Hans Christian Andersen

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 966

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.

Niels and Faith Ingwersen (essay date autumn 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1452

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 fulfillment.”

In the magic tale, the protagonists may initially fail the tests posed, but they ultimately prove their mettle. Hans Christian Andersen's texts are strongly indebted, of course, to the folktale (and, in this case, [“The Little Mermaid”] to the magic tale), but the poetic narrative examined in this context, to a large degree, also echoes the undeserved sense of deprivation and utter isolation commonly experienced by the protagonists of the ballad. In that genre, in stark contrast to the magic tale, the passing of a test does not guarantee that those who have demonstrated their honor or moral integrity will be rewarded. Although the textual universe of the magic tale is just, the world of the ballad discloses the often gross unfairness of life. The fate of the knight in “Elverskud” or of the courageous young hero of “Germand Gladensvend” comes to mind, for those two pass grueling tests with flying colors, only to be cruelly destroyed.

Against this background of genre, the most important tests that the little mermaid must pass shall be examined employing models proffered by folkloristic narratology.1 It is tempting and easy to find scores of tests, but only the most striking ones will be discussed here. For clarity's sake, they are numbered.

(1) The little mermaid, unlike her sisters, is not satisfied with distant glimpses of what lies above her own element. She continues to strive—as foreshadowed in the garden imagery—for transcendence. This striving is evident in her saving the ship-wrecked prince from drowning, for she thereby rejects the seductive and destructive nature that should be hers as a mermaid.

(2) When the little mermaid realizes that she has to make a sacrifice in order to become a human being in body, she willingly does so: she gives up her tantalizing voice to gain shapely human legs in place of a tail.

It should be noted, in the two instances mentioned above, that our heroine is miserably failing her nature as a mermaid, but splendidly passing her tests as someone attempting to transcend her present level of existence.

(3) Now that the little mermaid has acquired those human features that will enable her to pass as a human being, she sets out to take what seems to be the final test, the securing of the prince's love, which will grant her an immortal soul. But, being mute, she, who in her former element was the foremost singer in the whole world of land and of sea, cannot express her feelings of love and longing, and her exquisite looks and expressive dancing turn her into a mere pet for the prince. When the prince falls in love with and weds the princess, whom he believes has saved him, the little mermaid seems to have failed in her quest. During the wedding feast, she expresses all her sorrow over that realization through her body—beauty is born from pain—as she dances her “dance of death.” That certainty of an inevitably tragic destiny echoes the grim recognition of human bondage voiced in the ballads.

(4) But another test is in store for our heroine. During the wedding night on the ship, the young woman—she can hardly be called “little” or “mermaid” anymore—naturally feels dejected, jealous, and completely alone. She is, however, given a chance to return to her former level of existence—on the condition that she take the life of the prince by stabbing him. The “mermaid” could then live on. But such a life would seem to be for a very short span of years for one who has come to love immortality and who has sought it in vain. The same might be true of a life lived with the prince, although she does not realize it. The fact that she throws the knife into the water and, thus, sacrifices herself may suggest that she passes her final test as a mortal, because she possesses a love for the prince that, in its selflessness, is beyond any love he can feel for her; but it should be added that her sacrificial act may also reflect a spiritual being's refusal to return to a lower existence, a life that would now amount to nothingness for her. Whether she turns to foam or joins her sisters is actually immaterial, for both would be forms of extinction.

When she passes that third and final test and achieves the transcendence for which she has, knowingly and unknowingly, been striving, Thanatos replaces eros, but within the textual universe, it is more correct to say that eros eliminates or conquers over thanatos. Like the hero or heroine in the magic tale, she has gained all she ever wanted—in the terms of a spirituality that is unknown to the magic tale.

In a magic tale, the conquering protagonist ends up with the ideal partner, half the kingdom, and quite often with treasures galore; however, in Andersen's text the reward is purely spiritual. In some magic tales maturation is a major theme, but it is achieved for the sake of this world only; in Andersen's tale the protagonist also learns what is the real goal of her quest, and her reward lies in transcendence. By sacrificing herself, she has again rejected a soulless life, and as she assumes spirit form, she regains her voice and can finally express her love of the heavenly, just as she has acquired the independence to achieve it (see Matthew 10.30 and 16.25-26).

She, a would-be soul formerly imprisoned in a physical body, is about to pass her ultimate test and to earn the reward of an eternal spiritual existence. Such a yearning for the spiritual seems foreign to Scandinavian magic tales but was often and ardently expressed in Andersen's works. There, one can rise like a diaphanous sea mist before the warming rays of the sun, only to disappear in its warmth.


The mermaid's tale as that of a soul's longing for transcendence is completely ignored by the Disney version. The movie is nevertheless truer to the folktale struggle between good and evil than Andersen's tale is.

Andersen's sea was nearly a matriarchy (there was a queen mother, a king, and many princesses)—but Disney's shows only the negative side of feminine rule and the positive side of masculine rule. The evil sea witch who has demanded for her help the sacrifice of the mermaid's voice proves to be the princess whom the prince falls in love with. She is intent on usurping power both on land and in sea. Thus, when her true troll nature is exposed and her power over the prince broken, the mermaid receives back her voice—and her true love, the prince. They will live happily ever after—as any mortal couple. With the destruction of the sea witch, the beings of the sea can also live happily ever after—under their proper ruler, “the king.”

Disney's neat folktale ending is satisfying; but its change in emphasis from the strength of good to the strength of evil in female power is troubling, even though the substitution of mortal love, eros, for spiritual love, agape, is familiar from profane ideas of happiness, both ancient and modern. The public seems to prefer lovers to saints—and Disney assumes it prefers a definite patriarchy to the ambiguities of a matriarchy.


  1. When one fairly clear-cut and restricted approach is taken, as it is above, an exhaustive reading cannot and should not be expected. Such matters as the text's ambiguities and its ideological and artistic problems might have eventually been discussed, but only if departures were to be taken from this quite formal approach; thus, that more complete reading of the text could only be achieved if the text were examined in a dialogic manner—that is, in conjunction with the other methods, so that light could be shed on the text from various angles. Andersen's multilevel texts tend to require such teamwork, but the folkloristic approach puts the tale into a intertextual genre-framework that suggests both its proximity to, and distance from, the tradition that was one of Andersen's inspirations.

Pil Dahlerup (essay date autumn 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4088

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 reader, who will always be able to “construct deconstructions.” The only protection from the sophistication of the deconstructive reader is the validity of his or her argumentation.


“The Little Mermaid” is known to children and to grown-ups worldwide, to normal and to professional readers. Children and normal readers are usually fascinated by the sad story of unrequited love. Professional readers have seen the basic dualism of the story, whether it be life versus death (Søren Baggesen), culture versus nature (Eigil Nyborg), or high status versus low status (Ellen Grønlund, Peer E. Sørensen). Psychoanalytic professionals of various schools have seen the unsuccessful individuation. To all these readings the structure is basic. To my deconstructive reading the confusion of the story is basic.


At first sight the narrative level of the story is well defined: the Mermaid wants the Prince and eternal life. Further examination shows that these projects do not at all work. The Mermaid “does not want” the Prince. She hides and keeps silent every time she has the chance to reveal herself and to talk; for example, she “lagde Sø-Skum paa sit Haar og sit Bryst, saa at ingen kunde see hendes lille Ansigt” [94] (“placed sea foam on her hair and her breast so that no one could see her little face”).1 The loss of her tongue, a crucial condition at one level of the story, does not count at all at another level, because the Mermaid did not use her ability to speak when she still had it:

Nu vidste hun, hvor han boede, og der kom hun mangen Aften og Nat paa Vandet, hun svømmede meget nærmere Land, end nogen af de andre havde vovet, ja hun gik heelt op i den smalle Canal, under den prægtige Marmor Altan, der kastede en lang Skygge hen over Vandet. Her sad hun og saae paa den unge Prinds, der troede, han var ganske ene i det klare Maaneskin.


(Now she knew where he lived, and she came there many an evening and night on the water; she swam much closer to land than any of the others had dared; yes, she went all the way up into the narrow canal and under the splendid marble balcony, which threw its long shadow out across the water. There she sat looking at the young Prince, who believed that he was quite alone in the clear moonlight.)

The Mermaid, in fact, does not want eternal life either. She gives up fighting for it and for marriage at the first opportunity. This is her reaction when she sees her rival:

Den lille Havfrue stod begjærlig efter at see hendes Skjønhed, og hun maatte erkjende den, en yndigere Skikkelse havde hun aldrig seet. Huden var saa fiin og skjær, og bag de lange mørke Øjenhaar smilede et Par sorteblaae trofaste Øine!


(The little Mermaid longed to see her beauty, and she had to admit it; she had never seen a lovelier figure. Her skin was so fine and translucent, and behind her long dark lashes smiled a pair of faithful, dark-blue eyes!)

When the Prince tells the Mermaid that he will marry the Princess, “den lille Havfrue kyssede hans Haand, og hun syntes alt at føle sit Hjerte briste” [104] (“the little Mermaid kissed his hand, and already she felt as if her heart were breaking”). The confusion in the project (her quest) is thus the confusion of a protagonist both wanting and not wanting her object. The warring forces at this level are within a character torn between her will to achieve her goal and her masochistic, romantic, and Christian passivity.


Interpreters have stressed the dualism of the story (life versus death, and so on). But at the level of theme the story is not dualistic, it is “symbolic.” Andersen—through the grandmother—himself gives the clue to the symbolic system, “ligesom vi dykke op af Havet og see Menneskenes Lande, saaledes dykke de op til ubekjendte deilige Steder, dem vi aldrig faae at see” [96] (“just as we rise up from the ocean and see the lands of human beings, so they rise up to lovely, unknown places, those we never get to see”). Seaside versus land corresponds to land versus heaven. Thus the Mermaid's longing for the Prince is not longing for a prince, but “the symbol” of a longing for eternity.

Confusion concerning the theme of the story mainly reflects the reader's conflict in handling a symbolic way of thinking and the author's conflict in the strategy of symbolizing. The warring forces of signification at the level of theme are thus a conflict of rhetoric. The symbol (love story), which should point to something else, has grown so interesting in itself that it blocks its function of transference. This blockage in the symbol's system of transference can be noticed on several levels. One problem is the double position assumed by the human side of the story: Mermaid is to Prince as Prince is to Soul. The Prince thus represents both body and soul. Andersen freely ranges back and forth in this very special symbolic system. In a crucial paragraph we see the system at work:

naar han med hele sin Tanke og Kjærlighed hang ved dig, og lod Præsten lægge sin høire Haand i din med Løfte om Troskab her og i al Evighed, da flød hans Sjæl over i dit Legeme og beholdt dog sin egen.

[96; my emphasis]

(if he clung to you with all his thoughts and love and let his right hand by the minister be put into yours with a promise of faithfulness here and for all eternity, his soul [would have] flowed over into your body and yet kept to its own.)

In this paragraph the Prince's representing both body and soul is obvious, most significantly so in the sentence italicized, in which the metaphor “flyde” (“flow”) combines the liquid of seed with the airy consistency of soul. Coitus becomes the clue to animation; seed becomes soul. This conception of the male seed as symbol of the human soul is the main symbolic effect of this paragraph and of the story. The symbol conforms to traditional patriarchal ideology. But the patriarchal condition of salvation is opposed by a very different vision. The main life symbol of the story, the sun, is introduced in terms that could not possibly refer to a male god. The sun, which is compared to a flower and radiates life and love and light, is associated, if with anything, with female sexuality: “I Blikstille kunde man øine Solen, den syntes en Purpur-Blomst, fra hvis Bæger det hele Lys udstrømmede” [88] (“In sea calm one could glimpse the sun; it seemed like a purple flower, from the chalice of which all light streamed forth”). Only at the end of the story does the sun have some phallic aspects and become connected to the Christian God. In the rest of the story the sun has female connotations, positive connotations, in contrast to which the witch appears as a negative parallel. But whether the upper level of the story, the top of the hierarchy, is male or female, it is turned upside down, because the lowest state of the hierarchy is the most highly valued. This is evident in the color blue, which is the color of the sea. Apart from a very few cases of negative connotations—“Blaat, som Svovl-Lue” [89]; “den blaae Lynstraale” [91] (“blue as sulpherous flames”; “the blue lightening flash”)—blue has highly positive connotations. One such is, for example, in the very opening paragraph of the story: “Langt ude i Havet er Vandet saa blaat, som Bladene paa den deiligste Kornblomst, og saa klart, som det reneste Glas” [88; my emphasis] (“Far out at sea the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower and as clear as the purest glass”).

The lowest step thus is, at the same time, the highest step. This confusion is further stressed by the fact that step four (1. sea, 2. land; 3. land, 4. heaven) has the color of step one:

Over det Hele dernede laae et forunderligt blaat Skjær, man skulde snarere troe, at man stod høit oppe i Luften og kun saae Himmel over og under sig, end at man var paa Havets Bund.


(Across everything down there lay an astonishing shade of blue; one would more likely believe that one stood high up in the air and saw only the sky above and below than that one was at the bottom of the sea.)

The beginning state thus coincides with the final state: my beginning is my end. The whole story thus is stopped at its very opening. Add to this the fact that other parts of the seaside coincide with the heavenly side, primarily the situation of a daughter being common to both, and the development of the theme is blocked further. Indeed these are warring forces.


Andersen, we know, told his story to children and left open some symbolic levels for grown-up listeners. Within the text, too, there are special communicative conditions from narrator to narratee (the implied reader). Certainly there is a main structure: a human narrator tells his story (I call the narrator “him”) of a mermaid to a human narratee. Thus, as a rule, narrator and narratee are different from the protagonist:

før hun turde komme op fra Havets Bund og see, hvorledes det saae ud hos os … men gjennem Vandet saae de meget større ud end for vore Øine.

[89; my emphasis]

(before she dared come up from the bottom of the ocean and see how things look with us … but through the water they looked much larger than in our eyes.)

Consequently the narrator describes the merfolk's home as “dernede” (“down there”) and the land as “heroppe” (“up here”). Within this main structure the narrator takes his time to play: when the point of view is the merfolk's, the whole thing is turned upside down; “here” becomes the sea, and “there” becomes the land: “jeg [the Mermaid] skal, holde af den Verden deroven” [91; my emphasis] (“I shall love that world up there”). Some metaphoric opposites belong to this playful shift in perspective: from a seaside point of view birds are comparable to fish—“og de Fisk, som der saaes mellem Grenene, kunde synge [88]” (“and the fish that were to be seen among the branches could sing”)—and from the land-side point of view fish are comparable to birds—“saa svømmede Fiskene ind til dem, ligesom hos os Svalerne flyve ind” [88] (“then the fish swam in to them, just as with us the swallows fly in”).

The main structure of communication, however playful in its shifting points of view, very clearly demonstrates that the milieu and thus the problems of the protagonist are not those of narrator and narratee.

The main structure is, however, broken several times and with shifting implications. Sometimes narrator and narratee “identify” with the merfolk and take their point of view, for example, in this description of the castle in the sea: “man kunde see alle de utallige Fiske, store og smaae, som svømmede henimod Glasmuren” [97; my emphasis] (“one could see all the innumerable fish, large and small, that swam toward the glass wall”). When the Mermaid visits the sea witch, she bears with her the point of view of narrator and narratee: “saa man maatte blive angest og bange” [100; my emphasis] (“so one would become anguished and afraid”). The structure of identification is also seen in paragraphs with the Mermaid's inner views and no quotation marks: “O! hun vilde saa gjerne have rystet hele denne Pragt af sig” [92]; “O, det vilde blive et skrækkeligt Veir!” [93] (“O! She would have liked to shake off all this elegance”; “O, it was going to be terrible weather”). The correspondences thus demonstrate the warring forces of distance and identification towards the story told.

But there are warring forces inside the narrative elements. In some paragraphs the difference is not between narrator/narratee versus the Mermaid, but narrator versus narratee/Mermaid. This happens in paragraphs in which the narratee—like the Mermaid—is evidently a “child.” The similes of the opening paragraph of the story display the universe of a child; the abstract idea of “depth” is explained in this way: “mange Kirketaarne maatte stilles ovenpaa hinanden, for at række fra Bunden op over Vandet” [87] (“Many church towers would have to be placed on one another to reach from the bottom up above the water”). Sometimes the narrator has to explain the sea folk's metaphors in order to be sure the human child listening understands the shift: “det var de smaa Fugle, som Bedstemoderen kaldte Fisk, for ellers kunde de ikke forstaae hende, da de ikke havde seet en Fugl” [89] (“it was the small birds that Grandmother called fish, for otherwise they could not understand her, since they had not seen a bird”). In the quoted lines the childlike narratee contributes to the tone of the story, but in lines that are highly symbolic, the childlike narratee also influences the very theme of the story. In the following lines the Mermaid is transformed into a human being. Allusions to Eve in paradise very clearly suggest that this transformation includes the transformation into grown-up sexuality. But what happens when this story is told to a childlike narratee? Notice the words emphasized:

Da Solen skinnede hen over Søen, vaagnede hun op, og hun følte en sviende Smerte, men lige for hende stod den deilige unge Prinds, han fæstede sine kulsorte Øine paa hende, saa hun slog sine ned og saae, at hendes Fiskehale var borte, og at hun havde de nydeligste smaae, hvide Been, nogen lille Pige kunde have, men hun var ganske nøgen.


(When the sun shone across the sea, she awoke, and she felt a burning pain, but right before her stood the wonderful young Prince. He turned his coal-black eyes on her, so that she lowered her own and saw that her fish tail was gone and that she had the handsomest little white legs that any little girl could have, but she was quite naked.)

In this case the childlike narratee obstructs the symbolic process and blocks the development of the Mermaid into a grown-up, that is, sexual, status. At the end of the story the childlike in the communication system reaches its climax. The narrator withdraws, and the last words are uttered by a childlike narrator (a daughter of the air), and her message is the complete rejection of the marital (that is, the sexual) state as the only road to eternity.

“The Little Mermaid” is thus a story of the opposing values of innocence and sexuality, told in a narrative structure in which a grown-up narrator is influenced by a childlike narratee, who at the end overcomes the narration's warring forces.

The main mood of the story is one of “melancholy,” that is, a sad, sympathetic identification with the unhappiness of the protagonist. The main technique in establishing this mood is the use of the word “little.” In some of the opening remarks the word connotes age, but it soon shifts to such connotations as the “unhappy,” “longing,” and “pitiable”: “de tænkte vist ikke paa, at en deilig lille Havfrue stod nedenfor og rakte sine hvide Hænder op imod Kjølen” [89]; “Du stakkels lille Havfrue” [106] (“certainly they did not imagine that a lovely little mermaid stood down below and stretched her white hands up toward the keel”; “You poor little mermaid”).

The melancholic mood is established, too, by the narrator's way of argumentation. Quite often, through very slight suggestions, he shifts from rational logic to masochistic or passive logic. In the following lines, the narrator makes the protagonist a passive sufferer: “men ud til hende smilte han ikke, han vidste jo ikke heller, at hun havde reddet ham” [94] (“but toward her he did not smile; of course, neither did he know that she had saved him”). A rational argument would place the responsibility on the Mermaid herself: he did not smile at her because she had hidden herself and told him nothing concerning his salvation. Here is another example: “Prindsen spurgte, hvem hun var, og hvorledes hun var kommet her, og hun saae mildt og dog saa bedrøvet paa ham med sine mørkeblaae Øine, tale kunde hun jo ikke” [100 f.] (“The Prince asked who she was and how she had come here, and she looked at him so mildly and yet so sorrowfully with her dark-blue eyes, [for] she could not, of course, speak”). The rational, unsentimental comment would be that since she could not speak and did not try to express herself by gestures or mimicry, he never knew her story. The optimistic setting of the very same conditions could be that although she could not speak, her sparkling eyes, her expressive dance, and her gesticulating arms told him more than words could about herself and her love.

A melancholy, sentimental mood is dominant. It is suspended only in the section in which the Prince refuses the love of the Mermaid. In these lines narrator and narratee suddenly identify with the Prince: “ved hver Bevægelse blev hendes Deilighed endnu mere synlig, og hendes Øine talte dybere til Hjertet, end Slavindernes Sang” [101; my emphasis] (“with each movement her loveliness became even more apparent, and to the heart her eyes spoke more deeply than the song of slave women”). But apart from this very slight turn in the narrative point of view the narrator in the lines of rejection is rather withdrawn. What happens on the scale of communication in the following sentences of denial?

Prindsen sagde, at hun skulde alletider være hos ham, og hun fik Lov at sove udenfor hans Dør paa en Fløiels Pude.


“Jo, du er mig kjærest,” sagde Prindsen, “… du ligner en ung Pige, jeg engang saae.”


Dag for Dag blev hun Prindsen kjærere, han holdt af hende, som man kan holde af et godt, kjært Barn, men at gjøre hende til sin Dronning, faldt ham slet ikke ind.


(The Prince said that she would always be with him, and she had permission to sleep outside his door on a velvet pillow.

“Of course you are most dear to me,” said the Prince, “you resemble a young girl I once saw.”

Day by day she became dearer to the Prince; he cared for her as one can care about a good, dear child, but to make her his queen never even occurred to him.)

These examples use the arguments of psychological sadism, the two of them with no comments. The logic of sadism is broken only if the narrator reckons on a grown-up narratee who is able to discern it. To a child this cruel logic would properly not be discovered. If this is so, these lines (and example three explicitly) hurt not only the Mermaid, but the childlike narratee, who is rejected just as is the childlike in the Mermaid (“som man kan holde af et godt, kjært Barn, men …”). These lines reveal an aggressive attitude toward the Mermaid and the child narratee on the part of the Prince and the narrator. Warring forces between a sadistic rejection of, and a sentimental identification with, the protagonist imbue the narrative scheme.


On the level of rhetoric “The Little Mermaid” is very complex. In this [essay] I can only touch on the main rhetoric figure, the simile. The simile of “The Little Mermaid” at the microlevel is a question of style. The simile is simply the dominating figure, which is quite evident from the first lines of the story:

Langt ude i Havet er Vandet saa blaat, som Bladene paa den deiligste Kornblomst og saa klart, som det reneste Glas, men det er meget dybt, dybere end noget Ankertoug naaer, mange Kirketaarne maatte stilles ovenpaa hinanden, for at række fra Bunden op over Vandet.

[88; my emphasis]

(Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower and as clear as the purest glass, but it is very deep, deeper than any anchor line reaches; many church towers would have to be placed on top of one another to reach from the bottom up above the water.)

The simile is a way of “thinking” for the protagonist and the Prince; their concept of compatibility is based on the principle of similarity: “rosenrøde Blomster, som lignede Solen der høit oppe” [88]; “han lignede Marmorstøtten nede i hendes lille Have” [93]; “‘Jo, du er mig kjærest’, sagde Prindsen ‘… du ligner en ung Pige jeg engang saae’” [102] (rosy red flowers that resembled the sun high up there”; “he resembled the marble statue down in her little garden”; “‘Of course you are the dearest to me,’ said the Prince ‘… you resemble a young girl I once saw’”). At the macrolevel the simile is Hans Christian Andersen's own way of understanding. The whole story is one great simile, the story of the Mermaid being only a symbol of something to which she, as symbol, is similar.

The warring forces at this level are the complex system of the symbolized forces that the mermaid symbol sets into motion. The crucial point is the very choice of the mermaid symbol. In universal tradition mermaids are sex symbols. Hans Christian Andersen's Mermaid is the opposite. She is an innocent child trying to enter into the state of sexuality. Andersen, thus, breaks down the traditional mermaid symbol and, ultimately, his own symbolization of her. His choice of a mermaid symbol has misled some critics (for example, Eigil Nyborg) to take the Mermaid as a sex symbol, which she definitely is not. The Mermaid symbolizes the “a-sexual being” trying to become sexual and to transform her sexual situation to a spiritual situation.

The Mermaid also symbolizes the “human being.” Andersen breaks through the symbolizing tradition when he has a female represent the general.

But of course the Mermaid could represent a “female being.” Her transformation from child to woman would represent the conditions in male societies for female sexuality. Her change from having a tail to possessing legs may symbolize a shift in erogenic zones, the legs representing the vagina (the splitting of her tail being the symbol of her new position: she has to learn to spread her legs). Her loss of a tongue may be the symbolic displacement of clitorectomy.

Since in the story of the Mermaid her loss of a tongue may be interpreted as a symbolic castration, the tale itself—as pointed out by Sabrina Soracco—could be about an unsuccessful transference from the state of the imaginary to the state of the symbolic. If this symbolic process is accepted, one might ask whether such a process could ever enter the conscious or unconscious mind of Hans Christian Andersen. Or is such a symbolic interpretation only that of later feminist readings?

The Mermaid may symbolize the “male being.” Of course she may represent Andersen himself, since her low social status, her longing for (the ending of the story), but in most cases they are stimulating intellectual challenges.


  1. All translations were made specifically—and quite literally—for this section of “Splash!”

Works Cited

H. C. Andersens Eventyr. Vol. 1: 1835-42. Ed. Erik Dal. Copenhagen: Reitzel, 1963.

Baggesen, Søren. “Individuation eller frelse?” Kritik 1 (1967): 50-77.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1982.

Grønlund, Ellen. “Falske tolkninger.” Nordisk tidskrift för vetenskap, konst och industri 42.3 (1966): 120-36.

Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference. Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Man, Paul de. Allegories of Reading. New Haven/London: Yale UP, 1979.

