Episode 12 – The Little Mermaid


(no tale type because, as we discussed in class, this isn’t technically a fairy tale)

Hi, I’m Shay, I’m Maddy, and I’m Danny. This is group 10 and we are performing our Archetype episode on “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen. “The Little Mermaid” was published in 1837 in a danish fairy tale collection.


Publication info: “The Little Mermaid” was first published 7 April 1837.

Further information: Digterens danske Værker 1822-1875 number 304.

The work was published as a part of Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Første Samling. Tredie Hefte. 1837[Danish title].


-Grandmother, also like the fairy godmother. In this story, the grandmother is a source of knowledge about the world above the sea, and is a loving figure.

-Youngest Child: often the most beautiful and gifted. Often the subject of fairy tales

-Witch: lives in woods (and yet somehow underwater).  The witch isn’t as evil as other witches common to fairy tales. She makes the little mermaid really think about her decisions. Archetype of the old crone. In this case, she is both helping and hindering the main character in the story. She helps the little mermaid get to the land, but also makes her journey difficult by imposing various drawbacks.

– Sisters: The little mermaid has many sisters. Sisters are common characters in fairy tales. These sisters are loving, although they have some trouble understanding the little mermaid’s desires.

-Dead mother

-Clueless king/father: he doesn’t play a large role in this tale.

-Prince as the guileless fool: he is not a very dynamic character. Because we read the story from the mermaid’s perspective, we are frustrated at how blind the prince is to her love. Everything turns out well for the prince in the end, he gets his happily ever after without putting in any effort, but the mermaid suffers.


– Numbers (age 15): coming of age

-Cutting off tongue/voicelessness: metaphor for femininity

-Hair as a symbol of feminine beauty: sister’s have to sacrifice their hair in order to try and save the little mermaid.

-Sea foam as a symbol for the essence of life: tying in with protoplasmic theory that was popular at the time the story was written

-Marble statue: symbol of personhood, image of beauty, immortal soul

-Pain/blood:  symbolizing menstruation.


Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid” while living in Denmark in the eighteen-hundreds. While growing up, Andersen was raised by a poor family and had depression issues. He had heard many fairy tales from his grandmother throughout the years, which probably sparked his interest in this genre[1]. The combination of childhood sadness and hearing tales may have been an influence for incorporating darkness into his tale “The Little Mermaid”.

Because this fairy tale was written in the pre-darwin era, it shows how ideas about life and death were different then from how they are now. Women weren’t necessarily seen as people; they had to gain their status through men. Much of what determined status for women back then was marriage.

In class, we related this idea to the tale. In “The Little Mermaid,” mermaids do not have souls. Although they live much longer than humans, when they die they turn into foam. The tale explained that a mermaid can obtain an immortal soul if she marries a human man. This is likely related to the views of women at the time. Status for women was gained either through her father or through her husband. She was passed from one to the other like property, with marriage acting as a transfer of ownership[2].

The foam that the tale mentioned also relates to the time which Andersen wrote this story. Protoplasmic theory was popular at the time. The idea behind this theory is that protoplasm is the essential substance that brings life. Life in all forms is tied to protoplasm. This was an early incarnation of cell biology[3]. Protoplasm can be correlated to foam, in the case of “The Little Mermaid.” When a mermaid dies in this story, they become nature again in the form of sea foam. The foam is a metaphor for the essence of life.




-implications for women: women were seen as less than people.

They were viewed as property. This view is displayed by how the prince acts towards the mermaid. He completely takes her for granted. He knows that she is devoted to him, but what does he ever do for her? She is merely a source of affection. She serves his needs, but he does not reciprocate at all. He does not value her as a person, and repeatedly refers to her as “dumb.” He treats her no better than a pet.

-validation through marriage: women cannot be validated as individuals

Instead, they must gain status through marriage. If their efforts to find a suitable husband prove futile, then there is not much else that they can do to be successful in society. This really reflects the beliefs of women at the time.

-silencing of women, and metaphors of womanhood

The mermaid has to cut off her tongue in order to pursue her prince. Because she has to learn how to attract with her body rather than voice, this story can be viewed as a metaphor for womanhood. Not only this, but it indicates a woman’s lack of power in society. She, quite literally, is unable to voice her opinions or say anything at all about who she is. Just like women are powerless to the injustices against them in society. This is a coming of age story, meant to portray how women have to adjust to society’s view of them once they reach maturity. Furthermore, the fact that every step she takes feels like knives, and that “the blood must flow” this brings to mind images of menstruation, adding to the metaphor of womanhood.

