In Defense of the Conclusion to “The Little Mermaid”
The conclusion to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted and maligned in Western literature. Does he go too far, offering a needlessly bleak and tragic conclusion to a tale which doesn’t warrant it? Or does he fail to go far enough, stopping short of the tragic conclusion the story seems to necessitate, tacking on a marginally happy and unsatisfying conclusion? While both of these responses to his ending capture something significant as regards Andersen’s purposes, they miss something fundamental when it comes to the central theme Andersen wished to convey. And when we understand that theme, we see the conclusion Andersen provides is the only one which can be considered dramatically fitting.
The Story as Compared with its Adaptations
Those familiar with the Disney adaptation of Andersen’s story are often unprepared for the harshness of the mermaid’s journey. The sea witch cuts off the mermaid’s tongue as payment for giving her legs, rather than magically giving up the glowing sphere that apparently constitutes her voice; when she walks on land, “every step she took was as the witch had said it would be, she felt as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives”; the prince, as in the film, falls in love and weds another, but, unlike the film, the bride has nothing to do with the sea-witch and nothing thwarts the wedding. The mermaid fails to marry the prince. The witch gives her the opportunity of returning to the sea if she kills the prince, but she refuses, falls off the boat, and presumably drowns. But she doesn’t die: instead, a group of spirits called the “Daughters of the Air” come to her and she becomes one of them. These spirits have no immortal soul, but they earn one through three hundred years of good deeds toward mankind. It’s not the ending most expect from their familiarity with the more conventional Disney film, but it’s also not the tragic ending many expect from hearsay, either.
Those who are not shocked by the mermaid’s failure and accept the story on its own merits are nonetheless sometimes disappointed that Andersen does not go farther. That is, they argue that the events of the story are building towards a tragic conclusion, and having these “daughters of the air” float in at the end is an unrealistic tack-on to prevent the story from being wholly downbeat. The crux of their argument rests with the mermaid’s bargain with the sea witch. At this point, the mermaid has seen the surface world, rescued the prince and fallen in love. The only way she knows to obtain the legs to live on land to persuade the prince to marry her is to go to the sea witch. The sea witch had little sympathy for the mermaid, and tells her point-blank that “it is very stupid of you [to want this], but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess.” And her prediction is unhappily accurate, the mermaid suffering excruciating pain—both physically and emotionally—pining for the prince who does love her, but never as a wife, and never realizes the extent of her love. Indeed, on this reading, one could put the story into an Aristotelian framework quite nicely: the mermaid is a girl better than average, who, through the hubristic attempt to gain an immortal soul by her own efforts, loses all the good things she has and, inevitably, dies.
Andersen’s Christian Imagination
This reading, though not wholly invalid, misses something crucial about the sort of story Andersen is telling. If the opposing reading is correct, then Andersen’s ending is almost cruel in its inadequacy, giving the mermaid a weak “consolation prize” after the misery she suffered on land. But the ending Andersen does give masks something more profound than merely tragic conclusion would give. Andersen’s stories are called “fairytales”, but, unlike the Grimm Brothers, who mostly recorded old oral folktales, his were wholly original and imbued with his own idiosyncrasies as a writer. His stories run the gamut from the joyful to the mellow to the devastating, but one thing that remains perfectly clear throughout all of them is a pervasive Christian worldview. Some of his stories refer to God, Christianity, and even the priesthood explicitly, like “The Marsh King’s Daughter.” Others are more subtle, sometimes referring to Christian doctrines, but not bringing Christianity to the forefront. “The Little Mermaid” rests somewhere in the middle. It does not make much of Christian doctrines explicitly, but the understanding of the immortal soul, of heaven, of the place of individual virtue in the context of salvation are all woven into the background of the story. When one understands the Christian imagination permeating these tales, one can then see more clearly why Andersen ends this story the way he does.
To begin, her desire for life on land is not derived solely from her desire to marry the prince, but rather rests more fundamentally on her desire for an immortal soul. For, in Andersen’s story, mermaids don’t have immortal souls: rather, they live for three hundred years and then dissolve into sea foam. While the mermaid’s grandmother counsels her to “be happy…and dart and spring about during the three hundred years that we have to live, which is really quite long enough,” the mermaid asks “Why have not we an immortal soul?…I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars.” She is unsatisfied with the pure temporal happiness which seems to satisfy her grandmother and the rest of her kin, but her grandmother does give her a piece of advice that sets her off on her sorrowful journey:
unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you and retain his own as well; but this can never happen.
Thus, the mermaid has much more at stake in her endeavor to become human than did Ariel. It’s not simply that she wants to marry the prince, or escape her situation for something new or better, but rather she doesn’t want death to be the end. She wants to experience the hope, the joy, and the glory that men do in obtaining eternal happiness. She wants immortality.
Now, Andersen does not seem to present the desire for immortality itself as a bad thing. However, as has been before discussed, the way she endeavors to obtain this immortality is questionable at best. She did attempt to achieve immortality by her own efforts, which is a losing proposition from the start. But, this derived, not from a prideful presumption, but an uncircumspect naiveté. Her escapade on land brings suffering and loneliness, and her project eventually ends in failure–but she does not take the ‘out’ provided which would be exponentially worse than anything she had before. As the Daughters of Air tell her when they snatch her from the jaws of death:
After we have striven for three hundred years to all the good in our power, we receive an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind. You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart to do as we are doing; you have suffered and endured and raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds; and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul.
No one can strictly speaking earn eternal life, but she does in a sense earn it by throwing away any chance she has of mortal happiness by refusing to kill the prince and accepting death. It is by accepting death that she gains life. As Christ says in the Gospels, “He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it” (Matthew 10:39).
Thus, it is more dramatically fitting for the mermaid to be given a new lease on life rather than dissolving into sea foam. She should not fully succeed in her quest, but neither does she merit annihilation, for she gives up everything rather than salvage whatever temporal happiness she can through an act as despicable as murder. She tried to attain eternal happiness through her own efforts and failed, but she threw away all possibility of happiness and then gained more than she could have hoped for before. It is her sacrifice, a sacrifice that would quite literally end in her annihilation that, paradoxically, makes her worthy of eternal life. Were Andersen to end it tragically after the sacrifice she made would be cruelty on the part of Andersen, and therefore he was right to consider the tragic ending a “mistake.” Now, we can critique the device of the “Daughters of the Air” itself, but the conclusion required something of that sort in order to properly end the story of this poor Little Mermaid. Anything different, “worse” or “better,” would have been somehow “wrong.” Ending it with the conventional “happy ending” of marriage to the prince would somehow have been “cheap,” giving her what she wanted when she used questionable means to get it. A more tragic ending, however, would be excessively cruel, rewarding her hopeless sacrifice with the stark finality of a mermaid’s death, which we cannot say she merits either. Therefore, albeit in counter-intuitive way, the conclusion that has come down to us is the most dramatically fitting conclusion Andersen could give this tale.
What do you think? Leave a comment.