Hope you weren't expecting Disney's spunky, self-possessed heroine, because that's sure not what you'll find here. In Andersen's tale, the little mermaid starts out as a quiet, pensive kid with a yearning to grow up quicker, better, and cooler than her older sibs. She is the youngest of six royal mer-daughters. And while she's stuck with all the other young mermaids undersea, her fifteen-year-old sisters get to visit the big, bad upper world.
Apparently visiting this world is crazy fun at first. It seems to result in a lot of exotic travel tales that the girls regale their little sister with. Guess it's not "what happens in the upper world, stays in the upper world," huh? Anyway, Upper World Story Time is like Christmas for the little mermaid. You can practically see her sitting—um, floating? flipping?—there at her sisters' tail fins as they relate stories to her:
How carefully her youngest sister listened to every word and remembered everything that she had been told… then she imagined that she could see the city and hear the bells of the churches ringing. (8.12)
Can you see any of yourself in this quote? If you're the oldest of your siblings, you might imagine the way your little bro stares at the toys you get for your birthday as drool dribbles down his face.
With all this buildup, it's no surprise that the real action of "The Little Mermaid" begins when the little mermaid turns fifteen. Ugh, finally. It's time for some upper world adventures, littlest mermaid style! As it turns out, that means not being a mermaid at all anymore. Oh, and trying to snag a human prince for a husband. She may be only fifteen, but, after all, this is a fairy tale. No wild college years for this mermaid. Best years of your life, shmest years of your life.
At least mer-people can live till they're three hundred years old. So our little mermaid-turned-human has got at few centuries to figure all this life stuff out. As in any good coming of age story, we are witness to the little mermaid's growing pains. She comes up against her own naivety about the upper world. She suffers the consequences of trying to change herself and her destiny.
And trust us, the consequences are steep; this mermaid doesn't meet with Disney's happy ending. Instead, she ends up basically committing suicide because she's so head-over-heels for her human prince. Womp womp.
All of the mer-siblings in this tale are somewhat fascinated by the up-above world. Their "gardens were filled with all sorts of things that they had collected from shipwreck" (8.6). But the novelty of that world wears off pretty quickly for the little mermaid's sisters: "The first time that any of the sisters had been allowed to swim to the surface, each had been delighted with her freedom and all she had seen. But now that they were grownups and could swim anywhere they wished, they lost interest in wandering away" (8.17).
The little mermaid's fascination with the upper world never wanes. Ever the "strange little child" (8.6), she is straight-up obsessed with the upper world, those humans with their leggy leg things, and all the trappings of their above-water cities.
This difference between the little mermaid and her sibs is kinda like the difference between a friend saying, "Yeah, I guess I like Star Trek," meaning that she's watched some of the show and thought is was kinda fun, and a friend coming to class dressed exactly like Spock, spouting phrases like, "Vulcans never bluff," and adamantly claiming she doesn't understand your human emotions. Our favorite mer-girl is serious as all get-out about her human hobby. In fact, it's really less of a hobby and more of a life calling.
And once she spots her prince, and finds out where he lives, the mermaid gets a little creeptastic. It seems like this prince dude is an embodiment of the mermaid's desire for a different life:
Now that she knew where the prince lived, the little mermaid spent many evenings and nights looking at the splendid palace. She swam nearer to the land than any of her sisters had dared. There was a marble balcony that cast its shadow across a narrow canal, and beneath it she hid and watched the young prince. (8.42)
But if it's an adorable young mermaid who's stalking you, and you live in fairy tale land, this sort of behavior is acceptable, right? It's just what people do when they're really in love, right?! Um, maybe our girl should find some new interests. Like knitting.
The little mermaid does actually have her eye on something other than the prince. But, of course, it's still linked to him, and the mermaid's whole everything-about-humans-is-awesome bit. When our little mermaid pesters her grandmother for stories about the upper world, she tells her that humans have souls and get to go to heaven. And heaven is, like, way more rad than either the land or the sea.
So the little mermaid sighs, "Why do I not have an immortal soul! […] I would give all my three hundred years of life for only one day as a human being if, afterward, I should be allowed to live in the heavenly world" (8.48). Yeah, none of this spiritual stuff is in the Disney film. While there is plenty of pining in there, that little mermaid's focused purely on the becoming a person and marrying the love of her life. But Andersen's little mermaid is all about the human soul. And what must she do to win such an incredible, immortal soul?
According to Grandma,
If a man should fall so much in love with you that you were dearer to him than his mother and father… and he let a priest take his right hand and put it in yours, while he promised to be eternally true to you, then his soul would flow into your body and you would be able to partake of human happiness. He can give you a soul and yet keep his own. (8.51)
Hold up. First, this whole soul-sharing thing sounds kinda odd. Do you really want part of someone else's soul in your body? Somebody call an exorcist. Second, the little mermaid's desire for a human soul makes her pursuit of the prince seem a bit more like selfishness than true love. She's almost out to use him in this version of the tale! Cold, little mermaid, real cold.
So she hustles over to her world's resident sea witch and lets the witch cut out her tongue. She trades her tongue for the ability to magically grow two legs. And the little mermaid does this knowing that if the prince weds another girl, she won't just turn back into a mer-person; she'll die and become ocean foam. For a while, it definitely seems like the little mermaid is headed straight to Ocean Foaminess Forever-land, because the prince is putting the moves on another girl. You know, one born with the ability to walk on land. (Minor details.)
The little mermaid's sisters turn out to be pretty stand-up gals… ba-dum-tsh! They cut off their hair and trade it to the sea witch in order to try to save the little mermaid from certain sea foaminess. But the little mermaid refuses to accept their help, because doing that would mean she would have to slay the prince. Nuh-uh!
She throws away the knife, essentially sacrificing herself for him. So, we think she's got some soul. And someone else thinks so too, because she ends up avoiding a seafoamy death. Instead, she becomes a spirit of the air, who at least has a shot at going to the happiest place in the universe—heaven, you goofballs!—in just a few centuries.
All in all, Andersen's little mermaid is a bit of a mixed bag. She's got her eyes on the prize (becoming human, having a human soul, having a human husband), and seems willing to sacrifice just about anything to meet her goals. But she's also compassionate. In the end, she decides to put the prince's life ahead of her own.
Now, Disney isn't too interested in conflicted heroines or unhappy endings, so you should go ahead and read Andersen's tale to get the real scoop: "The Little Mermaid" is a heartfelt story of a young mer-stalker who yearns for an immortal soul but winds up killing herself for some dude who treats her like an accessory. The end!