Hans Christian Andersen World Literature Analysis - Essay

Hans Christian Andersen World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Andersen is frequently mislabeled a gatherer of tales, like the Grimm brothers, or Asbjørnsen and Moe, Norwegian collectors of folktales, but he is quite different from these collectors, his contemporaries. Some of his early tales are based on traditional Danish stories that he had heard as a child, but he was a creative writer who added and altered characters, changed incidents, and above all, wrote in his completely unique style.

Furthermore, as his diaries show, many of the tales were based on his personal experiences. For example, in one of his best-known pieces, “Den grimme ælling” (“The Ugly Duckling”), Andersen is easy to identify as the duckling, the outsider, the different one who triumphs after hardships.

There are other flattering self-portraits. In “Svinedrengen” (“The Swineherd”) he is a prince, spurned by the silly princess, and in “Den standhaftige tinsoldat” (“The Steadfast Tin Soldier”) he is the loyal lover. There are also some negative self-views. In “Grantræet” (“The Little Fir Tree”) the artist is always discontented; in “Fyrtøiet” (“The Tinderbox”) the fortune-hunter stops at nothing to gain his goal.

Since so much of Andersen’s work is closely related to his life experiences, it is important to separate, to the extent possible, fact from the account Andersen gives in his autobiographies. For example, although he freely admits in his accounts of his life to his humble beginnings, he is loath to admit his fears of becoming mentally unbalanced like his paternal grandfather, or of being embarrassed, as a successful adult, by an unsolicited contact with his older half sister.

Possibly the greatest barrier to a complete understanding of his work is that he wrote in Danish, a language not familiar to many people. Often his stories were translated first into German, sometimes imperfectly, and then from German into English. Inaccurate translations were frequent. Mary Howitt, responsible for the first English version (1846) of his tales, committed elementary mechanical errors. Charles Boner elevated Andersen’s language. Caroline Peachey embellished and bowdlerized the tales.

Another barrier to understanding is that some critics have incorrectly assumed that Andersen wrote only for children. His tales, however, were meant to appeal to readers of all ages. They are replete with colloquialisms, Danish puns, and irony. His conversational tone is a conscious stylistic device, not the result of careless composition.

Andersen does not point out a moral at the end of each tale, but rather allows the allegorical and ironic levels of the narrative to speak for themselves. This is also indicative of the tales’ value as literature. There are, however, pure fairy tales, such as “Tommelise” (“Thumbelina”), in which animals and flowers are personified. There are science-fiction stories, such as “Om aartusinder” (“In a Thousand Years”), in which Andersen foretells air travel and concludes that “America’s youth will visit old Europe, seeing it all in eight days” when they can fly. There are simple, realistic stories, such as “Vanddraaben” (“The Drop of Water”), in which Andersen likens the voracious organisms visible under a magnifying glass to the citizens of Copenhagen, who devour one another without reason.

Some of his tales, such as “Den lille pige med svovlstikkerne” (“The Little Match Girl”), “Hun duede ikke” (“She Was No Good”), and “Gartneren go herskabet” (“The Gardener and the Lord and Lady”) are critiques of the society of his time, in which a child could freeze to death on the street, a good woman could be exploited, then relegated to a pauper’s grave, and an aristocratic couple could fail to appreciate the superior knowledge of their faithful gardener.

His themes frequently include a quest for fame and fortune, as in “The Tinderbox,” or “Sommerfuglen” (“The Butterfly”), in which the bachelor does not find a wife because he is indecisive about which flower he prefers. In some stories there is a philosophical quest—for example, a search for God, as in “Klokken” (“The Bell”), in which two young boys, a prince and a poor lad, are both called by the ringing of an unknown bell and the promise of revelation.

Sometimes Andersen writes of the triumph of the artist, as in “Sneglen og rosenhækken” (“The Snail and the Rose”), his answer to Søren Kierkegaard’s critique of his novel Kun en Spillemand (1837; Only a Fiddler, 1845). Sometimes he writes about the defeat of the creative person, as in “Skyggen” (“The Shadow”), in which a crass imitation is venerated above the genuine. Some of the tales, such as “Lille Claus og store Claus” (“Little Claus and Big Claus”) are quite violent (in a fairy-tale way), but more deeply frightening is the haunting “De røde sko” (“Red Shoes”), the story of a young girl who must keep dancing until she dies.

Andersen emphasizes familiar, homelike settings in most of his tales, even when on the surface it may seem otherwise. For example, in “Historien om en moder” (“The Story of a Mother”) a woman searches for her missing child. The realm of the dead is described as a greenhouse, a familiar sight in Denmark. In the same way, Andersen’s royal characters seem more domestic than regal, with the king opening the door of the castle in “Reisekammeraten” (“The Traveling Companion”) and the queen making up the bed for a visitor in “Prindsessen paa ærten” (“The Princess and the Pea”).

Much of Andersen’s work is optimistic but almost as much is distinctly pessimistic—a dichotomy accurately representing Andersen himself. There is no doubt that knowledge of his life makes his writing more impressive. His stories and tales have long been cherished, however, by children and adults who do not have any special knowledge of the author. This signifies that at least the best of his work has the quality of universality that makes it stand the test of time.


(The entire section is 2497 words.)