Nyborg, Eigil. Den indre linie i H. C. Andersens eventyr. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1962.

Prince, Gerald. “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee.” Reader-Response Criticism. Ed. Jane Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Principal Works

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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

John L. Greenway (essay date 1991)

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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 and confidant of poets and critics, Oersted convinced a dubious Hans Christian Andersen to publish his Eventyr, fortalte for børn (Tales Told for Children) in 1835. Andersen wrote to Henriette Wulff on March 16, 1835, that he had “Dernæst skrevet nogle Eventyr for Børn, om hvilke Ørsted siger, at naar Improvisatoren gjør mig berømt, gjør Eventyrene mig udødelig, de ere det meest fuldendte jeg har skrevet, men det synes jeg ikke, han kjender ikke Italien” [Topsøe-Jensen 1: 211] (Then I wrote some tales for children, about which Oersted says that if The Improviser makes me famous, the tales will make me immortal, that they are the most accomplished things I have done, but I don't think so: he doesn't know Italy).

Discussing Andersen's use of the supernatural, Paul V. Rubow pointed out that Andersen was able to modernize the world of the eventyr by incorporating Oersted's theories of physics and aesthetics (Rubow 85-94). Andersen not only found the aesthetic bases of Oersted's acoustical theories congenial, but he used them to regulate the representation of reality in at least one of his eventyr: “Klokken” (1845; “The Bell”).

“Klokken” is not as familiar to English-speaking readers as are others of Andersen's tales, so a brief summary will help later show the importance of romantic acoustical theory to the story. Along about evening, people hear a sound like a church-bell coming from the woods. The adults search for the source of this sound, and, coming to the edge of the woods, promptly set up a store. The Emperor offers a title to the discover of the melodious tones' source, the award going to the theorist who concluded that the sound came from a wise owl knocking its head on a hollow tree. True, he did not go very far into the forest, but he annually published an article about the owl.

On a glorious, sunny Confirmation Day, the children hear the mysterious sweetness of this bell and decide to find it. Some stop at the store, another stops at the “kluk!” of a brook, and the others go on until they find a hut with a little bell. Yes, they all say, this must be it. All, that is, but the king's son, who says that the bell is too small to produce tones “som saaledes rørte et Menneske-Hjerte” [206] (that so could move a human heart).

The king's son goes on alone, for as the others say, “saadan En vilde nu altid være klogere” [206] (someone like him always wanted to be smarter), meeting a poor boy who had left the group early. They do not go on together: the king's son goes to the left, (the side of the heart): “det var snart ligesom et Orgel spillede dertil” [207] (it was as though an organ played along). The boy goes to the right, for that side looked more beautiful.

At sunset, when nature was “en stor, hellig Kirke” [208] (a great, holy church) and the colors of the day blended with the starry gleams of night, at the shining altar of the sun, in total joy the king's son “bredte sine Arme ud mod Himlen, mod Havet og Skoven” [208] (spread out his arms toward the heavens, the sun and the forest). The poor boy joins him then, and holding hands “i Naturens og Poesiens store Kirke” [208] (in the great church of nature and poetry), there sounded around them “den usynlige hellige Klokke” [208] (the invisible holy bell).

Clearly, the story demands interpretation. Grønbech points out that, while Andersen's literary works resist being regulated by a systematic philosophy, “Klokken” belongs to that class of Andersen's stories where an idea regulates the narrative (177-78). True; the transcendent experience is not for all: many are misled by bourgeois motives (the shop) or deceived by empirical evidence (the bell in the hut). Still, the church of nature stands accessible to some, be they rich or poor. It exists; it can be found. So far, so obvious.

While “Klokken” should be a charming allegory of romantic innocence, knowledge of the acoustical theories of Andersen's scientist friend and mentor will allow us to read the story on a deeper level and help explain why, at the end, we do not find the transcendent bell. Now obsolete, Oersted's theories lent what would at the time have been a realistic dimension to Andersen's tale.

Oersted's lifelong interest in acoustics complimented the studies in electromagnetism which made him famous. In order for us to see the aesthetic role physics plays in “Klokken,” we must enter his imaginative world for a moment and understand the reciprocal relationships Oersted saw among sound, light, nature, and God.

Although Oersted became famous for his discovery of electromagnetism, his first serious experiments were conducted on acoustical figures (Klangfigurer). In 1808, he found that if one draws a bow along the edge of a pumice-covered glass plate, symmetrical patterns emerge. In the conclusion of his “Forsøg over Klangfigurer” (1808; Experiments upon Acoustical Figures) he suggests that electricity could be generated through sound vibrations, and that light acts on the eye much as sound does on the ear. Anticipating later directions in his research, he then speaks of nature's “dybe, uendelige, ufattelige Fornuft, som igiennem Tonestrømmen taler til os” [Naturvidenskablige skrifter 2:34] (profound incomprehensible reason which speaks to us through the flow of music).

He continues this line of thought in his “Om Grunden til den Fornøjelse Tonerne frembringe” (On the Cause of the Pleasure Produced by Music) in 1808. The symmetry of acoustical figures becomes beautiful, he argues, because the oscillations express the underlying “reason in nature.” Although Oersted modified his theories as he matured, he always insisted that nature's hidden reason expresses itself in tones. In his collection of philosophical essays Aanden i Naturen (1850; The Soul in Nature, 1852, 1966), appearing a year before his death, he makes the point explicit by titling an essay “The Same Principles of Beauty Exist in the Objects Submitted to the Eye and to the Ear” (325-51).

Oersted's experiments with acoustical figures seem to have been immensely interesting to nonscientists as well as to scientists, for to Oersted they demonstrated the scientific basis of beauty's physical reality. Søren Kierkegaard noted that Oersted's inner harmony reminded him of an acoustical figure; the artist Ekeberg painted him with a glass plate in his hand, and Oersted in a verse used acoustical figures as a metaphor for scientific inquiry (V. Andersen 111). Authors as diverse as Frederika Bremer and Carsten Hauch employed the image, and H. C. Andersen refers to acoustical figures in Kun en Spillemand (Kuehle; Rubow 86).

We may better understand the importance of acoustics in Oersted's imagination, as well as its role in Andersen's tale, by returning to Oersted's repeated emphasis upon the “unity of nature” (Knight, “The Scientist” 82-87). A second reading of “Klokken” leads one to notice that Andersen emphasizes the day's bright sunshine, and at the end of the story the king's son and the poor boy are inundated by color as well as sound. Oersted would read this ending as subtle and realistic: to Oersted, electricity, light, heat and sound were all forms of oscillation in the physical world and, hence, express Nature's fundamental unity, symmetry, and essential reason, much as did his early work with acoustical figures.

While Oersted's theories, with their aesthetic bent, differ markedly from our own, his contemporaries held similar views. Humphry Davy (who read the galley proofs for the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads) held similar theories and expressed them in poetry (Fullmer 118-26; Knight, “The Scientist” 72) while distrusting Oersted's Germanic background. If we look briefly at Oersted's view of light, we see that the transcendental epiphany at the end of “Klokken” becomes an aspect of romantic physics, as well as a literary phenomenon, indeed a realistic event if we remember that sound, electricity, and light are but differing expressions of the unity, of the “spirit in nature.” Oersted saw the significance of his 1820 discovery of electromagnetism as proving just this unity of Kraft (later called “energy”).

In 1815-1816, Oersted argues in his “Theorie over Lyset” (Theory of Light) that light comes from a unification of electrical and chemical forces, heat being a slower form of light. In his “Betragtninger over Forholdet mellem Lyden, Lyset, Varmen og Electriciteten” (1829; Observations upon the Relationship among Sound, Light, Heat, and Electricity), he relies again upon oscillations to show that their interdependence expresses the fundamental unity of nature. In the later “Undersøgelse over Lyset med Hensyn paa det Skjønnes Naturlære” (1842; Investigations of Light with a View to the Natural Doctrine of the Beautiful), Oersted develops the metaphorical implications of this theory: light connects the universe and lets us feel like participants in all creation (Naturvidenskablige skrifter 2:509).

In “Theory of Light,” Oersted describes the psychological effect of light as the bringing forth of joy, an assertion to which he repeatedly returned. The assumption of a unity in nature, an assertion which regulated his research (and that of other nineteenth-century scientists in diverse fields as well) led him in his “Observations on the History of Chemistry” (1806) to conjecture that human neural sensibility might be a form of his earlier “Law of Oscillation,” operating upon the organism as a consequence of sound, light and electricity (Soul in Nature 320-23). With “Experiments on Acoustical Figures,” Oersted argues that this operation cannot be reduced to mere mechanics, for aural effects symbolize nature's transcendent unity and reason: “det som i Tonekunsten henriver og tryller os, og lader os glemme alt, medens vor Siæl svæver hen paa Tonestrømmen, det er ikke spåndte Nervers mechaniske Pirring,” he says, “men det er Naturens dybe, uendelige, ufattelige Fornuft, som igiennem Tonestrømmen taler til os” [Naturvidenskablige skrifter 2:34] (in acoustics, that which exalts and enchants us, letting us forget all while ascending on the stream of sound, is not the mechanical excitement of tensed nerves, but it is nature's deep, infinite incomprehensible reason which speaks to us through the stream of sound).

The mind, Oersted asserts, evolved under the same dynamics as did nature. In “On the Physical Effects of Tones,” Oersted believes that the “meeting of numerous oscillations, which you assume in the nervous system, is not an exception from the usual mode of operation in nature, but belongs to her universal laws” (Soul in Nature 363). In the “Investigations of Light” (1842) he again draws the metaphorical implications of his theory by concluding that light is in essence an image of life, dark of death (Naturvidenskablige skrifter 2:507).

Oersted repeatedly admonished his many friends who wrote imaginative literature that narratives set in the present should not violate this underlying reason in nature (and hence, for him, its beauty and divine origin). In Mit livs eventyr (1855; The Story of My Life) Andersen credits Oersted's belief that “Jeg vil at den af Digteren fremstillede Verden, med al dens Frihed og Dristighed, dog skal beherskedes af de same Love, som det aandelige Øie opdager, den virklege Verden, og uden hvilke det er ikke værd at leve deri” [2:167] (I want the poetically represented world, with all its freedom and daring, to be circumscribed nonetheless by the same laws the spiritual eye discovers: that real world, without which it is not worth living in).

Andersen was not immune to criticism of this sort, and he took Oersted's comments seriously. He relates that when he translated Byron's “Darkness” into Danish in 1833, Oersted objected that Byron's bleak vision of entropic anarchy at the end of things was wrong: Oersted is said to have commented that “‘Digteren tør tænke sig,’ sagde han, ‘at Solen forsvinder fra Himlen, men han maa vide, at der kommer da ganske andet Resultater, end dette Mørke, end dette Kulde, disse Begivenheder, dette er en Vanvittigs Phantasie!’” [2:10-11] (‘The artist might well imagine,’ he said, ‘that the sun disappears from the heavens, but he ought to know that something very different from the darkness, from this chill would occur; these occurrences are the imagination of a madman!’). Andersen writes that, having thought about it, he agreed. After Oersted's death, Andersen recalled that “Ørsted forlangte med Rette stræng Sandhed selv i Phantasiens Raaderum” [2:245] (Oersted correctly insisted upon strict verisimilitude, even in the chamber of the imagination).

As we return to Andersen's story after this excursion into one aspect of his friend's physics and the aesthetic judgments stemming from them, we see how Andersen could well have used Oersted's theories of sound and light to underscore his theme with what, at the time, would be realistic detail: realistic in the sense of conforming to contemporary scientific theory. The narrator of “Klokken” says that the sound “affected human hearts so strangely”; Oersted suggests in “The Physical Effects of Tones” that the harmony regulating the acoustical figures on glass could be extended to human sympathy. We need only recall his emphasis on the unity of nature to see how Oersted would connect chemical affinity, acoustical effects, and an affinity between nature and mind. “This accordance between nature and mind can hardly be ascribed to chance,” he says in “Observations on the History of Chemistry” (Soul in Nature 323).

Andersen says he wrote to Oersted that The Soul in Nature prompted his essays on “Faith and Science” and “Poetry's California” in his collection I Sverrige (In Sweden) where he asserts that “Videnskabens Sollys skal gjennemtrænge Digteren” [121] (the sunlight of science must penetrate the poet). Oersted replied, according to Andersen in Mit livs eventyr, that “maaske bliver De Den af Digterne, der vil udrette meest for Videnskaben” [2:117] (perhaps you are going to be that very poet, who will accomplish the most for science). Andersen, when he received the second part of The Soul in Nature, replied that “hvad især gjør mig glad, er, at jeg her synes kun at se min egen Tanke, den, jeg tidligere ikke saaledes har gjort mig klar selv” [2:118] (what above all gladdens me is that here I seem to see only my own thoughts, which I had not previously clarified for myself).

Oersted seems to have had a similar vision of the relationship between literature and science. Years before, in 1807, he wrote to his friend Adam Oehlenschläger that the scientist and the poet begin at different points: the scientist begins with the real world and ends in a sort of artistic experience; the poet, though, begins with intuition, which he strives to clarify for others: “Naar han har naaet Grendsen af sin Bane, sammensmælter han Kunsten med Videnskaben. Saaledes skiller Digteren og Tænkeren sig ad, ved Begyndelsen af deres Vej, for ved Enden at omfavne hinanden” [Oehlenschläger 3:21] (When he has reached the end of his course, he fuses art with science. The poet and the scientist differ at the beginning of their path, only to embrace each other at the end).

Some critics have speculated that George Brandes's interpretation of “Klokken” was wrong: the king's son is not poetry; Andersen saw himself as the poor boy in the story and Oersted as the king's son (Holm 43; Rubow 94). If we accept this conjecture, interesting interpretations unfold: Andersen does not tell of the travails of the poor boy, who takes the path on the right because it is beautiful, but of those of the king's son, who takes the path on the left because that is where the heart is. The king's son knows enough empirical acoustics to realize that the small bell the children found was much too small and delicate to be heard so far away, but he is not limited by the empirical. He lets his heart guide his reason to the ultimate, transcendent experience.

If indeed Oersted was the model for the king's son, Andersen understood his older friend deeply, particularly at the end of the story. After having made a fool of himself early in his career by venturing into the speculative physics of the Naturphilosophen (Gower), Oersted eventually broke with Schelling and, later, Steffens over their lack of experimental rigor and their belief that one could attain ultimate knowledge through philosophy alone (Natur videnskablige skrifter 1:25; Michelsen 35; Stauffer 39).1 Oersted had a bitter feud with Grundtvig and the latter's Verdens Krønike, in part because of Grundtvig's assumption he could speak with God's voice. Oersted insisted that human reason could never be complete unto itself, “for our Reason, although originally related to the infinite, is limited by the finite, and can only imperfectly disengage itself from it. No mortal has been permitted to penetrate and comprehend the whole” (The Soul in Nature 451). Importantly, while the bell the children find in the forest is beautiful, the source of the sound is invisible to the king's son and the poor boy alike. They do not discover the bell but experience transcendence through light. Oersted maintains that light allows us to penetrate into nature and not only knits us into the universe, but catalyzes the feeling of joy as it does to the king's son (The Soul in Nature 113).

Michelsen points out Oersted's preference for organic metaphors over the abstract: he did not call his final collection of philosophic essays “The Idea in Nature,” as would a Platonist or a Naturphilosoph, but The Soul [Aanden] in Nature (Michelsen 36). We have no evidence that Oersted communicated his 1807 views to Andersen, but given the continuity of Oersted's views, in particular his belief in the unity of nature, the conjecture is plausible. Indeed, I suspect Andersen pays quite a compliment to his friend and envies the moment of scientific insight: at the moment of transcendence for the king's son, oscillations fuse, and nature becomes one with mind. The waves of the ocean meet the light of the setting sun, “Alt smeltede sammen i glødende Farver,” acoustically mingling: “Skoven sang og Havet sang og hans Hjerte sang med” [208] (everything melted together in glowing colors: the forest sang and the ocean sang and his heart sang along). When the poor boy (whose imagination we do not share) arrives, the final synthesis becomes that symmetry Oersted saw expressing creation's inner reason: in the great church of nature and poetry the last sounds we hear from the holy bell are hallelujahs of “salige Aander” (blessed Spirits).

After Oersted's death in 1851, Andersen's view of nature seems to have changed to one extolling the drama of conquest and power, as we see, for instance, in “Den ny Aarhundredes Musa” [1861; “The New Century's Muse”] (Busk-Jensen 6:65-66). In “Klokken,” however, Andersen's view is the same as that of Oersted. Oersted almost paraphrases Andersen's poetic conclusion with his own elevated prose: “The holy engagement of art does not spring from conscious reflection, but from an unconscious and mystic sanctuary. … Every melting harmony, every resolved dissonance, is again a higher combination, which in itself bears the same stamp of reason, and which all its parts cooperate towards an inward unity” (The Soul in Nature 351).

As we have seen, we cannot separate Oersted's physics from his aesthetics, and Andersen, I believe, incorporated Oersted's physics of sound and light to give his tale a realistic context we no longer recognize. Thanks to Oersted, “Klokken” displays a physics of spiritual beauty: in a verse to Andersen, Oersted wrote: “Fornuften i Fornuften er det Sande, / Fornuften i Villien er det Gode, / Fornuften i Phantasien er det Skønne” [Mit livs eventyr 2:245] (Reason in Reason is Truth; Reason in Will is Goodness; Reason in Imagination is Beauty).


  1. He did, however, retain their faith in the unity of nature, which not only guided his experiments in electromagnetism but later led to the articulation of the Conservation of Energy (Stauffer, Knight, “Steps”).

Research for this article was conducted under a grant from the Humanities, Science and Technology program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to which the author expresses his gratitude.

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. I Sverrige. Romaner og Rejseskildringer. Eds. Morten Borup and H. A. Paludan. Vol. 7. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1944.

———. Mit livs eventyr. Ed. H. Topsøe-Jensen. 2 vols. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1951.

———. “Klokken.” Eventyr. Vol. 2. Nye eventyr 1844-48, Eventyr 1850, samt Historier 1852-55. Ed. Erik Dal. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag, 1964. 204-08.

Andersen, Vilhelm. Tider og typer of Dansk aands historie. I, 2 (Goethe), 2 (2nd half of 19C). Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1916.

Busk-Jensen, Lise, et al., eds. Dansk litteratur historie. Vol. 6. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1985.

Fullmer, J. Z. “The Poetry of Sir Humphry Davy.” Chymia 6 (1960): 102-26.

Grønbech, Bo. Hans Christian Andersens Eventyrverden. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1967.

Holm, Søren. “‘Klokken’ og de to store H. C. er.” Om Filosofi og religion. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1942. 43-46.

Knight, David M. “The Scientist as Sage.” Studies in Romanticism 6 (1967):65-88.

———. “Steps Towards a Dynamical Chemistry.” Ambix 14 (1967):179-97.

Kuehle, Sejer. “H. C. Ørsted og Samtidens unge Digtere.” Gads danske Magasin 45 (1951): 167-81.

Michelsen, William. Om H. C. Ørsted og tankebilledet bag Oehlenschlägers Aladdin. Oehlenschlägers Selskabets skriftserie nr. 3. Copenhagen: Bianco Luno, 1963.

Oehlenschläger, Adam. Breve fra og til Adam Oehlenschläger: Januar 1798-November 1809. Ed. H. A. Paludan, et al. Vol. 3. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1945.

Oersted, Hans Christian. Naturvidenskablige skrifter. Ed. Kristine Meyer. 3 vols. Copenhagen: Andr. Fredr. Høst, 1920.

———. The Soul in Nature. Trans. Leonora and Joanna B. Horner. London: N.p., 1852. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1966.

Rubow, Paul V. H. C. Andersens Eventyr. Forhistorien, Idé og Form, Sprog og Stil. 2nd ed. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1943.

Stauffer, Robert C. “Speculation and Experiment in the Background of Oersted's Discovery of Electromagnetism.” Isis 48 (1957): 33-50.

Topsøe-Jensen, H., ed. H. C. Andersen og Henriette Wulff: En Brevveksling. 3 vols. Odense: Flensted, 1959.

Further Reading

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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, no. 1-4 (1990): 203-12.

Argues that translators of Andersen should examine all of his work, even when translating only one piece, in order to understand his subtle use of language.

Malmkjaer, Kirsten. “Who Can Make Nice A Better Word Than Pretty? Collocation, Translation, and Psycholinguistics.” In Text and Technology: In Honour of John Sinclair, edited by Mona Baker, Gill Francis, and Elena Tognini-Bonelli, pp. 213-32. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1993.

Argues that translators do a better job when translating Andersen's work out of their native language rather than into it.

Nassaar, Christopher S. “Andersen's ‘The Shadow’ and Wilde's ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’: A Case of Influence.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 50, no. 2 (September 1995): 217-24.

Traces the influence of Andersen on Oscar Wilde.

———. “Andersen's ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and Wilde's ‘The Birthday of the Infanta.” The Explicator 55, no. 2 (winter 1997): 83-5.

Regards Wilde's work as having been influenced by Andersen's writing.

Rowland, Herbert. “Confluence and Crosscurrents: Schiller's ‘Das Lied von der Glocke’ and Hans Christian Andersen's ‘Die alte Kirchenglocke.’” Monatshefte 88, no. 2 (1996): 142-56.

Investigates the effect of Schiller on Andersen's work.

Sanders, Karin. “Signatures: Spelling the Father's and Erasing the Mother's in C. J. L. Almqvist's Ramido Marinesco and H. C. Andersen's O. T.Scandinavian Studies 65, no. 2 (spring 1993): 153-79.

Utilizes Derrida to explore textual bodies and gender inscriptions in Almqvist and Andersen.

Scott, Carole. “Magical Dress: Clothing and Transformation in Folk Tales.”’ Children's Literature Association Quarterly 21, no. 4 (winter 1996-1997): 151-57.

Includes Andersen in a discussion of the relationship between clothing and transformation in folk tales.

Sells, Laura. “‘Where Do the Mermaids Stand?’ Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid.” In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, pp. 175-92. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Examines both the film version of Andersen's short story “The Little Mermaid” and the story itself in the context of issues of body and voice.

Wangerin, Walter Jr. “Hans Christian Andersen: Shaping the Child's Universe.” In Reality and the Vision, edited by Philip Yancy, pp. 1-15. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990.

Reflects on how Andersen's stories shaped his life.

White, Duffield. “Shvarts's The Shadow: The Andersen Story and the Russian Subtext.” Slavic and East European Journal 38, no. 4 (winter 1994): 636-54.

Demonstrates how Andersen's short story combines with Shvarts's literary imagination.

Additional coverage of Andersen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 6; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; European Writers, Vol. 6; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 1; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 7, 79; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Something about the Author, Vol. 100; World Literature Criticism; Writers for Children; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 1.

Christopher L. Anderson (essay date 1992)

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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” (159). As Janet Díaz has stated, this attraction did not end with the writer's childhood, for upon rereading the same tome decades later, “she found its magic undiminished” (26). Given Matute's ongoing fascination with Andersen's tales, it is not surprising that on occasion they leave their mark on her adult writings. While I have previously written of the great importance of Andersen's “The Little Mermaid” as a thematic and structural model for Matute's Primera memoria, this current study focuses upon “The Snow Queen” and its profound impact on the same superb novel.1


According to Bruno Bettelheim, upon reading fairy tales a child senses that “to be a human being in this world of ours means having to accept difficult challenges” (155). Along similar lines, in Julius Heuscher's words, “the fairy tale nourishes the child's courage to widen his horizons and to tackle all the challenges successfully” (186). In addition to stressing man's need for tenacity upon confronting adversity, the fairy tale promotes fair play and ethical behavior: “the hero is rewarded and the evil person meets his well-deserved fate, thus satisfying the child's deep need for justice to prevail” (Bettelheim 144). Hence, far from being escapist literature with tenuous ties to reality, the fairy tale prepares children to deal with life effectively, realistically, and ethically.

Heuscher finds that fairy tale characters pass through three stages of evolution, “a pre-materialistic period (‘golden age,’ ‘garden of Eden,’ a.o.), the period in which humanity is principally oriented towards the material world, and a (future) post-materialistic period” (106). As a tale begins, its characters inhabit a secure, love-filled world of plenty. This blissful existence comes quickly to an end, however, usually in the form “of expulsion from the castle, of not receiving an inheritance, or of losing the mother and having to contend with a stepmother” (117). The subsequent materialistic era is characterized by “[t]he rigidity of a soulless material world and of the cruel, negative aspects of the witch-like early Superego” (89) and “the suffering and slaving of the ‘good girl’” (111). But, “often when everything seems almost hopeless, comes the salvation, the vindication, the return to a happier home, the acquisition of a new kingdom, and often the marriage with the prince or the princess” (112), provided the protagonists act nobly. Thus,

[w]hat happens to the heroes and heroines in fairy tales can be likened … to initiation rites which the novice enters naive and unformed, and which dismiss him at their end on a higher level of existence undreamed of at the start of the sacred voyage through which he gains his reward or salvation.

(Bettelheim 278)

Since Primera memoria chronicles above all the vicissitudes of its adolescent narrator Matia and her cousin Borja, it is noteworthy that fairy tale adolescents struggle with the same problems as their real world counterparts, including their anguishing experiences with new feelings “which often may denote immaturity and abnormality; pleasure of defying taboos, possessive dominance, suffering submission, cruel aggression, wishes to degrade and defile or to be degraded, etc., etc.” (Heuscher 134). To overcome these emotional pitfalls, fairy tale adolescents develop positive character traits “which are specifically human, be it unselfishness, modesty, humility, courage, patience, sympathetic understanding or keen judgment” (Heuscher 131). Armed with these new qualities, the adolescents surmount their obstacles and, following Heuscher's tripartite scheme, earn such rewards as passage into adulthood or eternal life.


