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.
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.
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.
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.