong religious theme to the life of the mermaid, who experienced painful tribulations and eventually gained immortal life. This is a great thought, and I strongly agree with you. It is clear when reading the story that Anderson willfully put the little mermaid into scenarios where she was tested. She maintained her loyalty to the prince through every problem she faced, and because her pure love and loyalty was true, she gained immortality. This is a simple statement that can be made when reading the story.

    However, you wrote that Anderson inflicts “the idea of such quiet suffering on children.” I do not totally agree with this statement. It is my opinion that Anderson is indeed trying to teach children to be faithful throughout their lives and that such faith will be rewarded. However, I do not think he means to force children to deal with their problems quietly. Instead, the focus of The Little Mermaid was how the mermaid came to terms with her fleshly desires, cast them aside, and found the true happiness that is with the divine. Such an example to children is common for the time Anderson wrote the story, whereas I don’t think that he meant that children should suffer trials and just deal with them.

    Overall, great analysis of The Little Mermaid. Seeing your viewpoint on critical themes of the text was enlightening and added to my perception of the classic tale.

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