“The Snow Queen,” Matute's favorite fairy tale (Díaz 116), exhibits all of the previously mentioned characteristics. Its youthful protagonists Kay and Gerda lead gilded lives filled with love and happiness until pieces of the devil's shattered mirror fall from the sky and become lodged in Kay's eye and heart, whereupon he turns cold and cynical. Soon thereafter, the Snow Queen ends the children's golden age by kidnapping Kay and taking him away to her ice castle. Refusing to believe that her friend is dead, Gerda undertakes a lengthy search for him, during which she endures pain, cold, and hunger and endangers her life. But in spite of these difficulties, she perseveres and eventually locates Kay, who is attempting without success to spell the word “Eternity” with pieces of ice. After she saves him, the children cry together in celebration of Gerda's successful voyage, and the pieces of ice form the magic word by themselves, indicating that the youths have earned eternal life. Upon arriving home, they discover that their old, familiar surroundings have remained the same while they themselves have matured into young adults, “grown-up, but children still—children at heart” (228).

Thus “The Snow Queen” traces the children's development from their golden age in the warmth and safety of home, through a middle period during which Kay becomes cold and cruel and the youths are separated from each other, to the happy ending which Gerda earns through self-sacrifice and determination. Given the enormous obstacles that the heroine overcomes on her way to this felicitous conclusion, Andersen's tale conveys the encouraging message that suffering and sacrificing oneself for the good of another can lead to success in this life as well as to salvation in the next.

Of special interest in “The Snow Queen” is the devil's sinister mirror which debases reality: “everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it seemed to dwindle to almost nothing at all, while everything that was worthless and ugly became most conspicuous and even uglier than ever” (196). As the devil and his minions raise this mirror into the heavens “to scoff at the angels, and our Lord” (196), it begins to shake violently, falls from their grasp, and breaks into billions of pieces. Unfortunately, instead of eliminating the mirror's powers, this accident multiplies its destructive potential, “for every little bit of glass kept the same power that the whole mirror had possessed” (197). While many individuals are victimized by having these pieces of glass fall into their eyes, a happenstance which “made them see only the bad side of things” (197), more tragically still, “[a] few people even got a glass splinter in their hearts, and that was a terrible thing, for it turned their hearts into lumps of ice” (197). Thus in Andersen's tale mirrors and pieces of glass are associated with cynicism, pessimism, and coldness.

Two such fragments enter Kay's eye and heart and make him mean spirited, a transformation which marks the beginning of the end for the children's golden age. First, the metamorphosed Kay verbally chastises Gerda for having cried out of compassion over his accident: “‘Why should you be crying?’ he asked. ‘It makes you look so ugly’” (200). Then he attacks the roses which have symbolized their loving relationship: “Ugh! that rose is all wormeaten. And look, this one is crooked. And these roses, they are just as ugly as they can be. They look like the boxes they grow in” (200). After breaking off two of the roses, he abandons Gerda and replaces her with new playmates. Turning toward society at large, he mocks the slightest imperfection in all those who cross his path: “Everything that was odd or ugly about them, Kay could mimic so well that people said, ‘That boy has surely got a good head on him!’” (201).

Kay's accident also abruptly alters his pastimes: “Now his games were very different from what they used to be. They became more sensible” (201). That is to say, they became more rational/mathematical, less emotional/spiritual, for instead of playing simple children's games with Gerda, holding her hand, looking at picture books, or singing hymns, as he had done previously, now Kay uses a magnifying glass to admire the mathematical precision of snowflakes, which “are much more interesting to look at than real flowers, for they are absolutely perfect” (201). Also indicative of his metamorphosis is that, as the Snow Queen sequesters him, he attempts to save himself through prayer, “but all he could remember was his multiplication tables” (202).


In Primera memoria, Matia experiences a golden age of her own, but not during her stay on Mallorca. Rather her golden age must be reassembled piece by piece from occasional flashbacks to her previous life in the countryside with Mauricia, her father's housekeeper. In these nostalgic memories of life with the loving, caring Mauricia, Matia stresses how happy and secure she felt prior to coming to the island.2 This golden age ends, however, when the housekeeper falls seriously ill and is forced to send Matia to her grandmother Doña Práxedes, who in turn dispatches her to a religious school where she rebels.

As an adult who is temporally and spatially removed from the events of her distant past, Matia the narrator can see the obvious cause-and-effect relationship between these sudden changes in her life and the onset of her rebelliousness.3 But Matia the confused adolescent lacks the experience and the objective perspective which are necessary to be able to draw such a conclusion. Even though she cannot explain her personality changes, she can take solace in the fact that a character from one of her favorite books has likewise experienced sudden and inexplicable changes in his life: “Sin saber por qué ni cómo, allí me sentí malévola y rebelde; como si se me hubiera clavado en el corazón el cristalito que también transformó, en una mañana, al pequeño Kay” (17). The youngster's post-golden age also parallels Kay's in that she fills the air with vitriolic verbal barbs, especially when dealing with her most frequent companions, her cousin Borja and their tutor/guardian Lauro.4 In an attempt to comprehend and explain this form of hostility, Matia turns in frustration to the mirror's inventor: “No sé qué diablo me picaba a veces …, que si algo me arañaba por dentro me empujaba a la maldad. Sentí ganas de mortificar [a Borja]” (53).

The mirror/glass motif appears periodically throughout Primera memoria as Matia deals with life's disillusioning experiences. In one such case, seeking to convey the depth of her sadness, she describes what she sees upon looking at herself in a mirror: “Tristísima imagen aquella—la mía—, de ojos asustados, que era, tal vez, la imagen misma de la soledad” (73). Later, as she hears Manuel reveal the truth about his scandalous family background, Matia notices a trembling in the air, “como gotas de un cristal muy fino” (146), an obvious allusion to “The Snow Queen” which emphasizes the moment's dramatic effect upon her.5 And when Jorge de Son Major's companion Sanamo purchases a mirror, it becomes a dangerous weapon that he sadistically uses to reflect the sun's rays directly into Matia's eyes.

Just as Andersen's victim leaves behind his childhood pastimes and destroys the roses that had symbolized the warmth of his friendship with Gerda, Matia abandons the memories, toys, and games of her youth. The beginning of this process coincides with her departure for the island, for she leaves behind a precious gift from her father, a cardboard theater which had allowed her to escape from reality and enter into a world of fantasy.6 Also early in the novel, while commenting on life at her new school, Matia recalls her efforts to set aside all external manifestations of sentiment and bury the memories of her previous life: “[Yo] sentía un gran placer … en esconder (junto con mis recuerdos y mi vago, confuso amor por un tiempo perdido) todo lo que pudiera mostrar debilidad, o al menos me lo pareciese” (17).

It is Matia's relationship with her favorite doll Gorogó which best illustrates the evolution of her attitude towards the symbols of her past. In the first half of the novel, she turns to the doll for reassurance and security, especially as she suffers through her first night on Mallorca. Then, upon arriving at her grandmother's house, she hides the doll in a dresser and treasures it as a sort of talisman.7 But as she begins to realize that her golden age is indeed over and that sentiment is a luxury she can no longer afford, this reminder of happier times begins to lose its importance. First, she stops loving it, as she discovers after Doña Práxedes forbids her to accompany Borja and his friends on a boat trip: “miraba su carita y me preguntaba por qué ya no le podía amar” (117). Later, she sleeps without it, and when confronted by the possibility that Lauro may be going off to die in the war, she cannot locate “mi casi olvidado Gorogó”. Finally, at the novel's conclusion, after Borja has succeeded in having Manuel sent to reform school and Matia has disgraced herself by not attempting to foil Borja's scheme, she notices that her childhood companion is missing as she leaves her grandmother's house for yet another school: “había perdido a Gorogó—no sabía dónde estaba, bajo qué montón de pañuelos o calcetines. Ya estaba la maleta cerrada, con sus correas abrochadas, sin Gorogó” (243-44). Thus the end of Matia's lengthy relationship with the most important symbol of her childhood coincides with the loss of her warm and supportive relationship with Manuel and with the sobering realization that she is no better a person than Borja, since she has allowed him to carry out his plan.8

Matute's novel also parallels “The Snow Queen” in that both works unfold in large part in forbidding worlds ruled by emotionally frigid “stepmother” authority figures who victimize other central characters. In Andersen's tale, when its villainess first appears, she immediately establishes her identity by greeting Kay with a kiss that is “colder than ice. He felt it right down to his heart, half of which was already an icy lump” (202). After a second kiss, which makes him forget Gerda and his other acquaintances, she promises to kiss him no more, “or else I should kiss you to death” (202). Having reduced Kay to an unfeeling human block of ice, she separates him from his former friends and family by flying him to his new home, her joyless ice palace: “All of the halls were so immense and so empty, so brilliant and so glacial. There was never a touch of gaiety in them” (224). At the heart of this heartless world, defining it, is the Snow Queen's “Mirror of Reason”:

In the middle of the vast, empty hall of snow was a frozen lake. It was cracked into a thousand pieces, but each piece was shaped so exactly like the others that it seemed a work of wonderful craftsmanship. The Snow Queen sat in the exact center of it when she was at home, and she spoke of this as sitting on her “Mirror of Reason.”


Matia finds the same frigid atmosphere in her grandmother's spacious house on Mallorca: “En casa de la abuela, hubo frialdad” (17). These conditions reflect the personality of the novel's Snow Queen, Doña Práxedes, who is also cold and indifferent, as Matia quickly learns: “soporté su trato helado, sus frases hechas, sus oraciones a un Dios de su exclusiva invención y pertenencia, y alguna caricia indiferente, como indiferentes fueron también sus castigos” (12). This emotionally frozen microcosm includes its own “Mirror of Reason,” the table at which the children study, “separados como extraños jefes. Parecía como si a ambos lados se extendieran estepas, largas regiones de hielo y distancia, apartándonos” (181).

Closely related to the question of coldness/warmth is another “Snow Queen” motif that Matute treats masterfully, the holding of hands. At the beginning of Andersen's tale Kay and Gerda “held each other by the hand, kissed the roses, looked up at the Lord's clear sunshine, and spoke to it as if the Christ Child were there” (200). This togetherness—with each other, with nature, and with God—is interrupted by Kay's misfortunes with the pieces of glass and the Snow Queen, but after the youths are reunited Andersen repeatedly utilizes the hand-holding gesture to symbolize the strength of the protagonists' renewed relationship.9

Interestingly, Matia scarcely recollects holding hands with Borja, which speaks eloquently of the true character of their apparently close friendship.10 Given the cold and forbidding nature of life on the island, it is not surprising that this symbol of trust and warmth flourishes only when Matia develops her intimate relationship with Manuel in the second half of the novel.11 After this friendship has blossomed, the jealous Borja, who idolizes Manuel's biological father Jorge de Son Major, makes his first attempt to separate Matia and Manuel by unclasping their hands at Son Major's home, but the host intervenes.12 Having failed to separate Matia and Manuel before his idol, Borja—who envies the couple's closeness and the fact that Son Major has approved of their relationship by joining their hands together—decides to have his hated rival exiled from the island by means of an elaborate plan. To be sure that Matia will not interfere, Borja informs her that if she disobeys him at any time, she will surely be sent to reform school, because he will tell their grandmother that she has been sexually involved with Manuel. Then, as he leaves for church, where he will lie about having stolen money from his grandmother under Manuel's orders, Borja insists that Matia accompany him, which she does only because of his threat. After she accedes to his wishes, Borja “[m]e cogió de la mano, como en nuestros mejores días,” (234) and leads her away.13 Later, as Borja is about to repeat his lie before Doña Práxedes, he again takes Matia's hand and forces her to witness a painful event that she would prefer to avoid: “Quise echar a correr, escapar a algún sitio donde no me aprisionara el miedo. Pero Borja me cogió de la mano:—‘Quédate, Matia’” (237). Thus, while working to separate Matia from Manuel, Borja converts Andersen's gesture of warmth and trust into a symbol of his power to control others' lives and inflict pain upon them.

To best appreciate Matia's affinity with Kay, as well as her distinctiveness from Gerda, it is necessary to look closely at the female protagonists' reactions to their respective crises. Although the devil's mirror and the Snow Queen create grave problems for Kay and Gerda, these difficulties only magnify Gerda's heroism as she performs whatever noble deeds are necessary in order to locate and save her friend. During her lengthy search she conquers pain and extends herself beyond her usual physical limitations: “She got up to run on, but how footsore and tired she was!” (210). The fact that she often travels under frigid weather conditions further underscores the enormity of her self-sacrifice, since she has forgotten her mittens and boots, and as she nears the end of her journey to the Snow Queen's palace, a sudden snowstorm presents her with the most formidable obstacle of all:

here [the snowflakes] were much more monstrous and terrifying. They were alive. They were the Snow Queen's advance guard, and their shapes were most strange. Some looked like ugly, overgrown porcupines. Some were like a knot of snakes that stuck out their heads in every direction, and others were like fat little bears with every hair a-bristle.


With the aid of her strong religious faith, the determined Gerda overcomes this barrier as well, for as she prays in winter's bitter cold, her breath forms a magical cloud that produces an army of angels who “struck the dead snowflakes with their dread lances and shivered them into a thousand pieces” (224).

Gerda also succeeds because of her great compassion, which flows from her in a stream of tears. As previously noted, she cries upon witnessing Kay's accident with the glass splinters, and when the townspeople learn that he has disappeared, “little Gerda sobbed hardest of all” (203). In addition to providing tangible evidence of the depth of her feelings for Kay, Gerda's tears are key weapons in her battle to save him. First, during her lengthy voyage, they bring to life a rosebush that reminds her of her commitment to saving her friend. Then, upon locating him, she cries hot tears which “went straight to his heart. They melted the lump of ice and burned away the splinter of glass in it” (225). By crying together, they gain eternal life, for the bits of glass magically join together to form the word “Eternity.”14 Thus Gerda saves Kay physically (he is no longer a kiss away from being frozen to death), emotionally (he cries), and spiritually (they have earned eternal life) by combining inner strength and religious conviction with compassion.

Sadly, Matia has no Gerda-like saviour. Therefore, as seen previously, in order to protect herself from the coldness of the emotionally barren island, she buries everything that touches upon sentiment, including her tears: “Nunca lloré” (17). Even when she feels like crying, Matia refuses to give in to this natural impulse, as is seen when her grandmother denies her permission to accompany Borja and his companions on a boat trip and Matia deals with her disappointment by “mordiendo cualquier cosa para que no se me notasen las ganas de llorar” (122).

At the end of the novel, after having identified herself with Andersen's frozen victim, Matia suddenly has Gerda's saviour role thrust upon her as Borja carries out his plot against Manuel. Like Gerda, she holds in her hands the future of her own Kay as she stands outside Manuel's garden gate, but after pondering whether or not to warn Manuel about the imminent arrival of Doña Práxedes's messenger/captor, she fails to act, for she has been immobilized by Borja's threat and the pain he might cause her: “Algo me dolía tanto que no me podía mover” (240). As a result of Matia's cowardice, Doña Práxedes is able to fulfill her mission as Snow Queen and separate the youngsters by sending Manuel to reform school. Furthermore, Matia's failure to perform heroically proves costly for Matia as well, for it produces in her the all-encompassing guilt that still torments her decades later as she writes her memoirs.15

In the novel's closing scene, Matia holds in her arms an apparently disconsolate Borja as they prepare to leave their grandmother's house and resume their studies. But instead of expressing warmth and friendship, their awkward embrace serves as a depressing counterpoint to Andersen's uplifting finale. In the latter, assured of eternal life, his eyes filled with tears of joy, Kay enthusiastically holds fast to Gerda as they celebrate their well-earned good fortune, whereas the guilt-ridden Matia feels so cold and empty that she cannot make herself cry: “[Borja] empezó a llorar, a llorar ¿cómo se puede llorar de esa forma? Pero yo no podía (era un castigo, porque él siempre aborreció a Manuel. Pero yo ¿acaso no le amaba?). Estaba rígida, helada, apretándole contra mí” (244). Significantly, Matia's self-description—“rígida, helada”—mirrors Andersen's description of Kay moments before the heroine melts his frozen heart—“still, and stiff, and cold” (225). In this fashion, Matute's narrator closes out her tale by reaffirming her affiliation with the fairy tale's victim. At the same time, however, her decades-old guilt suggests that, alongside this consciously crafted image of herself as a Kay-like victim, there should be placed another image, that of a confused and fearful adolescent who deeply regrets having failed to meet the exacting standards of an heroic role model.


In her attitude towards fairy tales, Matia demonstrates the ambivalence of an adolescent who is caught between the past (the happy, secure childhood to which she would like to return, but which she reluctantly must abandon) and the future (the unsettling, unknown life of an adult, which she would like to avoid but eventually must confront). Although on the one hand she alludes both directly and indirectly to “The Snow Queen” as she treats several characters, the island's environment, and various central themes, on the other hand she rejects the genre as literature of and for the naive and ignorant.

When she is forced by Borja to read letters that reveal horrible truths about his mother's past, Matia thinks of Kay and Gerda as innocent youths who would not know such things about the real world and adulthood: “Era horrible dejar de ser ignorante, abandonar a Kay y Gerda, no ser siquiera un hombre y una mujer” (177). In addition, on the first occasion that Matia feels compassion for someone other than herself and considers consoling that individual (Lauro), it occurs to her that she has acquired this sensitivity only after leaving behind her own fairy tale innocence/ignorance:

“Detenedme, yo no sabía hacia dónde corría, no quiero conocer nada más.” (Pero ya había saltado el muro y dejado atrás a Kay y Gerda, en su jardín sobre el tejado.) Y mirando al Chino, a mi lado, sentí mi primera piedad de persona mayor, deseé darle la mano y decirle: “No les hagas caso, sólo son unos niños ignorantes. Perdónales, pues no saben lo que se hacen.”


But foreshadowing her lack of resolve on the behalf of Manuel, Matia fails to comfort her tutor, for “a un tiempo me avergonzaba de aquel primer sentimiento de adulto y me daba miedo y pena de mí misma, de mis palabras y de mi piedad” (163). Considering that the island's grown-ups are so singularly lacking in emotional warmth and simple human kindness, it is ironic that Matia refers to compassion as a “sentimiento de adulto.” This statement becomes even more ironic when one realizes that Andersen's heroine, with her reservoir of compassionate tears, is a child.

At the novel's conclusion, after the irresistible truth about man's inhumanity to man has passed before Matia's eyes—culminating in Borja's plot against Manuel—and after Matia herself has failed to side with the forces of goodness and honesty, she despairs of life by attacking the fairy tale genre: “Eran horribles los cuentos” (243). From her perspective, fairy tales may indeed seem horrible, but it is not because they are seductively beautiful lies or because they paint blissful, problem-free portraits of life, as she would have her audience believe, but rather because they teach tough truths about the need for determination, strong religious convictions, and self-sacrifice, truths that Matia would prefer to ignore. Therefore, due to her inability or refusal to grasp the lessons that are conveyed by Andersen's fairy tale, Matia leaves the island a defeated and pathetic figure, whereas Gerda earns happiness, adulthood, and eternal life for Kay and herself through the exercise of will and compassion.

“The Snow Queen”: fairy tale Primera memoria: novel
I. Golden Age
“loving home”: warmth roses, garden, holding hands, etc. “loving home”: warmth cardboard theater, doll, countryside
end of Golden Age: separation Kay kidnapped end of Golden Age: separation sent by Mauricia to DP
II. Materialistic era
Kay as victim Matia as victim
mirror/glass splinter: actual falls from sky and turns heart into lump of ice mirror/glass sliver: metaphorical used to explain rebellious attitude at school
“evil stepmother”: SQ “evil stepmother”: DP
cold atmosphere: SQ's ice castle “Mirror of Reason” cold atmosphere: DP's house study table
changes: changes:
hostile: towards society hostile: rebels at school
hostile: verbally, at Gerda hostile: verbally, at everyone
attachment to reason/math: admires snowflakes, fractions attachment to reason/math: math classes
emotional freeze: forgets past Gerda, family, breaks roses emotional freeze: forgets past cardboard theater, Gorogó
Gerda as heroine Matia as heroine
self-sacrifice: accepted pain, cold, hunger, life endangered self-sacrifice: refused paralyzed by pain and fear of threat of reformatory
character strengths: character flaws:
willpower weakwilled
brave afraid
emotionally committed: tears emotionally detached: no tears
spiritually faithful: prayer spiritually apathetic
moment of truth: saves Kay moment of truth: betrays Manuel
Post-materialistic era
III. Continuation of materialistic era
embraces Kay: warmth, tears of joy rewards embraces Borja: cold, cannot cry punishment
happiness sadness
warmth coldness
adulthood resumes school: child? adult?
salvation guilt: fear for soul


  1. See “Ana María Matute's Primera memoria: A Fairy Tale Gone Awry” (Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 14.1 (1989):1-14). Suzanne Gross Reed's cited article is also a valuable source of information on the importance of Andersen's tales to Matute's novel.

  2. The following extended quote is from the previously cited article, page 10:

    Although Matia's maternal model during this period is not her biological mother, Mauricia does execute numerous maternal tasks, including that of calming a scared child: “A veces, Mauricia me decía: ‘no tengas miedo’” (92). Matia likens the calming, therapeutic effect of her conversations with Manuel to another moment of her youth: ‘era como si una corriente de agua fría se abriese paso (o, como una vez que Mauricia me abrió con sin navajita la infección de un dedo, y me quedé tranquila y sin fiebre)’.


    Matia also occasionally regales us with gilded memories that reveal her love of the countryside, an attitude which runs counter to her fear of nature on the island. She recalls a certain river with particular affection: “Si algo hubo hermoso en mi pasado fueron las tardes verdes del río, a la hora de la siesta, o al atardecer, o en la mañana de oro’ (88). This river stands out in her memory for its beauty and tranquillity: ‘El río, con sus remansos verdes y quietos, como grandes ojos de la tierra!’


  3. The older and wiser Matia comments on her rebellion in school in the following fashion: “Y quien no haya sido, desde los nueve a los catorce años, atraído y llevado de un lugar a otro de unas a otras manos, como un objeto, no podrá entender mi desamor y rebeldía de aquel tiempo” (12).

  4. Knowing that Borja idolizes Jorge de Son Major, Matia makes him ponder the fact that Jorge has given land and a home to the island outcasts, Sa Malene and her family, “porque [yo] sabía que tocaba el punto flaco de mi primo” (50). And on one of the few occasions that the hypocritical Borja speaks to her from the heart about his loneliness, Matia takes advantage of his momentary lapse into sincerity to mock him: “No te quejes, tienes a Lauro el Chino,” (52) referring to their tutor who feels sexually attracted to Borja.

  5. Geraldine Cleary Nichols astutely notices the connection of this passage with “The Snow Queen” and views it as the beginning of a change in Matia's attitude toward Manuel that culminates in her betrayal of him (177-78). However, the text indicates that Matia and Manuel become much closer after their conversation, as in their visit to see Jorge de Son Major (190-201) and in their many hours spent together (216).

  6. Looking back on her many entertaining and escapist hours spent playing with the cardboard theater, Matia longingly states, “Oh, cómo deseé de nuevo que fuera posible meterse allí, atravesar los pedacitos de papel, y huir a través de sus falsos cristales de caramelo” (16).

  7. It is difficult to overstate Gorogó's importance during Matia's early days at her grandmother's house:

    Contra todos ellos, y sus duras o indiferentes palabras, contra el mismo Borja y Guiem, y Juan Antonio; contra la ausencia de mis padres, tenía yo mi isla: aquel rincón de mi armario donde vivía, bajo los pañuelos, los calcetines y el Atlas, mi pequeño muñeco negro.


  8. Although Matute emphasizes Matia's efforts to shed the old as she learns about life, Matia also puts on the new in the form of a Kay-like attraction for facts and figures. In her classes with Borja, they learn Latin, French, and mathematics (26, 121, 157, 209, 215), tasks which stress logic and memorization.

  9. “Hand in hand, Kay and Gerda strolled out of that enormous palace” (226). On the way home, “Kay and Gerda held each other by the hand” (228), and upon arriving, they “sat down on [their two little stools], and held each other by the hand” (228).

  10. Once, Matia and Borja hold hands as Manuel very assertively asks permission to haul away his father's corpse in Borja's boat. However, since they are holding hands only as a reaction to Manuel's fear-producing presence, they cease when Borja accedes to his request: “Busqué su mano y él retuvo la mía un momento, apretándola mucho” (46). On the other occasion that they touch hands, it serves to point out the distance that has come between them as they have matured physically: “Ya no éramos niños. De pronto ya no sabíamos lo que éramos. Y así, sin saber por qué, de bruces en el suelo, no nos atrevíamos a acercarnos el uno al otro. El ponía su mano encima de la mía y sólo nuestras cabezas tocaban” (114).

  11. Matia first recalls holding hands with Manuel during their initial private conversation, and the lyrical quality of her recollections betrays the intimacy of their budding relationship:

    Me apretó la mano contra la tierra, como si me quisiera retener, para que no cayera allá abajo, a la gran amenaza. Al vértigo azul y espeso, alucinante, que yo sintiera desde la plazuela donde quemaban a los judíos, sobre el acantilado. Como si con él, con su mano, con mi infancia que se perdía, con nuestra ignorancia y bondad, quisiera hundir nuestras manos para siempre, clavarlas en la tierra aún limpia, vieja y sabia.


