The Gift of Life in Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”

“But she very soon found herself thinking once more of the world above her: she could not forget the handsome prince and her own sorrow at not having, like him, an immortal soul.”

The gift of life, the greatest of gifts, inspires eternal gratitude for the love of God the Father who created man and woman in His image, and the gift of life moves the heart to thank the generosity of a mother and father who founded a family. The debt to God and to parents obliges children to honor them in the form of justice known as piety, the obligation of acknowledging an unrepayable debt by an expression of praise, respect, and thanksgiving.

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)

The gift of life not only brings into the world a person of inestimable worth and unique nature but also promises an abundance of life’s blessings and greatest pleasures—joys that fill human beings with a taste of the deliciousness of life’s goodness: “Taste and see the sweetness of the Lord ” as the Psalmist says.

Hans Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” whets the appetite for the adventure of a human life. A family of mermaids that dwell in the bottom of the ocean, “the most beautiful place of all,” experience great happiness in the bond of family and in the glorious radiance that surrounds them—“a great garden with fiery-red and dark-blue trees, their fruit shining like gold, and their flowers like burning fire . . . . Over everything down there lay a wonderful blue glow.”

The mermaids do not suffer war, disease, tragedy, injustice, or any of life’s afflictions. Their lives enjoy a perfect tranquility that continues for two hundred years of bliss that ultimately ends when they dissolve into foam. However, on their fifteenth birthday the mermaids leave their palace of coral walls, amber windows, and resplendent roof made of mussel shells (“it looks most beautiful, for in each shell lies a shining pearl, and a single one of them would be the chief beauty in a queen’s crown”) and venture into the human world above for the first time. They marvel in awe at the sights they behold that they have never seen in the bottom of the ocean: ships, cities, forests, flowers, moon, stars, birds, and children.

The little mermaid falls in love with the human world and the gift of human life: “What she thought especially wonderful and beautiful was that up on earth the flowers had a sweet scent, for that they did not have on the bottom of the sea, and the woods were green and the fish you could see there among the branches could sing so loudly and beautifully.”

When the little mermaid recalls the sights described by her older sisters and later sees the human world with her own eyes, she contemplates it as a miracle: a city with many lights as lustrous as the stars, churches with ringing bells and spires, the liveliness of people coming and going in their busy lives and many pursuits, the azure blue of the sky with its delicate clouds and dazzling sunsets, the colorfulness of farms and castles, and the charm of children playing in the water.

The little mermaid has already fallen in love with life before the age of fifteen just by imagining the pictures impressed upon her memory by the reports of her older sisters: “I know that I shall really grow to love the world above the sea and all the people that live and dwell there!” When she sees the earth herself at age fifteen and observes the music and laughter of a handsome young prince’s birthday on a stately ship, the little mermaid longs to participate in this human world that promises all the poetry, romance, and adventure of life unknown in the ocean.

The human life also offers the gift of an immortal soul. She falls in love not only with the beauty and goodness of creation but also with the prince: “. . . the little mermaid could not turn her eyes away from the ship and the handsome prince.” The gift of life, then, promises all these great experiences of happiness that surpass the pleasures and comforts of life in the palace of the mermaids that does not provide romantic love or an immortal soul.

This gift of life is so precious and valuable to the little mermaid that she undergoes suffering and risk to enter the human world. She must drink the bitter potion of the witch’s brew, lose the haunting beauty of her voice, endure the pain of seeing her fish’s tail transform into human legs, and always feel the anguish of walking in order to inhabit the world above.

If she cannot win the love of the prince, then she cannot earn an immortal soul. If the prince does not marry her, she loses all the delights of the watery world and dissolves into foam instantly instead of two hundred years of bliss as a mermaid. In the little mermaid’s mind the blessing of married love and the gift of an immortal soul more than compensate for all the sacrifice, sorrows, and tribulations that await her on earth—even if she fails to win the heart of the prince. So great is the gift of human life that the little mermaid is willing to separate from her beloved family, leave the luxury of her palace, and lose two hundred years of a utopian existence for the sake of having a human body, an immortal soul, and the happiness of married love.

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The story illuminates the full reality of the gift of human life. The little mermaid anticipated all the pleasures and joys that awaited her from the beauty of the earth and sky to the delightful work of human art and skill to the festive occasions of celebration.

The gift of life promises all these experiences that invite the fullness of happiness. To participate in the blessing of a marriage or the creation of a family, to enjoy the sea and the mountains, to hear music and to see the play of children, to read books and learn the riches of wisdom, to pursue one’s favorite hobbies and recreations, to delight in the company and conversation of beloved companions, and to possess an immortal soul and know that this taste of “the sweetness of the Lord” hints of the things above that neither “eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered the mind of man to conceive . . .” is the miracle of life—the priceless gift we receive that we must cherish, share, and defend as valiantly as the little mermaid.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
Articles by Mitchell:

  • tcstrenge

    Thank-you for that beautiful analysis of the story. I look forward to discussing with our children. I don’t think we can be reminded enough of the beauty of life and to be grateful for it.