Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
Andersen begins this tale with such a detailed description of the watery world, home of the sea king and his family, it becomes a very real setting. In his magnificent palace, the king, a widower, lives with his aging mother and his six mermaid daughters. Each princess has her own garden, planned with individuality, with the youngest princess wanting only rose-red flowers and a beautiful marble statue of a handsome boy, the remnant of a shipwreck.
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The king and his mother have been to the surface many times, and the princesses are intrigued with their stories of the world above. As each mermaid becomes fifteen years old, she is allowed to go up and look around for herself, and each returns to tell the others what she has seen of cities, nature, and humans. These descriptions also are written very imaginatively, so that the reader may believe that one princess is frightened by a small dog, another floats on an iceberg, and a third plays with dolphins and whales. At last the youngest mermaid becomes fifteen and makes the journey to the surface.
She sees a three-masted ship, on which a party to celebrate a prince’s sixteenth birthday is taking place. The little mermaid watches the handsome prince, whom she decides she loves. There is a severe storm; the ship is wrecked; the unconscious prince is left floating amid the rubble. The little mermaid manages to rescue him before returning to her undersea home but says nothing at first to her family about her experience.
Finally, she tells her sisters of her love, and they rise to the surface and show her his palace. She spends each evening gazing at her prince, although he is unaware of her. When she questions her grandmother about humans, she learns that they have a shorter life expectancy than sea people but that they do have eternal souls.
She then goes to an evil witch, who tells her how she can win the prince and acquire a soul. It is a hard bargain, because she must become mute. The sea witch cuts out her tongue. The mermaid drinks a magic potion that changes her tail to legs. If the prince marries her, she will acquire a soul. If he marries someone else, on that day she will turn to foam on the sea.
The prince becomes very fond of the little mermaid, but he does not think of her as his bride. He marries someone else. On the night of his wedding, the mermaid’s sisters rise from the sea to save her. They have given all their hair to the witch in exchange for a knife that the little mermaid must drive into the heart of the prince as he sleeps. This she refuses to do. As she hurls herself into the dissolving foam, she is borne aloft by the daughters of the air, who explain to her that they earn their immortal souls by their good deeds, and she becomes one of them.
At the time of its publication, there was conjecture about the ending’s being contrived, but in a letter, Andersen seems to indicate that he planned it from the beginning, having originally titled the story “Daughters of the Air.” Andersen’s feelings about religion may have made it difficult for him to condemn the loving mermaid with no possibility of acquiring an immortal soul. Andersen, who was not successful in love, perhaps identified with the little mermaid.
The famous bronze statue of the Little Mermaid by Edvard Eriksen was set up on the harbor promenade of Copenhagen in 1913.