Hans Christian Andersen, it cannot be denied, was one sorry motherfucker. The first story he ever wrote was about a candle that did not feel appreciated, which is fairly representative of his output over the course of a lifetime. Charles Dickens almost certainly based the character of Uriah Heep on him after an overlong and profoundly uncomfortable stint as his houseguest (“Andersen extended a brief visit to Dickens’ home into five weeks, to the distress of Dickens’ family. Dickens stopped all correspondence between them after the disastrous stay, much to the disappointment and confusion of Andersen, who had quite enjoyed the visit, and never understood why his letters went unanswered”). Søren Kierkegaard insulted him, saying he lacked the development and worldview to be a “true” novelist.
Hans Christian Andersen was the lil’est writer that nobody loved. And his assorted short stories, while wonderful, have some of the most unbelievably slack-jaw-inducing downer endings in the history of short stories. He was an Eeyore for the ages. The saddest ones aren’t always the ones you expect; they creep up on you and are almost invariably named something innocuous like “The Thimble” or “The Chest-of-Drawers.” Beware Hans Christian Andersen stories named after household objects; they will end in ashes and in tears. Some of them, of course, are Exactly What It Says On The Tin, like “The Child in the Grave,” but generally this rule holds true for most of his work.
The Tinder-Box: “So they placed the soldier in the king’s carriage, and the three dogs ran on in front and cried “Hurrah!” and the little boys whistled through their fingers, and the soldiers presented arms. The princess came out of the copper castle, and became queen, which was very pleasing to her. The wedding festivities lasted a whole week, and the dogs sat at the table, and stared with all their eyes.”
A good introductory ending. It should be nice! Weddings are nice! There’s a princess and everything. But what sticks with you are the dogs.
The Marsh-King’s Daughter: “It is I—it is Helga! Dost thou not know me? Three minutes ago we were speaking together yonder in the verandah.”
“That is a mistake,” said the stork, “you must have dreamed all this.”
“No, no,” she exclaimed. Then she reminded him of the Viking’s castle, of the great lake, and of the journey across the ocean.
Then stork-papa winked his eyes, and said, “Why, that’s an old story which happened in the time of my grandfather. There certainly was a princess of that kind here in Egypt once, who came from the Danish land, but she vanished on the evening of her wedding day, many hundred years ago, and never came back. You may read about it yourself yonder, on a monument in the garden. There you will find swans and storks sculptured, and on the top is a figure of the princess Helga, in marble.”
And so it was; Helga understood it all now, and sank on her knees. The sun burst forth in all its glory, and, as in olden times, the form of the frog vanished in his beams, and the beautiful form stood forth in all its loveliness; so now, bathed in light, rose a beautiful form, purer, clearer than air—a ray of brightness—from the Source of light Himself. The body crumbled into dust, and a faded lotus-flower lay on the spot on which Helga had stood.
“Now that is a new ending to the story,” said stork-papa; “I really never expected it would end in this way, but it seems a very good ending.”
“And what will the young ones say to it, I wonder?” said stork-mamma.
“Ah, that is a very important question,” replied the stork.”
Classic Andersen. Cynical talking birds, desperate women with white arms, and someone goes to Heaven without technically dying.
The Bachelor’s Night-Cap: “The following day, the third day during which his house had been closed, the snow-storm ceased. Then his opposite neighbor stepped over to the house in which old Anthony lived, for he had not yet showed himself. There he lay stretched on his bed, dead, with his old nightcap tightly clasped in his two hands. The nightcap, however, was not placed on his head in his coffin; he had a clean white one on then. Where now were the tears he had shed? What had become of those wonderful pearls? They were in the nightcap still. Such tears as these cannot be washed out, even when the nightcap is forgotten. The old thoughts and dreams of a bachelor’s nightcap still remain. Never wish for such a nightcap. It would make your forehead hot, cause your pulse to beat with agitation, and conjure up dreams which would appear realities.
The first who wore old Anthony’s cap felt the truth of this, though it was half a century afterwards. That man was the mayor himself, who had already made a comfortable home for his wife and eleven children, by his industry. The moment he put the cap on he dreamed of unfortunate love, of bankruptcy, and of dark days. “Hallo! how the nightcap burns!” he exclaimed, as he tore it from his bead. Then a pearl rolled out, and then another, and another, and they glittered and sounded as they fell. “What can this be? Is it paralysis, or something dazzling my eyes?” They were the tears which old Anthony had shed half a century before.
