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

Hans Christian Andersen

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Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Themes


Love and Recognition

Hans Christian Andersen presents the theme of unrequited love in many varieties. Some lovers, like the tin soldier and the paper doll dancer in "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" and the two porcelain figures in "The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweep," largely admire each other from afar. In "The Little Mermaid," love is unrequited first because the little mermaid cannot live in the earthly realm and later because the prince chooses a human wife. In other stories, like "The Sweethearts" and "The Swineherd," the suitor ends up rejecting the woman he seeks when he finds out she is vain and superficial.

The theme of recognition and reward delayed runs through many of Andersen's stories. It has deep roots in Andersen's own life: even though his parents made his childhood a happy one, his young adulthood was marked by ridicule and rejection by his peers, first in Odense and later in Copenhagen. No one knew where his talent lay until he had acquired sufficient skill in writing and dazzled the world with his stories. In a similar way, the title characters of "The Ugly Duckling," "The Princess and the Pea," and "Thumbelina" undergo a period of suffering or testing until they are rewarded and their true worth is recognized.

Sin and Redemption

Aspects of the theme of sin and redemption are evident in several of Andersen's stories, but the foremost examples are "The Red Shoes" and "The Child in the Grave." Karen's vanity and deceit in "The Red Shoes" lead to her punishment of perpetual dancing and, ultimately, the amputation of her feet. However, Karen is redeemed before her death when she prays to God for help and is granted mercy. The mother in "The Child in the Grave," on the other hand, sins unconsciously and out of deep love for her dead son. When she is taken by Death to see her child in the underworld, she finally realizes her obsession over his loss is selfish because it keeps her disconnected from her living husband and children, and because it doesn't permit her dead son to enjoy a peaceful, joyous life in heaven. She is redeemed when she acknowledges this as a sin and returns to her family. Although the title character in "The Little Match Girl" is not being punished for a sin, Andersen movingly describes her redemption from cold, hunger, and loneliness when she dies happy, guided out of her suffering in this life by her beloved grandmother.

Forces of Nature

The forces of nature are a recurring theme in many of Andersen's stories. In "Thumbelina" domestic and wild animals assist the heroine with compassion and understanding, despite their limited perceptions. The toad, for example, is absolutely certain Thumbelina is the perfect bride for her son, and can't imagine anyone would object to living the rest of her life in the mud. Even though such characters express human emotions, they are—like the migrating swallows and swans—part of nature. Andersen offers stunningly vivid descriptions of natural landscapes in stories such as "The Snow Queen" and "The Traveling Companion."

The forces of nature are also addressed in some stories through transience, or the idea everything passes and dies at the ordained time. "The Fir Tree" offers the example of the Christmas tree's life cycle from sapling, to glorious holiday centerpiece, to dried-up wood relegated to the kindling pile. The watchdog's life story, related to the title character in "The Snow Man," shows the various natural phases of human (or canine) life, as do the stories of the young boy and the old man in "The Old House."

Integrity over Artifice

Andersen continually returns to themes that explore personal truth and integrity sacrificed to, or overcoming, social norms and mores. In "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Swineherd," and "The Nightingale," readers see characters either lost in their vanity or redeemed by their recognition of beauty in humble characters and truths. In "The Shadow" readers see this theme subverted, as the shadow takes over the scholar's life. The latter tale shows the world of appearances will triumph over the search for truth unless the searcher—the artist—can embrace the darker side of his nature.


Transformation is a theme Andersen appropriated from traditional folktales and fairy tales. Transformations can be physical, as they are for the ugly duckling, the enchanted princes who have been turned into swans, and the little mermaid. They can also be spiritual or metaphorical, like the prince/swineherd's realization his "love" will never have more to offer than her beautiful face.

Both sorts of transformations can be either ennobling or debasing. For the little mermaid, gaining legs and feet brings only bitter unhappiness, while for the ugly duckling, transformation allows him to grow into something splendid. Motive plays a role in determining the outcome of a transformation. The little mermaid transforms herself to become something she is not meant to be and suffers accordingly. In contrast the duckling wants only to be accepted, something his transformation accomplishes. And for the steadfast tin soldier, being burned in the fire reveals his true heart, whereas the shallow paper doll dancer burns to ashes.

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