Andersen's fairy tale was first published in the collection of 1836-37 (i.e., it is an early story but not one of the very first) and is connected to various folk traditions about the merfolk. However, in most of the folk traditions, mermaids are hostile to surface men; their most common role in folklore is to lure sailors to their deaths, as can be seen through significant literary versions such as Odysseus's encounter with the sirens in the Odyssey (the singing of the sirens is so beautiful that men jump into the sea or run their ships aground to reach them; Odysseus avoids the peril by stopping the ears of his crew and having himself lashed to the mast) and German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine's "Die Lorelei," in which the Lorelei live in the Rhine River and similarly attract boatmen to drown. Andersen reverses the depiction of the merfolk by making his heroine in love with the surface world and actively rescue the prince.
Many students will be more familiar with the Disney film, but the film transforms the story significantly, turning a meditation on spiritual values into a much more conventional tale in which the heroine is rewarded at the end with a marriage - an ending that Andersen specifically rejects (I have discussed the modifications made by Disney in my article "Moral Simplification in Disney's The Little Mermaid." (Lion and Unicorn 17:1 (June 1993) 83-92)). Disney retains elements of the fairy tale but superimposes typical elements of Disneyfication and a "happy ending" that contravenes the moral intention of the original tale.
Andersen's mermaid is driven to the surface world by two complementary but separable impulses:
1. a romantic/erotic desire for handsome prince, and
2. a moral desire (privileged by Andersen since it is fulfilled) to attain a soul with promise of an afterlife.
Her romantic desire is frustrated when the prince marries a human princess, whom he mistakenly believes to be the one who rescued him from the storm. The mermaid is given a chance to resume her original form if she abandons both quests by killing the prince. Rejecting this opportunity, at a point when she is certain that it will lead to her immediate death and obliteration, secures her spiritual goal and gives her a second chance at immortality.
All of the action in Andersen's tale results directly from the mermaid's twin desires. Her fascination with the surface world predates her meeting the prince and is in fact responsible for placing her where she can fall in love; her desire for the prince and for a soul leads her to seek out the sea hag on her own (in contrast to the Disney film).
The story suggests several ways to acquire a soul: first is by receiving love in return for one's own love, as the mermaid can gain a share of the prince's soul through marriage; second is through the great suffering required even to live on land with the prince, as the princess must undergo a painful bifurcation of her mermaid tale and then walk as if she were always stepping on knives; finally is through sacrifice of herself on behalf of another, when she decides not to kill the prince and thus cannot resume her mermaid existence. This pattern reflects Christian teaching and suggests the mermaid as a type of Christ figure, except that her sacrifice secures her own salvation rather than that of others (though she does, of course, save the prince and his new bride by declining to kill them).
In Andersen, the mermaid's erotic prospects never have a chance - the inevitable heartache of human love, which Andersen knew firsthand, means that she is destined not simply to be rejected, she is ignored by the object of her desire. In part this is because she has been silenced, unable to tell her own tale. From Andersen's perspective, this is no doubt just part of the suffering required for her to achieve a soul and salvation, but feminist theory would place special emphasis on the silencing. As Marina Waner argues, the story suggests that "cutting out your tongue is still not enough. To be saved, more is required: self-obliteration, dissolution. . . . the Little Mermaid sacrifices her song to no avail" (398). Warner notes the link between the mermaid's voice and her feminine power, drawing analogies to the Odyssey's sirens; we might also not a connection to the myth of Philomel, whose tongue is similarly cut out.
Despite the harshness of the suffering, however, there may be redeeming features in the tale of the quest for the soul. Cravens describes how she was "troubled" by aspects of the original tale when she first encountered it at age 4 or 5. But this troubling was counteracted by a sense of connection:
...even though her trials seemed intolerable, I felt as though the deepest part of my nature were being addressed by a sincere friend, and I was satisfied and uplifted by the ending without understanding the reason. (638)
The spiritual or religious interpretation of the quest for the soul is somewhat reinforced by the tripartite organization of the world in the story, suggesting a movement from hell (the undersea world has a body-destroying maelstrom and demonic polyps) to the mortal world (characterized by church steeples and bells) to heaven (the realm of the air spirits, who function somewhat as guardian angels). The levels are particularly emphasized by the mermaid's grandmother when she tells her,
". . . men have souls that live eternally, even after their bodies have become dust. They rise high up into the clear sky where the stars are. As we rise up through the water to look at the world of men, they rise up to the unknown, the beautiful world, that we shall never Profesorrsee." (Italics mine)Ori