Literature: The Little Mermaid

This is a classic Fairy Tale written by Hans Christian Andersen, about a mermaid who seeks to become human.

In this tale, mermaids live for centuries but have no afterlife. The youngest mermaid of the royal family is allowed to go up to the surface once she turns 15, and for several years in a row she longingly drinks in the tales her older sisters tell her of what it is like up there. When her time comes, she rescues a human prince from a storm and falls in love with him.

She then makes a deal with the Sea Witch to become human, but at heavy cost. The Sea Witch grants her legs and inhuman grace, but it will feel painful to walk, as if she is always stepping on swords. The mermaid also gives her tongue as payment. If she can make the Prince fall in love with her and marry her, she can gain a share in his soul and be human all her life, but if he marries another, she will die at the next dawn after his wedding day.

The prince she loves finds her and, charmed by her grace, takes her in and makes her a sort of pet.

Then he is betrothed, and his intended bride turns out to be the temple maiden he fell in love with at first sight when she found him on the shore after the little mermaid rescued him from drowning. As the mermaid mourns, her sisters appear to her with a Last-Second Chance — she can kill the prince with the enchanted knife they give her and live out her centuries as a mermaid — or she will die at dawn. Unable to murder the man she loves, the mermaid throws herself into the sea and dissolves into sea foam.

Andersen revised the tale twice, first to change the sad ending to a bittersweet one (which he said he intended from the beginning), and then to make the ending have more of a moral to it adding that the little mermaid has become a "daughter of the air" and after 300 years of good deeds, can get an immortal soul and go to Heaven.

The story has been adapted several times, from ballets, to musicals, to the the 1989 hit Disney Animated Canon film, The Little Mermaid. The Disney version changed the ending to a Happily Ever After one, and several subsequent adaptations have followed suit.

It can be read online here.

Provides Examples Of

  • An Aesop: The latest ending makes the good deeds time adjust depending on whether children are being good or bad, with more time off for good behavior than time added for bad behavior.
    • In the story itself, it seems to say "don't give up your life for love", as the Little Mermaid, who could swim around, do as she pleased, and live for 300 years under the sea, gave it all up because she fell in love and ended up dying because the prince loved someone else.
  • Agony of the Feet: The Little Mermaid always feels like she is walking on blades, while she is human.
  • And I Must Scream: You have sold your tongue and you feel like walking on blades every time you set a foot on ground without being able to complain about the pain. And the mermaid was said to be a gifted dancer.
  • Author Avatar: The story was written around the time a man Andersen loved romantically was getting married. There are claims that at the time, Andersen was writing desperate letters that he didn't dare send, saying "I want to tell my love, but I cannot speak." Sound familiar?
  • Become a Real Boy: Mermaids live for three hundred years and then dissolve into sea foam, having no afterlife of any kind. The protagonist's ongoing wish, even prior to her falling in love with the prince, is to become a human and acquire an immortal soul though in many adaptations this is completely ignored in favor of emphasizing the love story.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Little Mermaid can gain an immortal soul after doing about 300 years of good deeds.
  • Cessation of Existence: Mermaids live longer than human but don't have an afterlife.
  • Cute Mute: The mermaid as a human.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Unlike the villainous Ursula from the Disney movie, the sea witch in the original tale was a neutral character. She had no ulterior motivations, her demand of the price was simply payment, and she gladly helped the mermaid's sisters in saving her, in addition to warning the mermaid of the deal's consequences.
  • Downer Ending: The mermaid is given a choice to kill the prince and return home or not and turn to sea foam. She chooses the latter.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The Little Mermaid's sisters trade their hair for a knife that The Little Mermaid can use to kill the prince and use his blood to return herself to mermaid form. She cannot bring herself to do this (although it does help get her the chance to earn an immortal soul).
  • Everything's Better with Princesses: The Little Mermaid, her sisters, and the girl who helped the prince after the Little Mermaid saves him.
  • Irony: The Little Mermaid saved the prince, but left before he could see her. He actually fell in love with a girl at a nearby temple who helped him, who later turned out to be a princess from a neighboring kingdom.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: The mermaid chooses to spare the prince and is finally fine that he's happy with another woman.
  • Last-Second Chance: If she wants her life spared, the mermaid has to kill the prince, or she will turn into foam.
  • Like Brother and Sister: The prince's feelings towards the mermaid.
  • Love at First Sight: The mermaid towards the prince. The prince towards another girl.
  • Love Redeems: The reason why the mermaid chose to die rather than kill the prince.
  • Nameless Narrative: Almost no one is referred to by name, just their titles.
  • No Antagonist: The tale is a tragedy, but doesn't have a real villain.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: They can go to the surface when they are old enough, and lack immortal souls. They also live for 300 years.
  • Our Souls Are Different: Mermaids lack one, humans have one, and daughters of the air can gain one.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Although the Little Mermaid accidentally helps that along, the prince and the girl from the temple fall in love when it turns out she's a princess from a neighboring kingdom.
  • Rescue Romance: Although with tragic consequences.
  • The Soulless: Mermaids have no soul.
  • Tongue Trauma: The Little Mermaid trades her tongue as part of the deal.
  • Unrequited Tragic Maiden: The titular mermaid, who ultimately chooses the prince's happiness over her own life and turns into sea foam. In some versions, she is rewarded for her sacrifice with becoming an air sprite.
  • Updated Re-release: Twice.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: The Little Mermaid wishes to be a human and marry the prince. Because she gave up her mermaid life and became a human not being able to ever speak again and feel pain when she walked and danced and the possibility that she will die, it seems it would have been better for her to keep wanting instead of getting it.

Alternative Title(s):

Little Mermaid