(All the historical facts I refer to here were pulled from our historical context section, or in-class discussions. I did not use any additional sources)


-In my close reading I found that this story was written with a masculine essence, which i interpreted in a dominating way. This relates to the historical connections in this story. It shows how men were somewhat more meaningful than women at the time. One way this was expressed was how Andersen described the community under the sea. He described this by describing the underwater community as “sea king and his subjects”. This story also uses this manner when explaining a women’s choices and desires. Throughout the story, I found it interesting how the little mermaid is always choosing to do dangerous acts to attempt to get what she wants. This is shown when she reaches the age of five-teen, and is able to go to the surface of the ocean. There, she finds the prince. The remainder of the story consists of her fighting to be with him. It is all about The Little Mermaid enduring losses and sacrifices have him as her own. She does this to become mortal and live as a human with the prince. This is shocking to me because this story is not how fairy tales usually play out. She sacrificed her voice and tongue to be with him, even though she would not be able to remind him of the first time he saw her due to her loss of voice. She endured sharp pains with every step she took, to be able to have human feet. She put her life on the line, only to be turned to foam. The prince ended up choosing to not have her, making the little mermaid suffer the consequence of death. Each time she got denied of something, she kept fighting and working towards what she wanted. However, it all ended when the male in this tale decided he wanted another woman. She lost everything she had, including her life, because of his decision. She knew she would be forever immortal and die if the prince did not choose her, and she continued to take those risks. This shows how conflict and frustration are strong trends in this tale and how it is perceived. I think that Andersen was trying to tell the audience through the story that life doesn’t always have to end in happy endings, even if it is sacrificed for.


     In my close-reading of “The Little Mermaid”, I argue that the story is a female coming-of-age tale as reflected in its imagery and that the little mermaids’ physical transformation is symbolic of a female’s transition from adolescence into womanhood. The idea that the little mermaid begins having sexual desires at the age of 15, and must go through a physical transformation to fulfill those desires, is a clear allusion to puberty. It is of note that the little mermaid’s only prerequisite to become human is through the acquisition of legs, an analogy to the physical requirements necessary to engage with a man sexually. Analogous to the little mermaid’s physical transformation is physical pain – a clear reference to the physical pain of a woman’s menstruation. The little mermaid feels physical pain at the beginning of her pubescent transformation when she is adorned with oysters by her grandmother, and again after drinking the witch’s draught – for which the witch says that the “blood must flow”. The cutting off of the little mermaid’s tongue as well as the blood requirement of the draught are also clear references to the physical turmoil of a woman’s puberty. One thing that I thought was interesting was that the little mermaid must sacrifice her voice in order to undergo her transformation. In literature, the voice of a mermaid or a siren is so beautiful that traveling sailors cannot escape its coercive beauty[4]. As a mermaid, by sacrificing her voice, the little mermaid is literally sacrificing her means of attracting men. In many traditional cultures, a woman’s virginity goes hand-in-hand with her social value and her ability to attract a man. Thus, the little mermaid’s loss of voice is symbolic of a loss of virginity or innocence – which makes sense in context of the story – as the little mermaid seeks the help of a witch to engage in her sexual desires involving the prince. Another interesting allusion to puberty and a girl’s transition into womanhood is the reason for the little mermaid needing physical legs. In the story, tails are considered “ugly” to human and the little mermaid won’t be considered beautiful until she has her “legs” – a metaphor that a woman’s physical beauty is developed during her transition into womanhood, and that the little mermaid won’t become beautiful until she’s gone from girl to woman. In puberty, we find transformation – a theme within the story that is clearly reflected in the story’s imagery. A common image used in the story is the flower, especially common in its use to describe the little mermaid and her sisters. The flower undergoes a physical transformation from bud to flower, and its use in conjunction with the mermaids in the story is a clear reference to themes of puberty and maturation explored in the story. Another image of physical transformation I thought was notable was the mermaids’ transition from ocean to the surface world on their 15th birthdays. The imagery of the mermaids going from underwater to the surface above water plays on the idea of rebirth and, thus, physical transformation. Finally, the repeated imagery of the sun & moon is symbolic of the entrance of masculine energy into the little mermaid’s world. In literature, the moon is often associated with the feminine energy and the ocean[5][6], while the sun is often associated with masculine energy & land[7] the two having a kind of yin and yang relationship. Up until her 15th birthday, the little mermaid is confined to the ocean – the feminine – and knows nothing of the sun. On her 15th birthday, she is able to go above-water and experience the sun & the surface world for the first time, symbolic of the entrance of masculine energy into the little mermaid’s world as she begins her pubescent transformation.


[1]“Hans Christian Andersen – Biography.” Fairy Tales Collection: A Collection of the World’s      Fairy Tales. Accessed April 27, 2018.


[2]Wojtczak, Helena. “WOMEN’S STATUS IN MID 19TH-CENTURY ENGLAND A BRIEF    OVERVIEW.” English Women’s History. Accessed April 27, 2018.        (http://www.hastingspress.co.uk/history/overview.html)

[3]Geison, Gerald L. “The Protoplasmic Theory of Life and the Vitalist-Mechanist Debate.” Isis   60, no. 3 (1969): 273-92.

[4]“History of Sirens.” Real Mermaids. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://www.realmermaids.net/mermaid-history/siren-history/.

[5]“Connection between Woman and the Moon.” Freedom Technology. Accessed May 01, 2018. https://www.freedomtek.org/en/moon/the_woman_and_the_moon.php.

[6]Protas, Allison. “Moon.” Moon. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/M/moon.html.

[7]Protas, Allison. “Sun.” Sun. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/S/sun.html.


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