  12. Although Matia and Manuel may shy away from holding hands in public, as they demonstrate while visiting Son Major (200), they make the gesture uniquely their own in private later on by clasping between their hands a little blue stone: “Era como compartir un secreto. Nadie hubiera entendido esto más que él. Apenas nos movíamos, las manos muy pegadas una contra la otra, sintiendo el pequeño dolor de la piedrecilla” (216).

  13. As we have seen, Matia scarcely recalls holding hands with Borja. Therefore to suddenly speak of doing so “como en nuestros mejores días” is an odd comment made without textual support by a narrator who would like to think that the relationship was closer than it actually was. This discrepancy points out that readers must be careful to distinguish between the perspective of the narrator and that of the novelist who is more than aware of her narrator's weaknesses and mistakes.

  14. What occurs after Kay and Gerda's embrace is the following:

    Their bliss was so heavenly that even the bits of glass danced about them and shared in their happiness. When the pieces grew tired, they dropped into a pattern which made the very word that the Snow Queen had told Kay he must find before he became his own master and received the whole world and a new pair of skates.


  15. For one brief moment during her idyllic relationship with Manuel, she had even wished for the same frigid weather conditions that Gerda battles: “Me gustaría que nevase” (220). But when the critical moment arrives, she fails to meet the challenge.

Works Cited

Andersen Hans Christian. “The Snow Queen.” Andersen's Fairy Tales. Trans. Jean Hersholt. New York: The Heritage Press, 1942.

Anderson, Christopher L. and Lynne Vespe Sheay. “Ana María Matute's Primera memoria: A Fairy Tale Gone Awry.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 14.1 (1989): 1-14.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Díaz Janet W. Ana María Matute. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971.

Heuscher, Julius E. A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1963.

Matute, Ana María. “Diciembre y Andersen.” A la mitad del camino. Barcelona: Editorial Rocas, 1961.

———. Primera memoria. Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 1959.

Nichols, Geraldine Cleary. “Codes of Exclusion, Modes of Equivocation: Matute's Primera memoria.Ideologies and Literature 1 (1-2) (1985): 156-88.

Reed, Suzanne Gross. “Notes on Hans Christian Andersen Tales in Ana María Matute's Primera memoria.” Eds. Eunice Myers and Ginette Adamson. Continental, Latin-American and Francophone Women Writers. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1987. 177-182.

Karin Sanders (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10487

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.” The “translation” of Bacchus to Psyche seems to have caused the author considerable problems but manages nonetheless to raise some significant questions concerning the nature of art and immortality, of mimesis and (gender) identity. The conspicuous disparity between Psyche, Greek Goddess of the spirit, and Bacchus, Roman God of wine, invites the reader to look behind the obvious representations in order to examine other meanings hidden in the written image.

Sculpture as metaphor here grants a possibility to analyze how a figural image, as a textual device different from that of a written text, plays a significant role in the understanding of a written narrative.3 How does this “alien object” infuse qualities into the writing, enhancing the intentions of the text as well as eventually puncturing it. I hope to demonstrate how this “textual conflict” may subvert any easy understanding of gender markings.

“Psychen” takes place in Rome at a time when “konsten var erkjendt, hædret og lønnet” (art was acknowledged, honored, and rewarded)4 during the reign of the Renaissance masters Raphael and Michelangelo. A young, poor, and idealistic artist lives in an old temple pursuing his art in a desperate attempt for perfection. He avoids the temptations of the sensual night life of Rome and isolates himself from his fellow artist friends. One day the sight of a young woman empowers and inspires him to create a masterpiece of sculpture called Psyche. Rumor of the splendid statue eventually reaches the young woman and her father. They come to the artist's studio, and the father, a nobleman, immediately recognizes his daughter's image in the artist's creation and places an order for the statue to be done in marble. When the statue is finished, the artist goes to the man's palace, meets the young woman, forgets himself, and passionately declares his love for her. She violently rejects him, and in despair he joins his friends for a sinful night. Unable to face the statue after his “defilement,” he lowers it into the ground, burying it in a dried-up well. Eventually, the artist joins a monastery and dies—still full of torment, religion having offered no solution. Following the customs of the monastery, his skeleton is put on display, decaying until only his skull remains. The skull is eventually disintegrated by a lizard who runs in and out of the empty eye sockets. Centuries later a young nun is buried outside a nunnery built on top of the artist's temple. While the grave is being dug, the statue of Psyche is exhumed, then admired as an anonymous masterpiece from the past.


At one level, the statue may be seen as a representation of the young noble woman—as a transformation, in the text, of the woman's body into an artistic form, of person into objet d'art. This is an obvious aspect of the text. However, a closer look at the story challenges the obvious and offers a possibility of investigating the problem of representation itself. In order to understand this challenge, we need to take a look at other representational figures suggested implicitly by the text and then move on to the question: how is representation represented?

Although Psyche is the only explicit mythological figure in the story, the text is saturated with implicit mythological references that overlap and often are entangled in each other. Perhaps the most obvious is that of the young artist as a Pygmalion figure. Like Pygmalion, the young artist shuns the real women around him. Like Pygmalion, he creates his “dream woman.” And even more important, like Pygmalion who creates his statue from an already-engraved image depicting Aphrodite, the artist creates his statue from an already-existing painting by Raphael named “Psyche.” Although it was the sight of the young noble woman that inspired the artist's creation, he immediately recognized her as an image already represented:

[…] saaledes havde han ingen Qvinde seet, jo! malet af Raphael, malet som Psyche, i et af Roms Paladser. Ja, der var hun malet, her gik hun levende.


(He had never seen such a woman before. Yes—painted by Raphael, painted as Psyche, in one of the palaces of Rome. Yes—there she was painted, here she walked alive.)

Psyche is literally described as a phantasmagoric picture that has stepped out of the frame, and now is wandering free. When the artist makes his representation of her and names it after the painting of Raphael, he then—like Pygmalion—creates an image of an image.5 He implants her in a transhistoric tradition of Psyche representations—thus putting her back in the “frame,” his frame, or rather his embracing framing. The young woman is, in other words, perceived through a filter of multiple previous images. The lens through which she is seen is adjusted towards a particular system of perception; she is seen through the veil of Psyche. His “inner eye,” to paraphrase Wordsworth, “had seen such sights before.”6 It is this veil, this presumed obstacle to seeing clearly, that becomes a vital part of the constructs and problems of visuality in the story.

Not unlike Pygmalion, the young artist wishes to merge the representation of Psyche, his “dream woman,” with the young woman he saw, hereby symbolically giving it life. In this case the attempted “life-giving” process takes place through an apparent symbolic exchange, in which the statue serves as an exchangeable object between the father and the artist. The sublimity of the representation of his daughter causes the father (who “owns” the girl) not only to provide the money to form her in marble but also to grant the artist access to the “real thing.” Our artist does not succeed in taking advantage of this unique possibility, however. A closer reading of the text gives us a clue as to why. When the father and daughter come to see the statue it is the father, not the daughter, who recognizes the woman in the statue.

Den unge Pige selv stod her i Stuen og med hvilket Smiil, da hendes Fader, sagde de Ord: “Det er jo Dig lyslevende.” Det Smiil kan ikke formes, det Blik kan ikke gjengives, det forunderlige Blik, hvormed hun saa paa den unge Kunstner.


(The young girl herself stood there in the room, and what a smile when her father said these words: “But it is you completely.” That smile can not be molded, that gaze can not be reproduced, that peculiar gaze, with which she looked at the young artist.)

As this passage clearly shows, her smile evades molding and her gaze cannot be copied. It is precisely not she herself, who is copied. It is an image of an image, not a direct image of the girl. In fact, when the artist confronts the girl in the palace, she is not Psyche-like at all. Quite the contrary.

“Afsindige,” sagde hun, “Bort, ned” og hun vendte ham Ryggen. Skanhedsansigtet havde et udtryk af hiint forstenende Ansigt med Slangehå René.


(“Madman,” she said. “Begone, down” and she turned her back to him. The face of beauty had a resemblance of that petrifying face with serpent hair.)

Thus the artist has made a terrible blunder which leaves a significant fissure in his project. When he, with his “blinded” vision, thought he saw a young Psyche, he now—still “blinded”—thinks he sees another vision: a Medusa. His “blinded” vision never allows him to see her as anything but his own projection. The perilous metamorphosis of the young Psyche into a Medusa prompts an outburst of repressed sexuality in our virtuous protagonist, described in a characteristically Andersenian manner as an orgasmic eruption of a volcanic crater overflowing with burning lava. This desire ultimately throws him into the sinful night and eventually destroys him, as he cannot rid himself of his secret, this “Slange” (serpent). In the passionate night he “sins” with women from the Campagna, who, as the artist's friend claims, are equal to the beloved marble-woman since “Begge ere Evadøttre” (Both are daughters of Eve). These alluring women too are re-presented in art. Not in erect, white marble, but in flat, colorful paintings (“glødende, yppige Billeder”; glowing, voluptuous pictures). These paintings are spread upon the floor of the artist's friend's studio—they can be “stepped on.”7

The virtue of the artist is intact as long as he believes in the power of his beautiful creation. It is the aesthetic experience of beauty that seems to support his morale and distinguishes him from the sybaritic others. When the gaze of the woman-as-Medusa takes away this innocence in the artist, it is not only his purity that is violated, but his entire belief in pure art. The “unveiling” of the imaginary Psyche woman reveals an evil “truth” (the cruel Medusa face) that immediately must be “reveiled” (the cloth-veil and the well-as-veil) to sustain (although seemingly in vain) the illusion of ideality. When his passionate words confront the woman and provoke her fury: “Væk, ned” (Begone, down), it is evident that his project is doomed. “Der fløj Ord fra hans Tunge, han vidste det ikke selv; ved Krateret at det kaster glødende Lava” [109] (Words flow from his tongue, he did not know it, does the crater know that it expels glowing lava). It is at this point in the narrative we understand that the artist is not only seeking the imaginary, he is reaching for the real: the impossible. The self-absorbed artist does not understand that in order to preserve the potency of the spectacle of the young woman, it must remain a spectacle—that it is strictly limited to his gaze.

Like the gaze of Medusa, the gaze of the young woman is petrifying, and we may assume that, as in the myth of Medusa, it is not only her gaze that petrifies but the mere sight of her.8 The sight that inspired the artist to create his masterpiece is thus the same sight that ultimately destroys him. The seductive sight turns out to be a paralyzing demonic eye: a deadly eye, a mythological gorgonian gaze. His desiring gaze has been turned back at himself in a spiteful and vengeful manner. In fact it is precisely the petrifying gaze of the woman that marks the difference between her and her reflection in the marble stone. Hence, the act of petrifaction that indeed takes place in the statue now must take on a new signification. Her appropriation of his gaze “translates” the story of Psyche into a quite different story from the one he inscribed in the marble. If, as I have argued, we may assume that the artist made a blunder and did not make a representation of the young woman—she could not be “cited”—of whom, then, did he make a representation in marble? The text itself points towards a possible answer.

When the artist first catches sight of the woman she is immediately described as a reflection of his entire artistic yearning. Later when the statue is finished he is described as seeing it as a divine fulfillment—as his initiation into life itself and possibility for immortality—in other words a reflection of his ambitious longings. The implicit petrifaction of him by the woman-as-Medusa through the reversal of the gaze transforms the plot of the story and leaves us to assume that the statue is in fact: a representation of himself. He is the one who is “petrified”; it is his name, his fate, that is echoed in the marble. The woman, as we saw, is not properly constrained into the field of vision as one image. She breaks the frame and speaks with a monstrous voice revealing the complete disparity between her resemblance to Psyche and her “true” face as Medusa.

According to tradition, Psyche was punished for transgressing the taboo of seeing her beloved Cupid.9 Her punishment was torment in the underworld. Likewise the artist—not the woman—is punished; not only for having seen wrongly, but for seeing what he should not have seen. The text in fact gives him a warning that he overlooks. It specifically directs our attention towards the green juicy leaves springing out of the marble basin in the garden where the girl is first seen, suggesting a sensuous and dangerous quality. Like Psyche he goes through torment and repentance, but unlike Psyche he is not reunited with the loved object of his desire but remains symbolically in the underworld. Why then is his punishment so severe?

If the statue can be seen as a representation of the artist himself, then the worshiping of the statue initially performed by the artist, signifies an act of self-reflection, self-worship, thus repeating the ancient myth of Narcissus.10 The real tragedy of Narcissus was not that he fell in love with his own reflection. It was rather that he did not recognize his own image in the water as his own. This ultimately led to Narcissus's destruction. The artist does not recognize the statue as his own reflection because he does not recognize himself in the shape of woman. This obviously does not mean that he becomes woman but rather that he, as a consequence of the problem with delimiting gender in the mimetic representation, comes to occupy the place of woman. In other words, the framing of the woman is transported to a framing of him(self). The subject of the story becomes his own object and self-destructs in the act of re-presenting himself.

What is at stake in “Psychen” is a reversibility of gender which ultimately results in a sense of feminization of the artist. It is this “destructive” feminization through the mimetic project—this duplication of himself through the sight of the woman—that brings him to despair, and that Andersen seems to fear. The artist literally goes mad, falls apart, after the collapse of his mimetic project. His body breaks away from the self-inflicted exile in which he has preserved his physical energy for the divinity of his art. But only to be exiled again in yet another “hysteric” punishment of his body in the dark abyss of the monastery. When his attempt to cancel the social difference between himself and the young noblewoman fails, it renders not only the “inscription” of the woman upon the stone meaningless but indeed his entire social, sexual, and artistic identity. The life-giving Pygmalion, who can turn stone into life, has been overpowered by the death-giving Medusa, who can turn life into stone. Thus the artist retains the self-afflicted position of the exiled other. The place of woman.

There is one aspect in which all of the mythical connotations in this story overlap. All, in one way or another, revolve around a problem of sight, gaze, reflections, and taboos; they are all centered around the pivotal point of the visual. The image of the lizard slipping in and out of the empty eye sockets of the dead artist's skull underlines the destructive desire of the gaze. His white-boned skeleton is a dysphoric, “castrated” echo of the white marble form. The artist's determination to find “truth” in the visual is rendered an illusion. The vera ikona (true image) turns out to be a catastrophic image. Disoriented perception causes the protagonist to fuse person and objet d'art and results in a problem with delimiting the meaning inherent in the figural representation. Lack of distance between the real and the image, between the represented and representation thus creates a zone of confusion where the chaotic search for truth seems doomed. A struggle that in this case becomes the very suspense of the story.


The problem of visuality in “Psychen” is more than anything connected to the problem of mimesis, of representation. This is what the myth of Pygmalion initially referred to. The indirect representation of Pygmalion points toward the ultimate error that the artist commits: the transgression of the biblical taboo against creating “overtly mimetic” art. In Exodus it says:

Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them.

(Ex. 20:4-5)11

The two taboos in this excerpt from the Exodus—not to “commit” mimesis and not to worship the image—are both violated by the artist. But his creation of the sculpture, his transgressing of the commandment, points toward a contradiction. On one hand, it is the victory of mimesis—his perfect masterpiece—that grants him praise from everyone. He is seen as a superior artist, as a rival to nature. But this triumph—this overtly perfect mimesis—provokes at the same time the punishment for imitating God, taking on the role of the Creator, of God. It is within this conflicting view of mimesis that the artist is trapped. On one hand, a view “that privileges it,” on the other hand, a view “that punishes it” (Meltzer 110). He is caught in a conflict that I will call Nemesis of Mimesis. Justice and vengeance of Nemesis mirrors itself onto Mimesis, literally letting the Ne(mesis) “slash” into Mi(mesis) as a retribution for “committing mimesis.”

This is a mechanism similar to what René Girard calls the “double bind of imitation—which turns back against the imitator even though the model and the whole culture specifically encourage him to imitate” (Girard 290-91). It is the paradox of imitation that “the more perfect the imitation is, the less it is known as a work of imitation” (Drost 310). Our artist loses the mimetic pleasure—the gratification of his work—because he fails to acknowledge (literally fails to see) the difference (and hereby the similarity) between the real object and its imitation. The imitation is too perfect. By measuring one with the other, letting one be the other, the otherness of the art product disintegrates and moves away from being merely art. Thus the artist performs a unique and tragic fusion between the imitated and the imitation involving himself. His desire (for the woman and ultimately for eradication of difference between her and the statue) is the glue between the two. When this glue proves to have petrifying implications, he leaves his trade and echoing her words “Væk, ned” he buries, not only the statue, but eventually himself, in the catacombs of the monastery. The pleasure of the sublimatory act of creating a masterpiece only had meaning if it gave him all. His genius—this “gift from God”—is invested into a single moment. When he realizes that he never had what he lost, he is thrust into a limbo where all meaning is lost. His attempt at eradicating difference proves to be a virtual suicide.

When the sculpture becomes a problem for the artist as well as for the text it is because it is pointing towards a curious facet of mimesis. At the same time as it is built upon the idea of an illusion, it cannot be recognized as such by the artist. It becomes a kind of mimetic trap. But it cannot be understood as a trap, because its meaning is veiled—or, as Meltzer claims, “it is built upon the idea of the lie, and so cannot be recognized as a trap when it most forcibly is one” (191). The artist cannot read it and thus persists in regarding it as a creation of divine purity, unfit to be sullied by the undisguised desire of his gaze.

As we have seen, the representation of the sculpture Psyche almost immediately employed two signatures: that of the young artist and that of Raphael. In the textual economy of the story we saw how the young girl is wedged in between the painting by Raphael and the inner image (itself an imitation) of the artist. In a comparable manner, the artist is caught in a trap of an already existing name: the name of Raphael, or rather the names of Raphael. More precisely, he is caught between Raphael as libertine and Raphael as divine artist. The conflict between sin and purity, mortality and immortality, according to the artist's friends, is merged in the artist Raphael. And to become like Raphael, they urge the artist to unite “life and self.” His blinded vision, however, his inability to see himself, deters him from realizing the integration of sexuality and transcendence that he is so desperately seeking. The hope that the sculpture provided is no longer able to mediate in this conflict because its meaning has shifted.

This conflict can be seen as an intricate part of mimetic rivalry. What the artist desires is the domain of the rival, the domain of Raphael. Raphael is his master-model and the artist desires what he, Raphael, presumably desires: immortality, artistic power, and women, thus creating “a triangle of relationships” between artist-master-desired object—a variation of the Lacanian doctrine that desire is the desire of the Other (Girard 323). A certain measure of identification between the desired object (Psyche) and the idol(s) (Raphael, Michelangelo) takes place so that only the appropriation of the desired object is seen as a way to be like, to seize (through imitation) the power of the masters, and ultimately of God. This is why the loss of the desired object is so catastrophic. It is not just a rejection of the artist as a socially unfit lover, but of his very existence and identity as an artist. Although his masterpiece is recognized as a competent rival to those of Raphael and Michelangelo, Andersen demonstrates that successful artistic rivalry does not always guarantee the genius a place on Olympus or a place, a name, in history. The author emphasizes this by literally letting the artist lose his signature. A signature that ironically enough never establishes itself in the text in the form of a proper name. Our artist has no proper name, he remains a generic artist, a stand-in for other artists—like the author himself. Although solidly planted on Olympus with Europe's other great writers, Andersen apparently never lost his fear and doubts concerning his own artistic identity and, as it is well documented in his diaries, constantly sought affirmation and approval from others to solidify his belief in his own name. The proper names of Raphael and Michelangelo emerge in Andersen's diary on the day between the initial inception of “Psychen” and the day he started the actual writing. On May 6, 1861, Andersen went to the Vatican to look at frescoes by the masters who were to be eulogized in the story. The viewing appears to have been a disappointment:

… men baade Raphaels og Michael Angelos Fresco synes mig ældre og forrøgede fra jeg sidst saa dem, Farverne vare saa mørke og udslidte.

… but both Raphael's and Michelangelo's frescos seemed to me older and sootier than the last time I saw them; the colors were so dark and worn.

(Andersen, Diaries 274)

The fact that the immortal and celebrated productions of Raphael and Michelangelo were fading might have induced him to place emphasis on what became a central theme of this story: the survival of art. Furthermore, the apprehension that he might have experienced in identifying with the great masters, whose works were now “old” and “worn,” might have influenced him in stressing the significance of the survival of the name of the artist.

The mimetic exchange inherent in the significance of the name(s) of Raphael/Michelangelo in “Psychen” takes the form of a violence that ends in self-mutilation. The artist seems to set himself up for failure in a manner bordering on masochism.12 The mechanism here has been described by Girard as a complex part of mimetic desire: by first “changing its models into obstacles, mimetic desire in effect changes obstacles into models” (327). Masochism is in this aspect, according to Girard, directly connected to the real or assumed violence of the rival. The obstacle placed by the rival—assumed or not—eventually may be perceived as the original object of desire. When our artist redirects his desire away from the woman-as-object or art-as-object towards self-sacrifice, suffering, masochism, it is the perceived evil inside himself that becomes the focus of his desire: “Han straffede sit Legeme, men indenfra kom det Onde” (He scourged his body, but from within came the evil yet again). Earlier this self-punishment was manifested in his sisyphean repetition and destruction of his art:

Det bløde Leer bøjede sig i Skjønhedsformer for hans Fingre, men Dagen efter, som altid, brød han itu, hvad han havde skabt.


(The soft clay bent in shapes of beauty by his fingers, but the day after, he destroyed, as always, what he had created.)


Perhaps the tragedy of the artist results from a confusion of two distinct modes of mimesis: Apollonian and Dionysian. In the text Dionysian desire seems to take over Apollonian mimetic desire, perhaps as mnemic traces of the carnal Bacchus (also known as Dionysus)—a reminder of the original spectacle, that inspired Andersen to write “Psychen.” The reappearance of the original material, of Bacchus, breaks as a Nemesis into the Mimetic representation thus prohibiting any comprehensible and clear-cut interpretation of its meaning. The Apollonian demand for self-knowledge and aesthetic distance is disrupted by Dionysian ecstasy and lack of distance.13 While producing his Apollonian statue, the artist becomes virtually intoxicated with himself and his mark on the marble stone. He is so absorbed into his own imitation that he “becomes” this imitation. The Apollonian sculpture's impenetrable surface is supposed to maintain a distance from the fragmented sensual world surrounding it.14 This sensual and seductive world, engulfed the artist in a Dionysian night of sin or more precisely, a night of fluidity: wine and women. But as Medusa broke into Psyche, Dionysos breaks into Apollo, definitively refusing to let the sculpture assert itself as an ultimate signifier, as a phallic celebration of the male artist through the hard, smooth, glossy marble stone. The sculpture is “tainted” by Dionysian desire. Thus the story leaves the artist forever particularized and desperately searching for wholeness, truth and unity, only to find the disintegration of his body through the actual pulverization of his white bones.

The reversibility of gender that the sculpture refers to, the fact that the sculpture is marked by not one, but two genders, gives it a gliding, unfixed meaning, an enigmatic quality. This is emphasised in the marble sculpture's tenacious and restless fluctuation between emerging from, and re-merging with, the earth. We first encounter the unfinished marble block, which the artist had inherited, as an archaic piece of purity covered with leaves and dirt. After its molding, it is thrust into a well in the ground by the artist in a sexually connotated symbolic act, that can be seen, not only as an aggressive penetration of Mother earth—but also as a repression of the painful conflict that the sculpture signified. The persistent importance of the sculpture in the text is finally underlined in its re-emerging from the “grave” in a sacrificial exchange for a young nun, a virgin, we may assume. The restless movements show that it does not belong to the underworld, nor does it belong to the world above. More than a symbol of “the spirit that survives psychical decay” (Friedman 9), it provides a multiple message that cannot be confined to any one realm.

Another important aspect is focused on the sculpture as a figural object with a particular sensory quality. The first “draft” of the sculpture is formed in clay. But the clay is too “fleshy and life-like,” too close to the actual body of the woman. It is not able to transcend time like marble. Furthermore, the smooth white surface of the marble offers a unique possibility of providing the spectator with a reflection. The tradition of classicism that the sculpture refers to often erased the pupil from the eyes, hereby indirectly underlining the eyes as being blind or as mini-mirrors. There is no Medusa gaze here. The sculpture's three dimensionality accentuates this aspect. The sculpture has an inside as well as an outside (surface). It displays itself, as well as hides itself. It is a condensed form, as well as an open form. It alludes to something present, as well as something absent, something in the past. To a fulfillment and to a lack.

The text's obvious difficulties in providing the reader with an understandable and indisputable meaning of the sculpture can be seen as an intricate part of its radical otherness in relation to the written narrative.15 The sculpture-as-such is visual and in a sense fundamentally nonverbal. Clearly, in the story we cannot see it with our eyes, nor can we walk around it to examine it as we can a statue in a museum. It is a static object—radical other to the ongoing narrative of the written story. Narrative time is virtually clashing with sculptural space. When a narrative employs such a figural image, it is often used to reflect the “meaning” of the text. That is, it is used as an addendum to the figural meaning—as a mimesis “of the assumptions of the text.”16 But if we insist on looking at it as a radical other to the written story, it is obvious that the sculpture refuses to mimic any clear meaning. I would rather argue that it ruptures the progression of the narrative. First and foremost, as I have already pointed out, the sculpture becomes an increasing problem within the story, a problem for the artist. It did not want to represent what he wanted it to represent. Instead of becoming the vehicle for his immortality, his signature, it represented the inscription of his death. When the persistent statue re-emerged it was in the form of an anonymous work of art, without his signature on it. In other words, instead of bringing life to the statue, by symbolically attempting to merge it with the girl, the motionless, deadened statue points towards the death of the artist—and mimetic creation is once more problematized.17 In this respect the sculpture inscribes death, not only for the artist, but also for the woman. Both can be seen as contained in the representation of the sculpture and both are survived and replaced by it.

