In this tale, mermaids live for centuries but have no afterlife. The daughters of the royal family are allowed to go up to the surface once they turn 15, and for several years in a row the youngest one longingly drinks in the tales her older sisters tell her of what it is like up there. When her time comes, she rescues an unconscious human prince from a storm. She leaves him near a temple where he can be found, but she finds she has fallen in love with him.
She makes a deal with the Sea Witch to become human, but at a heavy cost. The Sea Witch can grant her legs and inhuman grace, but it will feel painful to walk, as if she is always stepping on swords. The mermaid must also give 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 on the following dawn.
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 who first found him on the shore after the little mermaid rescued him from drowning. He is delighted to marry the woman he thinks is his rescuer, but the mermaid silently mourns. On the wedding night, her sisters appear to her with a dearly-bought Last-Second Chance — if she kills the prince with the enchanted knife they have brought her, she can become a mermaid again and live out her centuries under the sea. But the mermaid, unable to murder the man she loves, throws the knife away and jumps into the sea, dissolving 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) where the mermaid becomes a "daughter of the air" who, after 300 years of good deeds, will earn an immortal soul and go to Heaven. He then revised it again with more of a moral: good and obedient children will shorten her sentence but disobedient ones will make it longer.
The story has been adapted several times, from ballets, to musicals, to 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
- All Love Is Unrequited: The mermaid loves the prince, who doesn't love her. The prince loves another woman, who he thinks is a consecrated temple maiden.
- An Aesop:
- On the surface, it seems to say "Don't give up your life for love", as the Little Mermaid gave up centuries of existence because she fell in love and ended up dying because the prince loved someone else. However, since the reward for the path the Mermaid has taken is no less than an eternal life in heaven, it turns out that the message is quite the opposite — Love Redeems, and the theme of redemption through ordeal is unmistakable throughout the entire story.
- The second revision makes the mermaid's sentence longer or shorter depending on whether children are being good or bad, with more time off for good behavior than time added for bad behavior.
- 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 immortality, though in many adaptations this is completely ignored in favor of emphasizing the love story.
- Bittersweet Ending: The mermaid is given the option to kill the prince and return home. She chooses death instead. However, the sacrifice earns her a provisional afterlife as a sort of ministering spirit, and when her time is done she will gain an immortal soul and go to heaven.
- Cessation of Existence: Mermaids live longer than humans but don't have an afterlife.
- Curse Escape Clause: The mermaid's older sisters trade their beautiful hair to the sea witch, in exchange for a chance to break the spell before it kills her — if she plunges a magical knife into his heart and wets her feet with his blood, she will become a mermaid again and survive. She decides not to take it, though.
- 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.
- Deal with the Devil: For an ordeal seeking the mere chance at gaining a soul, she gives up her centuries-long lifespan and her voice, while gaining human legs with extraordinary grace, but feel like she's walking on knives, making her feet bleed every time she dances. If she marries the prince, she'll gain a soul, but if he marries someone else, she'll die permanently. However, unusually for such deals, the sea witch is open from the start about the consequences, and later helps her sisters when they want to save her.
- Died Happily Ever After: The "good" ending is like this. When she refuses to kill the prince to regain her life as a mermaid, she instead becomes a spirit of the air, watching over children and waiting to gain a soul and go to heaven. (Well, at least it's better than the "she becomes sea-foam, eternally kissing the hull of the prince's ship" ending.) The ending is meant to be happy because mermaids naturally have no souls — by sacrificing herself instead of her prince, the mermaid earned the right to win her own soul.
- 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).
- Fashion Hurts: The Little Mermaid had oysters attached to her tail by her grandmother to show her great rank.Little Mermaid: But they hurt me so.
Grandmother: Pride must suffer pain.
- Friend or Idol Decision: The mermaid has the choice to kill the prince and avert her death, or spare his at the cost of her own. She chooses the latter.
- Godiva Hair: When she wakes up on shore, the little mermaid is naked, so she wraps her long hair around herself.
- Heaven Above: The Little Mermaid describe Heaven as "that glorious world above the stars." This description of Heaven as sky also furthers the distance between the mermaid and the eternal realm, since land-dwelling humans are closer to the sky while the soulless mermaids are hopelessly far from those same stars. The story also describes angelic spirits as "Daughters of the Air."
- Heroic Sacrifice: The mermaid is given the chance to kill the prince so she can continue her life, but she is unable to do so and dies herself in return.
- The mermaid's older sisters giving up their long, beautiful hair to the sea witch can be seen as a lesser example of this trope, too. In Hans Christian Andersen's time, a woman's beauty was her greatest treasure, and long, flowing hair was a vital trait of female beauty — for a woman to have short hair was socially unacceptable and utterly taboo. Thus, the sisters giving up their long hair was basically a sacrifice of all of their earthly beauty and femininity.
- Innocently Insensitive: The prince involves the mermaid in his wedding, having her dance at the reception and even carry the bride's train, thinking she will want to share in his happiness.
- 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 — and inadvertently condemned the poor mermaid to death.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: The mermaid chooses to spare the prince and accepts that he's happy with another woman.
- Last-Second Chance: The mermaid can save her own life, even after the prince marries another, if she kills him on his wedding night.
- 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: 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: Tragically in the case of the mermaid; the prince she rescues doesn't love her and instead falls for the girl he thinks was his rescuer.
- Secret Test of Character: It's implied that the only reason the Little Mermaid does not dissolve into sea-foam at the end is that she refused to kill the prince. Killing him would have lost her her chance at an immortal soul forever.
- Solitary Sorceress: The Sea Witch lives by herself in a dangerous part of the ocean. Unlike in the Disney adaptation, here, she's a True Neutral character who tells the mermaid about every negative consequence her spell has.
- Take a Third Option: Either the prince must marry the mermaid, or she will die at the next sunrise if he marries another woman. With the sea witch's help, her sisters try to give her an option that will save her — but it would involve killing the prince, so she doesn't take it.
- The Soulless: Mermaids have no soul.
- Species-Specific Afterlife: Humans are the only animals with souls. Mermaids cease to exist when they die. The titular mermaid is horrified by this. She finds out that mermaids can gain a soul (and thus have an afterlife) if they marry a human. As a result, the little memaid tries to marry a prince.
- Tongue Trauma: The Little Mermaid has her tongue cut out by the sea witch as part of the deal.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The innocent and sweet mermaid who sacrifices her undersea life for love ends up giving up the boy she loves and sacrificing herself instead. However, the story makes it clear throughout that she doesn't have a soul — and upon her death, she is given a purgatorial afterlife where she might, with hard work and dedication, win a soul and go to heaven. So after her death, she begins to work her way up to Too Good For This Sinful Earth. Sad, but not hopeless — which could well be the point.
- Traumatic Haircut: The mermaid's older sisters have their long, beautiful hair shorn off by the sea witch as payment for a chance to save their little sister.
- 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.