The tale of the mermaid who fell in love with a mortal prince and longed, not only to be with him, but to gain an immortal soul so she could be with him forever, is a perennial favourite. Written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, the original tale was a far cry from Disney’s animated feature film.
The Little Mermaid didn’t just lose her voice to the sea witch, her tongue was cut off as payment; in exchange, she received legs for which each footfall was like "stepping on piercing needles and sharp knives." "Her tender feet bled so that even her steps were marked."
Andersen himself admitted that The Little Mermaid was "the only one of my works that has affected me while I was writing it. . . .I suffer with my characters, I share their moods, whether good or bad, and I can be nice or nasty according to the scene on which I happen to be working."
The closest precursor of the tale is Undine, a story by Friedrich de La Motte Fouque. Andersen admited to his familiarity and consideration of Undine while writing his Little Mermaid. Undine, originally published in Germany in 1811, is the story of a water–sprite who can only gain a soul by marrying a human. She falls in love with a knight and marries him, only to later be betrayed. Unlike Undine, Andersen's mermaid is allowed another option; when the mermaid refuses to kill the prince, she dissolves into foam and becomes a "daughter of air.”
Andersen may have tried to use the story of The Little Mermaid to express the ideals of Christian faith and redemption, but the emotional heart of the story is in the mermaid's yearning for the prince and the world above.
From a feminist perspective, this story is a misogynist tale about dampening the sexual curiosity of a young female who wants to explore other worlds. The little mermaid who begins the story is of a completely different character than the one who ends it. In the beginning of the story, the little mermaid is adventurous, talented, and yet sensible and modest. She is also brave and bold.
However, the mermaid's character soon devolves as she begins to fixate on the prince. She becomes obsessed; she discovers where he lives and night after night goes to sit in the canal under his balcony to watch him.
She gives up everything for the prince: her family, her voice, her ability to move without crippling pain. She suffers in silence, never demanding appreciation for her sacrifice. The prince treats her more like a pet than a person and in the end he marries someone else.
Sexual overtones abound throughout the text, usually in a negative context. When the mermaid's tail transforms into legs, for example, "it felt like a double–edged sword going through her delicate body." The mermaid cannot manage the pain of this bodily invasion, and so "she fainted and lay there as if dead." When she awakens, it’s to find the prince standing over her.
The word "mermaid" is usually read as "sea maid," or "virgin of the sea." There are many connections between the mermaid and the ancient Goddess, whose origin and power are associated with the sea. The first syllable, "mer," French for “sea,” sounds much like mêre or "mother." One of the underlying deep meanings of "mermaid" is "virgin mother," directly linking the term and the figure it names with the Virgin Mary.
The tale originally ended with the mermaid dissolving into foam, but Andersen later changed it to include the “daughters of air”, which was the working title of the story. The daughters of air can earn their souls by doing three hundred years worth of good deeds, and this again was revised to state that it depended on whether children are good or bad. Good behavior takes a year off the maidens' time of service; bad behavior makes them weep, and a day is added for every tear they shed.
The prince never learns that it was the mermaid who saved him, nor does he fall in love with her. He is struck by her devotion, and it is this devotion that entails self–sacrifice and brings about her own miraculous salvation. . . .Voiceless and tortured, the mermaid serves a prince who never fully appreciates her worth. Twice she saves his life. The second time is the most significant: instead of killing him to regain her identity and rejoin her sisters and grandmother, the mermaid forfeits her own life and is rewarded by the chance of gaining a soul.
All in all, the tale of The Little Mermaid can be seen as a cautionary tale, containing a message about love and self-sacrifice, and the dangers of accepting abuse or inconsiderate treatment in the name of love.
The Little Mermaid