Study Guide

Andersen's Fairy Tales Themes

By Andersen, Hans Christian

  • Society and Class

    We're not saying Andersen was obsessed with social class… okay, yes, we are. Maybe it's because he was born poor and was always trying to claw his way to the top. Maybe it's because he worshiped the nobility while resenting them for holding him at arm's length. Maybe it's because, despite all that, he was dependent on the upper crust's patronage to create his art. Whatever the cause, Andersen's stories portray everyone from the Kim Kardashians of his day to the truly destitute. Some of the wealthy royals in Andersen's writing are noble of heart, so being rich doesn't automatically make a character bad. But other of his Richie Riches act like total schmucks. Andersen's sympathy for the lower class is obvious, as can be seen in "The Little Match Girl." And some of his lower-class characters manage to make it big, rather than just dying and going to heaven… which is way better than being poor in Andersen's world. Sorta like in our world? Ugh, let's turn that frown upside-down, everybody!

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How is Andersen's portrayal of the social class divide similar to or different from the way things are today in your home country? How about your home town, or your very own high school?
    2. What role do artists seem to play Andersen's vision of human society?
    3. Is the social hierarchy morally justified in Andersen's view? Which of his stories support this view?
    4. Which character's fate leaves you with the worst feeling in your mouth? Why? Did social class seem to factor into your feelings of sympathy or empathy for that character?

    Chew on This

    In Andersen's world, it is the duty of the nobility to look out for the lower-class folks.

    Being pious is a better ticket to happiness than being rich.

  • Love

    OMG, we like, totally love Andersen. If he were still alive, we'd probably pass him a note that said, "Do you like us? Check 'yes' or 'no'." Plus, we know from Andersen's letters and diaries that that he suffered from one-sided feelings a lot, so we'd like to think our rabid Andersen-lovin' is some kind of karmic redemption for the poor guy. And, lucky for us, because Andersen sat around pining for this love stuff so much, his portrayals of love are actually incredibly creative and diverse. He wrote about everything from romantic love to platonic love, familial love, spiritual love, and more.

    All these loves cause some of his characters suffering, but they also inspire them to accomplish great deeds. Furthermore, numerous obstacles are shown to get in the way of love, such as class differences, the desires of evil people, and God's will (even though God's supposed to be loving, go figure). So, even if his actual experiences of love were pretty one-sided, Andersen's tales make him seem like a bona fide expert on this love business.

    Questions About Love

    1. Which of Andersen's characters manage to live happily ever after, and how do they do it?
    2. Does it seem to be better to have love or money in Andersen's stories? Which tales support your answer?
    3. What are the similarities and differences between earthly love and heavenly love?
    4. How would you characterize Andersen's general attitude toward love, as it emerges across several of his tales?

    Chew on This

    Spiritual love may be the one true love, even if it's not yours.

    Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars any heart… but it's still the best thing since sliced bread.

  • Art and Culture

    What's the deal with Andersen's obvious interest in art? There's a ton of art in Andersen's stories, from poetry to sculpture and music. There're a lot of artist characters too. We think there are two reasons for these tales being so arty farty. First, art is inspired by all of Andersen's characters favorite things: nature, human beauty, and by God. And second, Andersen was, obviously, an artist himself. And, as he knew all too well, being an artist has a bunch of pros and cons. For one, art doesn't always pay the bills. You have to convince people that your art is worth their money, time, and patronage. On the flip side, to not create art when you've got a gift for it seems like a waste of inspiriation, and, thereby, a waste of one's supposedly God-given talents. Oh, and one more thing: Andersen seems to think you shouldn't just do art for the fame. You have to believe in it. Wow, this whole "art" thing is turning out to be pretty complicated.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What are some of Andersen's non-human characters that are involved with art? What kind of art do they do, and what is the importance of art in these stories?
    2. Which tales present a view on art that you agree or disagree with? Why?
    3. How would you describe the relationship between art and religion in the tales?
    4. If you could watch Andersen having a conversation with another artist of your choice, dead or living, who would it be? Why?

    Chew on This

    Either you've got it or you don't: there's no way to fake being an artist.

    Andersen's tales portray more dude artists than chick artists because he was sexist, like most people of his day and age.

  • Memory and The Past

    We're thinking Andersen was one giant history nerd, based on how much history (of Denmark and Europe in general) he includes in his stories. Famous kings and inventors pop up in his tales, and many of his characters think about the past and long for it. Some of them are haunted by old, unhappy memories, while others relive joyous memories as often as they can. But indulging in nostalgia can have a hefty price: if you live in the past too much, you'll neglect the present.

    Questions About Memory and The Past

    1. Why do you think so many of Andersen's characters obsess over the past? What are they looking for when the mine their memories, and do they seem to find it?
    2. Did you learn anything new about history from these tales? If so, what? What do you want to know more about? (Encyclopedia, ho! Okay, we'll be more realisitic: Wikipedia, ho!)
    3. Where do you draw the line between memory and fantasy in Andersen's tales?
    4. Which kinds of characters are most likely to reminisce in Andersen's tale? Why?

    Chew on This

    Living in the past is no substitute for living in the present.