Just as the sculpture refuses the intentions of the artist, it also ruptures any clear understanding of Den skønne kunst (Beauty of Art). The fragility of Den Skønne Kunst as anything but a garment is apparent and seems to have been perceived by Andersen as an existential problem. Is art more than a vain garment for the artist's pride? This problem of consolidating artist and product as a reflection of self-identity, is shown when the sculpture becomes an obstacle at all levels of the narrative, for writer, as well as reader. It is not content to speak with a mimetic voice. It is settled in the text persistent in its otherness.

The narration of the story echoes in an ingenious way the subject matter. When the story starts, it immediately employs a secondary narrator: the bright morning star.

I Dagningen, i den røde Luft, skinner en stor Stjerne, Morgenens klareste Stjerne, dens Straale sittrer mod den hvide Væg, som om den vilde der nedskrive, hvad den i Aartusinder saae her og der paa vor omdreiende Jord. Hør en af dens Historier!


(At dawn, through the red air, shines a large star, morning's brightest star; its ray quivers upon the white wall, as if it would there inscribe what it had seen for thousands of years here and there on our revolving earth. Listen to one of its stories!)

This narrator-star “writes” down the first part of the story on a white wall, using its rays as an amorphous pen, as if inscribing an archaic scripture. It is important to note, however that the story inscribed by the star-narrator is the “happy” Pygmalion story. The serene “pen” is allowed to represent, on the page of the white wall, a successful mimesis, the first successful creation of the statue. Thus the story of the statue is doubly represented. It is inscribed on the white wall, as well as in the first life-like “draft”—the clay. At the critical point in the story, when the father and daughter arrive at the studio, the star-narrator is superseded by a we-narrator.

En Dag traf det sig saa, ja den klare Stjerne fortæller intet derom, den saa det ikke, men vi vide det: et fornemt Romersk selskab kom. …

(107; emphasis added)

(One day it happened, well, the bright star tells nothing about it, it did not see it, but we know it, that a party of noble Romans came …)

From this point on the narrator-star must content itself with the role of onlooker, its ray-pen has been extinguished. It is no longer allowed to inscribe, with its eternal power, the problematic story of a sculpture that evades a fixed meaning, eludes an obvious mimesis. Through the explicit use of the “star-pen” to inscribe the story, Andersen underscores two aspects of the narrative. First and foremost, the story is directly emphasized as writing. Thus, the text points back towards itself as representation. Secondly, the “star-pen” indirectly parallels the hands of the artist. The “hand-as-pen” inscribing his vision, his story—first on the “draft,” echoing all the clay-drafts discarded earlier—then on the final version. The two “scriptures” in the story, the blank white page of the wall and the white marble of the sculpture, thus refer not only to the inscription on the wall as writing but also to the scripture on the marble as writing. The sculpture, however—because of its radical otherness—still tries to avoid being reduced to a blank page, like the white wall. The sculpture as figural image never really allows itself to be completely embraced by the text; it maintains it's otherness.

Although they tell the same story, there is a significant difference between the story inscribed on the wall and the story inscribed on the marble. While the first depicts the triumph of mimesis, the second depicts the problem of mimesis. Consequently the sculpture as a textual image can also be seen as an image of writing, or more precisely, as a representation of the act of re-presenting; a representation of the power of writing and the problem of writing. Seen from this perspective, the text can be said not only to represent the story of the artist for us; it also represents itself. This self-reflexivity of the text, its mirroring of itself in the sculpture, gives the sculpture the position of a textual mise en abyme.18 The sculpture simultaneously mirrors the text (reflects the written narrative) and echoes the double motion of the sculpture/artist into the abyme/abyss: the descent (the falling, the vertigo) into the “underworld”: well/monastery/graveyard.19

If we read the sculpture as “a metaphor for inscription,” it can be seen as an “iconic encapsulation” of writing (Meltzer 54), a self-reflective but not a self-conscious apparatus. At the same time, as the text directs us towards the problem of writing, it seeks to control this radical other, the statue, to reduce it to its own terms hereby adding yet another commentary to the problem of mimesis. The taboo against mimesis did not, as we well know, include writing. “It is not accidental that the prohibition against a ‘graven image, nor any manner of likeness’ is given to Moses in writing” (Meltzer 75). Thus the problem of “committing mimesis” interestingly enough becomes a problem in the text but not a problem for the text.

Andersen sets up a complex tropological system of reflections (the reflection on the surface of the marble, on the wall, in the exchange of gazes, etc.) that cross each other in a way that intensifies the opacity of the story. In fact this system of reflections can be said to play Echo to the fate of Psyche and the artist: he becomes as shadow of his former self just as his skeleton becomes the virtual shadow (double) of the sculpture. The doubling of the artist-as-skeleton with the sculpture has, as the story itself, a fascinating connection to Andersen's first stay in Rome. Thus it might not only have been the exhumed sculpture that inspired Andersen to write “Psychen.” Rome was in 1833 the scene of Raphael's second burial.20 Andersen notes in his diary:

Vi vare heldig nok komne til Raphaels Begravelse. Paa Academiet gjemtes et Dødninghoved der udgaves for hans, for nu at overtydes derom, aabnede man Graven og fandt ham heel og holdende; nu skulle da Liget igjen begraves og det skete denne Aften i Pantheon, vi fik Billiet, det var en herlig Hvælving, paa en sort Forhøining stod Mahonie Kisten bedækket med et gyldent Klæde, Præsterne sang et miserere, Kirken aabnedes og man nedlagte de oplæste Efterretninger om ham, blev derpaa forseglet, et usynligt Chor sang smukt imidlertid, jeg saae Thorvaldsen med et Voxlys i Haanden ligesom de andre første Mænd.


We were lucky enough to make it to Raphael's burial. There was a skull kept at the Accademia that people claimed to be his. In order to prove it, they opened the grave and found him all in one piece. Then the body had to be reburied, and this took place this very evening in the Pantheon. We got a ticket. It was a magnificent vault; on a black platform stood a mahagony casket covered with a golden drape; the priest sang the Miserere. The casket was opened, and within it were placed the findings concerning the artist, which had been read aloud; then it was sealed, while an invisible choir sang beautifully.

(Andersen, Diaries 49)

The spectacular scene described here must have captivated Andersen's imagination with its theatricality and worshiping of the artist. But the exhumation and reburial of the “eternal artist” proved to be just that: a theatrical performance. Only nine days later he states that “Raphaels Hovedet som jeg nu har seet ikke er hans” [224] (“Raphael's head, which I have just seen, is not Raphael's head” [Andersen, Diaries 57]).21 The “loss” of the remains of the great artist, the fact that the resurrection of Raphael proved to be an empty gesture, is indirectly repeated in the dissemination of the fictional artist skeleton.

By letting the artist pine away without any genuine enlightenment of his psyche, his soul, Andersen might be said to challenge the platonic notion of an ideal world. Plato's axiom that “clarity of vision acquires metaphysical significance,” that “the path that leads to truth moves progressively from a vision of shadows and specular images to the contemplation of ideas” (Perniola 238) is circumscribed and implicitly depreciated in “Psychen.” In fact, our artist fails on all accounts and the author does not give us any idea or truth to hold on to in the end. “The metaphor of the ‘naked truth,’” says Perniola,

comes from a conflation of the concept of truth as visual precision and the idea that eternal forms are the ultimate objects of intellectual vision. From this foundation, the entire process of knowledge becomes an unveiling of the object, a laying it entirely bare and an illumination of all its parts. The body itself then comes to be considered an obstacle, a tomb of the soul.


The sculpture-body not only becomes a “tomb for the soul”—it kills it. Although the author appears to adhere to the platonic axiom that only when “the soul (is) stripped of the body … does it acquire complete freedom,” the pessimism of the story does not allow the reader to believe the last convulsive declamation of faith from the artist (Perniola 239):

“Psychen herinde aldrig døe!—Leve i Bevidsthed?—kan det Ufattelige skee?—Ja! ja! ufattelig er mit Jeg. Ufattelig Du, o Herre! hele din Verden ufattelig;—et Underværk af Magt, Herlighed—Kjærlighed!”—Hans Øine lyste, hans Øine brast.


(“Psyche within me never die!—live in consciousness! Can the inconceivable be? Yes, yes! Inconceivable am I. Inconceivable you, o Lord! The whole of your world is inconceivable;—a wonder of power, glory—Love!” His eyes shone, his eyes burst.)

The simultaneous lighting and bursting of the eyes—“Hans Øine lyste—hans Øine brast”—deflate any real in-sight in our protagonist. The instant he “sees” he goes “blind.” The world, God and the I is as “ufattelig” (inconceivable) as the sculpture has proven to be. As metaphor it comes to signify this impenetrable and bewildering message. It carries no catharsis, no hope as an “eternal form” for man. Thus by blocking the mimetic promise of the sculpture Andersen implicitly questions the acme of western aesthetic tradition as we know it, here in the words of Winckelman: “The only way for us to become great, or if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients.” Andersen lets the artist imitate Raphael who, as we know, in turn imitated the relics of antiquity of Greece. Thus the author lets the imprint on the “eternal marble stone” echo the “masterpieces of Greek art.” When the sculpture fails to carry any “eternal” value or hope, it implies—however subtly—a loss of faith in the traditional aesthetic maxim that certain ideal forms of beauty are “better” than others, that to be “inimitable” one must imitate the ancient Greeks. The burial of the sculpture in the narrative of “Psychen” is then also a burial of unconditional adoration for the Greek body.

Rising like Phoenix out of the human chaos, self-punishment and fragmentation, the sculpture nevertheless survives as a solid form that both inscribes and defies death. And as a solid form it is able to keep its contour unbroken while the human artist loses his to corrosion and decay. It manifests itself as an epitaph over the life that has been lived—and wasted—and resurrects itself as something more than just a sculpture. The replacement of the corpse mortem (artist/virgin-nun) by the steadfast stone becomes a cruel reminder of what was the idea behind the artistic form and thus becomes an ironic remembrance of the Greek Psyche myth: a butterfly, the symbol of the soul—the very belief that it seems to negate. Thus both the idea and form here become the location for an aesthetic battle that might be said to encompass a philosophical question of reflexivity. Implied in Andersen's story is a radical questioning of the Hegelian hypostasis of sculpture as the first art form fit to idealize the human body—a hypostasis echoed in the writings of the Danish Hegelian philosopher Johan Ludvig Heiberg, to whom Andersen had an ambivalent relationship. When our protagonist in “Psychen” is denied (in)sight, he is located away from a position, as a speculative subject. That is, he is denied, as a subject, the ability to conceptualize himself and thus denied the reward of becoming a “man” through seeing himself do it. By taking away the sculpture as a successful reflective device, Andersen appears to deconstruct the paradigm of det gode, det sande og det skønne (goodness, truth, and beauty) with which Heiberg ruled a major part of nineteenth-century Danish culture. The sculpture resists being reduced to a container for ideality. The insurgent, responding gaze of the woman fractures any smooth reflection.


The connection between mimesis and psychoanalysis is obvious. Mimesis concerns itself with the problem of identification, of producing something identifiable in which we can mirror ourselves. Psychoanalysis too, of course, concerns itself with the question of identification. In his theory on the mirror-stage, Lacan ties the problem of identification to the problem of the visual. The mirror-stage refers to the time in which the subject, through an actual or symbolic mirror, learns to see itself as an entity, as separate from others. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe broaches an equation of a psychoanalytical (Lacan's “Mirror-stage”) and a philosophical (Plato's The Republic) theorizing of mimesis. He says: “And let us not be surprised here if we begin to see Lacanian terminology coming progressively to double Plato's lexicon.” Both are involved, he claims, with “a resentment against the original maternal domination and original feminine education, these being always the sign, for the subject, of its constituted incompleteness” (Lacoue-Labarthe 127). Seen through this bifocal Lacanian/Platonic lens, the mimetic problem for the text (and the artist) appear to be connected to a problem with “an original maternal domination.” The artist as subject does not, as we have seen, come into being successfully, and his fragmented self ends up echoed in the splitting of gender in the statue. The uncanniness of the doubling process is, although in a very oblique way, connected to this gender shift implied in the statue. One might argue that the inscription (shaping) of fiction in the conformable material of the statue comes to echo the “original” molding of the infant child. In The Republic Plato writes:

You know that the beginning of any process is most important, especially for anything young and tender. For it is at that time that it takes shape, and any mold one may want can be impressed upon it.


If one can parallel the imprints on the unfinished infant with the imprints made on the conformable sculpture—and if these imprints can be associated with an “original” maternal/feminine discourse—then the feminization of the artist might be seen as part of an involuntary envelopment in a disconcerting (maternal/feminine) discourse that asserts itself through the instability of gender in the statue. It is this discourse, provided through the “splitting” gaze of the woman that tells the other story of Psyche. The imprint on the tabula rasa of the inherited marble is then an imprint itself inherited from the “natural submission to maternal or feminine discourse in general.”22 The anxiety over devouring Medusas, the fear of submission under a discourse other than the patriarchal, seems to have been unconsciously known to Andersen. Furthermore, he appears to have had an acute understanding for the subversive potential in this story. In his diary entry from October 1863 he expresses apprehension over the fact that the English version had been dedicated to the Princess of Wales without his consent: “Jeg synes ikke om at en Historie som ‘Psycken’ dediceres til en ung Dame” [5:421] (“I'm not at all pleased to have a story like ‘The Psyche’ dedicated to a young woman.” [Andersen, Diaries; emphasis added]). Later (April 19, 1868) he seems to find it embarrassing to read “Psychen” aloud with a women present: “Besøgt Hultmann og vilde læse for ham ‘Psycken’ men da hans Frue blev i Stuen var jeg generet ved at læse den” [8:52] (Visited Hultmann and wanted to read “The Psyche” for him but when his wife remained in the room I was embarrassed to read it). Why, one must ask, was Andersen so embarrassed? Was it because of the ironic fact that a “maternal, feminine discourse” seemed to subsume a male protagonist?

When pagan imagery appears to survive soul-searching Christianity, when the insurgent Medusa disrupts the sweet dream of Psyche, and when “hysteric” Dionysus taints the somber Apollo, it apparently leaves “Psychen” unfit for the ear of woman and decisively unfit to be dedicated to a young woman—to carry her name?

The use of sculpture as a written image was not new to H. C. Andersen, when he published “Psychen” in 1861. It appears again and again throughout his authorship. In his early novel Improvisatoren, from 1835, sculpture plays an important role as metaphor for the ideal woman, for the hope of transcendence through woman. The quality of sculpture is here transported directly to a young girl, even to the degree of giving her the blind eyes of the classical statues. In this early, optimistic rendition of sculpture Andersen lets sculpture as metaphor convey an unquestionable promise of ideality in reality. Thus he not only let the male protagonist go through an act of symbolic sexual cleansing in order to prepare him for the ideal sculpture-woman, he also transformed the sculpture-woman into a prosaic realistic figure by giving her sight and social status—a little red blood in her white marble veins.

With this background it is interesting to note that in “Psychen” H. C. Andersen chooses not to engage in any easy answers, any mediation. He leaves the story fragmented, unsettled, and unsettling. The apparent loss of belief in a blessed unity of man and woman seem to surface parallel with the questioning of the artistic project per se and sculpture in particular. Throughout H. C. Andersen's authorship we find representations of woman as object and as desiring subject. But he seldom articulates as clearly as in “Psychen,” just how woman escapes representation. Here woman remains enigmatic, avoiding being molded into any fixed term; she remains in the position of other. A position H. C. Andersen most certainly could identify with and a position that the artist in “Psychen” seems to appropriate. In the end is it not this distant and evasive woman who has been the focus of desire in the constructions of woman in patriarchy—precisely because she escapes any fixed meaning? Andersen answers this question through a simultaneously fearful exposure of the power of the reflective medusan gaze and a perceptive—even if involuntary—understanding of the complexity of art and gender.

The “mystery” of woman remains a mystery in “Psychen.” Art cannot confine her. In fact, the transformation of body to form in “Psychen” is full of implications that question art's ability to represent at all. The promise of fulfillment offered by the beauty of woman and by the beauty of art is shown to be illusionary by Andersen; it is a promise full of treason, an invalid promise. Both are seen as seductive, and both are guilty of instigating vanity.

Konsten var en Troldqvinde, der bar os ind i Forfængelighed, ind i jordiske Lyster. Falske vare vi mod os selv, falske mod vore Venner, falske mod Gud. Slangen talte altid i os: “smag, og Du skal blive som Gud!”


(Art was a sorceress that carried us to vanity, to earthly lusts. We were false towards ourselves, false towards our friends, false towards God. The serpent always spoke within us, “taste, and you shall be as God.”)

Art and woman have become one in the form of the serpent who does not talk “til os” (to us) but “i os” (in us). If art commits itself solely to capture the illusion of beauty and woman, it will fail and itself become an illusion. This pessimistic view is what sifts through the fissures of the text together with woman. Yet, it is precisely when she is able to slip through the cracks of that representational form, that her story becomes his story. They follow each other into exile.

In the end “Psychen” simultaneously questions and insists upon the very notion of immortality through art, as the closing lines of the story clearly display:

Hvad jordisk er, vejres hen, forglemmes, kun Stjernen i det Uendelige veed det. Hvad Himmelsk er, straaler selv i Eftermalet, og naar Eftermælet slukkes—da lever endnu Psychen.


(All that is earthly dissolves, and is forgotten; only the star in the infinite heaven knows it. What is heavenly shines in remembrance; and when remembrance fades away, Psyche still lives.)

The immortality awarded the mythological Psyche after her ordeal, is the immortality that Andersen so longed for—and got. But as pointed out by Meltzer: “Insistence upon the concept of immortality must always lead to the erasure of temporality, of difference, and therefore of history”(43). This story shows how dangerous this erasure of difference can be. What might have been intended as a eulogy over divine inspiration and a mourning and protest over the world's inability to recognize the true artist (also the theme of Kun en Spillemand) turns into a very profound questioning of the very existence and gender of the artist. The burial of the statue (in the text) is a symbolic gesture that protests the fact that art does not necessarily award immortality, fame, name and sex, and at the same time the text provides a complex story of presumed triumph of divine art itself.


  1. I wish to thank Carol Clover, Jette Lundbo Levy, Erik Østerud, Thomas Bredsdorff, and Niels Ingwersen for helpful comments in preparing this article. Also thanks to Allen Simpson for directing my attention towards Psychen in the first place.

  2. H. C. Andersen: Nabofamilierne. Andersen's ironic view of det Skønne (beauty) is amusingly conveyed in this story, where an educational conversation takes place between a mother sparrow and her chicks: “‘Jeg forstod meget godt hvad den Fugl sang!’ sagde Spurveungerne, ‘der var bare et Ord, jeg ikke forstod: Hvad er det Skønne?’ ‘Det er Ingenting!’ sagde Spurvemoderen, ‘det er bare saadanne et Udseende …’” [1:366] (“I understood very well what the bird sang!” said the chicks. “There was only one word I did not understand: what is beauty?” “It is nothing!” said mother sparrow, “it is merely an appearance”).

  3. Although I claim that sculpture, as presented in the text, occupies a position that renders it “radical other” to the written narrative, I must emphasize that the sculpture in question here obviously is a written one and not an unmitigated visual one. My claim therefore must be seen as part of an examination of the polysemy of the sculpture in the text. That is of its “borrowing” and “merging” of qualities inherently non-verbal into the verbal writing.

  4. Unless otherwise noted all translations of Andersen's texts are mine. My translations will attempt exactness not poetic rendition.

  5. In an entry in his diary on Sunday December 1, 1833 H. C. Andersen describes his viewing of Raphael in a matter-of-fact fashion: “Gik nu til Palazzo Farnazina, hvor Raphael med sine Disciple har malet Psykkes Historie i Fresko paa Loftet, Guilander med Blomster og Frugt slynger sig over vort Hoved og bag denne sees den deiligste italienske Luft med Guder og Genier. En Gruppe med Grazierne og Amor er ganske af Raphael” (Went to Palazzo Farnazina, where Raphael together with his pupils has painted the story of Psyche in a fresco on the ceiling. Festoons of flowers and fruits are twined above our heads and behind this the wonderful Italian sky with gods and spirits can be seen. A group of Graces and Cupid is completely by Raphael).

  6. Here quoted from Warminski 48.

  7. This “conflict” between sculpture and painting is also evident in Improvisatoren, where the marble sculpture signifies ideality, transcendence and purity while painting is associated with sensuality and excess. Andersen's use of sculpture and painting is more complex than this seemingly simple dichotomy might indicate. A further study of this dichotomy is, however, beyond the scope of this article.

  8. The gaze of Medusa can naturally be connected to the psychological problems of narcissism, to desire and the castration anxiety as Freud has taught us in his famous interpretation of the phallic Medusa. The sculpture in connection with sight, gaze, and the myth of Medusa, probably could be seen as a symbolic representation of a castration threat. A threat that was ultimately carried out in the destruction of the artist. The uncanny feeling of the double, that Freud discusses in his most prolific essay on visuality, “The Uncanny,” could here be seen as the uncanny feeling that, we as readers, experience through the gliding meaning of the sculpture. We do not really know how to understand it. Of whom is it a double?

  9. Susan Stanford Friedman writes in her book Psyche Reborn: “Psyche, the mortal woman whose search for Eros has frequently been interpreted as the soul's quest for divine immortality. The name ‘Psyche’ comes from the Greek word for ‘soul’ often portrayed in Greek art as a butterfly that leaves the body at death. Psyche is the spirit that survives physical decay to be reunited with the divine. But in the story first told by Apuleius and later retold by countless poets, Psyche must undergo severe trials culminated by the archetypal descent to underworld before she can rejoin Eros” (9).

  10. René Girard writes in Things Hidden Since the Foundations of Time: “Narcissism is in fact the final manifestation of the idol worshipped by the Romantics. It gives its own mythological character away when it turns uncritically to the Narcissus myth, and interprets it as a myth of solipsism, while in reality the image behind the mirror (as in the story of the nymph Echo) conceals the mimetic model and the struggle between doubles” (377).

  11. Here quoted from Françoise Meltzer, Salome and the Dance of Writing (73). The following paragraph is inspired by Meltzer's analysis of mimesis.

  12. Interestingly enough there are many similarities between Sacher-Masoch's book Venus im Pelz from 1870 and Psychen. Cold, hard, “cruel,” marble-women are the focus of desire for the male (masochistic) protagonists in both fictions.

  13. Linda Hutcheon writes: “Part of Narcissus's characteristics, according to Ovid, was that ‘he does not know himself’” (9). This adds an extra perspective to my analysis of the artist as Narcissus.

  14. Camille Paglia sees the eye as an “Apollonian projectile.” She states: “Fashion is an externalization of woman's demonic invisibility, her genital mystery. It brings before man's Apollonian eye what that eye can never see. Beauty is an Apollonian freeze-frame: it halts and condenses the flux and indeterminacy of nature. It allows man to act by enhancing the desirability of what he fears” (32).

  15. Françoise Meltzer's uses the term radical otherness in her analysis of the figural image in a narrative. She discusses the problem of how literature “augments, diminishes, and manipulates” a figural image, or rather its visual presence in the text. She asks, how does literature attempt “to reedit in a verbal form, something both visual and fundamentally nonverbal?” (2).

  16. See Meltzer.

  17. “Mimetic creation can be said to engage death,” says Meltzer, “because the simulacrum of life, in its static presence, negates by its very stasis the life it depicts” (116).

  18. “Semantically the word ‘abyme’ (abyss) evokes ideas of depth, of infinity, of vertigo and of falling, in that order” (Dallenbach 8).

  19. One might in fact, as Linda Hutcheon does, call it a covert narcissistic narrative. She writes:

    Overt narcissistic texts reveal their self-awareness in explicit thematization or allegorizations of their diegetic or linguistic identity within the texts themselves. In the covert form, this process is internalized, actualized; such a text is self-reflective but not necessarily self-conscious.


  20. I wish to thank Erik Østerud for calling my attention to Raphael's second burial during Andersen's stay in Rome.

  21. A month later this Raphael-story proves to have involved a peculiar case of mimetic rivalry.

    Ved Raphaels Beens Fremtagelse, havde Maleren Cambuccini faaet Eneret paa at male Gravstedet; Horaz Vernet vidste det ikke og tog Blyanten for at ridse det af, et slags pavelig Poletie forbød ham det, han blev forundret og sagde roligt, “men efter Hukommelsen tør man dog hjemme gjøre sig en Erindring derom,” dette kunne man intet sige til. -/ Fra 12 Middag til 6 Aften malede han sig nu et smukt lignende Oliemalerie, han lod nu gjøre en Plade for at trykke den, men den blev tagen under Beslag, han skrev nu et heftigt Brev at han før 24 Timer forlangte den tilbage, da Kunsten ikke som salt og Tobak kunde bringes under Monopol, da han fik den brød han den og sendte den med et høfligt Brev til Camuccini og viiste ham at han ikke til hans Skade vilde benytte sig deraf, men C fik den godt sadt sammen igjen og leverede den atter med et venligt Brev og opgav ganske at udgive sin Tegning, nu fik Enhver Lov til at tegne Graven.


