Hans Christian Andersen

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Hans Christian Andersen Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2667

Following publication of his 1844 collection of tales, Hans Christian Andersen explained in a letter that he wanted his tales to be read on two levels, offering something for the minds of adults as well as appealing to children. Three examples of such adult tales, “The Snow Queen,” “The Shadow,” and “The Nightingale,” demonstrate how, as Andersen said, in writing from his own breast instead of retelling old tales he had found out how to write fairy tales.

“The Snow Queen”

Comprising seven stories, “The Snow Queen” begins with a mirror into which people can look and see the good become small and mean and the bad appear at its very worst. Andersen could remember, in later years, that his father had maintained that “There is no other devil than the one we have in our hearts”; and this provides a clue to the plot and theme of “The Snow Queen.” Only when the demon’s followers confront heaven with the mirror does it shatter into fragments, but unfortunately those fragments enter the hearts of many people.

The second story introduces Little Kay and Gerda, who love each other and the summer’s flowers until a fragment of the evil mirror lodges in Little Kay’s eye and another pierces his heart. Having formerly declared that if the Snow Queen visited he would melt her on the stove, Kay now views snowflakes through a magnifying glass and pronounces them more beautiful than flowers. He protests against the grandmother’s tales with a but for the logic of each one, and, apparently arrived at adolescence, transfers loyalty from the innocent Gerda to the knowing Snow Queen. He follows the visiting Queen out of town and into the snowy expanses of the distant sky.

The journey from adolescence to maturity becomes for Gerda her quest for the missing Kay, her true love and future mate. Fearing the river has taken Kay, she offers it her new red shoes; but a boat she steps into drifts away from shore, and, riding the river’s current, she travels far before being pulled ashore and detained by a woman “learned in magic.” Gerda here forgets her search for Kay until the sight of a rose reminds her. In one of the story’s most abstract passages, she then asks the tiger lilies, convolvulus, snowdrop, hyacinth, buttercup, and narcissus where he might be; but each tells a highly fanciful tale concerned with its own identity. The narcissus, for example, alludes to the Echo and Narcissus myth in saying “I can see myself” and fails to aid Gerda. Barefoot, Gerda runs out of the garden and finds that autumn has arrived.

A crow believes he has seen Kay and contrives a visit with the Prince and Princess, who forgive the invasion of their palatial privacy and then outfit Gerda to continue her search. All her newly acquired equipage attracts a “little robber girl,” a perplexing mixture of amorality and good intentions, who threatens Gerda with her knife but provides a reindeer to carry Gerda to Spitsbergen, where the wood pigeons have reported having seen Kay. At one stop, the reindeer begs a Finnish wise woman to give Gerda the strength to conquer all, but the woman points out the great power that Gerda has already evidenced and adds, “We must not tell her what power she has. It is in her heart, because she is such a sweet innocent child.” She sends Gerda and the reindeer on their way, with Gerda riding without boots or mittens. Eventually the reindeer deposits her by a red-berry bush in freezing icebound Denmark, from which she walks to the Snow Queen’s Palace.

Here she finds a second mirror, a frozen lake broken into fragments that is actually the throne of the Snow Queen; the Queen calls it “The Mirror of Reason.” Little Kay works diligently to form the fragments into the word “Eternity,” for which accomplishment the Snow Queen has said he can be his own master and have the whole world and a new pair of skates. Gerda’s love, when she sheds tears of joy at finding Kay, melts the ice in his heart and the mirror within his breast; and Kay, himself bursting into tears at recovering Gerda and her love, finds that the fragments magically form themselves into the word “Eternity.” The two young people find many changes on their return journey but much the same at home, where they now realize they are grown up. The grandmother’s Bible verse tells them about the kingdom of heaven for those with hearts of children, and they now understand the meaning of the hymn, “Where roses deck the flowery vale,/ There Infant Jesus, thee we hail!” The flowers of love, not the mirror of reason, make Kay and Gerda inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, the Snow Queen’s elusive eternity.

