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Literature / The Little Mermaid

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Published in 1837, The Little Mermaid is a classic Fairy Tale written by Hans Christian Andersen, about a mermaid who seeks to become human.

Merfolk live for centuries but have no afterlife. One of them, a princess, is deeply curious about the world above but isn't permitted to go to the surface until she turns fifteen. She is the youngest of her sisters, and when each of them comes of age, she returns with stories about the wonderful sights to be seen up there. When her turn finally comes, the youngest mermaid rescues a young prince from drowning. She leaves him unconscious on shore, near a temple where he can be found, but she has already fallen in love with him.

Unable to enjoy life below the waves, the mermaid makes a deal with the Sea Witch to become human. The cost is steep: the Sea Witch can grant her legs and inhuman grace, but every step will feel like she is walking on knives. The mermaid must also give her voice as payment. And her humanity is only conditional: if she can make the prince fall in love with her and marry her, she can gain a share in his soul and be truly human, but if he marries another, she will die at the next sunrise.


The prince she loves finds her and takes her in. She becomes his favorite companion, accompanying him on many of his outings and dancing beautifully for him despite the excruciating pain in her feet. But he does not truly love her: he has lost his heart to a temple maiden who (as he believes) once saved him from drowning.

Then he is betrothed and sent unwillingly off on a ship to meet his intended bride. Lo and behold, she is the temple maiden! The prince is overjoyed, but the mermaid silently mourns. The wedding takes place on the return voyage, with the mermaid thinking of nothing but her impending death. But that 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. The little mermaid considers it, but ultimately she is unable to murder the man she still loves. She throws the knife away and jumps from the ship, dissolving into sea foam.


Unexpectedly, the mermaid finds herself rising from the water in the company of the Daughters of the Air, benevolent spirits who, after 300 years of good deeds, will earn an immortal soul and go to Heaven. Whenever they see good and obedient children, their sentence is shortened, but disobedient ones make it longer.

The story has been adapted several times, from ballets, to musicals, to the 1989 Disney animated musical. The film 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

