Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen on women and vanity

Hans Christian Andersen is quite an interesting person. He is well known for several very sweet fairy tales, such as "The Ugly Duckling", "Princess and the Pea", and "The Emperor's New Clothes"-as well as some more sad and moving stories, such as "Little Mermaid" (most people are surprised to learn how different his story is from Disney's, although the same applies for pretty much any Disney fairy tale) and "The Little Match Girl".

Slightly less well-known is his tale "The Red Shoes" (which I've blogged about before), which speaks out very vehemently against girls who take too much pride in their appearance. I was surprised to read another lesser known tale recently that possibly speaks even more strongly against vanity, "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf".
Jennie Harbor

Full text is available through the link above, but basically what happens is: a young girl named Inger is a terrible person who tortures insects for fun and refuses to visit her mother, who is in poverty ("she was pretty, and that was her misfortune"). Finally she allows herself to be convinced to go and visit her mother, and she is sent with loaves of bread to give to her. She comes across some mud, and so she doesn't ruin her shoes, she puts the bread on the ground to walk on them, and ends up sinking into the mud anyway and dying and going to hell.

She was found by a devil's grandmother and turned into a statue and put outside of the devil's house. To make sure we get the lesson, ""That's the fruit of wishing to keep one's feet neat and tidy," she said to herself. "Just look how they're all staring at me!" Yes, certainly, the eyes of all were fixed upon her, and their evil thoughts gleamed forth from their eyes, and they spoke to one another, moving their lips, from which no sound whatever came forth: they were very horrible to behold."
Oskar Klever

It goes on an on while Inger suffers as a statue and feels remorse as her earthly mother and mistress weep over her and she realizes she should have been punished. Finally her mother grows old and dies, and weeps for her child, and Inger is turned into a bird. Some children see the bird and it flies away. 
I figured there had to be something in Andersen's life to cause this near-hatred of vain women, or women he perceives to be vain (you could argue that not wanting to ruin your shoes is more practical than vain). A while back I had attempted to read Andersen's autobiography, which I found to be too long-winded and I got a vibe that he was very full of himself. But wikipedia has some interesting and pertinent information:
Ben Kutcher

"Andersen often fell in love with unattainable women and many of his stories are interpreted as references.[18] At one point, he wrote in his diary: "Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!"[19] A girl named Riborg Voigt was the unrequited love of Andersen's youth. A small pouch containing a long letter from Riborg was found on Andersen's chest when he died, several decades after he first fell in love with her, and after he supposedly fell in love with others. Other disappointments in love included Sophie Ørsted, the daughter of the physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, and Louise Collin, the youngest daughter of his benefactor Jonas Collin. The most famous of these was the opera soprano Jenny Lind. One of his stories, The Nightingale, was a written expression of his passion for Lind, and became the inspiration for her nickname, the "Swedish Nightingale". Andersen was often shy around women and had extreme difficulty in proposing to Lind. When Lind was boarding a train to take her to an opera concert, Andersen gave Lind a letter of proposal. Her feelings towards him were not the same; she saw him as a brother, writing to him in 1844 "farewell... God bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister, Jenny."[20]
Just as with his interest in women, Andersen would become attracted to nonreciprocating men. For example, Andersen wrote to Edvard Collin:[21] "I languish for you as for a prettyCalabrian wench... my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery." Collin, who preferred women, wrote in his own memoir: "I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering." Likewise, the infatuations of the author for the Danish dancer Harald Scharff[22] and Carl Alexander, the young hereditary duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach,[23] did not result in any relationships."
Hans Christian Andersen

Being rejected by men and women, it's no wonder Andersen might have tried to find other ways to explain why no one was romantically interested in him-maybe he reasoned that if the women who rejected him were all vain and shallow, then it wasn't due to his own faults.

Maria Tatar discusses how Andersen's characters' sufferings differ from other fairy tales in that, while other villains are often forced to undergo grotesque punishments, Andersen seems to delight in making his heroines undergo all sorts of tortures. I don't mind it as much in some tales-to me "Little Match Girl" is like Dickens stories that expose the truth of how children in poverty suffer. But other heroines, like Karen from the Red Shoes, Inger, and even the little Mermaid, undergo extreme pains that are presented as just punishments for their actions.

Tatar quotes John Griffith, who points out that Anderson's main characters are "small, frail, more likely to be female than male-above all, delicate, an embodiment of that innocence which is harmlessness, that purity which is incapacity for lust."

Andersen is a complex man whose writings reveal interesting and sometimes disturbing insights into his mind. I feel like he's the type of person psychologists love to speculate about and write theses on.


  1. I don't know why, but I thought of Oscar Wilde; maybe it's because his fairy tales are so similar, and while he was on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to popularity and confidence, at the end of his life he did die in loneliness and humility.

  2. I'm not sure I agree with the interpretation that Hans Christian Andersen makes his heroines suffer out of hatred or disdain for women. I'd say rather that his heroines suffer because, in a way, there is an aspect of himself in all of them. His stories strike me as deeply personal. He IS the little mermaid with her unrequited love; he IS the ugly duckling whom everyone rejects. His tales have always struck me as childishly innocent yet profoundly sad. Perhaps that's why he's my favourite fairy tale author.

    As to why he identifies more with female than male protagonists, as quoted in Wikipedia: "The femininity of my nature...must remain a mystery."

    Of course, this doesn't explain Inger. I haven't read that tale, but I always read 'The Red Shoes' as a parable against the vanity of the Danish elite. Again, I've never seen Andersen's stories about women suffering as being spiteful; he just understands them more...yet at the same time, not at all, I guess.

    Have you read Jack Zipes' 'Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller'? I've yet to get a copy but it looks very interesting!

  3. Very interesting-I hadn't thought of Andersen seeing himself as his female characters as well; I definitely get the sense that "Steadfast Tin Soldier" is very personal and reveals how helpless he feels. Still, his ideas of vanity and the degree to which he preaches against it still seems way out of proportion. Maybe it was a more cultural thing and people in general loved to judge what they perceived to be vain women?

    I hadn't even heard of that book! Just added it to my Amazon wish list!

  4. Chizzie-Shark: I agree. I have always thought of him as the main character in his fairytales. Misunderstood, always trying to overcome obstacles, suffering ridicule, etc. I just finished watching "My Life as a Fairytale." While a bit simplified (and Hollywoodized to make for a better story) you get a feel for the man behind the fairytales. His obsession with Jenny Lind was frustrating, but I loved the dramatizations of the fairy tales. Kristen