Study Guide

Andersen's Fairy Tales Society and Class

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Society and Class

The mer-king had been a widower for many years; his mother kept house for him. She was a very intelligent woman but a little too proud of her rank: she wore twelve oysters on her tail; the nobility were only allowed six. (The Little Mermaid.3)

Even non-humans have a social hierarchy in Andersen's world. Kinda gives the phrase "top dog" a new meaning, eh?

Oh, God! Poverty breaks the strongest will. (The Magic Galoshes.71)

This line from a poem by one of Andersen's characters hits the nail on the head. No matter how stubborn or driven you are, always worrying about where your next meal will come from is freakin' exhausting.

It does not matter that one has been born in the henyard as long as one has lain in a swan's egg. (The Ugly Duckling.76)

So, ultimately, like as far as the Christian God is concerned and such, nobility comes from inside of you. It doesn't matter what conditions you grow up in. But, um, it clearly helps to be born to higher-class parents. See: a lot of the other quotes in this section.

But the poor boy looked down at his wooden shoes and pulled at the sleeves of his tunic to make them a little longer. His poverty made him shy, and he excused himself by saying that he feared he could not walk as fast as the prince. (The Bell.18)

Can't afford clothes that actually fit? Sucks to be you. The poor boy in this story is super self-conscious because standing next to a prince, it's obvious just how poor his family is. Like if you were to wear your ratty old sweatpants to a restaurant that serves hundred-dollar entrees. Ouch.

Now the little girl walked barefoot through the streets. Her feet were swollen and red from the cold. She was carrying a little bundle of matches in her hand and had more in her apron pocket. No one had bought any all day, or given her so much as a penny. (The Little Match Girl.2)

Walking barefoot through the snow on New Year's Eve trying to sell matches so your dad doesn't beat you? That sounds. Well. Less than ideal. But it's probably not too far from ordinary for some people. So we're glad that Andersen draws attention to how much poor people suffer under an unjust social system.

"I know it is the fashion of the day—and many a poet dances to that tune—to say that everything aristocratic is stupid and bad. They claim that only among the poor—and the lower you descend the better—does true gold glitter. But that is not my opinion; I think it is wrong, absolutely false reasoning. Among the highest classes one can often observe the most elevated traits." (Everything in Its Right Place.29)

Interesting. So, while a lot of writers are quick to portray poor people as more noble at heart—including Andersen, in some of his other tales—the speaker in this story (a parson's son) believes that the upper class actually displays the majority of awesome traits. We're guessing that Andersen liked to have some of his characters play Devil's Advocate to his class activism.

"I respect the poor, and know that in heaven many a poor man will be seated nearer God than many rich men will be. But here on earth, a carriage has to follow the tracks in the road or it will turn over; and you two would overturn!" (She Was No Good.35)

It sounds as though this lady is actually pretty prejudiced… she's okay with poor people in the abstract, but she doesn't want her kid to marry one. Again, we think Andersen is voicing an opinion that might have been popular amongst noble people during his time, even if he doesn't necessarily agree with this view.

The general lived on the second floor and the janitor in the cellar. There was a great distance between them: all of the ground floor plus the class difference. (The Janitor's Son.1)

Your social class plays a pretty big role in where you sleep at night. Being stuck in a cellar because you're poor is probably no fun, so this quote demonstrates a pretty nice metaphor: the general lives "above" the janitor in more ways than one.

"The poor have too many chicks in their nests," grumbled the noble owner of the castle. "If they could drown some of them, as one does with kittens, and only keep one or two of the strongest, they would be better off." (The Story Old Johanna Told.12)

Yeah, that sounds like a great idea! Let's prevent the poor people from having too many mouths to feed by killing some of their children! …said no one ever. Well, apparently this noble guy said it. But, um. Ugh. Make it stop.

"Human beings are like milk. Some are churned into sweet butter and some become whey. Why should some always be lucky, be born to a high station, and never experience sorrow or want?" (The Cripple.39)

This is one of those metaphors along the lines of "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get." The quote suggests why some people are born into a life of ease and general awesomeness, while others always have to struggle: that's just the way things are, some people are rich, and some people are poor. We don't think being churned into butter sounds any more pleasant than being made into whey, but, hey, whatever works.

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