  • Act of True Love: The mermaid is given one last chance to save herself by killing the prince as he lays sleeping. She refuses it, allowing him to live happily with his new wife. In doing so, she is rewarded by being transformed into a daughter of the air.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: The mermaid loves the prince, but he has already lost his heart to a temple maiden who (he thinks) rescued him from drowning. When it turns out that the maiden is actually the princess to whom he is betrothed, he is overjoyed — the poor mermaid, of course, cannot tell him that she is the one who saved him.
  • An Aesop:
    • On the surface, it seems to say "Don't give up your life for love", as the Little Mermaid forfeits her centuries of existence because she loves the prince, even after it's clear he doesn't love her. However, by her sacrifice the Little Mermaid earns everything she truly wanted, so the message becomes "Do give up your life for love, because the rewards of love are greater than all the sufferings."
    • Andersen's second revision adds a more explicit moral: Be good, children who hear this story, because the time the mermaid must serve gets shorter every time she sees a good child but longer every time she sees a bad one.
  • Agony of the Feet: The Little Mermaid feels like she is walking on knives while she is human.
  • And I Must Scream: Without her tongue, the mermaid cannot tell anyone what she is suffering.
  • 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 fascination with humanity comes directly from her desire for immortality, though in many adaptations this is completely ignored in favor of emphasizing the love story.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The mermaid is given a Last-Second Chance to kill the prince and return to the sea. 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.
  • Celestial Deadline: If the prince marries anyone but the mermaid, her life will end the next morning.
  • Cessation of Existence: Mermaids live longer than humans but don't have an afterlife.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The prince dreamed of marrying the girl he thought that had saved him from drowning, and ta-da! That girl and the one her parents betrothed to him are the same.
  • Curse Escape Clause: The mermaid's older sisters buy her a knife which will undo the human transformation and let the little mermaid return to the sea — if she kills the prince on his wedding night.
  • Cute Mute: The mermaid as a human.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Unlike the villainous Ursula from the Disney movie, the sea witch is a neutral character with no ulterior motives. She tells the little mermaid exactly what the cost will be, and she even lets the mermaid's sisters buy her a means of escape.
  • Deal with the Devil: For the mere chance to gain a soul, the mermaid gives up her centuries-long lifespan and her voice. She gains human legs with extraordinary grace but feels 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: Subverted: the mermaid dies despairing but finds happiness immediately after among the Daughters of the Air, with the true happiness of Heaven to come. Andersen wrote several stories where the protagonist dying and going to Heaven was their 'happy' ending.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The mermaid's older sisters trade their hair for a knife that she can use to kill the prince and save herself. Despite having no soul and no compelling reason not to, she refuses (an act which is implied to earn her a soul).
  • Fashion Hurts: The Little Mermaid had oysters attached to her tail by her grandmother to show her great rank. They hurt, but her grandmother tells her that "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 mermaid knows 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 cannot even leave the water. 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 live, but she rejects it and dies instead.
    • The mermaid's older sisters giving their hair to the Sea Witch would have been understood as a great sacrifice in Hans Christian Andersen's time. Long, flowing hair made a woman beautiful — short hair was socially unacceptable and utterly taboo. Thus the sisters cutting off their long hair to save their sister meant sacrificing all of their earthly beauty and femininity.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Invoked by the mermaid's sisters and the sea witch. They give her a dagger to use to kill the prince on his wedding night, and then let the blood drip on her legs so she will become a mermaid once more. Ultimately defied by the little mermaid herself, who chooses to spare the prince at the cost of her own life.
  • 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 mermaid saves the prince's life, but he doesn't know it was her. The same spell that gives her legs so she can be near him also costs her the tongue she might have used to tell him.
  • 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.
  • Lost in Imitation: Few young children know the original tragic ending thanks to the Disney retelling. Several adaptations that came after the 1989 movie imitated the ending by having the prince indeed fall in love with the little mermaid, and the two of them marry and live Happily Ever After.
  • 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.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: The Little Mermaid is the youngest of six mermaid siblings.
  • 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.
  • Only the Leads Get a Happy Ending: The mermaid goes joyfully to her new mission as a daughter of the air, and the prince gets to marry the girl he loves...but the mermaid's sisters are doomed to dissolution at about the same time the Little Mermaid qualifies for heaven, and none of them will ever see each other again. Even the prince and his bride have a moment at the end where they look for the 'mute girl' and sadly conclude she must have jumped overboard.
  • 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.
  • Power at a Price: The Sea Witch will not do magic for anyone without a sacrifice. And even then, the spells come with painful side effects.
  • Princess Protagonist: The titular little mermaid is the youngest of six princesses. Her father is the Sea King.
  • 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 the Disney adaptation, she has no evil agenda, and she tells the mermaid every negative consequence her spell will have.
  • The Soulless: Mermaids have no souls and therefore no afterlife.
    • This was inspired by a long tradition of water fairies without souls. Andersen was particularly inspired by the 1811 novella Undine, which in turn was inspired by Paracelsus' Alchemic Elementals.
  • 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 mermaid tries to marry a prince.
  • 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. In doing so, she unwittingly takes a fourth option and becomes a Daughter of the air.
  • 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 her earthly life too. However, the story makes it clear throughout that what she truly wants is a soul and immortality — and upon her death, she is given a place among the daughters of the air, who have been judged worthy to earn a soul through centuries of good deeds.
  • 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. Unexpectedly, she is rewarded for her sacrifice by becoming an air sprit, who will earn an immortal soul and go to Heaven after three hundred years of doing good deeds for mankind.
  • 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. On the other hand, her actions do put her in the position where she can gain an immortal soul, which she might have wanted even more than the prince.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: The little mermaid is known for her beautiful blue 'speaking' eyes.
  • What You Are in the Dark: The mermaid has nothing to gain and everything to lose by sparing the prince. She does it anyway.
  • Wicked Witch: The Sea Witch in many adaptations.

Alternative Title(s): Little Mermaid