Only the style makes such stories children’s stories, for “The Snow Queen,” with devices such as the snowflakes seen under a microscope, obviously attacks empiricism; at the same time, the story offers the symbol of the foot, important to folklore, and the journey of Gerda through obstacles and a final illumination constitutes a “journey of the hero” as delineated by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. So also Andersen’s “The Shadow” presents an alter-ego with psychic dimensions well beyond the ken of children.

“The Shadow”

The setting with which “The Shadow” begins reflects Andersen’s diary entries from his trip to Naples in June, 1846, when he found the sun too hot for venturing out of doors and began writing the story. With the hot sun directly overhead, the shadow disappears except in morning and evening and begins to assume a life of its own. Its activities, closely observed by its owner, the “learned man from a cold country,” leads him to joke about its going into the house opposite to learn the identity of a lovely maiden. The shadow fails to return, but the learned man soon grows a new shadow. Many years later, once more at home, the original shadow visits him but has now become so corporeal that it has acquired flesh and clothes. Further, it divulges, it has become wealthy and plans to marry. Its three-week visit in the house opposite, it now reveals, placed it close to the lovely maiden Poetry, in whose anteroom the shadow read all the poetry and prose ever written. If the learned man had been there, he would not have remained a human being, but it was there that the shadow became one. Emerging thence he went about under the cover of a pastry cook’s gown for some time before growing into his present affluence.

Later, the learned man’s writing of the good, the true, and the beautiful fail to provide him an income; only after he has suffered long and become so thin that people tell him he looks like a shadow does he accede to the shadow’s request that he become a traveling companion. Shadow and master have now exchanged places, but the king’s daughter notices that the new master cannot cast a shadow. To this accusation he replies that the person who is always at his side is his shadow. When the new master cannot answer her scientific inquiries, he defers to the shadow, whose knowledge impresses the princess. Clearly, she reasons, to have such a learned servant the master must be the most learned man on earth.

Against the upcoming marriage of princess and shadow, the learned man protests and threatens to reveal the truth. “Not a soul would believe you,” says the shadow, and with his new status as fiancé he has the learned man cast into prison. The princess agrees that it would be a charity to deliver the learned man from his delusions and has him promptly executed.

That Poetry would make a human being divine or “more than human” gives Poetry the identity of Psyche, whose statue by Thorvaldsen Andersen had admired in 1833 in the Danish sculptor’s studio. (Also, Andersen in 1861 wrote a story called “The Psyche.”) In “The Shadow,” the human qualities with which Poetry’s presence infuses the shadow function for him as a soul. Thereafter, his incubation under the pastry cook’s gown provides him a proper maturation from which, still as shadow, he looks into people’s lives, spies on their evils and their intimacies, and acquires power over them. This phase of his existence explains the acquisition of wealth, but as the shadow grows human and powerful the learned man declines.

The shadow, the other self of the learned man, reflects the psychic stress Andersen suffered in his relationship with Edvard Collin. What Andersen desired between himself and Collin has been recognized by scholars as the Blütbruderschaft that D. H. Lawrence wrote about—a close relationship with another male. Collin persisted, however, in fending off all Andersen’s attempts at informality, even in regard to the use of language. In the story the shadow is obviously Collin, whose separate identity thrives at the expense of the learned man’s—Andersen’s—psyche. Writing in his diary of the distress and illness brought on by a letter from Edvard Collin, Andersen contemplated suicide and pleaded “he must use the language of a friend” (1834); so also the story’s shadow rejects such language and commits the learned man to prison and to death. The problem of language appears twice in the story, although various translations diminish its effect. On the shadow’s first visit to his former master, his newly acquired affluence provides him with the daring to suggest that the learned man speak “less familiarly” and to say “sir” or—in other translations— to replace “you” with “thee” and “thou.” Frequently argued between Andersen and Collin as the question of Du versus De, the problem reappears in the story when the learned man asks the shadow, because of their childhood together, to pledge themselves to address each other as Du. (In some translations, this reads merely “to drink to our good fellowship” and “call each other by our names.”) In the shadow’s reply, Andersen improved on Collin’s objection by having the shadow cite the feel of gray paper or the scraping of a nail on a pane of glass as similar to the sound of Du spoken by the learned man.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes”

Such touches of individuality made Andersen’s writing succeed, as evidenced by a tale he borrowed from a Spanish source, the tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which he said he read in a German translation from Prince don Juan Manuel. Andersen’s version improved on the original in several respects, including his theme of pretense of understanding as well as ridicule of snobbery and his ending with the objection of the child—an ending which Andersen added after the original manuscript had been sent to the publisher.

