Selfishness vs. Selflessness: A Bittersweet Ever After?


In Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”, the heroine is not passive in the slightest about achieving her goals. She is highly motivated and employs any means necessary to get what she wants, even if “any means necessary” meant seeking help from the dreaded Sea Witch, cutting off her tongue, never seeing her home again, and potential death by transformation into sea foam. The Little Mermaid could be seen as selfless in her love for the Prince, but abandons her family and sovereignty on her quest for the Prince and an eternal soul. After the whole ordeal, she is faced with the decision to kill the Prince to save her own life or ending her life to preserve the Prince’s.

The dual heroes in Oscar Wilde’s “Happy Prince” are the Happy Prince statue and the Sparrow. The Happy Prince previously enjoyed a lavish life of pleasure, inhabiting the “Palace of Sans-Souci” without a care in the world (Wilde 225). In his afterlife as a statue however, he discovers how much misery the world possesses and enlists the help of the Sparrow to ameliorate some of the pain and suffering in his home city. The Happy Prince is selfless in his afterlife and he and the Sparrow do good deeds throughout the town aiding those in need.

The Sparrow, the Happy Prince, and the Little Mermaid, despite selfish or selfless motives, all have one key characteristic in common- they all sacrificed their own lives for the benefit of others. The Sparrow, while aiding the happy prince, flies around delivering the Prince’s jewels to aid townspeople in need. He continues his duties even in the cold winter months when he realizes his inevitable death. The Happy Prince literally gave his body to help others. He asks the Sparrow to deliver the jewels and gold leaves from his statue form to those who need help. In the end, he is stripped of all his embellishments until he is “no better than a beggar” (Wilde 260). After he gives away all his decorations, he is deemed worthless by the townspeople and his lead core is smelted down to make a new statue. The Little Mermaid gave up her family, voice, and tail for the Prince’s love, marriage, and sharing of an eternal soul. When she was faced with the decision to “stab [a knife] through the Prince’s heart to save herself and once again become a mermaid, she chose to end her own life rather than the Prince’s (Anderson 231).

Although all three main characters gave up their lives for another, more direct parallels can be drawn between the Little Mermaid and the Happy Prince. They both sacrificed their lives for those who were too selfish to give anything in return and entirely lose their earthly forms. When the Little Mermaid gave up her entire world to be with the Prince, he did not reciprocate her feelings. Rather, he treated her like a “dumb child” and married the false bride which proved to be the death of the Little Mermaid (Anderson 229). This is analogous to Wilde’s Happy Prince character. The Happy Prince gave up everything that was beautiful about his body for the betterment of the town, only to be deemed ugly and smelted down by the very same townspeople whom he had aided.

In the end, the Sparrow, the Happy Prince, and the Little Mermaid each reach some form of heavenly afterlife. The Sparrow’s dead body and the Happy Prince’s broken heard are deemed the “most precious things in the city” and are sent to reside in God’s “garden of paradise” and “city of gold” (Wilde 260). The Little Mermaid becomes a daughter of the air and can win her own eternal soul and entry into the kingdom of heaven after a lifetime of good deeds. Although neither of these stories culminate in that oh-so-satisfying “happily ever after” moment, a “bittersweet ever after” can be just as fulfilling.

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