Hans Christian Andersen 19th-Century Criticism - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hans Christian Andersen 1805–1875

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Villiam Christian Walter.) Danish writer of fairy tales, poetry, short stories, novels, travel sketches, autobiographies, and dramas.

Although he wrote in many genres, including novels, poems, plays, and travelogues, Hans Christian Andersen is remembered primarily as one of the most distinguished writers of fairy tales. Many of these—such as "The Ugly Duckling" (1843), "The Emperor's New Clothes" (1837), and "The Little Mermaid" (1837)—have become world famous. In all, Andersen wrote more than 150 tales, primarily between 1835 and 1874. Before this time, fairy tales had been part of the oral tradition of literature passed through generations and recorded in writing only for historical interest. Andersen revitalized and expanded the genre by merging the traditional folk tale with the more sophisticated literary tale. To this end he employed conversational language suitable for children, often provided sad rather than happy endings, combined an adult sensibility with a child-like simplicity, and blended into his tales aspects of his own personal life.

Biographical Information

Andersen was born into poverty in the town of Odense, Denmark. His father, a shoemaker, was an avid reader, and encouraged his son's intellectual and creative aspirations by reading to him tales from Danish folklore and from such works as Arabian Nights. The elder Andersen also built a marionette theatre for Hans, so the youngster could write and perform plays for the characters. When Hans was eleven, his father died, but the elder Andersen had already instilled a keen interest in literature in his son, who particularly enjoyed the works of Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott. Desiring a career on stage as an actor, dancer, or singer, Andersen left home three years later in 1819, intent on joining Copenhagen's theater circle. Without references, though, he was denied admittance to the Royal Theater (many biographers have also stated that Andersen had neither the talent nor the appearance suitable for the theater). He was, nevertheless, taken under the wing of Jonas Collin, a director of

the Royal Theater and a prominent government official. Collin arranged for Andersen to obtain some basic schooling, including instruction at elite private schools during the mid-1820s, and by the late 1820s Andersen had passed the entrance exams for the University of Copenhagen. In the meantime, Collin had become a sort of surrogate father to Andersen, opening his home to the young man. Andersen never saw his own family again. Eventually, Andersen secured some work at the Royal Theater, appearing as an actor in minor roles and translating some French plays. Then in 1829 an original play of his was performed at the theatre: the farcical Kjœrlighed paa Nicolai Taarn, elle Hvad siger Parterret (Love on St. Nicholas Tower, or What Says the Pit). That same year saw the publication of his mock travel book Fodrejse fra Holmens Canal til Østpynten af Amager (Journey on Foot from Holmens Canal to the East Point of Amager), which describes an imaginary walk through Copenhagen. But Andersen's first real success came after a more extended journey, a trip to Italy in 1833, which inspired his novel Improvisatoren (1835; The Improvisatore), which is considered his literary breakthrough. Many scholars have contended that the trip marked a rebirth for Andersen, who turned from composing poetry to writing prose and fairy tales.

Andersen had begun his first fairy tales, published in the collection Eventyr, Fortalte for Børn (1835-42; Fairy Tales Told for Children), during his stay in Italy. Although he had originally intended the fairy tales for adults as well as children, he amended the title to "tales for children" after critics faulted the simplistic dialogue and style of the stories. Many of his early tales were adaptations of traditional folk tales, but he eventually concentrated on producing original stories: all but a dozen of his more than 150 tales are original creations. By 1837 and with the publication of his third novel, Kun en Spillemand (Only a Fiddler), Andersen began to be perceived as a European celebrity and was granted an annual stipend from Denmark for the remainder of his life. Thereafter Andersen continued his travels, visiting such countries as Germany, England, and Holland. Toward the end of his life, as his health began to fail, Denmark acknowledged him as its national author. He died in 1875 near Copenhagen.