    If we can't learn from the past, we're screwed.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    A lot of Andersen's stories are set in far-off locales. His characters like to travel, and they tend to encounter people from other cultures who are a bit on the strange side (those Finns and their saunas, man!). Other times, Andersen refers to the exotic-seeming customs of other cultures, like funeral pyres in India and Chinese tea-drinking. In the process, he can come off as kinda racist, and even more so when he talks about topics like the coloration of Jewish or Spanish characters. What can we say? In this way, the dude was a product of his times.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. What is the role of religion in Andersen's various tales of "exotic" cultures?
    2. Which of the foreign cultures mentioned in the tales would you most want to visit? Which would you least want to visit? Why?
    3. Do you think Andersen ever felt like a foreigner, or was ever treated like one, in his own life? What parallels can you draw between Andersen's experiences as an artist in Denmark in the 1800s and his portrayals of other cultures?

    Chew on This

    What's exotic is only a matter of perspective.

    Pretty much everything must've seemed exotic to a Danish citizen of the 1800s.

  • Appearances

    Who would have guessed that the dude who wrote "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Emperor's New Clothes" had some strong opinions about appearances? You, probably. Andersen seems to be trying to teach us that we shouldn't pay too much attention to appearances, since vanity is a tool of the Devil. But at the same time, he seems to think it's okay to be drawn to beauty, since God inspires artists, and He created nature to be beautiful. Hmm, way to contradict yourself, Andersen. Maybe if you can learn to appreciate beauty and art for what they are, but are not seduced into forgetting what's actually important—like loving God and all that jazz—you can get Andersen's stamp of approval. Maybe.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Which of Andersen's characters are particularly beautiful? Which are particularly ugly? How do these characters' beauty, or lack thereof, seem to affect their lives?
    2. Do you think Andersen's characters ultimately fair better when they're born beautiful, or when they're born ugly?
    3. Are there any tales in which Andersen seems to want you to walk away with that ol' message, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"? Which ones?
    4. Who is the vainest character in Andersen's tales? Is there anything special about her/his/its appearance?

    Chew on This

    Beauty doesn't last, so, really, it's not all that important.

    Don't judge a book by its cover, unless it's a really lousy book.

  • Visions of Denmark

    Andersen was Danish, and boy was he proud of it! Every third story or so contains some reference to Denmark, the Danish language, the Danish landscape, or Danish historical figures. So if you're not up on your Danish history or culture, Andersen will totally do you a solid and help tell you, like… everything. The way that Andersen writes about Denmark has us convinced that it's a beautiful country, filled with remarkable inventors and artists as well as sturdy, faithful peasants. Could Andersen have been seeing his country through rose-colored lenses? It's certainly possible. We'll let you know what we think once we get back from our field trip to Denmark on Shmoop's private jet.

    Questions About Visions of Denmark

    1. What were the most interesting things you learned about Denmark from reading the tales?
    2. How would you characterize Danish culture based on the tales?
    3. What's the most appealing part of the Danish landscape that you read about?
    4. If you were able to travel back in time to any period in Danish history, during any season, when would you pick and why?

    Chew on This

    Denmark shouldn't be so overlooked in European History courses.

    Andersen's portrait of Denmark in his tales is completely one-sided.

  • Religion

    If you read these stories not knowing anything about Andersen's life, you'd probably guess (correctly) that he was Christian. His tales contain a lot of stuff about God, angels, faith, the Bible, the afterlife, and sin (which gets so much attention that we gave it its own Theme section). Andersen reflects on what it takes to get into heaven, the various wicked things people do (that you shouldn't try at home!), and the nature of God, love, and forgiveness. Since he was writing in the 1800s, none of this surprises us. But, if you try to imagine someone publishing stories like this today, with such an obvious religious bent, we're guessing they'd be shelved in a special religious section of a bookstore, rather than having the broad appeal we tend to associate with Andersen's work… Or would they? Ann Lammott is pretty popular, right?

    Questions About Religion

    1. Which aspects of Christianity does Andersen write about the most?
    2. Do you agree with the way Andersen represents Christian figures in his writing? Why or why not?
    3. How would Andersen's stories hold up if you removed all religious references from them? What might you use to patch up the holes left by religious themes?
    4. Given what we've told you about Andersen's life, why do you think Christianity resonated with him so much?

    Chew on This

    Andersen's vision of Christianity is ultimately optimistic.

    Art is only meaningful when it serves God.

  • Sin

    Bored of your run-of-the-mill, Everyone Poops brand of self-celebrating children's stories? Well, Andersen's tales are pretty remarkable in that they dwell on about the darker side of being human: people sin, and darkness often lives in our hearts. Andersen's take on sin is simultaneously pretty standard for a Christian and pretty optimistic. He thinks that all humans are sinners and should live in fear of God, but he also keeps reinforcing the redemptive powers of love and faith. So many of Andersen's characters learn the error of their sinning ways, and finally make it up to heaven when they repent and beg for mercy… even though they know they don't deserve it. Cuz up until now, they've been kinda crappy people.

    Questions About Sin

    1. Who do you think is the most sinful character in the tales? Why?
    2. Is Andersen too harsh on his sinful characters? Why or why not?
    3. What are the best ways for sinful characters to dig their way out of sin?
    4. If you had to be friends with one of the sinners in Andersen's tales, who would you pick and why?

    Chew on This

    Andersen was obsessed with writing about sin because he feared that he was a sinful (hence unlovable) person.

    Andersen was optimistic about redemption because, like any good Christian, he, too, wanted to go to heaven.