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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

For readers who take Andersen seriously, as an author who probes into social, psychological, and religious issues, the impossibility of designating a single worldview as Andersen’s may seem baffling. His views of life seem to fluctuate, and one text may easily contradict the next—for example, the harmonious tale “The Snow Queen” is placed next to “The Pine Tree” (1845), which ends with the unfulfilled protagonist dwindling into nothingness. A contrast can be detected by juxtaposing “The Ugly Duckling” with “In the Duck Yard” (1861). In the former, the ugly duckling goes through many hardships, but in the end all turns out well, for he is in reality a swan and has now found his true home. In the latter, a little songbird finds himself among philistines and eventually is destroyed. Both stories are strongly autobiographical: In one, a perfect future life is envisioned, and in the other a destiny that could have been Andersen’s is imagined. Andersen wrote often about artists and art, but, once again, one should not expect consistency: In “The Nightingale,” the artist is the vehicle for truth and beauty, and art is seen as a life-giving force; but in “The Flying Trunk” (1839), the artist is not only a parasite but also a subversive prophet of social change. In “The Professor and the Flea” (1868), the artist is a self-serving con man, and, in the late “Auntie Toothache” (1872), the artist belittles and rejects his own talent. Both the agony and the ecstacy of Romanticism speak through Andersen’s tales: “The Nightingale” is a textbook example of harmonious Romanticism, in which the natural and the artificial in life are juxtaposed, and the natural emerges victorious; but in “The Shadow,” the person inspired by romantic ideas is proven to be a fool and is destroyed.

One reason for the inconsistencies in the body of the tales may be found in Andersen’s position as an artist. He had risen from poverty to the high bourgeoisie of Denmark, but to be accepted by such a culture meant to adapt to that society’s values: His works had to please his audience. Consequently, some lesser stories are sentimental, overly pious, superficial, and filled with artistic compromises, but many others are exactly the opposite and in many of them one encounters a scathing view of Andersen’s audience. For example, in “In the Duck Yard,” the audience is, for all practical purposes, homicidal. In “The Professor and the Flea,” the audience is compared to cannibals, and even in the optimistic tale “The Nightingale,” the audience lacks any comprehension of the beauty of the bird’s song. Darkness can be found in many supposedly happy tales.

This is especially the case whenever Andersen deals with sexuality. Even if many stories have happy endings, others show that sexuality can become a destructive obsession, as in “Under the Willow Tree” (1853) and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (1838), and that sexual attraction can be demonic in nature, as in “The Snow Queen” and “The Ice Maiden” (1862). Once again, Andersen sends an ambivalent message: In some texts, he seems to advocate spiritual love, as in “The Little Mermaid” and “The Bog King’s Daughter” (1858), whereas in others the physical aspects of sexuality are deemed to be an essential part of humanity, as in “The Garden of Eden” (1839) and “The Butterfly” (1862).

A preoccupation with the spiritual-physical dichotomy also marks those tales in which Andersen deals with religious matters; some texts seem to be filled with piety, for it is demanded that human beings admit to their sinfulness and humble themselves in the dust before they can gain salvation, as in “The Red Shoes” (1845) and “The Girl Who Stepped on Bread” (1859); others are pantheistic, as in “The Bell” (1850). In some tales, Andersen leaves absolutely no doubt as to the existence of an eternal life, as in “The Dead Child” (1860) and “On the Last Day” (1852), whereas in “The Story of a Mother” Andersen has Death call afterlife “the unknown land.” In “Auntie Toothache,” Andersen finally admits that human beings can know little about “God, death and immortality.” The tales, taken together, create a puzzling, fascinating, and unsettling ambiguity.

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Critical Context