To every one who afterwards put this cap on his head, came visions and dreams which agitated him not a little. His own history was changed into that of Anthony till it became quite a story, and many stories might be made by others, so we will leave them to relate their own. We have told the first; and our last word is, don’t wish for a “bachelor’s nightcap.”
Oh, my God.
The Bottle-Neck: “There were tears in the eyes of the old maid, as she spoke of the beloved of her youth, and of their betrothal in the wood. Many thoughts came into her mind; but the thought never came, that quite close to her, in that very window, was a remembrance of those olden times,—the neck of the bottle which had, as it were shouted for joy when the cork flew out with a bang on the betrothal day. But the bottle neck did not recognize the old maid; he had not been listening to what she had related, perhaps because he was thinking so much about her.”
OH, MY GOD.
The Little Mermaid: “The little mermaid lifted her glorified eyes towards the sun, and felt them, for the first time, filling with tears. On the ship, in which she had left the prince, there were life and noise; she saw him and his beautiful bride searching for her; sorrowfully they gazed at the pearly foam, as if they knew she had thrown herself into the waves. Unseen she kissed the forehead of her bride, and fanned the prince, and then mounted with the other children of the air to a rosy cloud that floated through the aether.
“After three hundred years, thus shall we float into the kingdom of heaven,” said she. “And we may even get there sooner,” whispered one of her companions. “Unseen we can enter the houses of men, where there are children, and for every day on which we find a good child, who is the joy of his parents and deserves their love, our time of probation is shortened. The child does not know, when we fly through the room, that we smile with joy at his good conduct, for we can count one year less of our three hundred years. But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial!”
At least she doesn’t turn into sea foam. It’s important to remember that for Andersen, this is technically a happy ending. This is the best you can get; evil children and sobbing angels and the hope of future release.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier: “He looked at the little lady, and she looked at him. He felt himself melting away, but he still remained firm with his gun on his shoulder. Suddenly the door of the room flew open and the draught of air caught up the little dancer, she fluttered like a sylph right into the stove by the side of the tin soldier, and was instantly in flames and was gone. The tin soldier melted down into a lump, and the next morning, when the maid servant took the ashes out of the stove, she found him in the shape of a little tin heart. But of the little dancer nothing remained but the tinsel rose, which was burnt black as a cinder.”
Women have no hearts. It’s very sad.
The Daisy: “The evening came, and nobody appeared to bring the poor bird a drop of water; it opened its beautiful wings, and fluttered about in its anguish; a faint and mournful “Tweet, tweet,” was all it could utter, then it bent its little head towards the flower, and its heart broke for want and longing. The flower could not, as on the previous evening, fold up its petals and sleep; it dropped sorrowfully. The boys only came the next morning; when they saw the dead bird, they began to cry bitterly, dug a nice grave for it, and adorned it with flowers. The bird’s body was placed in a pretty red box; they wished to bury it with royal honours. While it was alive and sang they forgot it, and let it suffer want in the cage; now, they cried over it and covered it with flowers. The piece of turf, with the little daisy in it, was thrown out on the dusty highway. Nobody thought of the flower which had felt so much for the bird and had so greatly desired to comfort it.”
Never be a flower in a Hans Christian Andersen story. Your death will not even be yours; it will be a metaphor.
The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf: “The winter was very hard; the ponds were covered with ice, and there was very little food for either the beasts of the field or the birds of the air. Our little bird flew away into the public roads, and found here and there, in the ruts of the sledges, a grain of corn, and at the halting places some crumbs. Of these he ate only a few, but he called around him the other birds and the hungry sparrows, that they too might have food. He flew into the towns, and looked about, and wherever a kind hand had strewed bread on the window-sill for the birds, he only ate a single crumb himself, and gave all the rest to the rest of the other birds. In the course of the winter the bird had in this way collected many crumbs and given them to other birds, till they equalled the weight of the loaf on which Inge had trod to keep her shoes clean; and when the last bread-crumb had been found and given, the gray wings of the bird became white, and spread themselves out for flight.”
“See, yonder is a sea-gull!” cried the children, when they saw the white bird, as it dived into the sea, and rose again into the clear sunlight, white and glittering. But no one could tell whither it went then although some declared it flew straight to the sun.”
Til they equalled the weight of the loaf on which Inge had trod to keep her shoes clean. It’s just as bad to be a little girl who likes shoes in a Hans Christian Andersen novel as it is to be a flower, and often as fatal.
