Andersen's little mermaid turns fifteen and finally gets her long-awaited chance to go to the surface and see its sights. The oyster shells she has to wear to do so hurt her, but her grandmother sagely advises, “Pride must suffer pain," a theme that will run throughout the tale. Thanks, grandma!
Some of what happens next is much as you might remember it from the Disney tale: the little mermaid ventures up to the surface, falls in love at first sight with a prince, then saves him from a shipwreck.
Later, the little mermaid waxes philosophical, asking about the different natures of humans and merfolk. She is told that humans have a relatively short lifespan but possess an immortal soul that can ascend "beyond the glittering stars," and merpeople can live about 300 years but have no immortal soul--when they die, they simply turn into seafoam. "Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?” she asks. “No,” her grandmother tells her. Unless she is able to win the love of a human and he marries her, because, in a startling--and very disturbing--literalization of 19th century coverture law, "then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you and retain his own as well."
So, the little mermaid's quest is not just for the prince's love but to gain an immortal soul. What is this--Pilgrim's Progress for kids? Faust in reverse? Where are the thingamabobs and dinglehoppers?
The little mermaid realizes that the prince could never fall in love with her while she still has a tail, so she asks the grotesque sea witch for help. The sea witch can give the mermaid legs, but the price is steep. Not only will the little mermaid have to cut off her tongue as payment, the legs themselves will cause excruciating pain: "Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow." Aaaauugh!
But the little mermaid agrees, and soon she's up "where the people are" sporting a pair of bleeding feet. At court, the prince's slaves (yes, he has slaves!) sing for him and the mermaid dances and charms everyone. "The prince said she should remain with him always, and she received permission to sleep at his door, on a velvet cushion." Like a lapdog. What a charmer!
The prince grows fond of "his dumb child" as he calls the little mermaid, but he says his true love must be a girl who lives at the holy temple, who he believes was the one to save him from the shipwreck. The mermaid can't tell him the truth, and, when he meets the temple girl and decides to marry her, she doesn't disabuse him of the notion either.
The little mermaid realizes all is lost for her, until her sisters turn up and reveal they have sold their hair to the sea witch to obtain a dagger. If the little mermaid stabs the prince in the heart with it and lets his blood drip onto her feet, she will regrow her tail and be a happy mermaid again. Alas, she can't bring herself to do it. She begins to dissolve into sea foam, until suddenly, Lorax-like, she is lifted into the air and told that she is now "a daughter of the air" and will spend the next 300 years in a purgatorial state before she can enter heaven. During this time, she can float in and out of children's houses unseen, and if the children are good, she gets a year off her sentence, but if they are naughty, she will shed tears, and for each tear another day is added to her sentence.
First off, how on earth does Mr. Andersen have the gall to blame children like me for the mermaid's problems? Shouldn't the sea witch, or the prince, or even the temple girl be held responsible here? And what a burden to place on a child: it is your fault that the little mermaid doesn't have an immortal soul yet! Well, I regularly clap to show I believe in fairies, and I often ring bells to ensure an angel gets his wings, but I make no promises about behaving just in case a mermaid-spirit should fly through the window at a given moment.
Mermaid math: if naughtiness (n) =+1 day per tear (t), but goodness (g) =-365 days, then the question is of how many tears, on average, are produced per naughty act. Let's guess that each n=50t, assuming we have a very weepy mermaid. Then, since 7n=+350 days, you could theoretically commit 7 naughty acts for every good one, and the mermaid would still come out over two weeks ahead: 7n+1g=-15 days.
Andersen, Hans Christian. The Little Mermaid. 1836.
The Little Mermaid