I love the Little Mermaid but not the Disney version. Don’t get me wrong, Sebastian and Flounder are two of the best animated sidekicks out there. However, my problem with Disney’s version of Little Mermaid is that it robs Ariel of her tragedy.
You see in Hans Christian Anderson’s original version most of the basics are the same, the Little Mermaid (who doesn’t have an actual name), is the youngest mermaid princess who falls in love with a human Prince. In order to be with him she makes a deal with the sea witch to become human. However, she must make the Prince love her so strongly that he would forsake his parents to be with her. If he were to marry someone else she would die. When the Little Mermaid gets the opportunity to be with him it turns out he doesn’t love her in a way that she needs him to. He falls in love with another Princess. On the eve of their wedding she is given the option: kill the Prince and return to her sisters or die at first morning’s light. She finds that she can’t kill her Prince and throws herself overboard, joining the spirit world. (You know, the nice way of saying she ends up in purgatory)
Looking at the original story we learn so much:
1. That to love someone with all your being doesn’t guarantee that they will love you in return.
2. That sometimes sacrifice doesn’t pay off.
3. That even though someone doesn’t return your love, you can still want them to be happy.
When we take away the Little Mermaid’s tragedy and replace it with a happy ending we lose all of those lessons. Our favorite little Mermaid goes from plausable to fanciful. What we are left with is a shallow story of a girl who is rewarded for giving up everything, including her very identity, for love.
Yes, reading is a form of escapism but to take away the tragedy that our characters are meant to feel we rob not only them but we rob our readers as well.
“We participate in tragedy. At comedy we only look.” ~Aldous Huxley
Going back to the origins of tragedy, you know, all the way back to Aristotle. Tragedy is an act of cleansing. When all is said and done, we the audience are brought through hell to the other side. If we take away that journey we lose the ability to not only connect with the story but we fail to see our own humanity.
Sometimes our hands our tied when we write historical fiction. The characters we love have to die because that’s how it happened, as much as we would like to, we can’t rewrite history. Perhaps because of that we want to create happy endings. We want our readers to feel all warm and fuzzy inside when they close our book. But if we take that stance are we in affect robbing them of their journey?
In writing Anita, I had the opportunity to create a few characters outside of the historical record. One such person was Louisa Anzani, a close friend of Anita Garibaldi. When it came time for Louisa to leave Anita’s life I wanted her to go away happy but there was no way I could write her story, keeping her happy in order for the story to progress the way that it should. If I were to negate Louisa’s tragedy I would take away her human experience.
This also brings us to another point that has often been over looked, especially in history, its that women experience tragedy. They have gritty life experiences apart from giving birth and dieing. For Louisa, she finds herself suddenly without a husband, a child on the verge of death and the challenge of being able to feed her two other children. She has to find a way to survive. It wouldn’t make sense for me let her be happy or to act like these things don’t phase her. She’s human, of course they do. But in giving her tragedy upon tragedy (because let’s face it, bad things happen in threes) I give her a voice. I give her a connection with that one reader who can relate to her more than anyone else. I make her human. Luisa becomes more than just a two dimensional character, she becomes a living breathing part of history.
Tragedy is what brings our characters to life. Without it, we’d just have a bunch of random disney princesses enjoying their perfect happily ever after. How boring is that??