Hans Christian Andersen Short Story Criticism - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Eventyr, fortalte for børn [Fairy Tales Told for Children] 2 vols. 1835-44

Billedbog uden billeder [A Picture-Book without Pictures] 1840

En digters bazar [A Poet's Bazar] (poetry, short stories, and travel essays) 1842

Samlede voerker. 15 vols. (fairy tales, short stories, travel essays, novels, and poetry) 1876-80

Eventyr og historier. 5 vols. 1894-1900

The Complete Andersen. 6 vols. 1942-48

Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales 1950

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

Fodreise fra Holmens Canal til østpynten af Amager I aarene 1828 og 1829 (travel sketch) 1829

Improvisatoren [The Improvisatore; or, Life in Italy] (novel) 1835

Kun en spillemand [Only a Fiddler!] (novel) 1837

De to baronesser [The Two Baronesses] (novel) 1838

Mulatten (play) 1840

I Sverrig [Pictures of Sweden] (travel sketches) 1851

At voere eller ikker voere [To Be or Not To Be] (novel) 1857

Mit lives eventyr [The Story of My Life] (autobiography) 1859

I Spanien [In Spain] (travel sketches) 1863

Lykke-Peer [Lucky Peer] (novel) 1970

Niels and Faith Ingwersen (essay date autumn 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ingwersen, Niels, and Faith Ingwersen. “A Folktale/Disney Approach.” Scandinavian Studies 62, no. 4 (autumn 1990): 412-15.

[In the following essay, the Ingwersens compare Andersen's “The Little Mermaid” to the Disney adaptation of the short story.]


Any student of folklore will point to the importance of “the test” in the magic tale. Heroine or hero, according to the epic expectations invoked by the genre, must inevitably pass one or a series of tests to eliminate the lacks in her or his life and to earn the reward of living happily ever after with the sexual partner encountered on that “quest for...

(The entire section is 1452 words.)

Pil Dahlerup (essay date autumn 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dahlerup, Pil. “‘Little Mermaid’ Deconstructed.” Scandinavian Studies 62, no. 4 (autumn 1990): 418-28.

[In the following essay, Dahlerup deconstructs“The Little Mermaid.”]

A text, just like a person, may be very well structured—and at the same time completely deconstructed. A structuralist reading finds (or constructs) the implicit significance of the relations of the formal elements. A deconstructive reading finds (or constructs) “the warring forces of signification” (Johnson) within these same elements. The advantage of deconstruction is the opening of the text to more complex levels of signification. The disadvantage is the professional...

(The entire section is 4088 words.)

John L. Greenway (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Greenway, John L. “‘Reason in Imagination is Beauty’: Oersted's Acoustics and H. C. Andersen's ‘The Bell.’” Scandinavian Studies 63, no. 3 (1991): 318-25.

[In the following essay, Greenway suggests that the acoustic theories of Hans Christian Oersted can be found in the short story “The Bell” by Andersen.]

It may come as a surprise to those who do not consort with scientists save under duress to find that Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851), the preeminent scientist of the early nineteenth century, discoverer of the relationship between electricity and magnetism in 1820, was the genial hub of cultural debate in Denmark for a generation. Friend...

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Christopher L. Anderson (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Anderson, Christopher L. “Andersen's ‘The Snow Queen’ and Matute's Primera Memoria: to the Victor go the Spoils.” Critica Hispanica 14, no. 1-2 (1992): 13-27.

[In the following essay, Anderson examines the ways in which Andersen's “The Snow Queen” influenced Ana María Matute's Primera Memoria.]


In a revealing article entitled “Diciembre y Andersen” Ana María Matute recalls her childhood affection for Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales: “Si algo ha influido realmente en mi infancia, fue precisamente aquel tomo de cuentos de Andersen, que hace tantos años trajeron los Reyes Magos a mi casa”...

(The entire section is 6051 words.)

Karin Sanders (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sanders, Karin. “Nemesis of Mimesis: The Problem of Representation in H. C. Andersen's ‘Psychen.1’” Scandinavian Studies 64, no. 1 (1992): 1-25.

[In the following essay, Sanders investigates how the art of sculpture subverts understandings of gender markings in Andersen's tale “Psychen.”]

“Pip! Det er det Skønne!”(2)

During his impressionable first visit to Rome in 1833-1834, Hans Christian Andersen observed the digging of a grave for a young nun who had just died. In the grave a statue of Bacchus was unearthed. Nearly thirty years later, in 1861, this memory was transformed or “translated” to “Psychen.”...

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Jan M. Ziolkowski (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Jan M. “A Medieval ‘Little Claus and Big Claus’: A Fabliau from before Fabliaux?” In The World and Its Rival: Essays on Literary Imagination in Honor of Per Nykrog, edited by Kathryn Karczewska and Tom Conley, pp. 1-14. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1994.

[In the following essay, Ziolkowski traces the origins of the tale “Little Claus and Big Claus” to an anonymous medieval poem.]

Albeit on a humble plane, this essay seeks to celebrate some of Per Nykrog's intellectual range, both geographical and chronological, and a little of his personal background. His highly individual keenness of literary insight and wry sense of humor … I...

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Kirsten Malmkjaer (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Malmkjaer, Kirsten. “Punctuation in Hans Christian Andersen's Stories and in their Translations into English.” In Nonverbal Communication and Translation: New Perspectives and Challenges in Literature, Interpretation and the Media, edited by Fernando Poyatos, pp. 151-62. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1997.

[In the following essay, Malmkjaer contends that the normalization of Andersen's unusual punctuation in English translations significantly alters the stories.]


Punctuation marks constitute ‘a set of non-alphanumeric characters that are used to provide information about structural...

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Ellen J. Esrock (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Esrock, Ellen J. “‘The Princess and the Pea’: Touch and the Private/Public Domains of Women's Knowledge.” In Research in Science and Technology Studies: Gender and Work, edited by Shirley Gorenstein, pp. 17-29. Stamford, Conn.: JAI Press, Inc., 2000.

[In the following essay, Esrock claims that “The Princess and the Pea” serves to warn women about moving knowledge of their bodies from the private sphere into the public sphere.]

When most people reflect on Hans Christian Andersen's “The Princess and the Pea,” they imagine a beautiful young maiden sleeping atop an enormous pile of mattresses. Though readers of all ages seem to recall this picture,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bennett, Rachel. “Hajji and Mermaid in Little Dorrit.The Review of English Studies 46, no. 182 (May 1995): 174-90.

Suggests that the patterns of romance found in Little Dorrit are similar to those in “The Little Mermaid.”

Dollerup, Cay. “Translation as a Creative Force in Literature: The Birth of the European Bourgeois Fairy-Tale.” The Modern Language Review 90, no. 1 (January 1995): 94-102.

Includes Andersen's writing in a study of the history of the bourgeois European fairy-tale.

Knowles, Murry, and Malmkjaer, Kirsten. “Key terms in H. C. Andersen's Fairytales and Their Translation into English.” Babel 37,...

(The entire section is 566 words.)