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. However, she is resurrected as one of the "Daughters of the Air," who, after 300 years of good deeds, will earn an immortal soul and go to Heaven. 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 Disney Animated Canon film, The Little Mermaid (1989). 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, 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, you children who hear this story, because the mermaid's sentence is shortened every time she sees a good child and lengthened 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.
- 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: When the mermaid chooses death rather then kill the prince, she becomes a spirit of the air, watching over children and doing other good deeds until her time of service is done and she can go to heaven. The ending is meant to be happy because mermaids naturally have no souls — by sacrificing herself instead of her prince, the mermaid won the right to win her own soul. Andersen had a habit of writing bittersweet endings where the hero goes to Heaven at the end.
- 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 turns it down 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.
- If I Can't Have You...: Invoked by the Little Mermaid's sisters and the sea witch. They give the Little Mermaid a dagger to use to kill the prince on his wedding night, and then let the blood drip to her legs so she will become a mermaid once more. Ultimately defied by the Little Mermaid herself, who chooses to spare the prince by throwing away the knife and choosing to dissolve into sea foam.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.