Andersen’s talent for universalizing the appeal of a story and for capitalizing on personal experiences appears time and again throughout his many tales. Because of his grotesque appearance, which interfered with his longed-for stage career, Andersen knew personally the anguish of “The Ugly Duckling,” but his success as a writer made him a beautiful swan. His extreme sensitivity he wrote into “The Princess and the Pea,” detailing the adventures of a princess who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses. Andersen in this story borrowed from a folktale in which the little girl understands the test she is being put to because a dog or cat aids her by relaying the information; however, Andersen contrived that her sensitivity alone would suffice. Nevertheless, some translators could not accept the idea of her feeling a single pea and changed the text to read three peas and the title to read “The Real Princess.”

Andersen’s stories thus objectify psychic conditions, and among these his frequent association with nobility enabled him to depict with humor the qualities of egotism, arrogance, and subservience found at court. In “The Snow Queen” the crow describes court ladies and attendants standing around; the nearer the door they stand the greater is their haughtiness. The footman’s boy is too proud to be looked at. The princess is so clever she has read all the newspapers in the world and forgotten them again.

“The Nightingale”

One of Andersen’s best depictions of court life and, at the same time, one of his best satires is “The Nightingale,” which he wrote in honor of Jenny Lind, the singer known as the Swedish Nightingale. The story’s theme contrasts the artificial manners and preferences of the court with the natural song of the nightingale and the ways of simple folk. Far from the palace of the Emperor of China where bells on the flowers in the garden tinkle to attract attention to the flowers, the nightingale sings in the woods by the deep sea, so that a poor fisherman listens to it each day and travelers returning home write about it. The Emperor discovers this nightingale from reading about it in a book, but his gentleman-in-waiting knows nothing about it because it has never been presented at court. Inquiring throughout the court, he finds only a little girl in the kitchen who has heard it and who helps him find it. Brought to the court, it must sing on a golden perch, and, when acclaimed successful, it has its own cage and can walk out twice a day and once in the night with twelve footmen, each one holding a ribbon tied around its leg.

When the Emperor of Japan sends as a gift an artificial nightingale studded with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, the two birds cannot sing together, and the real nightingale flies away in chagrin. The court throng honors the mechanical bird with jewels and gold as gifts, and the Master of Music writes twenty-five volumes about it. The mechanical bird earns the title of Chief Imperial Singer-of-the-Bed-Chamber, and in rank it stands number one on the left side, for even an Emperor’s heart is on the left side.

Eventually the mechanical bird breaks down, and the watchmaker cannot assure repair with the same admirable tune. Five years later the Emperor becomes ill, and his successor is proclaimed. Then, with Death sitting on his chest and wearing his golden crown, he calls on the mechanical bird to sing. While it sits mute, the nightingale appears at the window and sings Death away and brings new life to the Emperor. With the generosity of a true heroine, it advises the king not to destroy the mechanical bird, which did all the good it could; however, it reminds the Emperor, a little singing bird sings to the fisherman and the peasant and must continue to go and to return. Although it loves the Emperor’s heart more than his crown, the crown has an odor of sanctity also. The nightingale will return, but the Emperor must keep its secret that a little bird tells him everything.

Andersen’s comment comparing the heart and the crown of the emperor may be his finest on the attraction of the great, an attraction which he felt all his life. Early in 1874, after visiting a count in South Zealand, he wrote to Mrs. Melchior that no fairy tales occurred to him any more. If he walks in the garden, he said, Thumbelina has ended her journey on the water lily; the wind and the Old Oak Tree have already told him their tales and have nothing more to tell him. It is, he wrote, as if he had filled out the entire circle with fairy-tale radii close to one another. On his seventieth birthday, April 2, 1875, the royal carriage was sent to fetch him to the castle, and the king bestowed another decoration. It was his last birthday celebration, for in a few months Andersen had filled out the circle of his life.

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