Hans Christian Andersen 1805-1875
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Villiam Christian Walter) Danish short story and fairy-tale writer, poet, novelist, travel essayist, autobiographer, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism of Andersen's short fiction works from 1990 to 2000. For criticism of Andersen's short fiction prior to 1990, see SSC, Volume 6.
Andersen is one of the foremost writers of fairy tales in world literature. Known for such stories as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” and “The Ugly Duckling,” he expanded the scope of the fairy-tale genre by creating original stories drawn from a wealth of folklore and personal experience that reveal his boundless imagination. Andersen utilized the simple premise and structure of the fairy tale to transform his ideas about human nature into allegories that are written in a conversational language children can understand and enjoy. Many critics believe that Andersen's genius lay in his ability to see nature, events, people, and objects with childlike curiosity and imagination, and to infuse his subjects with traits never before attributed to them. His plants and animals, for example, represent innocence and simplicity, while such inanimate objects as the red shoes from “The Red Shoes,” become symbols of greed, pride and envy. A master craftsman, Andersen has created a body of literature that continues to be loved by readers of all ages throughout the world.
Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark. His father, a poor shoemaker who had hoped for a more fulfilling career, encouraged his son to aspire to a better life by telling him glamorous stories about the theater and opera and by sending him to school at an early age. He also encouraged his son's vivid imagination; he read to him from the comedies of Ludvig Holberg, The Arabian Nights, and the fairy tales of Jean de la Fontaine. He also built him a puppet theater. Andersen was a shy child, and instead of playing with other children, he wrote puppet dramas and designed costumes for his characters. In 1819, three years after his father's death, Andersen moved to Copenhagen to pursue an acting career. He did not find a job acting, but Jonas Collin, a director of the Royal Theater, was impressed by Andersen's promise as a writer. He took Andersen into his home, sent him to grammar school, and supported him until he passed the entrance exams at the University of Copenhagen. Andersen first garnered attention in 1829 for Fodreise fra Holmens Canal til østpynten af Amager I aarene 1828 og 1829, the chronicle of an imaginary journey through Copenhagen. He traveled widely and by 1835, when his Eventyr, fortalte for børn (Fairy Tales Told for Children) was published, Andersen was well-known in Denmark for his travel books, plays, and novels. Eventually, his popularity increased in Europe and the United States, and he traveled extensively throughout Germany, Holland, and England. Andersen was not popular in Denmark, however, and it was not until his health began to fail that he was acknowledged by his native country as its most universally popular and prominent author. Andersen died in 1875.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Andersen's fairy tales fall into two general categories: adaptations of traditional Danish folktales and original creations. In his adaptations, Andersen frequently integrated plots from more than one source. “The Tinder Box,” for example, is based on a combination of an old Danish tale, “The Spirit of the Candle,” and an episode from the Arabian Nights. Andersen himself divided his original tales into two distinct classes: eventyr and historier. The eventyr are fairy tales in which a supernatural element contributes to the outcome of the narrative. “The Little Mermaid,” for example, is set in a kingdom beneath the sea and tells the story of a mermaid who drinks a magical potion brewed by a sea-witch in hopes that she will be metamorphosed into a human. Andersen's historier are stories that do not employ a supernatural element. Frequently, the historier starkly portray poverty or suffering, leaving readers disturbed when good is not necessarily rewarded at a story's conclusion. The historier also often reveal their author's strong moralistic and religious attitudes: Andersen had a childlike faith in God and perceived death as a reward for a difficult life. This perception is perhaps most vividly portrayed in “The Little Match Girl,” a grim story in which an impoverished child dies from exposure on Christmas Eve when no one will buy her matches. The child is finally freed from her suffering when her deceased grandmother arrives to lead her to heaven. Although many of Andersen's historier and fairy tales end unhappily, most critics concur that his underlying attitude in his stories is positive. Andersen often offers an optimistic approach to otherwise distressing situations and invests many of his tales with a mischievous sense of humor. Of all his stories, Andersen's semi-autobiographical sketches are considered his most enduring. Stories like “The Little Mermaid,” “The Nightingale,” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” reflect in part Andersen's own unrequited love affairs in varying degrees of melancholy and satire. “The Ugly Duckling,” the story of a homely cygnet who becomes the most beautiful of all swans, is probably Andersen's best-loved and most popular work of this type.
In general, Andersen's works have been consistently well-received. Georg Brandes, one of the first prominent critics to recognize Andersen's literary significance, especially commended Andersen's use of conversational language, which he claimed distinguished the author from other children's writers and prevented his stories from becoming outdated. Later, some commentators praised the uncluttered structure of Andersen's tales. Some twentieth-century commentators have considered Andersen's work maudlin and too disturbing for small children. Nevertheless, he is usually recognized as a consummate storyteller who distilled his vision of humanity into a simple format that has proved universally popular. His fairy tales remain the enduring favorites of children and adults throughout the world.