    (At the exhumation of Raphael's bones, the painter Cambuccini was given the exclusive privilege to paint the grave. The painter Vernet did not know this and took his pencil to sketch it. A kind of papal police banned him from doing so. He became surprised and said calmly: “But from memory one can try to make an impression of it at home.” This nobody could deny. From 12 noon to 6 in the evening he now painted a beautifully resembling oil painting. He then ordered a plate to be made so he could print it. But it was confiscated. He now wrote a furious letter demanding the plate returned within 24 hours as art could not be monopolized such as salt and tobacco could. When he got it back he broke it and sent it with a polite letter to Camuccini to show him that he meant no harm and would not take advantage of the plate. But C. had the plate reassembled and returned it with a friendly letter and he gave up the plan to publish his drawing. Now everyone had permission to draw the grave.)

  22. As Lacoue-Labarthe does, 127.

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. “Psychen.” 1831. Samlede Eventyr og Historier. Vol. 3 Denmark: Gyldendal, 1982.

———. Improvisatoren. 1835. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1968.

———. Hans Christian Andersens Dagbøger: 1825-1875. Copenhagen: G. E. C. Gads Forlag, 1971-1977.

———. The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen. Eds. Patricia L. Conroy and Sven H. Rossel. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1990.

Dallenbach, Lucien. The Mirror in the Text. Trans. Jeremy Whiteley and Emma Hughes. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Drost, Mark. “Nietzsche and Mimesis.” Philosophy and Literature 10.2 (1986):309-17.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H. D. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.

Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1987.

Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1980.

Jardine, Alice A. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics. Ed. Christopher Fynsk. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Meltzer, Françoise. Salome and the Dance of Writing: Portraits of Mimesis in Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Perniola, Mario. “Between Clothing and Nudity.” Fragments for a History of the Human Body. Ed. Michael Feher with Ramona Nadoff and Nadia Tazi. Vol. 2. New York: Zone, 1989. 3 vols.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publ. Co., 1974.

Warminski, Andrzej. “Facing Language: Wordsworth's First Poetic Spirits.” Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory. Ed. Kenneth Johnston, Gilbert R. Chaitin, Karen Hanson, and Herbert Marks. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Pp. 29-49.

Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. Reflections on the Imitation of the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture. Trans. Elfriede Heyer and Roger C. Norton. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1987.

Jan M. Ziolkowski (essay date 1994)

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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 can aspire not so much to replicate as to acknowledge and admire. In devising the topic of this essay, I had Per doubly in mind. The first half of the title contains an implicit tribute to his Danishness. Immediately on reading the first clause (rather, the first Claus), he and others familiar with the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen will divine the essay has a Danish component. It may be true Andersen's tale “Little Claus and Big Claus” has not come close to attaining the Disney-hallowed status of “The Little Mermaid.” Indeed, it has not even achieved the name-recognition of “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Emperor's New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Match Girl,” or any of a half-dozen other stories in the more than 150 Andersen published that have become public domain. But if not in the mass media of the New World, then at least in the northern climes of the Old World the tale has won a definite pride of place from being the second in Andersen's first pamphlet of fairy tales published in 1835; in Denmark and Germany it has not lost its appeal in the intervening 160 years. “Little Claus and Big Claus” has been reprinted repeatedly, often illustrated with engravings, in children's books in Danish, German, English, and other languages.1

The second half of my title, “A Fabliau from before Fabliaux?,” pays homage to Per Nykrog as a scholar, specifically to the work economically entitled Les Fabliaux. This famous book on the fabliaux was approved for publication forty years ago to the month of the colloquium in December 1996 out of which the present volume has arisen.2 His study has become a classic of medieval literary scholarship because of its lucidity and thoroughness in making several major provocative assertions, one of which being that the fabliaux did not emanate from the bourgeoisie, as had been widely held, but, rather, from a courtly class. One goal of my essay is to undergird this assertion by demonstrating how a fabliau-like text of the eleventh century was itself courtly. But I would like my literary-historical excavation of the eleventh-century tale to proceed in proper archaeological fashion, beginning with the most recent layer (in this case, Hans Christian Andersen) and digging backward and downward to the bottom where resides the anonymous medieval Latin poem Unibos.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale “Little Claus and Big Claus” seems in its roll of characters quite emphatically removed from courts and courtiers. Since not all readers carry this narrative etched in their hearts, let me recapitulate its events summarily. The tale has two chief characters: the protagonist is a poor man called Little Claus, the antagonist a rich one known as (surprise!) Big Claus. Big Claus owns four horses, Little Claus one. By mutual agreement, Big Claus has the right to use Little Claus's horse six days of the week. In recompense, Little Claus has Big Claus's horse at his disposal on Sundays. On his sole day of possession Little Claus infuriates Big Claus by lording it up so much that finally, to punish and silence him, Big Claus strikes dead Little Claus's only horse.

On his way to salvage what good he can from this terrible loss by selling the horse's hide, Little Claus is forced by a storm to seek shelter at a farm. When the farmer's wife refuses to allow him inside the farmhouse, he rests on the thatched roof. From that vantage he sees a deacon or parish-clerk ready to enjoy a lavish meal with the wife. After the farmer returns unexpectedly, Little Claus is finally invited within to dine. Pretending the squeaks emitted by pockets of air in the horse's hide at his feet are the words of a wizard, Little Claus draws the farmer's attention to the hidden food and drink and convinces him that the deacon, whom the farmer loathes and the farmer's wife has hidden in a chest, is truly the devil. More than any other scene in the tale, this one has sparked artists' imaginations.3 Little Claus eventually swaps the supposed wizard for a large sum of money, and undertakes to rid the farmer of the chest and devil. As a bribe from the deacon for not drowning him, he then collects another small fortune.

Back home, Little Claus's improved circumstances become known to Big Claus. Little Claus convinces his fellow Claus the money came from the sale of the horse's hide, which motivates Big Claus to slay and flay all four of his horses. At the market, predictably, he obtains nothing of the fortune he awaited. Determined to avenge himself, Big Claus sets out to kill Little Claus. By chance, he instead axes Little Claus's already dead grandmother. Little Claus transports the lifeless old woman as if she were still alive in his cart to an inn where the innkeeper, furious at her unresponsiveness to him, tosses a glass of mead in her face, causing the corpse to topple. Following a quick tussle, Little Claus receives another bushel of coins in return for a promise to remain silent about the apparent crime.

After Little Claus assures him his latest trove of money came from retailing his grandmother's cadaver to an apothecary, Big Claus takes an ax to his own grandmother, but soon discovers he will incur only punishment for his action. Enraged, he thrusts Little Claus into a sack. En route to a river to dump him, Big Claus stops at a church. While he is inside, an old herdsman passing by hears Little Claus talking of being headed heavenward. The old herdsman takes his place so he can reach heaven instead, and Big Claus throws the sack into the river. On the way home, Big Claus meets Little Claus herding all his newly acquired cattle. Little Claus persuades him the cattle came from the bottom of the river. Big Claus has Little Claus put him in a sack and push it—and him—into the river. With that event the tale concludes.

In an 1837 preface, Andersen professed to have drawn “Little Claus and Big Claus” from oral tradition. He wrote:

In my childhood I loved to listen to fairy tales and stories. Many of them are still very much alive in my memory. Certain of them seem to me to be Danish in origin for I have never heard them anywhere else. These I have told in my own way: where I thought it fitting, I have changed them and let imagination freshen the colors in the picture that had begun to fade. There are four such stories in this volume: “The Tinderbox”, “Little Claus and Big Claus,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Traveling Companion.” In Anacreon's poem, as most people know, the fable “The Naughty Boy” is to be found.4

The reference to the Greek lyric poet of the sixth century B.C.E. should tip us off that Andersen derived his stories from a number of sources. Some he created whole cloth, or, to mix metaphors, he “cooked” them. Others he took from oral sources, some of which were indebted directly or indirectly to textual traditions. Still others he may have recast from written sources. In this case it is certainly interesting to note a close analogue incorporated as number 61 into the second edition of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen by the Brothers Grimm in 1819.5

The title of the Grimms' tale is “Das Bürle,” which means roughly “The Little Peasant,” perhaps hinting that this version, like its protagonist, is anything but courtly. The Latin version known as Unibos is a different matter. The Latin text was discovered in its unique manuscript by Jacob Grimm, who obtained a transcript in 1837 before publishing it with Andreas Schmeller in 1838.6 The poem comprises 216 strophes, each of four octosyllabic lines that are often end-rhymed or at least assonating in the pattern aabb. This metrical form, roughly equivalent to an iambic quatrain, is sometimes designated “Ambrosian” after hymns ascribed to St. Ambrose. To move to broader questions of style, the poem is written in careful, supple, and elaborate, if not always elegant Latin.

The connections among the different tales in this tale-type class (Aarne-Thompson type 1535, “The Rich and the Poor Peasant”) cannot be schematized nearly so neatly as folklorists of the geographical school posited in the first half of the twentieth century. Josef Müller, perhaps not unexpectedly as a German writing in 1934 in the often nationalistic arena of folklore studies, took the method to an extreme and envisaged the passage of this particular story across Europe as a systematic invasion: the tale originated in Indo-European antiquity, descended to the Celts in Ireland, infiltrated the European mainland through Flanders, whence it spread to the south, west, and north.7 More interesting to me than constructing a Linnaean taxonomy of tale types is to explore the question raised at the beginning of this article: the possibility of courtliness in the medieval Latin Unibos foreshadowing what was eventually to come in Old French fabliaux.

Before looking at a few specific motifs in Unibos that will help furnish a background to this larger question, I should give a rapid overview of the poem's contents and structure, since the Latin poem belongs even less to the canon of world literature than “Little Claus and Big Claus.” It falls into four parts:

  1. The title character, called Unibos in Latin (One-Ox), finds coins while defecating on his return from selling the hide of his only major possession, an ox. He tells the provost, mayor, and priest of his village that his newfound wealth derived from the sale of the hide in a neighboring town. They slaughter their animals and suffer distressing treatment at the market, where they expected to receive a warm welcome (strophes 4-67).
  2. To distract the three dupes from their anger, One-Ox first stages his wife's false death, then resuscitates her to convince onlookers she has been rejuvenated and beautified. The priest, provost, and mayor murder their own wives for real (strophes 68-114).
  3. In the third episode, One-Ox sidetracks his three fellow villagers by convincing them his mare shits coins. The priest, provost, and mayor find nothing emitting from the anus of the beast except ordure—and one very small coin that had become embedded in a scar during an accident it had suffered when young (strophes 115-158).
  4. One-Ox escapes death by persuading a swineherd to take his place inside a barrel his three foes roll into the ocean. When he returns not only alive but in possession of a herd, the provost, mayor, and priest are misled into hurling themselves to their death in the ocean (strophes 159-215).

Superficially, this tale would appear to violate Nykrog's principle that a fabliau should relate only a single episode. In fact, the tale would seem to have more in common with long biographies of slave or peasant trickster figures, such as Aesop in ancient Greek, Trubert in thirteenth-century Old French, or Bertoldo in Italian.8 Typically, such stories relate the adventures of a lower-class or underclass rascal, a kind of slave or peasant picaro playing the leading role in a Schelmenroman. Yet so drastic a reclassification of a tale that is nothing approaching book-length would appear unnecessary. After all, the arrangement of events in Unibos bears a resemblance to the pattern of ascending repetition encountered in fabliaux such as Des.III. Boçus menesterels. In addition, it could be mentioned that threesomes, often entailing a threefold repetition of events, were especially favored by fabliau writers: consider Les Trois Aveugles de Compiegne, Les Trois Dames qui trouverent l'anel, Les Trois Meschines, La Dame qui fist les trois tors entor le moustier, and so forth.

Nor is the tale by any means alone and cut off from fabliaux in its willingness to echo or at least parallel solemn religious motifs in a way we may find provocative. The sham resuscitation of One-Ox's wife may have called to mind the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it would have been no more theologically distressing to medieval readers than the unholy analogue to the annunciation in the fabliau De l'enfant que fu remis au soleil, where a woman tries unsuccessfully to convince her husband she has been impregnated not by sexual intercourse, but by eating snow. Like Unibos, the tragicomedy of the snow child was recounted for the first time in an eleventh-century Latin poem.9

The faked resurrection purported to bring about the rejuvenation of an aging wife, thus anticipating later popular motifs, such as the fantasized conversion of a loathly old lady into a beautiful young one in the Wife of Bath's Tale and related stories, and the later medieval image of a recycling station—the “Old Wives' Mill”—where dissatisfied husbands could take their aging spouses to be refurbished.10

Alternating with deaths (both pseudo- and real) bearing religious overtones is a scatology connected with concern about the rise of a money economy.11 It is small wonder to discover that the very similar “Little Claus and Big Claus” was adapted in 1973 into a film by East German State Television. In Unibos we have two episodes that could be readily subjected to both a Marxist and Freudian interpretation, since they underscore a pungent correspondence between the fecal and the fiscal. In the first scene, the anonymous poet describes the cloacal circumstances in which One-Ox comes upon his first hoard of money:

16. After making the trade
                    he mounts his mare;
                    he is swollen, with distended belly,
                    as he turns his steps backward.
17. Having a presage of silver,
                    he enters a frondy grove
                    where, as he purges the vessel of his belly,
                    he takes a money-filled reward.
18. As he strives to wipe his backside,
                    he hurries to tear off grass;
                    but in plucking grass he finds
                    that which greedy folk love.
19. Soon he stumbles upon three hidden
                    measures of coins
                    which he places in a drooping little sack,
                    that is soon made swollen.(12)

In the second scene, the poet portrays One-Ox as he dupes his three antagonists into believing his mare emits coins in its normal bowel movements:

127. One-Ox replies cautiously:
                    “Do you see these silver coins?
                    The belly of this mare pours forth
                    change instead of base dung.
128. Every single night the mare
                    shoots out such money:
                    Ops, queen of money,
                    resides in the opening of the anus.”
129. Upon seeing such things
                    and hearing these words,
                    the foes instantly cast away anger
                    and speak thus to One-Ox:
130. “If you wish to enjoy good fortune,
                    sell us this animal;
                    the three of us will put aside hate
                    if we buy this swollen animal.”(13)

As in the case of the sham beautification of One-Ox's wife, the motif of the coin-defecating horse anticipates much later popular iconography.14

As an alternative to Marxist or Freudian interpretation, a Christian reading of the tale as a condemnation of greed and lust can easily be imagined: the desire of the priest, provost, and mayor for a swift profit from the hides, for a money-producing horse, and for free herds of swine could be labeled greed, while their hope for wives rendered young and beautiful would equate with lust.15 Interpreted in this light, Unibos takes on a certain likeness to fabliaux such as Jean Bodel's “Greed and Envy” or “The Partridges,” which may be allegorically read as detailing the consequences of gluttony and lust.

The moralizing dimension to fabliaux is what has caused many critics, among them our Per Nykrog, to discern a connection with fable that runs deeper than etymology alone. In that regard it is worth paying close attention to the moral the poet attaches to the end of Unibos:

213. But One-Ox in speaking
                    indicates the worst of dangers:
                    “Where the shore is deeper,
                    where the sea is more profound,
214. Hasten there swiftly,
                    without fear sink yourselves!
                    There are bigger pigs in the water
                    than there are on dry land.”
215. At the advice of One-Ox
                    the three give themselves to the precipices
                    in fatal frenzy,
                    dead foolishly through the leap.
216. This tale shows
                    for ever and ever that
                    the sly counsels of an enemy
                    must not be believed.(16)

The presumptive courtliness of Unibos cries out to be set in a broad literary context, especially in view of recent contentions that phenomena often associated with courtliness already existed in the eleventh century. C. Stephen Jaeger made a powerful case that courtliness took shape between 950 and 1150 in episcopal and noble courts along the Rhine.17 Gerald Bond amplified and modulated this theory, arguing courtliness in Latin documents from communities along the Loire in the later eleventh century sometimes antedated that in extant French literature.18 Though Jaeger makes scant reference to such medieval Latin literature as the Ruodlieb, arguably our first medieval romance, Bond pays close attention to courtly lyric in the Latin verse of Baudri of Bourgueil and others. But to date no one has attempted at any length to situate Unibos within this context, though Per made such a suggestion in Les fabliaux when citing a comment of Gaston Paris on Bédier.

This omission seems very odd in that the poet of Unibos, who simply by knowing Latin would appear almost unquestionably to have been a monk or cleric,19 claims explicitly in the prologue that at least one audience of his tale is courtly:

1. People's eyes are not satisfied
          by seeing the realities of the world;
          their ears are
          well disposed to novelties.
2. At the table of a great prince
          is told the account of One-Ox;
          it is presented as a fabliau
          in playful words.
3. Banquets come about through foods,
          but literary compositions through words;
          in a performance of characters
          let us sing of One-Ox.
4. A son of ridiculous sons,
          he is a peasant from peasant stock.
          Nature made him a man,
          but fortune a Wunderkind.(20)

Was this fabula a proto-fabliau? Though it is called a fabula at both beginning and end, the word fabula possessed such a vast spectrum of meaning in Medieval Latin this assumption would be very risky if it rested on two occurrences of this word alone.

Many puzzles surrounding Unibos can be better understood if we accept that the earliest literary version of such a tale is not necessarily the earliest of all versions, and that oral reflexes may have circulated in the most diverse of milieux. In other words, the tale could have existed with a recognizably similar structure of motifs and array of characters in oral culture. This tale could then have been appropriated to very different ends by an artist aiming to satisfy the aesthetics and values of a courtly—or religious—audience. To be specific, the monk or cleric who composed Unibos in Latin may have co-opted both the voice and tale of a popular performer presenting a tale orally at a feast. The verba jocularia of the Unibos poet may thus have Latinized what had originally been the vernacular words of a decidedly non-monastic and non-clerical jongleur.

If we seek a model for the kind of interaction that may have taken place, Guibert of Nogent's Monodiae, written around the year 1115, contains a passage that provides a fascinating one. In this episode, a rebellious mob whose ringleader is a peasant named Theudegaud, seeks out Bishop Gaudry, who has taken refuge from them:

As the others were searching for Gaudry among the containers, Theudegaud halted in front of the barrel in which the bishop was hiding, smashed in the cover and twice asked: “Who is in there?” Shaken by the blows, Gaudry was hardly able to move his frozen lips to answer: “A prisoner.” Now the bishop had the habit of calling Theudegaud by the derisive name of Isengrin, on account of his wolfish profile—that is the name some people give to wolves. So this scoundrel called out to the bishop: “Might it not be my lord Isengrin hiding in there?”21

This anecdote suggests both clerics and commoners were well acquainted with the character Isengrin (sometimes designated Ysengrimus in Latin), the wolf and archenemy of the fox Renard (Reinardus) even before Renard became so popular as to drive out the native word for fox (goupil). (To find an equivalent of Renard's name becoming the standard word for fox in French, we would need to imagine the names of cartoon characters Mickey or Bugs entirely displacing the usual nouns for a mouse or rabbit in English.) Our Latin reflexes of the Roman de Renart are all connected with monasteries. Later versions connected with vernacular authors (and the earliest surviving vernacular texts are Old French) seem to have been by clerics, and to have been intended for noble audiences. But this interaction, which antedates both types of texts, presupposes that stories about Ysengrimus and Renard circulated orally and formed a culture shared by both lay and literate.

A similar paradigm in American culture would be embodied in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus. Over the past thirty years Uncle Remus has been rejected as a kind of Uncle Tom because of his seeming subservience to his young master and superficially benign harmlessness, qualities which made him attractive to middle-class book buyers in the late nineteenth century, but which with changed social attitudes have sent even the Disney cartoon Songs of the South into banishment with Little Black Sambo and other racist bestsellers of yore. At the same time, Uncle Remus offers in both his own person and alter-ego Brer Rabbit an example of considerable independence and a clever ability to survive. In other words, Uncle Remus not only represents the loyal slave or retainer doting on his young master, but also embodies the frequently subversive life experience and indomitable survival skills of generations of slaves, and is anything but an Uncle Tom.

How does this relate to Unibos? The story of One-Ox, a desperately poor peasant at the beginning and a cash- and chattel-rich burgher at the end, could have meant different things in different tellings and to different audiences. In oral form, One-Ox could have been a culture hero to subaltern classes. In Latin verse, his story could have been an amusement for highly literate courtiers, whether at a noble court, a ecclesiastic court (such as a bishop's court), or both. One-Ox would have thus been a predecessor of the later peasant wit Marcolf, who is introduced as a peasant descended from peasants (“rusticus de rusticis”) in terms very similar to those with which One-Ox is brought onstage in the exordium of Unibos:

1a In fact, King Solomon, when he had noticed them, began to speak in this way, saying: “Who are you, and what is your lineage?” 1b Marcolf replied, “You tell us first your genealogy and that of your forefathers, and then I will indicate to you our lineage.” 2a Solomon said, “I come from twelve generations of prophets … and I am King Solomon.” 2b Marcolf replied, “And I come from twelve generations of boors: Rusticus begot Rustan; Rustan begot Rusticius; Rusticius begot Rusticellus; Rusticellus begot Tartar; Tartar begot Tartol; Tartol begot Farsi; Farsi begot Farsol; Farsol begot Marcuil; Marcuil begot Marcuart; Marcuart begot Marcol; Marcol begot Marcolf, and I am Marcolf the fool.”22

One-Ox has the same complexity: some may regard him as foolish (stultus), but in the poet's judgment he is an “artificer of cunning” (118.3 artificem versutiae) characterized by “cleverness” (119.1 calliditas). He may have started his existence as a buffoon figure, whose antics amused courtiers. Alternatively, he may have begun life in peasant fireside tales as a trickster hero. Finally, it may be pointless to conceive of his origins in such bipolar terms, since from earliest times One-Ox may have coexisted in the entertainments of both the poor and privileged. When we encounter One-Ox for the first time in a document, he already has an ambiguous history. He is pinioned in a fascinating manner between the village setting where he performs his feats, the noble milieu where his story is purportedly related viva voce, and the Latin verse and manuscript where Unibos is recorded. After centuries of to-and-fro between oral and written versions of his story, One-Ox eventually became Little Claus, whose tale as written by Hans Christian Andersen maintains most of the same ambiguities between oral and written, as well as between subordinate and privileged classes. What prospects the adventures of One-Ox/Little Claus will face in coming centuries is hard to predict, but a tale known to have succeeded for the better part of a millennium among peasants, bourgeois, and courtiers will surely not disappear without a fight.


  1. Among the more recently printed English translations would be Hans Christian Andersen, Eighty Fairy Tales, tr. R. P. Keigwin (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982) 17-26, and Hans Andersen, Fairy Tales: A Selection, tr. L. W. Kingsland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) 11-27.

  2. The book has since been reprinted: Les Fabliaux (Geneva: Droz, 1973).

  3. The illustrations most commonly used are those of Vilhelm Pedersen, which depict (1) Little Claus after Big Claus has felled his horse, (2) Little Claus showing the farmer the deacon inside the chest, and (3) Little Claus after pushing the sack containing Big Claus into the river. These illustrations are found conveniently in Hans Christian Andersen, Eighty Fairy Tales, tr. Keigwin, 17, 21, and 26. A helpful assemblage of other illustrations appears in Heinz Wegehaupt, Hundert Illustrationen aus anderthalb Jahrhunderten zu Märchen von Hans Christian Andersen (Hanau: Verlag Dausien, 1990) 74, 77, 79, 83, 87, and 89: Little Claus boasting of his horses, Little Claus dining with the farmer, Little Claus showing the farmer the deacon inside the chest, Little Claus watching as the innkeeper hurls the glass of beer at the grandmother, Big Claus with Little Claus in the sack, and the whole series of sackings. Other illustrations will be found in Hans Christian Andersen, Ausgewählte Märchen, tr. Julius Reuscher (Leipzig: Ambr. Abel, 1883) 24, 28, and 36: Little Claus in his glory with all the horses, Little Claus showing the farmer the deacon inside the chest, and Big Claus as he is deciding to enter the sack so that Little Claus can toss him into the river.

  4. Andersen The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, tr. Erik Christian Haugaard (New York: Anchor Books, 1974) 1069-70.

  5. See Karl-S. Kramer, “Bauer,” in Enzyklopädie des Märchens, ed. Kurt Ranke (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977) 1: columns 1327-1338 (here: 1330), and Johannes Bolte and George Polívka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, 5 vols. (Leipzig: Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1915) 2: 1-18 and 4: 130.

  6. In citations of the Latin I follow the most recent edition: Thomas Klein, “‘Versus de Uniboue.’ Neuedition mit kritischem Kommentar,” Studi Medievali Series terza, Anno XXXII, Fasc. II (1991): 843-86. But I also pay close attention to the preceding edition by Andries Welkenhuysen, Het lied van boer eenos (uersus de uniboue). Kluchtig versverhaal uit de elfde eeuw (inleiding, facsimile-weergave, teksteditie, metrische vertaling, bijlage ter verantwoording en duiding) (Leuven: Acco, 1975). The English translations are my own, although I have consulted the version offered by Marc Wolterbeek, Comic Tales of the Middle Ages: An Anthology and Commentary (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991). Both Welkenhuysen, especially in his very full commentary, and Wolterbeek, in several pages of close examination, represent indispensable contributions to Unibos scholarship. The edition by Grimm and Schmeller is found in Lateinische Gedichte des X. und XI. Jahrhunderts (Göttingen, 1838; reprinted Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1967) 354-80.

