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Book Notes: Stories of Hans Christian Andersen

By Robert Nagle , Austin, TX, July 2002
Summary: Literary essay about Andersen's whimsical sense of storytelling. But was he better than Kafka?

A writer like Hans Christian Andersen changes the fundamental question "what is literature?" into that of "what is a story?" Of course, all of us claim to appreciate good storytelling. But after the English courses, MLA conferences and controversies about canon, the learned reader develops a preference for the meaty stuff. Simplicity is fine, but complexity is better. A good story is not enough. Great works have to be more than just great stories.

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen--Enjoying the childish things

Andersen's great contribution to literature is recognizing how little is needed to produce a story and how little a great story really needs to say. Andersen seems capable of turning anything into a story. One story relates the dialogue between an ancient tree and a day old fly. Another images the private thoughts of a dying match girl . One of my favorites, "Top and the Ball " tells of a chance meeting and spurned friendship between two toys in a drawer. The amazing thing about Andersen's stories is that they seem made up at the spur of the moment. (Unlike the Brothers Grimm, who merely collected popular folk tales, Hans Christian Andersen really did make up most of his stories!). I can imagine Andersen at his desk deciding to write a story with a top and a ball, then embellishing it with personalities and a romantic situation. The success of these minimalist stories derives not from plot development but the wit and snappy dialogue. Other stories belonging to this form ( animal fables of Phaedrus, Buddhist jatakas , Krylov's fables and Kafka's anti-fables) require little more than a paragraph to describe the consequences of greed or deception. Phaedrus" fable of the wolf who devises ridiculous pretexts for attacking the sheep hardly contains suspense or development or denouement; it is less than a hundred words long. The function of this miniature form is to uncover motives, give each side a parting shot before one gobbles the other.

Andersen and Kafka embody the two poles of imaginative writing. Andersen has a natural mastery of story forms and a perfect dramatic sense. He churns out stories without really caring if its elements are hackneyed or contrived. Everything is spontaneous and done in good fun; if it works, the story glides a foot off the ground; if it doesn't, the story is still readable, but empty calories for the reader. Andersen chases after magic, love and laughter; if beauty and insight happen to tag along, so much the better. But if they don't, it's not going to spoil the show.

Andersen is a sloppy writer, but Kafka attends to every detail. Andersen could care less about his world making sense. Kafka will do anything to make the absurd seem perfectly sensible. Andersen, however melancholy, avoids dwelling on an event or situation and focuses on changing with it; if the ugly duckling spent the whole time pondering his own ugliness in a mirror, there would be no change, no possibility of transformation. For Andersen it is the distracting external world that makes a final epiphany possible. Kafka is the master of stasis and self-absorption; for a glacier, even a single inch of movement is of terrifying significance.

The beautiful but unsettling "Little Mermaid" contains one of Andersen's most Kafkaesque endings. Forget the Disney version; it is completely different. One commentator takes the didacticism at face-value; he writes:

The purpose of the romance is to get the children involved in the fate of someone beside themselves. After the mermaid makes her selfless decision and receives the old choice of rewards for not being good , the last paragraph puts responsibility for her fate and others into the hands of the reader, teaching us that our most personal actions have an effect beyond us, and that whether we are good or bad is material not merely to the state of our own soul and happiness but to people we don't even know and will never see.

The analysis of the ending is exactly right. But it misses the point. It overlooks the dramatic value of such a narrative rupture. The ending changes the terms of the whole discussion. It surprises in a convincing way. It widens the scope of possibilities and eliminates the dichotomy between the two choices open to the little mermaid.

Every writer has to choose between giving a story a good ending or a bad one. It is a terrifying choice sometimes. A reader could potentially absorb the story's perspective and values. If Andersen gave his story the upbeat Disney ending, he would be extolling self-sacrifice and expressing a faith that love triumphs over everything. If he chose the tragic ending, he would be crushing love's illusions and comparing love to the sharp knives that wound the mermaid's delicate feet.

The nobility of giving up one's life for the sake of love has been one of fiction's most enduring messages. It is also one of fiction's most dangerous and self-deceiving. Andersen's solution is to create a magic that neither repudiates the romantic feelings nor affirms them. This solution acknowledges that the conflict is irresolvable, that a good or bad ending would be equally unrealistic. The jolting and otherworldly end of this story is reminiscent of Sophocles' "Philoctetes," where a demigod's intervention keeps the Greeks from attacking a single virtuous citizen.

Instead of killing the mermaid, Andersen allows her to be transformed into a new type of species. The Little Mermaid records a series of transformations from innocence to the yearning for incarnation to the yearning to transcend yearning itself. The transformed mermaid is told by the daughters of the air:

A mermaid has no immortal soul and can never have one unless she wins the love of a mortal. Eternity, for her, depends on a power outside her. Neither have the daughters of the air an everlasting soul, but by good deeds they can shape one for themselves. We shall fly to the hot countries, where the stifling air of pestilence means death to mankind; we shall bring them cool breezes. We shall scatter the fragrance of flowers through the air and send them comfort and healing. When for three hundred years we have striven to do the good we can, then we shall win an immortal soul and have a share in mankind's eternal happiness. You, poor little mermaid, have striven for that with all your heart; you have suffered and endured, and you have raised yourself into the world of the spirits of the air. Now, by three hundred years of good deeds, you too can shape for yourself an immortal soul.

This fateful pronouncement permits the possibility of mercy without promising anything. Mercy and redemption is possibly, but ultimately the power to bestow these gifts lies beyond that of individuals.

The ending is thus a tentative affirmation. A century later Kafka would duplicate this same tentativeness and suspension of hope in his enigmatic endings. In "Before the Law," the doorkeeper informs the waiting traveler that the door he guards was meant only for him. In the unwritten last chapter of the "Castle," the castle was to have informed K. on his deathbed that he would be permitted provisional residence in the village while the castle considers his claim to live there. Endings in real life are never simple, and a simply one-dimensional good or bad ending calls into question the legitimacy of the story process itself. A beautiful ending conveys neither finality nor closure but a sense of beginning; it lets us soar above the preceding conflict and see new possibilities for living. It neither paralyzes nor sedates, but invigorates the yearning for the unknown and unexpected. A good ending doesn't resolve a character's problems; it renders them irrelevant.

One Danish critic said that Andersen wrote more self-portraits than Rembrandt ever painted. Almost anyone could see his own portrait in "Ugly Duckling". Who has not been taunted one time or another for being ugly or stupid or different? A duckling who cannot understand the innocence of the taunts has to survive them somehow, even if he years for exoneration. My name once turned up on a list of the "10 Biggest Jerks on Campus"(or something to that effect), a notoriety I later learned to cherish. One moves on. Self-images change. Life becomes so busy and hectic that one forgets to notice the changes in onself. Obsession with one's own inadequacy is a sign one is not fully grown, nor will one ever be. An ugly duckling is a swan afraid to face the mirror.



Robert Nagle is a technical writer and trainer living in Austin, Texas. He has also taught at business colleges overseas and worked in consulting.

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