Major Works

The tales most familiar to English-speaking readers are Andersen's early tales, written between 1835 and 1850. These include such stories as "The Princess on the Pea" (1835), "Thumbelina" (1835), "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" (1838), "The Snow Queen" (1844), "The Darning Needle" (1845), "The Little Match Girl" (1845), and "The Shirt Collar" (1848). Although some of his tales end happily, Andersen often deviated from the "happily ever after" conclusion of the traditional fairy tale; death, for example, is the primary motif in more than three-fourths of his tales. Andersen's heroes and heroines get consumed by fire or die of cold or have to renounce their love or their ambitions. They often suffer painful ordeals in an ugly or frightening world, and even if they succeed or are transformed in a positive way, like the ugly duckling, it is often not through their own doing, as in a traditional fairy tale, but through the workings of fate or some other external agency. Among Andersen's most popular and best loved fairy tales is "The Ugly Duckling," the story of a homely cygnet who becomes the most beautiful of all swans; many biographers have commented on the autobiographical elements in the tale. In another departure from the traditional fairy tale, Andersen's stories introduce the adult theme of the role of the artist, with an emphasis on the plight of neglected artistic genius. The stories also reflect a division in Andersen between sympathy with ordinary people and distrust of authority, and a desire to be accepted by authority. In general, the stories work on several levels, combining a child-like surface and simplicity of language with serious, adult themes.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Andersen became celebrated for his tales not only in Denmark, but throughout Europe and beyond. His tales have remained popular since his death, leading many critics to comment on the universality of his themes. Early scholars, including Paul Hazard, have pointed out the realism inherent in Andersen's tales. According to Hazard, the world Andersen witnessed—which encompassed sorrow, death, evil, and man's follies—is reflected in his tales. Discussing the essential "humanness" of Andersen's tales, Niels Kofoed has found that since they involve everyday-life themes of love, death, nature, injustice, suffering, and poverty, they appeal to all races, ideologies, classes, and genders. Critic Celia Catlett Anderson has also noted that the appeal of the stories is based on their intrinsic optimism, which typically prevails over pessimism. Anderson has contended that Andersen's tales reaffirm the strength of spirit of the protagonists, who prove themselves worthy of triumph.

In recent years, one major trend in Andersen criticism has involved psychoanalytic studies seeking to draw connections between the suffering depicted in Andersen's stories and the troubles of Andersen's own life, including his various psychological problems and his own unrequited love affairs. Throughout his life, as biographers have recorded, Andersen was ashamed of his working-class background and as such, they claim, was plagued by a sense of inferiority. John Griffith has speculated that Andersen turned to writing fantasies as an outlet for his own frustration and embarrassment over his poverty-stricken youth and the immorality of his background. Some critics have even maintained that Andersen retold his own life story over and over again in his stories—portraying his own self as triumphing over evil, persecution, poverty, and scorn.

There has also been interest among modern critics in Andersen's divided role as both an "insider" and an "outsider" in the upper reaches of society. Believing that Andersen's tales reveal the author's desire to be accepted by the upper classes, Jack Zipes has argued that the tales also depict the humiliation, pain, and suffering that "dominated" members of society must endure in order to prove their virtuosity and nobility. According to Zipes, Andersen, during his lifetime, "was obliged to act as a dominated subject within the dominant social circles despite his fame and recognition as a writer." This led Andersen to form an ambivalent attitude toward the aristocracy—at once he aspired to join the ranks of the higher classes, and at the same time he disdained them. Other critics have commented on this feeling of Andersen's of being "miscast" or of not belonging. Noting that although Andersen rose from the working-class ranks to join the upper classes, Niels Ingwersen has pointed out that Andersen never became their equal; instead, he served those who assisted him. Andersen's tales are subversive, then, toward the audience as well as toward Andersen himself, who often despised his own efforts to gain their approval. Critics have also paid some attention to Andersen's neglected plays as well as to his novels and travel writings, and it has been suggested that travel was an important motif in both Andersen's life and his works. But the critics, like the general public, still focus primarily on the fairy tales.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ungdoms-Forsøg [as Villiam Christian Walter] (novel) 1822

Fodrejse fra Holmens Canal til Østpynten af Arnager [Journey on Foot from Holmens Canal to the East Point of Amager] (travel essay) 1829

Kjœrlighed paa Nicolai Taarn, elle Hvad siger Parterret [Love on St. Nicholas Tower, or What Says the Pit] (drama) 1829

Bruden fra Lammermoor [The Bride of Lammermoor] (libretto; adapted from Sir Walter Scott's novel of the same name) 1832

Improvisatoren [The Lmprovisatore] (novel) 1835

Eventyr, Fortalte for Børn [Fairy Tales Told for Children] (fairy tales)...

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William Makepeace Thackeray (essay date 1847)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Grumble about the Christmas Books," in The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. and the Miscellaneous Papers Written between 1843 and 1847, edited by George Saintsbury, Oxford University Press, 1908, pp. 581-609.