  7. Josef Müller, Das Märchen vom Unibos (Jena: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1934) 119. A more precise application of the geographical method appears in Maurits de Meyer, Vlaamsche sprookjesthema's in het licht der Romaansche en Germaansche Kultuurstroomingen, Koninklijke Vlaamsche Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde, Reeks VI, 63 (Leuven: De Vlaamsche Drukkerij, 1942) 133-63. The most influential applications of the method to Unibos would have to be Stith Thompson, The Types of the Folktale, Folklore Fellows Communications 184: 440-41 (no. 1535), and Stith Thompson, The Folktale (1946, reprinted Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977) 165-70. The limitations of the geographical method were pointed out with sophistication by K. C. Peeters, “De oudste West-Europese sprookjetekst. Unibosproblemen,” Volkskunde 71 (1970): 8-24 (especially 24).

  8. For an English translation of the anonymous life, see Lloyd W. Daly, Aesop without Morals: The Famous Fables, and a Life of Aesop (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961); Douin de Lavesne, Trubert, fabliau du XIIIe siècle, ed. Guy Raynaud de Lage (Geneva: Droz, 1974); and Giulio Cesare Croce, Le astuzie di Bertoldo e le semplicità di Bertoldino, ed. Piero Camporesi (Milan: Garzanti, 1993). Trubert was first mentioned in connection with Unibos by Jürgen Beyer, Schwank und Moral. Untersuchungen zum altfranzösischen Fabliau und verwandten Formen (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1969) 75. Beyer evaluates in detail (73-9) the similarities and differences between Unibos and vernacular genius of later times such as fabliaux and novellas.

  9. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina cantabrigiensia), ed. and tr. Jan M. Ziolkowski (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994); reprinted Tempe: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies 14 (1998): 62-69.

  10. See Lutz Röhrich, Das große Lexikon der sprichwörtlichen Redensarten, 3 vols., 2nd ed. (Freiburg: Herder, 1990) 1: “Altweibermühle.”

  11. Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978) makes no mention of Unibos, but his book is very useful in providing a backdrop to our text. The first scholar to glean information about economic history from Unibos was B. Schmeidler, “Ein bisher nicht verwertetes Zeugnis zur Verfassungs- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte des 11. Jahrhunderts,” in “Kleine Forschungen in literarischen Quellen des 11. Jahrhunderts,” Historische Vierteljahrschrift 20 (1920-1921): 129-38.

  12. Post expletum commercium / Ascendit iumentum suum / Distento uentre turgidus / Retrorsum uertendo gradum. Omen habens argenteum / Intrat lucum frondiferum / Quo, dum uentris purgat lacum / Nummatum trahit meritum. Anum dum certat tergere / Herbam festinat rumpere / Sed herbam uellens repperit / Quod gens auara diligit. De nummis tres sextarios / Mox offendit absconditos / Quos in flaccenti sacculo / Ponit mox facto turgido.

  13. Caute respondet Unibos / “Videtis hos denarios? / Fundit nummos huius eque / Venter pro uili stercore. Per noctes equa singulas / Tales iactat pecunias / Obs, regina pecunie / Ani sedet foramine.” Repente uisis talibus / Auditis his sermonibus / Hostes iram reiciunt / Vniboui sic inquiunt: “Si de fortuna gaudeas / Vende nobis hoc animal / Deponemus tres odium / “Si comparamus turgidum.”

  14. See Röhrich, Das große Lexikon 1: 528-30 “Geld” (especially 529, figures 2-3 “Geld scheißen”).

  15. On greed and lust in the story, see Joachim Suchomski, “Delectatio” und “Utilitas”: Ein Beitrag zum Verständnis mittelalterlicher komischer Literatur (Bern: Francke, 1975) 109.

  16. Sed Unibos periculum / Dicens designat pessimum / “Vbi litus est altius / Vbi mare profundius. Illuc festini currite / Sine metu uos mergite! / Maiores porci sunt aquis / Quam sint in terris aridis.” Vnibouis consiliis / Tres dant se precipitiis / Sub capitali frenesi / Per saltum stulte mortui. Inimici consilia / Non sunt credenda subdola / Ostendit ista fabula / Per seculorum secula.

  17. C. Stephen Jaeger, The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985).

  18. Gerald A. Bond, The Loving Subject: Desire, Eloquence, and Power in Romanesque France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).

  19. The poet's education shows in his use of biblical words such as corbanan and musac, as well as in his knowledge of Greek and other exotic words such as amphibalus and squibula. Further information about his social class may be forthcoming in the scorn he manifests for the shoemakers (53.1 “sordidi sutores”). For the idea the poet had to have been a cleric or clerically educated, see Karl Langosch, “Unibos,” in Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters, Verfasserlexikon, vol. 4 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1953), columns 634-638 (here: 636).

  20. Rebus conspectis seculi / Non satiantur oculi / Aures sunt in hominibus / Amice nouitatibus. Ad mensam magni principis / Est rumor Unius Bouis / Presentatur ut fabula / Per uerba iocularia. Fiunt cibis conuiuia / Sed uerbis exercitia / In personarum drammate / Vno cantemus de Boue. Natis natus ridiculis / Est rusticus de rusticis / Natura fecit hominem / Sed fortuna mirabilem.

  21. Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae Book 3, chapter 8, ed. Edmond-René Labande (Paris: Société d'Edition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1981); A Monk's Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, tr. Paul J. Archambault (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

  22. The translation is my own, following the Latin text in Salomon et Marcolfus, ed. Walter Benary (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1914) 3-4. The comparison between One-Ox and Marcolf was first suggested by Volker Honemann, “Unibos und Amis,” Kleinere Erzählformen im Mittelalter, Paderborner Colloquium 1987 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1988) 67-82 (at 79).

Kirsten Malmkjaer (essay date 1997)

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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 relations among elements of a text, including (at least in European languages) commas, semicolons, colons, periods, parentheses, quotation marks and so forth’ (Nunberg 1990:17). The primary function of this set ‘is to resolve structural ambiguities in a text, and to signal nuances of semantic significance which might otherwise not be conveyed at all, or would at best be much more difficult for a reader to figure out’ (Parkes 1992:1).

Perhaps this function is not widely recognized. According to Poyatos (1993:142), ‘the full literary and communicative importance of the … punctuation system has not been sufficiently explored’, and it is obvious that relatively little attention is being paid to punctuation in the rapidly expanding literature on translation. Of my departmental library's 60 volumes on various aspects of translation, published between 1960 and 1995, only five index punctuation, and only one (Newmark 1981) has a section specifically devoted to it. Translation journals tell a similar tale; Meta Vols 35-37 contain one article on punctuation (Melo 1990), in which there is reference to one other (Spilka 1983); volumes 36-40 of Babel contain no articles devoted to punctuation as such, though there is one on sentence boundaries (Doherty 1992); and volumes 4-6 of Target contain none at all. There appears to be, then, an absence of concentration on punctuation in the theoretical, descriptive and pedagogical literature on translation. This seems unfortunate, if punctuation really has the function that Parkes claims for it: the signalling of semantically significant nuances.

Toury (1995:267-274) suggests that the more marginal texts-to-be-translated, or their genre, appear to the receptor culture, the more translators tend to adjust aspects of them to accord with the norms of that culture. Similarly, one might argue that the more marginal, or insignificant, a particular textual phenomenon, in and for itself, appears to translators, the more likely they are to make such adjustments. This might explain why punctuation in the selection of English translations of Hans Christian Andersen's stories to which I refer in this paper is unlikely to strike the contemporary English reader as remarkable, in spite of the fact that one aspect of the punctuation in the Source Texts is, to say the least, unusual by both Andersen's and our own time's Danish standards, and could hardly have failed to strike the translators as such.

I believe the claim that Andersen's punctuation is unusual while the translators' punctuation is not, to be so much a matter of description that few would dispute it. I argue below that to normalize Andersen's punctuation is to disregard an aspect of the writer's discourse, or manner of telling, which contributes significantly to the told: the story or histoire (Genette 1972, 1980; Fludernik 1993:61). Since there are many reasons for translating, this need not be understood as a value judgement, although, being a matter of interpretation, it is open to dispute.


Hans Christian Andersen famously said of his earliest stories that he had written them down just as he would tell them to a child (letter to Ingemann, 10 February, 1835), so it is tempting to explain his somewhat idiosyncratic use of punctuation as nothing more than an attempt to represent this storytelling style. However, this explanation will not do, since Andersen's habit of often using commas where his contemporaries (and ours, Danish as well as English) might have used full stops (Brostrøm and Lund 1991:24), extends beyond the story genre to the diaries, novels and travelogues. In any case, punctuation is no less ‘a personal matter’ (Parkes 1992:5) than storytelling style, so it is too simplistic to regard punctuation marks as a system of signs which can be related, one to one, to phenomena associated with speech. Nunberg (1990:12-15) provides a detailed discussion of the limitations of ‘the transcriptional view of punctuation’, and concludes that what this view ‘buys us, in the end, is a theoretically uninteresting account of what is in any event a not very good correlation’ (Nunberg 1990:15).

By the time Andersen was writing, written language had a long history of relative independence of speech:

In Antiquity the written word was regarded as a record of the spoken word, and texts were usually read aloud. But from the sixth century onwards attitudes to the written word changed […] The written medium developed as a separate manifestation of language with a status equivalent to, but independent of that of any spoken counterpart. New conventions, such as word separation, features of layout and punctuation, were developed to make it easier for readers to extract information conveyed in the written [Latin] medium […] Over the centuries these conventions of written language were gradually augmented and refined, and, where necessary, modified to meet the needs of different European languages.

(Parkes 1992:1)

Systems akin to those employed today can be perceived in texts from the late seventeenth century onward (Nunberg 1990:129; following Levinson 1986), and Andersen wrote almost two centuries later.


Brostrøm and Lund (1991:24) discard two possible explanations for Andersen's punctuational idiosyncrasy. The first is that whenever Andersen considers that two clauses belong together, he disregards the conventional demand for a full stop. This potential explanation presupposes that text-parts separated by a comma are less severely cut off from each other than text-parts separated by a full stop. This, together with the idea that the divisional severity of a semicolon is somewhere in between, is probably a widely-held conception of the relative power of these three punctuation marks (see Quirk et al. 1972, 1980: Appendix III), and I believe that the analyses below confirm it, more or less. Nevertheless, the explanation suggested above is clearly somewhat shallow: Since all clauses in a text presumably belong together in some sense, we want to know why some are kept closer together, punctuationally speaking, than others.

Another possible explanation proffered by Brostrøm and Lund is that Andersen simply didn't master the conventions of Danish punctuation. This is unlikely to be the case. By the time Andersen began to write his fairy tales, he had spent five years at grammar schools in Slagelse and Elsinor and had one year's private tuition before matriculating in 1828 (de Mylius 1993:22-27). It is inconceivable that he would not have acquired at least the rudiments of the punctuation system in use in his contemporary Denmark.

That system was not very different from that which is still widely observed in Danish. Its chief difference from the system for English is that finite clauses within sentences must be marked off by commas. In this respect, the Danish system can be described as more grammatically based than that of English; for example, in Danish, ‘he said that he was cold’ has a comma separating the reporting from the reported clause: han sagde, at han frøs; and ‘it is a pity that punctuation is so hard’ has a comma separating the main from the subordinate clause: det er en skam, at tegnsætningen er så svær. Andersen does not usually break this intra-sentential, grammatically based punctuation rule; it is only with respect to sentence-boundary demarcation that he appears non-conformist. If the ‘text-sentence is that unit of written text that is […] presented as bracketed by a capital letter and a period’ (Nunberg 1990:22), then Andersen's finite clause to text-sentence ratio appears abnormally large. Because of translators' tendency toward normalization, this often has the result that there are far more sentences in translations of an Andersen story than there are in the original. For example, the opening paragraph of “Den grimme Ælling” (“The Ugly Duckling”) (Andersen 1844 [Dal 1964:30]) which, in the Dal edition, comprises fifteen lines of print, consists of only three full sentences. In eight of the translations listed at the end of this article there are the following number of sentences in the translation-equivalent text-segment:

six (Kingsland and Peulevé)

seven (Anon)

eight (Spink)

nine (in two paragraphs) (Corrin, Keigwin and Lewis)

twelve (in two paragraphs) (Haugaard)

(Blegvad's 1993 collection does not include this story).

Brostrøm and Lund in fact discard the two potential explanations just discussed, preferring to link Andersen's use of punctuation to what they term his ‘sense of tempo’. This, they point out, was already well developed by 1832 when, three years before the first set of stories appeared, the twenty-seven-year-old Andersen began to write his first autobiography.1

I want to suggest that Andersen's punctuation provides explicit support for his lexicogrammar, and that in translations of the stories, normalization of the punctuation is typically accompanied by lexicogrammatical changes which suggest a ‘reading’ of the Source Text which disregards exactly those signals of focus which are realized through the interplay of punctuation and lexicogrammar.


Consider the fourth (and last) sentence of the opening paragraph of “Den standhaftige Tinsoldat” (“The steadfast tin soldier”) (Andersen 1838 [Dal 1963:121]), together with nine translations:


Den ene Soldat lignede livagtig den anden, kun en the one soldier resembled lifelike the other only a eneste var lidt forskjellig; han havde eet Been, single one was slightly different he had one leg thi han var blevet støbt sidst, og saa var der ikke for he had been cast last and then was there not Tin nok; dog stod han ligesaa fast paa sit ene, som tin enough yet stood he just as fast on his one as de andre paa deres to, og det erjust ham, som the others on their two and it is exactly he who bliver mærkværdig. becomes remarkable2



The soldiers were like each other to a hair; all but one, who had only one leg, because he had been made last, when there was not quite enough tin left. He stood as firmly, however, upon his one leg as the others did upon their two, and it is this one-legged tin soldier's fortunes that seem to us worthy of being told.


Each soldier looked exactly like the next, except for one who was a bit different. He had only one leg as he was the last to be cast and there had not been enough tin. Yet he stood as steadily on his one as the others on their two, and it is precisely he who is going to be of interest.


Each soldier was the spitten image of the other, except for one who was slightly different. He had only one leg, for he had been cast last of all and there hadn't been enough tin left. All the same, he stood just as firm on his one leg as the others on their two. And it is precisely this one that our story is about.


They were all exactly alike except one, who was different from the others because he was missing a leg. He had been the last one to be cast and there had not been enough tin. But he stood as firm and steadfast on his one leg as the others did on their two. He is the hero of our story.


Each soldier was the image of the other, except for one who was a little bit different. He had only one leg, because he was the last to be made and there wasn't enough tin to go round. Still, there he stood, as firmly on his one leg as the others on their two; and, as it happened, he's the soldier this story is all about.


One soldier looked exactly like another—only a single one of them was a little bit different: he had one leg because he had been cast the last, and there wasn't enough tin left. Yet he stood just as firm on his one leg as the others did on their two, and he's the one the story is really about.


Each soldier was exactly like the next—except for one, which had only a single leg; he was the last to be moulded, and there was not quite enough tin left. Yet he stood just as well on his one leg as the others did on their two, and he is the story's hero.


One soldier looked just like the next, except for a single one who was a little different. He had but one leg, for he had been the last to be cast, and there hadn't been enough tin left over. Still, he was as steady on his one leg as the others on their two, and he is just the one who is interesting.


Each soldier was the living image of the next, except for one who was a little bit different. He had only one leg, as he was the last to be made and there hadn't been enough tin to go round. But he stood just as firmly on his one leg as the others did on two, and he was the one that was to stand out from the rest.


The soldier of the story's title is introduced as an individual for the first time in the Source Text segment under discussion, the preceding text having concentrated on the twenty five soldiers of which he is one, as a group. We are now told that ‘only one was slightly different; he had one leg,’ (my translation). Andersen does not say that ‘he had only one leg’ which it would have been well within his power to say in Danish had he wanted to—just that ‘he had one leg’. Since Danes are as much bipeds as English people, the absence of ‘only’ is no less marked in Danish than it may seem in English.

The word, ben, ‘leg’, does not occur again in the Source Text passage; it is pointedly left unmentioned in the stretch ‘he stood as fast on his one, as the others on their two’, and the impression of referential incompleteness (‘his one what?’) which this creates is no less odd in Danish than it may be in English. We are then told that this is the soldier who will become remarkable.3 He is not remarkable yet, if we are to believe the narratorial voice, in spite of his one-leggedness. Ergo, it is unlikely to be in his one-leggedness that his remarkableness-to-be resides.

The lexicogrammatical playing down of the one-leggedness is clearly reinforced in this passage by the stream-of-text effect which the lack of full stops creates: The absence of a denotational noun in the referring noun phrase ‘his one’ would, arguably, create more disturbance in reading, had this clause been separated with a full stop from the previous clause, where the referent is made explicit.

A constant theme in Andersen's œuvre is the opposition between what society in general pays attention to, values and despises, and that which is genuine remarkable, valuable or despicable. In this passage, an aspect of a character's physique which would normally be noticed and remarked upon, is deliberately being played down as incidental by the lexicogrammar and the punctuation, and we await information about the way in which the soldier is to become recognizable as genuinely remarkable.

Compare, now, the Target Texts' treatments of the features of the Source Text which I have just discussed, that is:

  • ST: One sentence; ‘one leg’; ‘on his one’; future time in ‘will become remarkable’.
  • TT 1: Two sentences; ‘only one leg’; ‘upon his one leg’; ‘this one-legged tin soldier’; present time in ‘seem … worthy’
  • TT 2: three sentences; ‘only one leg’; ‘on his one’; future time in ‘is going to be of interest’
  • TT 3: four sentences; ‘only one leg’; ‘on his one leg’; present time in ‘our story is about’
  • TT 4: four sentences; ‘he was missing a leg’; ‘on his one leg’; present time in ‘is the hero’
  • TT 5: three sentences; ‘only one leg’; ‘on his one leg’; present time in ‘is all about’
  • TT 6: two sentences; ‘one leg’; ‘on his one leg’; present time in ‘is really about’
  • TT 7: two sentences; ‘only a single leg’; ‘on his one leg’; present time in ‘he is … hero’
  • TT 8: three sentences; ‘but one leg’; ‘on his one leg’; present time in ‘is interesting’
  • TT 9: three sentences; ‘only one leg’; ‘on his one leg’; future time in ‘was to stand out’

It is clear that no translation plays down the one-leggedness as clearly as the source text, lexicogrammatically speaking. No translation has only one sentence, and they all, to varying degrees, focalize the one-leggedness of the soldier. The translations with least lexical focus on this characteristic of the soldier are Blegvad's and Kingsland's (TTs 2 and 6): Blegvad retains the inexplicitness of reference in ‘on his one’, and Kingsland refrains from using ‘only’. Blegvad also explicitly presents the soldier's remarkableness as situated in future time.

The translations with the strongest lexicogrammatical focus on one-leggedness are Haugaard's and Lewis' (TTs 4 and 7): Haugaard replaces ‘had one leg’ with ‘was missing a leg’, and Lewis amplifies her ‘only’ with ‘a single’. Both attribute present hero-status to the soldier.

The remaining translations all modify ‘one leg’ with ‘only’ or ‘but’; all add ‘leg’ to ‘on his one’; and all, except Spink (TT 9), end on a reference to the present time.

There are, then, clear lexicogrammatical indications in all these translations that the one-leggedness of the soldier is significant. This lexicogrammatical focus on one-leggedness is reinforced by placing in one text-sentences the information that the soldier has one leg, and in another text-sentence the information that he stood as firmly as the others, in most cases together with the information that he is already interesting.

The patterning of punctuation in the ten texts is:

ST other, only different; he leg, for
TT 1 hair; all one, who leg, because
TT 2 next, except different. He leg as
TT 3 other, except different. He leg, for
TT 4 one, who others because leg. He
TT 5 other, except different. He leg, because
TT 6 another—only different: he leg because
TT 7 next—except one, which leg; he
TT 8 next, except different. He leg, for
TT 9 next, except different. He leg, as
ST last, and enough; yet one, as
TT 1 last, when left. He firmly, however, upon
TT 2 cast and tin. Yet one as
TT 3 all and left. All leg as
TT 4 cast and tin. But leg as
TT 5 made and round. Still, there stood, as leg as
TT 6 last, and left. Yet leg as
TT 7 moulded, and left. Yet leg as
TT 8 cast, and over. Still, he leg as
TT 9 made and round. But leg as
ST two, and he, who remarkable.
TT 1 two, and fortunes that told.
TT 2 two, and he who interest.
TT 3 two. And one that about.
TT 4 two. He story.
TT 5 two; and, as happened, he about.
TT 6 two, and one the about.
TT 7 two, and he is hero.
TT 8 two, and one who interesting.
TT 9 two, and one that rest.

All the translations have sentence boundaries where the original has them. None reproduces exactly the sixth and eighth marks for the very good reasons that English disallows comma before ‘as’ in comparisons and between a main and a restrictive relative clause (TT 1's insertion of ‘however’ and TT 5's insertion of ‘as it happened’, which strongly invite comma-bracketing, may or may not be attempts to compensate). What is interesting is what happens in the case of the remaining punctuation marks, particularly the second and fifth mark. Every translation has a full stop in at least one of these positions, and TTs 2, 3, 5, 8 and 9 has a full stop in both. TT 4 has the first full stop after ‘leg’. On the assumption that partitioning information off in a separate sentence invites the reader to attend to it as a piece of information of some particular significance—sufficiently whole in and for itself to merit a sentence to itself—these full stops reinforce the impression made by the lexicogrammatical choices that the one-leggedness is significant.

Assuming the strength-ranking of punctuation marks referred to above (comma—semicolon—period), it is of general interest, I think, that (disregarding the dash in TTs 6 and 7, and disregarding instances of relatively severe reformulation) the translators, whenever they alter STs punctuation, alter it from a weaker to a stronger mark: The first ST mark, a comma, becomes in TT 1 a semicolon. The second ST mark, a semicolon, becomes a period. The third ST mark, a comma, becomes a semicolon or a period, though it has to be said that two TTs, 2 and 6, do not punctuate in this position at all. Similarly, five TTs, 2, 3 4, 5 and 9, do not punctuate for ST's fourth mark, again a comma. The fifth ST mark, a semicolon, becomes, without exception, a period in the translations, and the seventh, a comma, becomes, in those translations that do not reproduce it as a comma, a period or a semicolon.


There is, then, a general tendency to ‘strengthen’ Andersen's punctuation, particularly when his use of the semicolon may appear to ‘sanction’ a sentence boundary. But even Andersen's commas are not immune to translational transformation into periods, and the general tendency in these translations is to adjust Andersen's punctuation in conformity with the norms of the Target system. Even Blegvad,4 who tends towards general lexicogrammatical faithfulness5 to the original, has not carried this tendency through to the punctuation. I can think of no other explanation for this than a belief in the proposition that punctuation is less important than other textual features. I hope to have shown that this proposition should be followed by at least a question mark.


  1. Levnedsbogen, written between 1832 and 1833; Andersen never published this early work which appeared for the first time in 1926.

  2. This passage clearly shows Andersen's grasp of the notion of the clause boundary: all finite clauses are marked off with comma or semicolon. In the case of the comparison,

    dog stod han ligesaa fast paa sit ene, som de andre paa deres to, yet stood he just as fast on his one, as the others on their two

    the comma is grammatically sanctioned by the presence of the conjunction som (‘as’).

  3. Bliver is in the simple present tense, but this tense is standardly used to indicate future time in Danish.

  4. Blegvad (1993:12) remarks as follows: ‘His [Andersen's] is also my mother-tongue and I understand every word and innuendo. If the English in these translations sounds old-fashioned, well, so does the original Danish’.

  5. A notion which makes reasonably good sense in the case of languages as closely related as English and Danish. So, however, would punctuational faithfulness.

Works Cited

Brostrøm, T, and Lund, J. 1991. Flugten i sproget: H. C. Andersen's udtryk. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

de Mylius, J. 1993. H. C. Andersen—Liv og Vœrk. Copenhagen: Aschehough.

Doherty, M. 1992. “Relativity of sentence boundary.” Babel 38(2): 72-8.

Fludernik, M. 1993. The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction: The Linguistic Representation of Speech and Consciousness. London and New York: Routledge.

Genette, G. 1972 Figures III. Discours du récit. Paris: Seuil.

Genette, G. 1980. Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Levinson, J. 1986. “Punctuation and the Orthographic Sentence: A Linguistic Analysis.” City University of New York dissertation.

Melo, C. L. de A. 1990. “Punctuation in English and Portuguese Translations: When Every Point Counts.” Meta XXXV (4): 720-31.

Newmark, P. 1981. Approaches to Translation. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Nunberg, G. 1990. The Linguistics of Punctuation (CSLI Lecture Notes Number 18). Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information, Leland Stanford Junior University.

Parkes, M. B. 1992. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Aldershot: Scholar Press.

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Ellen J. Esrock (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5797

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, what they do not recall with such uniformity is the story itself. What is even more curious are the radical differences in their understanding of what one would suppose was a straightforward fairy tale. Granted, Andersen addressed this story and his others to different audiences. While enchanting the small children gathered about him in various homes, he also enjoyed amusing the sophisticated adults who listened from afar. But differences in one's understanding of the story are not simply a matter of one's age.

