For, as Jack Zipes emphasizes (in Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller), The Little Mermaid " is not only about Christian obedience, virtue, and salvation. It is, from a feminist perspective, a misogynist tale about dampening the sexual curiosity of a young female who wants to explore other worlds." Jackie Wullschlager, author of Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, agrees: "To modern readers, the tale is distasteful as well as moving: sentimental, misogynistic and moralizing, it shows Andersen enjoying the Mermaid's suffering and offering an oppressive mix of self–sacrifice, silence and expiation as ideals of female behavior."
The little mermaid who begins the story is of a completely different character than the one which Andersen has fleshed out by the end. In the beginning of the story, the little mermaid is a being who is adventurous ("no one yearned to go [to the surface] as much as the youngest"), talented (she "sang more beautifully than anyone"), and yet sensible and modest (when her grandmother adorns her in ritual finery, including "a wreath of white lilies" in which "every petal in the flower was half a pearl" and "eight big oysters on the princess's tail to show her high rank," the little mermaid wishes she could "shake off all that finery and remove that heavy wreath. The red flowers from her garden would have looked much better on her"). She is brave ("the water rose like great dark mountains. . . .The little mermaid thought it was fun to go so fast. . . .The sailors were in danger; she herself had to watch out for timber and pieces of the ship that floated on the water") and bold (after she rescues the prince, she "kissed his beautiful high forehead" while he was still unconscious).
However, the mermaid's character soon devolves as she begins to fixate on the prince. She becomes obsessed; she discovers where he lives and "would often go there in the evening and at night." Night after night, she sat in a canal under the prince's balcony and "gazed at the young prince, who thought that he was all alone in the bight moonlight."
She gives up everything for the prince: her family, her voice, her ability to move without crippling pain. This would not be so troubling if she demanded appreciation for her sacrifice. However, when it becomes apparent that the prince views her simply as a pet, calling her his "little foundling" or "my silent child" and having her "sleep on a velvet cushion outside his door," she simply accepts it. Even when he explicitly confesses to her his love for another, she rationalizes her behavior: "The girl belongs to the holy temple, he told me; she'll never come out into the world. They'll never meet again. I'm here with him — I see him every day, I'll take care of him, love him, devote my life to him."
After all, the prince might tell her he was in love with someone else, but he also "kissed [the mermaid's] red mouth, played with her long hair, and laid his head against her heart, so that she dreamed about human happiness."
Unfortunately, though the prince may have played with the mermaid, he ends up marrying the pure girl from the temple. Sexual overtones such as these abound throughout the text, usually in a negative context. When the mermaid's tail transforms into legs, for example, "it felt like a double–edged sword going through her delicate body." The mermaid cannot manage the pain of this bodily invasion, and so "she fainted and lay there as if dead." Upon awaking from this trance, she awakes to find the prince standing over her — her first experience with the double–edged sword is an unpleasant one. Wullschlager compares this negative view of budding female sexuality with other well–known folktales:
Like 'Sleeping Beauty,' 'Snow White,' and 'Rapunzel,' it is a coming–of–age fairy tale in which a young girl at fifteen or sixteen is suddenly forced to cope with her own sexuality and the responses her beauty arouses. Like 'Sleeping Beauty,' it has images of blood which may symbolize the onset of menstruation, and it is imbued with an adolescent fear of sex which the 32–year–old Andersen shared.
Andersen himself publicly courted two women with no success, but privately, Wullschlager argues, he was infatuated with his dear friend Edvard, who married his sweetheart shortly before Andersen finished the story.
To Wullschlager, the hopeless love of the mermaid for the prince is a reflection of Andersen's own hopeless love for his best friend. In giving the mermaid salvation beyond the prince, Andersen hopes to be able to receive his own salvation beyond Edvard. The mermaid hopes to be saved by God; Andersen by his art. For both, however, the goal is immortality.
According to Andersen, it seems that the correct answer for the little mermaid is not to pursue sex at all; rather, as in some sort of Madonna complex, she is to become a pure "daughter of the air," clean and light as foam, and no longer bound by the physical and emotional pain she endured during her pursuit of sexual pleasure and romance on earth. Indeed, this outcome can be seen as a kind of reward for her "good behavior," as defined by Zipes:
It is important to recall that the prince never learns that it was the mermaid who saved him. Nor does he fall in love with her. He is struck by her devotion, and it is her devotion to him that entails self–sacrifice and brings about her own miraculous salvation. . . .Voiceless and tortured, the mermaid serves a prince who never fully appreciates her worth. Twice she saves his life. The second time is the most significant: instead of killing him to regain her identity and rejoin her sisters and grandmother, the mermaid forfeits her own life and becomes an ethereal figure blessed by God.
There are few other options for females in Andersen's story besides this holy chastity. If a girl is not the lucky chosen one, as in the prince's handpicked temple bride, then none of the options are really attractive.
The only fully fleshed out counterpoint to the mermaid's fate is that of the sea witch, grotesque sexuality incarnate. Literally a man–eater, she sits in "a house built out of the white bones of shipwrecked men." Her two fat water snakes, which she calls "her little chickens," "frolic on her huge spongy chest"; she lets a toad "eat out of her mouth the way that people let a little canary eat a lump of sugar."
The only other plausible female alternative seems to be the mermaid's grandmother. An ancient being obsessed with status, she was so "proud of her noble lineage, she wore twelve oysters on her tail. (Other nobles could have only six)." When the little mermaid she complains of the ache of wearing the oysters, the grandmother simply notes "there's no beauty without pain."
When rejected, then, the little mermaid is seemingly left with no other choice but to kill herself; her worth was invested only into this single human man, and she does not want to become either like the sea witch nor her grandmother. Zipes argues:
The mermaid must learn her proper place in the order of things, and it is apparently improper for her to pursue a young man, to express her sexual drives, and to change her social position. . . .Once she turns human, she enters a world totally dominated by male desire and has no choice but to commit suicide. She realizes that she will never fit into a world that does not accept her devotion, and murdering the prince will not bring her any satisfaction.
This theme of female suicide in fairy tales has also been explored at length in Anne Sexton's Transformations, a very worthwhile read.