[The following was originally published by Thackeray under the name Michael Angelo Titmarsh and appeared in Fraser's Magazine in 1847. In the excerpt below, Thackeray praises Andersen for his wit and playfulness, calling him a "delicate and charming … genius. "]

I have, I trust, been tolerably ill-humoured hitherto; but what man can go on grumbling in the presence of such an angelical spirit as Hans Christian Andersen? Seeing him praised in the...

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James O'Donnell Bennett (essay date 1927)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales," in Much Loved Books: Best Sellers of the Ages, Boni and Liveright, 1927, pp. 291-96.

[In the following excerpt, Bennett discusses the similarities between Andersen 's personal life and the events in his well-known fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling."]

"My life," said Hans Andersen in his serene old age, "is a lovely story, happy and full of incident. If, when I was a boy, and went forth into the world poor and friendless, a good fairy had met me and said, 'Choose now thine own course through life, and the object for which thou wilt strive, and then, according to the development of thy mind, and as reason requires, I will guide and...

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Paul Hazard (essay date 1932)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Superiority of the North over the South," in Books, Children and Men, 5th ed., translated by Marguerite Mitchell, The Horn Book, Inc., 1983, pp. 77-110.

[In the following excerpt, originally written in 1932, Hazard celebrates the vitality and wisdom found in Andersen's tales, maintaining that the stories reflect the true meaning of life.]

Supposing that, by some stretch of imagination, we were called upon to choose the very prince of all story writers for children, my vote would go, not to a Latin, but to Hans Christian Andersen….

He is unexcelled because, within the slender framework of his tales, he brings in all the pageantry of the...

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Frederick J. Marker (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Plays of H. C. Andersen," in Hans Christian Andersen and the Romantic Theatre: A Study of Stage Practices in the Prenaturalistic Scandinavian Theatre, University of Toronto Press, 1971, pp. 30-64.

[In the excerpt below, Marker discusses Andersen 's often-neglected dramatic works, focusing on Andersen's early dramatic influences and arguing that his works form part of a significant bridge between the romanticism of the early part of the Century and the realism that later followed.]

'In Denmark there is but one city and one theatre,' wrote Kierkegaard in 1848,1 and his characteristic comment suggests the central place occupied by the Royal...

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Hans Mayer (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alternatives in the Nineteenth Century," in Outsiders: A Study in Life and Letters, translated by Denis M. Sweet, MIT Press, 1982, pp. 191-222.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1975, Mayer discusses Andersen's outsider status and sexual orientation as revealed in his novel Only a Fiddler and in his fairy tales.]

In chapter 7 of The Story of My Life,1 which deals with the period 1835-1837, Hans Christian Andersen reports a curious incident in his relations with Søren Kierkegaard. Andersen, born in 1805, was in his thirties. Kierkegaard, of the generation of 1813 along with Georg Büchner, Hebbel, and Richard Wagner,...

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Elias Bredsdorff (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Range of Andersen's Tales," in Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work, 1805-75, Phaidon, 1975, pp. 308-32.

[In the following essay, Bredsdorff discusses the sources of some of Andersen's tales and proposes a system for grouping the tales.]

Today Andersen's fame rests entirely on his fairy tales and stories. They have been translated into well over a hundred languages and are still being published and republished in millions of copies all over the world; but it is important to realize that when people speak of Andersen's Fairy Tales they are not necessarily speaking of the same tales.

The total number of tales...

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Peter Brask (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Andersen on Love," in The Nordic Mind: Current Trends in Scandinavian Literary Criticism, edited by Frank Egholm Andersen and John Weinstock, translated by Turid Sverre, University Press of America, 1986, pp. 17-35.

[In the following excerpt, originally presented on Radio Denmark in 1979, Brask discusses the obstacles in Andersen's tales to realizing true love.]

"The Swineherd" ("Svindrengen") and "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep" ("Hyrdinden og Skorsteensfeiren") are among Andersen's best-known fairy tales, and when we reread them, they seem so natural. They simply could not be different! Is it just habit, or is it because they are so well narrated,...

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Jack Zipes (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hans Christian Andersen and the Discourse of the Dominated," in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization, Heinemann, 1983, pp. 71-96.

[In the following essay, Zipes points to ambivalence in Andersen's tales, finding its roots in the conflict between Andersen's identification with the lower classes and his simultaneous efforts to legitimize Denmark's hierarchical social structure and particularly its powerful upper classes, which in essence controlled his literary success.]