The Child in the Grave: “Then her husband asked, “From whence hast thou all at once derived such strength and comforting faith?”
And as she kissed him and her children, she said, “It came from God, through my child in the grave.”
The Travelling Companion: “Last of all came the travelling companion; he had his staff in his hand and his knapsack on his back. John kissed him many times and told him he must not go, he must remain with him, for he was the cause of all his good fortune. But the traveller shook his head, and said gently and kindly, “No: my time is up now; I have only paid my debt to you. Do you remember the dead man whom the bad people wished to throw out of his coffin? You gave all you possessed that he might rest in his grave; I am that man.” As he said this, he vanished.
The wedding festivities lasted a whole month. John and his princess loved each other dearly, and the old king lived to see many a happy day, when he took their little children on his knees and let them play with his sceptre. And John became king over the whole country.”
He became king, but his friend was gone forever, his best and truest and only friend, who had been a corpse the whole time.
The Wicked Prince: “The place burnt like fire, and the poison entered into his blood. Mad with pain, he tore off the coverings and his clothes too, flinging them far away, and danced about before the eyes of his ferocious soldiers, who now mocked at him, the mad prince, who wished to make war with God, and was overcome by a single little gnat.”
The Shepherdess and the Sweep: “And so the little china people remained together, and were glad of the grandfather’s rivet, and continued to love each other till they were broken to pieces.”
The Snail and the Rose-Tree: “That’s very sad,” said the rose tree. “I cannot creep into myself, however much I might wish to do so; I have to go on bearing roses. Then they drop their leaves, which are blown away by the wind. But I once saw how a rose was laid in the mistress’s hymn-book, and how one of my roses found a place in the bosom of a young beautiful girl, and how another was kissed by the lips of a child in the glad joy of life. That did me good; it was a real blessing. Those are my recollections, my life.”
And the rose tree went on blooming in innocence, while the snail lay idling in his house—the world was nothing to him.
Years passed by.
The snail had turned to earth in the earth, and the rose tree too. Even the souvenir rose in the hymn-book was faded, but in the garden there were other rose trees and other snails. The latter crept into their houses and spat at the world, for it did not concern them.
Shall we read the story all over again? It will be just the same.”
No. No, please don’t read it again. Please.
The Darning Needle: “Crack went the egg-shell, as a waggon passed over it. “Good heavens, how it crushes!” said the darning-needle. “I shall be sick now. I am breaking!” but she did not break, though the waggon went over her as she lay at full length; and there let her lie.”
SHE CANNOT EVEN HOPE FOR THE RELEASE OF DEATH, FOR SHE IS A NEEDLE. This is at least as horrifying as I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream.
She Was Good For Nothing: “Oh, my poor mother!” he cried, while the tears rolled down his cheeks. “Is it true what they say, that she was good for nothing?”
“No, indeed, it is not true,” replied the old servant, raising her eyes to heaven; “she was worth a great deal; I knew it years ago, and since the last night of her life I am more certain of it than ever. I say she was a good and worthy woman, and God, who is in heaven, knows I am speaking the truth, though the world may say, even now she was good for nothing.”
The Dumb Book: “What a strange feeling it is—surely we all know it—to look through old letters of our young days; a different life rises up out of the past, as it were, with all its hopes and sorrows. How many of the people with whom in those days we used to be on intimate terms appear to us as if dead, and yet they are still alive—only we have not thought of them for such a long time, whom we imagined we should retain in our memories for ever, and share every joy and sorrow with them.
The withered oak leaf in the book here recalled the friend, the schoolfellow, who was to be his friend for life. He fixed the leaf to the student’s cap in the green wood, when they vowed eternal friendship. Where does he dwell now? The leaf is kept, but the friendship does no longer exist. Here is a foreign hothouse plant, too tender for the gardens of the North. It is almost as if its leaves still smelt sweet! She gave it to him out of her own garden—a nobleman’s daughter.
Here is a water-lily that he had plucked himself, and watered with salt tears—a lily of sweet water. And here is a nettle: what may its leaves tell us? What might he have thought when he plucked and kept it? Here is a little snowdrop out of the solitary wood; here is an evergreen from the flower-pot at the tavern; and here is a simple blade of grass.
The lilac bends its fresh fragrant flowers over the dead man’s head; the swallow passes again—“twit, twit;” now the men come with hammer and nails, the lid is placed over the dead man, while his head rests on the dumb book—so long cherished, now closed for ever!”
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.