'I Have Come to Despise You': Andersen and His Relationship to His Audience

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Author: Niels Ingwersen
Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,865 words

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[(essay date 2005) In the following essay, Ingwersen focuses upon Andersen's "complicated relationship" with his readers, and how the author portrayed his audience in his works.]

The [quotation "I have come to despise you," used in the title of this essay] is from Svinedrengen (The Swineherd); it records the prince's parting words to the princess whom he initially wooed so ardently. He wanted her to be his appreciative audience, but she refused to play that role, and--like the female protagonist in the folktale Haaken Borkenskjag1--she rejected him. That pattern was one that the young Andersen knew well: he performed with high expectations and his audience gave him cool--if not worse--receptions. It is a pattern that haunted the successful older man, and thus he mercilessly and repeatedly replayed it in his tales. Directly or indirectly, he wrote nearly obsessively about his public. Needless to say, the relationship between Andersen and his audience was problematic. Although Andersen had become famous in his own lifetime, that relationship did not improve--on the contrary. And it was a complicated relationship, as always when love and hate mingle.

Pardon me for starting this essay with a commentary on a tale that seems to harbor little concern with the meta-matter of artist and audience. In Svinedrengen, Andersen uses an age-old folktale2 but alters it drastically, for in the oral-formulaic tale, of which Andersen must have known a variant, the taming-of-the-shrew narrative ends happily, whereas Andersen concludes his text with the prince rejecting the less than perfect princess with disgust and vehemence, and consequently she is left home-less, a person rejected not only by the man who once proposed to her but also by her own father, for whom it is almost a deadly sin for a princess to kiss a filthy swineherd. In the folktale, the ending is vastly different; the prince, who truly loves the woman who cruelly rejected him, disguises himself as a pauper and educates the princess: she loses her haughtiness, becomes a genuine human being, and in the end the two of them--and their baby--can live happily forever after. That narrative, which includes the humiliation of the woman, may not strike modern readers as being a pleasant one, but the question to be posed here is why Andersen altered the plot so drastically?

My contention is that he is testing, challenging, and teasing his audience. If you agree with the priggish prince or with the utterly conventional father, then--dear member of the audience, Andersen would seem to say--you have failed to listen closely to my tale. Of course, tellers of tales could always pull that trick, but as a rule it seems that most storytellers and audiences did not find themselves in conflict with one another. I admit that we have scant information on the tellers and audiences of the nineteenth century--and that exceptions to the above claim can be found--, but it nevertheless seems rare for Nordic storytellers to challenge or insult their audiences. It appears to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420092113