Every now and then some well-meaning person decapitates the statue of the little mermaid in Denmark. There is no need for them to bother.
What worries people about Hans Anderson's story of the little mermaid is the image of a woman who is so desperate for love that she'll give up the use of her voice and will walk on feet that hurt as if knives were going through them. Having found the man she loves, she'll step aside and evaporate rather than harm her beloved. Its' an image of self-sacrifice that many women find repugnant.
However I don't think the story is really about women being self-sacrificing at all. Instead it's about how much Hans Anderson himself wanted to be loved.
Anderson was ugly - comically ugly and clumsy. This, combined with his poverty, meant that for much of his early life, he was an outsider who, rather like another of his creations, the little matchgirl, was always looking in at the happy, comfortable scenes of the lives of others but feeling only the cold winds of his own solitude.
Convinced that he was meant to do something great - he even considered being a ballet dancer! - he hung around famous people trying to find encouragement, direction and patronage. They amused themselves at his expense but failed to notice that he was almost starving and had clothes that were too small and in rags. Possibly the image of the knives in the feet of the mermaid arose from his experience of wearing ill-fitting shoes during the frozen Danish winters.
Eventually, after returning to school to learn to read and write properly, he found his voice and wrote his stories. However, he didn't have the courage to pursue the woman that he loved and, though she may well have responded to him, he lost her to another. Tormented by loneliness, he lived without the love he craved.
I believe that the image of the little mermaid represents his emotions. Perhaps he felt at times as if he would gladly trade in his own hard-won powers of self-expression (just as the mermaid traded in her voice) if only he could be loved. And perhaps, when Anderson's beloved married another, he felt as if his soul had drifted away into the ether, as the little mermaid's does at the end of the story.
Each of us has a deep, secret yearning to see our own image reflected in the affectionate eyes of another. His story is not meant to be a prescription for how women should behave but is really a series of poetic images that express how strong within us all the desire for love can be.
Children may enjoy a biography of Anderson written by Ruth Saunders but there are many others written for adults about this complex, courageous and sad man.