"Archetypes, Ambivalence, and Literary Meaning in Hans Christian Andersen's 'Little Mermaid'"

Nancy Easterlin

Much sociobiologically informed literary interpretation implicitly assumes that psychological norms shaped by the ancestral environment will provide direct keys to the meaning of cultural artifacts, including literary works. Proposing that even from a theoretical perspective such a view is problematic because it leaves environmental influences out of an ostensibly Darwinian perspective, this paper goes on to demonstrate, using the specific example of H.C.A. 's "Little Mermaid," how fundamental environmental (i.e., cultural) influences are in shaping meaning in a literary text. Any story has numerous universal features, and in the case of this tale two such features are the maiden figure and basic narrative structure, yet these universal features are not correlated with fixed meanings. The maiden-mermaid (and, earlier in Andersen's tale, the child-mermaid) do indeed elicit interest because they are connected with universal adaptive and developmental issues such as fertility and sexual receptivity, helplessness, power, etc. However, drawing on mermaid lore, this essay demonstrates that symbols like the mermaid, though dependent on universal formal properties, only gain meaning in their specific cultural context. Attention to Andersen's cultural/historical period and to the story itself suggests that the mermaid's outsider status is her most meaningful quality, and that the story's preoccupation with the relation of outsider to dominant group as well as its ambivalence about self-other relationships is consistent with literary romanticism, itself the product of the massive industrial, social, and political shifts consequent on the Enlightenment.

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