If the Grimm Brothers were the first writers in the nineteenth century to distinguish themselves by remolding oral folk tales...

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John Griffith (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Personal Fantasy in Andersen's Fairy Tales," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 81-88.

[In the following essay, Griffith contends that Andersen depicted death as a welcome escape for the innocent from the frightening sexuality of the world.]

"We can begin by saying that happy people never make fantasies, only unsatisfied ones," Freud wrote in his essay on the relation between imaginative writing and day-dreaming. "Unsatisfied wishes are the driving power behind fantasies; every separate fantasy contains the fulfillment of a wish, and improves on unsatisfactory reality. The impelling wishes may vary according to the sex, character and...

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Celia Catlett Anderson (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Andersen's Heroes and Heroines: Relinquishing the Reward," in Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature, edited by Francelia Butler and Richard Rotert, Library Professional Publications, 1986, pp. 122-26.

[In the following essay, Anderson argues that the endings of Andersen's fairy tales do not convey pessimism but that they instead express the "triumph of the Spirit " and the optimism and wisdom of remaining true to one's ideals and one's self.]

Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales have sometimes been described as too adult or too pessimistic for children. For example, May Hill Arbuthnot in her classic Children and Books, although praising...

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Jon Cech (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales and Stories: Secrets, Swans and Shadows," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Vol. 2: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends, and Poetry, Children's Literature Association, 1987, pp. 14-23.

[In the essay following, Cech discusses the optimistic and pessimistic aspects of Andersen's fairy tales, relating them to the "competing sides of [Andersen's] nature."]

Among the 156 "tales and stories" that Hans Christian Andersen wrote between 1835 and 1872, a dozen or so are among the best-known, most frequently anthologized and reprinted retellings of fairy tales or literary fairy tales of any...

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Niels Ingwersen (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Being Stuck: The Subversive Andersen and His Audience," in Studies in German and Scandinavian Literature after 1500: A Festschrift for George C. Schoolfield, edited by James A. Parente, Jr. and Rich ard Erich Schade, Camden House, 1993, pp. 166-80.

[In the following excerpt, Ingwersen discusses the theme of the loss of freedom in Andersen's fairy tales, focusing particularly on those characters trapped by their social standing or by gender roles. Ingwersen also comments on the relationship between the artist and audience in Andersen 's tales, finding Andersen concerned with the appreciation of art as well as the compromises an artist makes for his audience.]


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Hans Christian Andersen (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hans Christian Andersen—The Journey of His Life," in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Vol. 76, No. 3, Autumn, 1994, pp. 127-43.

[In the following essay, Andersen (a twentieth-century critic) discusses the motif of travel in Andersen's works, finding it connected with themes of restlessness, homelessness, and alienation, and maintaining that the idea of travel can be seen as a metaphor for Andersen's own life journey.]

Hans Christian Andersen's delight in travel is well-known, as is his talent for describing his progress through Europe and, briefly, the Near East and North Africa. His very earliest works, and his earliest...

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Niels Kofoed (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hans Christian Andersen and the European Literary Tradition," in Hans Christian Andersen: Danish Writer and Citizen of the World, edited by Sven Hakon Rossel, Rodopi, 1996, pp. 209-56.

[In the following excerpt, Kofoed discusses Andersen's sources and the double nature of his narrative voice, which expresses "the tension between the manners of the highly educated, adult person and the spontaneity of the child as a representative of unconscious life."]

The sources of Andersen's tales and stories are manifold. First of all there is the anonymous folktale; next there is the German literary tale by writers such as Tieck, Arnim, Brentano, Chamisso, and Hoffmann,...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Enquist, Per Olov. "The Hans Christian Andersen Saga." Translated by Joan Tate. First published, 1985. Reprinted in Scandinavian Review 74, 3 (Autumn 1986): 64-69.

Brief discussion of Andersen's troubled, poverty-stricken ancestors and his own unstable personality.

Grønbech, Bo. Hans Christian Andersen. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1980, 171 p.

An extensive study of Andersen's life and works.

Pickard, P. M. "Hans Christian Andersen: Success and Failure." In I Could a Tale Unfold: Violence, Horror and Sensationalism in Stories for Children, pp. 67-93. London: Tavistock, 1961.


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