The conflicting interpretations of Andersen's fairy tale are symptomatic of conflicting cultural attitudes about a subject that lies at the heart of the tale—women's bodily knowledge, which is represented textually through the sense of touch. Although the story poses interpretive complexities to its readers because of its use of touch and bodily knowledge, “The Princess and the Pea” also helps illuminate these complexities by exhibiting their cultural dynamics. Specifically, the story warns women of the consequences of transferring their bodily knowledge from the private domain into the public, where this knowledge is defined and judged by public standards.

Such a cautionary message might on first thought seem unlikely, as the tale concerns the rewards, not the punishments, given to a Princess for public, bodily proof of her royalty. In this paper, this claim is supported through an analysis of the story and the responses of its readers. Analysis will also show how this message is conveyed through a discourse in which the notions of public and private, expressed through various metaphors, alternate and overlap with one another, echoing the dual realities of women's lives.

A brief recounting of Andersen's story will refresh the reader's memories. “The Princess and the Pea” begins with the quest of a Prince to find a “real Princess.” His search has failed until one night there arrives at his castle a bedraggled young girl who claims to be a real Princess. Offered hospitality by the Prince's wary mother, the girl spends a wretched night, tossing and turning in a bed into which the Queen has placed a small pea under 20 mattresses and 20 comforters. When the Queen inquires in the morning as to the accommodations, the girl describes sustaining terrible black and blue bruises from something in the bed. The Queen is delighted because this hypersensitivity reveals, beyond the power of words, the girl's royal lineage. She is accepted as a real Princess and promptly married to the Prince. The pea goes on display in a museum.

From a few casual conversations with friends about this story, I discovered that people tended to characterize the Princess negatively. Interested in learning more about this reaction, I conducted a set of interviews with students and with a number of my colleagues. Guiding these interviews was the premise that memory is reconstructive, a well-accepted concept articulated by psychologist F. C. Bartlett (1932) in his experiment with British schoolchildren. Using a folk story from a foreign culture in which events occurred that were not explainable within the cultural experience of the students, Bartlett had the children read the tale and recount it at intervals over a number of years. He found that as time went on the students not only remembered less of the story but that they misremembered the story in ways that made sense of those elements that were originally foreign to them. In other words, in remembering the story they were reconstructing or “naturalizing” it consistent with their own cultural experiences.

Under ideal conditions I would have had access to my interview subjects at the first time in childhood that they encountered “The Princess and the Pea” and at subsequent intervals until the present day. Such a comparison of adult and child might have reliably demonstrated naturalizations over time that serve to explain incomprehensible aspects of the story. Moreover, adult responses might also have shown a slightly different kind of reconstruction than the one that Bartlett discusses. I refer to a reworking of the original responses in terms of its significance within a larger cultural pattern. This would not so much involve an alteration of the story elements as a description of them in terms of adult systems of knowledge. For example, one interview subject reported her childhood concern about no one accepting the Princess' identity. As a child, this person might have said simply “And no one believed she was really a Princess.” The term “identity” is an adult expression that conveys a range of issues about the self that a child would not yet grasp.

Though lacking these experimental conditions, I decided to ask my students and colleagues for their memories of childhood. I reasoned that at least Andersen's story existed as a point of reference against which to evaluate any reported changes, though there was still the problem of people not having heard the same version of the story and, beyond this, of people lying about their memories. As these interviews were not intended to serve as rigorous social science experiments but inquiries used to elicit provocative material, I chose to take the interviews at surface value: I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of the respondents and therefore accepted their proposed memories as truthful reconstructions of childhood experiences. The responses were used as indicators of naturalized changes made from the original Andersen text and, more extensively, as adult conceptualizations of childhood experience, which would reflect something about both childhood and adult responses to the tale.

I interviewed two groups of people about their early reactions to the Andersen story: the first was a group of colleagues—individuals from different disciplines who possessed strong interpretive skills. The second was a class of 17 undergraduate students from a 1998 Women Writers course given at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I asked each group to try to recall what they thought about the story when they were children and to let me know if they had encountered recent versions of the tale. I planned not to examine the responses of those who had recent exposure to the story in order not to taint the reconstructed childhood memories. As the students were in a literature class, I urged them not to do any kind of “literary interpretation” but just try to recall their early impressions. I made a similar request to my colleagues.

The responses I collected and analyzed displayed naturalizations, which Bartlett would have described as a result of the story conflicting with cultural norms, and curiously conflicting interpretations. For the most part, the responses of my colleagues showed greater complexity than those of the students. This I attribute to their having reconstructed more of their memories in terms of their own cultural experiences, which are more verbally and conceptually developed than those of the students. My interest, however, lies not so much in these differences in the level of complexity but in the similarities among different kinds of responses and the evidence of naturalizations and conflicts that characterize the full spectrum of reactions.

Evident on this spectrum were naturalizations that appeared in the students' efforts to explain parts of the story that were incomprehensible or were not detailed in the original version. Specifically, one student notes that the Princess “fell off a boat or something and swims to the castle of some other royalty,” which explains the woman's mysterious bedraggled appearance at the door of the castle. Another student said of the Princess that “She was orphaned or something,” a response which explains why no one knew she was a Princess or worried that she was missing. Attempting to make sense of the many mattresses, one student recalled: “The Princess kept complaining because of a small pea in her bed. It was making her uncomfortable and several [people] kept adding bedding to try to make it better.” Here the student eliminated the pea test by imagining that everyone was trying to make the poor girl more comfortable. Finally, one student recalled the story as having to do with a man who senses a small lump in the bed, and another student mused, “I remember a little Princess who plants a pea and believed it to be magical. But I think that is the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.” Perhaps these two later alterations might reflect the reconstructing of the tale into something that is more familiar—either by assimilating the story into another or substituting the gender of the main character so as to parallel familiar hero quest stories.

These naturalizations make sense of something that is unusual and not easily reconciled with norms within our culture. More common than such naturalizations, though reflecting a similarly unfamiliar quality of the story, are the interpretative conflicts generated by the fairy tale. These are apparent when the interview responses are grouped together in terms of the three topics that seemed to produce the most striking differences in interpretation. They are: (1) the girls' sensitivity, (2) the test, and (3) the girl's character.

The first concerns the exceptional sensitivity that marks the disheveled girl as a real Princess. Some students interpreted this sensitivity as a metaphor for conventional moral goodness:

  • Wow, if I can remain good and pure, I'll pass whatever tests to get my Prince charming.
  • I felt very sympathetic for the Princess. She had something beautiful inside her, but the Prince couldn't see that, when he realized it in the morning, I felt vindicated. I like happy endings.

I also received a literal interpretation of this sensitivity:

  • I used to think that it was really odd that someone could be that sensitive. I used to sleep on all my toys when I was little.

Predominantly, there were negative assessments of this sensitivity, whether interpreted literally or metaphorically:

  • I thought she was prissy and why would they want her to believe that.
  • I got that refined girls have to be sensitive and be stereotypically squeamish. We should be affected by small things and be of a fragile mind.
  • At the time I was confused and a little put off that Princesses were so sensitive, little boy that I was.

On the matter of the test, some readers did not interpret it metaphorically as part of a means of ascertaining true value but responded to it literally, as a superhuman feat, which they accepted or ignored:

  • Ridiculous that a Princess could feel a pea underneath her.
  • How come she never realized this simple cause in the first place … instead of going through all that.
  • I was at first confused and in disbelief, because, logically, a pea would be crushed by the weight of the many mattresses … [I] disregarded it as pure imagination.
  • True love won out at the end. It didn't matter to me [about] the pea being felt under the mattresses. Was somewhat of a farfetched idea.
  • It made absolutely no sense to me.

One student seemed to personalize the test, confessing:

  • I remember thinking I would never sleep in the castle to prove I was a Princess.

Most importantly, in regard to the girl's character the majority of students judged her negatively when she reported having spent a miserable night:

  • This was a very ungrateful Princess, not like other fairy tales.
  • The only reaction I remember having was how spoiled she was and ungrateful.
  • I could never complain about something so stupid. My mom wouldn't have stood for it.

Similar responses were echoed by my colleagues. Though they responded somewhat differently, they also reacted to negative judgments about the Princess' sensitivity to the pea—whether their own judgments or those of others. One woman told me that when she and her husband want to refer to someone making a big fuss over something (e.g., being overly sensitive), they use the term “Princess Pea.” A second woman recalled not liking “the complaining girl” and concluded, “I thought it was bad to be aristocratic.” Along these same lines, another reported feeling “What an incredible lot of trouble to go to find someone who is going to be a lot of trouble.” For one man, this fussy quality was a trait of girls: “I thought it was about how incredibly hypersensitive some little girls are to the slightest discomfort.”

Some of the responses were not so uniformly critical of the Princess. Applying the Princess' sensitivity to herself, one woman said, “It taught me not to be proud of my sensitivities but to try to hide them because they were trouble to other people.” Another spoke of feeling defensive of the Princess for “not being believed about something as important as one's identity.” Though she had only a vague recollection of the story, this same woman recalled that it had to do with “oversensitivity and pain” … something about pain as a threshold … people will believe your pain.” Another woman remembered accepting her mother's characterization of her as being like the Princess but defending this special sensitivity with retorts like, “So, what's wrong with that!” One woman actually recalled feeling conflicted about the story. On the one hand, she mused, “It was supposed to be good to have this special power and to be rewarded with a Prince. On the other hand, what a waste of talent.”

When these responses are taken as a whole, they show several common interpretive conflicts: One concerns whether the girl is to be judged positively or negatively, even though she is characterized positively within the narrative. The other is an unresolved shifting between literal and metaphorical levels of meaning, that is, a lack of uniformity in deciding what is literal and metaphorical. For example, some people interpret the pea test literally, as a legitimate measurement of a power and others take it metaphorically; some take the girl's sensitivity as a metaphor of her goodness and others as a literal trait.

The professional reviewers of the story in Andersen's time and the present day showed some of the same interpretive conflicts as those noted above. Admittedly, if one first hears the tale as an adult one would likely interpret it to be about a kind of sensitivity that is emotional rather than physical—and not worry about the durability of peas. However, even with a metaphorical interpretation of sensibility, critics have not been unanimous on how to interpret Andersen's ethical stance. One reviewer in Andersen's time (cited in Toksvig 1932, p. 177), appalled by the rewards granted the hypersensitive Princess, criticized the story for the moral lesson it would teach children:

As for ‘The Princess and the Pea,’ it seems to the reviewer not only indelicate but also indefensible, in so far as the child might absorb the false idea that great ladies must always be so terribly thin-skinned.

But even if one feels that the story is not about aristocratic gentility but emotional sensibility, it is still unclear whether Andersen is criticizing or praising it. Commentators disagree. Signe Toksvig (1932, p. 177) talks about the tale as a teasing rebuke against emotional oversensitivity, suggesting that Andersen was writing it for his little friend Henriette Wulff, “who has been so sensitive in a very small matter.” From this perspective, the tale is ironic. On the other hand, contemporary critic Pavel Trost (1985, p. 298) notes that the people who have most sensibility in the culture are poets like Andersen and describes the story's theme as the “self-mirroring of a poet.” Admittedly, by all accounts Andersen was a high-strung, stereotypically “sensitive” poet, whose works are understood to increasingly reflect on personal questions of sensibility, truth, and inner beauty.

I suggest that what fuels all of these interpretive conflicts is a component of the tale that is mentioned only occasionally in the interviews. It does not figure into the readers' assessment of the girl's character, though it is the character trait that directs the plot. I refer to the girl's heightened sense of touch. The sense of touch and bodily knowledge generates these confusions because of its particular cultural history. History validates touch in some contexts, for instance, when associated positively with nurturing and sexuality. Yet throughout history touch has also been denigrated in comparison with the other senses, especially when touch is associated with a subordinate aspect of women, as also occurs in connection with emotional and physical nurturing and sexuality.

Certainly, we have many reasons to value touch. Developmentally, touch is among the first senses to mature, presumably because it is most necessary for survival at the time. Opinion is divided as to whether the various senses are unified at birth and subsequently individuated or whether the senses are originally compartmentalized and integrated with one another over time. Either hypothesis is consistent with the well-accepted observation that vision and touch are almost immediately interconnected in infants. That is, infants seem to use one sensory modality to express something about the other (Stern 1985). Such intermosal connections not only demonstrate the extent to which touch is networked into other complex sensory systems (e.g., vision), but suggest that touch might be experienced through some kind of sensory translation—whether from sight to touch or touch to sight. Speculations about such interconnection abound. Are they neuroanatomical or metaphorical? In Touching, Ashley Montague notes that vocal sounds, specifically repetitive sounds, such as those of Eskimo poetry, create a “soothing tactile quality” (1971, p. 23). Similarly, the rhythms of Eskimo poetry might well imitate the rhythmic pattern of motion felt by the child who rides continuously on the mother's back (p. 232).

Although the importance of being touched to the emotional and physical development of baby animals was demonstrated by Harry Harlow in the 1960s and in numerous subsequent studies of animal primates, long-standing, cultural wisdom has been that the young need holding and stroking. The physical grooming rituals of animals, in which touch is the vehicle of social communication, can be discerned in the highly paid services of human masseuses, cosmeticians, and hair stylists.

Touch functions positively not only for purposes of physical and emotional health but also for spiritual health and well-being. Throughout the centuries spiritual healers have touched their patients. Touch might draw out negative energies, reconstitute such energies, or infuse healthy energies into the sick. Christians during the Middle Ages undertook arduous pilgrimages to sites having holy relics that they might physically touch. Later generations sought out the healing touch of the secular Monarch, who strove to embody religious powers.

But touch also elicits negative associations. One has a foreshadowing of this when looking through the massive folk-motif indexes (Thompson 1966, pp. 187-189). Under the category “Extraordinary Powers of Perception,” I found numerous references to extraordinary sight, such as “the person who ‘finds tracks of swine stolen seven years before his birth’” (Welsh) and the man who “can see celestial nymphs dancing in divine world” (India). I also found many references to extraordinary hearing, such as the man who “can hear grass (wool) grow” (Icelandic, Irish) and the man who “can hear one sleeping by putting ear to ground” (Italian). When shifting from these distal senses, which communicate though distance, to the proximal sense of touch, which is referred to as “marvelous sensitiveness,” I found only four references. One, of course, is “The Princess and the Pea.” Another, closely referenced, is to an Indian tale in which a “Prince thinks he has slept on a beam and a hair is found on his bedding.” The third pertains to a man who feels the point of a little thorn in his clothing, and the fourth to an adulterous woman who fakes an injury from rose leaves falling on her. None of these four tales has the spiritual, magical, or practical power that is communicated by the folk motifs about sight and hearing.

Although such motifs emerge within diverse cultural traditions, I shall focus only on those within Western culture, where their influence would be more direct on Andersen and on our reception of the tale. In this context, the negative aspects of touch might be traced back to Aristotle's definition of the senses. Sight, according to Aristotle, is the keenest of the senses. It is clear and pure. Aristotle considered touch to be the most fundamental sense because it is basic to animals, which sometimes lack the other, more developed senses, and because touch works in the most direct manner. However, because of the fundamental nature of touch, it is the most degraded of the senses, judged on ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical grounds.

Such condemnations of touch were reflected in the ascetic movement of Christianity, with its denial and mortification of the flesh. Aquinas reaffirmed this basic sensory regime with his privileging of the intellect over the senses—and thus more intellectual senses over lower senses, of which touch is the lowest, and of men over animals. This same rank order is echoed throughout the centuries in religious and philosophical traditions, which similarly polarized the mind and the body, rationality and emotion.

Within these orderings, touch stands on the same side as emotion and body, a connection that is reflected in our ordinary linguistic expressions. When we are emotionally moved by something—an experience, a picture, a song—we say “it's touching; I'm touched.” Here we are attributing something with the capacity to effect us/touch us/through its emotional power. Thus, we find a cultural link between touch and emotion, emotional sensitivity, and, perhaps also, artistic sensitivity.

Predictably, gender figures into these sensory orderings. Women, like animals, are more closely associated with touch than with the intellective, abstractive, distance senses like sight. The moral dimension appears clearly when touch is understood as animal touch—sensual touch, which is the powerful, unholy weapon of women. Indeed, some argue that women are more sexually responsive to touch than to sight, unlike men (Irigiray 1985, pp. 25-26). Curiously, women are also linked with touch not through associations with sexuality but with emotionality. As linked to the animal side of the epistemological spectrum, their mode of knowing is less abstractive and more emotionally guided. Women are regarded as emotionally vulnerable—in other words, sensitive. The clustering of these various associations leads to the easy translation of touch sensitivity into emotional sensitivity.

By highlighting some of these vicissitudes in the cultural history of touch, I do not mean to suggest that the other senses have not also been subject to positive and negative associations. Sight, for instance, is sometimes hailed as the supreme sense yet also dismissed as inferior to the faculty of abstract understanding. In contrast to sight, however, touch has been more consistently designated as inferior within Western philosophy and the general culture, especially when it is associated with the inferior or marginalized status of women. As witnessed by the folk-indexes, even outside of the Western tradition touch has not been assimilated into the ranks of supersensory powers that are traditionally slotted into fairy tales and other popular forms.

This cultural history supports two conclusions. First and foremost, what motivates some of the readers' criticisms of the Princess—a reversal of the story's positive characterization of the girl—is the cultural association between women's physical sensitivity and emotional sensitivity, specifically, the link between a woman reporting her physical experience of touch and negative images of women who are hypersensitive to physical conditions, who complain about trivialities, and who demand special treatment.

The second conclusion draws also on the readers' responses to the story. I suggest that the use of touch as the positive test marker in “The Princess and the Pea” so unbalances one's understanding of the tale—even for children—that readers shift between the literal and metaphorical levels of the story, grasping onto various possibilities of meaning. This shifting about permits parts of the narrative to emerge into the forefront of one's awareness, where they are judged by different standards than would be the case in a more conventional fairy tale, where it is clear what is fanciful and metaphorical. The pea test is not understood as proof of nobility but as a reflection of poor manners.

These interpretive shifts might be further explained by reference to the interview responses. As noted above, one of the readers recalled that pain was integral to the test and another noted thinking that she would never stay in such a castle. The same reader who recollected pain also spoke about how terrible it was that no one believed the girl. A third reader spoke about how she felt obliged to keep her needs to herself, as they would pose a burden to others. The idea that the girl's physical condition, personal identity, or emotional needs were not respected by other people might arouse an element of ambivalence about the favorable outcome of the story. Such ambivalence might parallel historical attitudes towards touch, which do not make it a conventional sign of royalty. In sum, they would destabilize one's conventional fairy tale reading of the text and thus open the field for alternative interpretations.

Although Andersen's fairy tale generates striking interpretive conflicts, the story also illuminates the issues of touch by commenting on a particular aspect of women's bodily knowledge. “The Princess and the Pea” cautions women about the consequences of translating their bodily knowledge from the private domain into the public. In advancing this thesis, I shall use the following broad, metaphorical notions of public and private. The most literal uses of the terms concern institutions. “Public” here pertains to public institutions, symbols, and practices that organize commerce and other aspects of society outside the home, whereas “private” refers to domestic institutions, practices, and symbols.

A broader use of these terms applies them to competing epistemologies and bodily systems of perception conventionally associated with these epistemologies. What I characterize as public pertains to intersubjectively observable phenomena, things that need a public to confirm, and to the sensory modality of sight, which provides knowledge at a distance from its object and is thus most appropriate for knowing in large public contexts. By contrast, the private concerns subjective experience, not verifiable to the public, and the sensory modality of touch, which provides information only when the stimulus is close to the private body of the perceiver.

Public and private also characterize different kinds of story telling. What is public pertains to written literature that is available to a wide public audience who can experience it outside of any particular home setting where it might be orally told. In contrast, the private refers to the tradition of oral telling, which is temporally and spatially localized in its availability, and, in Andersen's world, generally confined to domestic environments. Along these same lines, public would refer to literary forms that are highly conventional and private to those forms that are considered more informal.

Andersen's storytelling combines features of both public and private. The story is circulated in printed editions, as a reproduced object available to the public and requiring no determinate site of enactment. On the other hand, the manner of telling the story is that of an oral recitation in a private home, where the audience and storyteller confront one another directly in a specific time and place. Moreover, the public presentation of the story is that of a fiction, a fairy tale and yet it might be argued that the story has an autobiographical component, as do many other Andersen tales.

Consider finally the mixture of public and private elements that the story itself combines. The Prince expresses a desire to marry a “real Princess” and though he “traveled all over the world to find one. … Nowhere could he get what he wanted.” The marital interests of a Prince are of a mixed sort. On the one hand, the selection of a mate can be regarded as something intensely personal and nonpublic. Certainly the quest for a “real Princess” and not someone who merely occupies a public position of nobility could reflect an interest in the private sphere, a reality that transcends conventional cultural rankings based on lineage. Accordingly, his quest could be understood as a challenge to public classifications. On the other hand, the marriage of a Prince is no private matter. It is a matter of state and a public performance. In this light, the search for a “real Princess” could reflect a heightened commitment to the public sphere, where the best royalty gets the best, that is, the most real Princess. Indeed, the very quest might reflect an elitist demand for the best.

This ambiguity of public and private characterizes the introductory lines of the story and continues when the self-declared real Princess arrives. When “knocking was heard at the city gate. … The old King went to open it,” and when the bedraggled girl was taken to bed, it was the Queen who “took all the bedding off the bedstead” and made up the bed. As these are ordinarily tasks assigned to servants, the fact that the King and Queen perform these homey tasks suggest not the public realm of kingship and government but of private domesticity.

Wet and disarrayed, the girl's appearance does not reflect the public presentation of royalty, despite her claim to be a “real” Princess. If she is indeed “the real” Princess, her qualifications, at that moment, cannot be defined visually by the conventional public symbols—and yet, this is what will be required.

In response to the dearth of the semiotic codes denoting princesshood—no less “real princesshood,” the Prince's suspicious mother devises a test. The very notion of a test occupies a well-established place in public discourse: it offers results that many people can agree upon. In other words, like any piece of conventional science, it is intersubjectively verifiable. Curiously, this particular “public” test monitors a highly subjective experience, one that is associated with the intimate sense of internally experienced touch. Moreover, the test is conducted in the most intimate of private settings—in bed—during the mental state least accessible to public inquiry—sleep.

The outcome of this test is critical to establishing the claims of the Princess and to granting her an identity within the public sphere. Note, the queen asks “how she had slept” and the girl responds “Oh, very badly” and goes on to explain that she was lying on a thing so hard that she sustained bruises all over her body, “I am black and blue all over my body. It's horrible!” What the girl describes is an inner feeling—pain—and the visible manifestation of this pain, the bruises that only she can see—an inference I draw as otherwise the question is meaningless. These experiences from the private sphere are communicated, in language, by the girl to the mother, who occupies the site as a guardian of the entrance to the public sphere of royalty—kingship, the law of the father—through union with her son. In effect, the girl's body and soul are invisible—she claims to be a real Princess but no one believes her, until a test permits her to enter the public domain through bodily pain. The Prince then takes her for his wife, completing the program for marriage inscribed within the public sphere or, in the alternative interpretation, recognizing the inner beauty of a real Princess, unadorned, that constitutes a private realm of being.

The pea, which functioned originally as an anonymous instrument of discomfort in the private bedchamber becomes officially recognized and encased in glass within a public museum, like a trophy from a hunt, or a relic worthy of respect. Trophies and relics are objects, available to public scrutiny—through vision not touch—that have lost their original status and now function as objects commemorating this status. Insofar as this museumification moves the object from its use value to a symbol of its use value, I suggest this semiotic placement locates the object within definitions of the public sphere. The final phrase in the description of the pea's instatement within the museum, “where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it,” testifies, on the one hand, to the importance of sight as the sensory modality that confirms public value—recall, the Princess was doubted because she did not “look” right. The phrase also recognizes that the public object may have been reappropriated back into the private realm—that is, stolen and circulated in the nonofficial nonpublic spheres of exchange. Thus, the possibility of a return to the private concludes the actual story line.

On the surface, “The Princess and the Pea” does not seem to provide a cautionary message, as the girl is rewarded for demonstrating publicly that she is has the sensibility that marks her as a Princess. This surface reading dissolves, however, when the reader's critical judgments about the girl are taken into account. In light of the readers' responses, the tale reveals how the girl's private sensitivity to touch would never have been criticized by the reader—and rewarded by the story—were her bodily knowledge of the pea, and all that such knowledge represents about women's corporeal experiences, not made public. In reporting her experience in language, she translated this non-verbal experience into the public arena. In other words, the private possession of knowledge, and knowledge about the private sphere conventionally associated with nurturing and sexuality, would not have been judged negatively by readers. Only when such private, bodily knowledge is brought into the public domain is it subject to negative judgment. By immersing the reader in a story that shifts imperceptibly between public and private, Andersen permits the reader to experience symbolically the shifting domains of women's corporeal knowledge.

Works Cited

Andersen, H. C. (1835) 1975. Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work 1805-75. Translated by E. Bredsdorf. New York: Phaidon Press.

Bartlett, F. C. 1932. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Irigiray, L. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by C. Porter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Montague, A. 1971. Touching. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stern, D. 1985. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Thompson, S. 1966. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Toksvig, S. 1934. The Life of Hans Christian Andersen. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company.

Trost, P. 1984. “H. C. Andersen: Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse” (“H. C. Anderson: The Princess on the Pea”). Pp. 297-298 in Archiv fur das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen. Berlin, Germany.

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