Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Study Guide

Hans Christian Andersen

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Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | The Little Mermaid | Summary



The youngest of six mermaid princesses, the little mermaid is not only the most beautiful, but the most introspective and thoughtful. Since their mother has died, the mermaids are raised by their grandmother. The youngest asks for all the information she can get about the world above the sea. Each princess has her own sea garden, which she can decorate as she chooses. The youngest arranges everything in the shape of the sun, and places in it the statue of a handsome prince from a sunken ship.

As each princess reaches age 16, she is allowed to swim to the surface and observe life above the waves. When it is her turn to visit the upper world, the little mermaid approaches the windows of a sailing ship and sees inside the prince whose statue she has kept in her garden. A terrible storm comes up, wrecking the ship and drowning all on board except the prince. He is saved by the mermaid, who places him safely on a distant shore. When some maidens and a princess discover him, the little mermaid flees.

Her grandmother reveals the little mermaid can live on land, but at a terrible price. The sea witch has a potion that will transform her tail into legs and feet, but to get them, the little mermaid must give up her beautiful singing voice. And in order to gain a mortal soul, she must make the prince fall in love with and marry her.

She agrees, and though each step on land is like walking on knives, she manages to join the court of the prince. Despite her muteness, the prince treats her kindly. One day the princess who found him on the shore arrives and the prince, recognizing her as the one who saved him from drowning, vows his love for her. Together with the little mermaid, they sail away to their wedding. Her sisters bring the little mermaid a knife bought from the sea witch with their hair, instructing her to murder the prince with it so she can rejoin them in the sea. But the little mermaid is unable to do this. Brokenhearted, she kisses the happy couple and dives at sunrise to die in the waves of the sea. Instead, she finds herself lifted out of the water by the daughters of the air, who teach her how to bless children and thereby obtain an eternal soul.


The tale of the little mermaid is probably the most beloved and best known of all Andersen's stories. It was written during the decade of his life that was most productive, 1835–45, and published in 1837 in the third pamphlet of his Fairy Tales Told for Children series. Andersen may have adapted the plot from his play Agnete (1834).

Longing for love and happiness that seem forever beyond reach was an emotion particularly familiar to Andersen, who like the little mermaid deeply suffered the pangs of unrequited love. There are many legends from antiquity about mermaids luring sailors to their watery deaths; by rendering the little mermaid unable to sing, the sea witch has also deprived her of her chief power over mortal men. For many Andersen characters, such self-denial leads to reward, and the little mermaid's suffering is in fact somewhat alleviated at the story's end by the promise of an eternal soul.

Singing also had particular resonance for Andersen. He was infatuated with the Swedish singer Jenny Lind (1820–87) and, wishing to become a singer himself, was keenly disappointed when his voice changed in adolescence.

The critic Jack Zipes has suggested the story can be seen as "a commentary about art and the artist." The mermaid represents the artist, who cannot fulfill both his (or her) needs and a love of beauty when patronage rules over the arts. Zipes says having deluded herself into thinking she can attract the prince, or patron, she has nothing more to do but "kill herself, thereby creating an artistic tragedy."

Today, a life-size bronze statue of the little mermaid sits at the harbor of Copenhagen, gazing sadly out to sea.

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