A reflection on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.
Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen
The Story Of A Mother is described as one of Hans Christian Anderson’s New Fairy Tales, though it is notable that HCA himself calls it a story. It is quite adult oriented, with elements that children would have trouble comprehending, and some adults might struggle with. It deals with a child’s death and its mother’s desperate response to the tragic event. In the natural order of life, a mother does not outlive her child.
Hans casts Death not just as the loss of life but as a character, in a way that might help comprehension by young minds. This plot device has been used by later authors such as Terry Pratchett, in a few of his comic Discworld tales, and Markus Zusak in The Book Thief, where Death is not just a story character but in fact the narrator.
When The Story Of A Mother was written, child mortality was much higher than today, nevertheless any mother will suffer intense emotional pain if her child dies before her, both when it was written in 1847 and now.
The Character of Death
To readers today, The Story Of A Mother is set in the past, but to readers of the author’s time it would not be so clear when it is set, though it is equally relevant now as when it was written. Neither are we given any location for the story, which could be nearly anywhere. The only clue is the frozen bush with icicles hanging from it, suggesting we are well north or south of the equator, though as we don’t know the time of year, it might be winter.
The aspect of time is further thrown into doubt when the clock stops after Death, as the old man who the mother does not recognise as Death when she first meets him, takes the child while the mother has fallen asleep for a beirf moment. It is only when she rushes out of her house in search of her child, and encounters the “woman in black garments” who says “Death has been with you in your room” that she knows who the old man was.
The stopping of the clock might signify the death of the child, the tick having represented the heartbeat. I prefer to think of the stopping of the clock as the suspension of time for the mother, like ‘time stands still’ for her until the point in the story, when she begins to grieve for her child, instead of her desperate attempt to get it back.
This aspect of time stopping is reinforced later when death encounters the mother in his “hothouse”, and asks “How have you been able to come quicker than I?” The mothers answer is brief, direct and would be understood by any mother. She replies simply “I am a mother”. This simple powerful statement explains the trials the mother bears and the challenges she overcomes, including the literal ‘crying her eyes out’, making herself blind, to get to Death’s hothouse whilst attempting to rescue her child.
As well as the ambiguity of setting of location and time, the characters we meet are all somewhat ambiguous too. None of the characters, except Death and God are named. We do not even know the gender of the child. Even God as referred to in the story could be a god of many religions, not necessarily Christian, though HCA was himself a Christian in more than name. These ambiguities in the story tends to make race, creed, colour and culture irrelevant and the underlying message equally appropriate to almost anyone. Any mother would be deeply wounded by her child’s death. The age of this story does not make it less relevant or powerful today, whenever “today” might be for the reader.
We are told by HCA that Death acted only on God’s will, yet the Death we meet seems to have a mind of his own, and that he apparently had some feelings for his ‘victims’. Whilst God instructs Death what to do, Death says to the mother “I do only what he commands”, it seems Death was allowed to use his own initiative how to accomplish the tasks he is given. But should we believe Death’s statement, when we see later that he lies to the mother?
It is apparent that Death is not without some degree of feeling or emotion and at least some degree of curiosity. He fished the mother’s eyes from the lake and, when returning them to her, said “they gleamed quite brightly”. If he were emotionless like death is more usually imagined, the gleam would have meant nothing to him. He might have taken a moment’s passing interest in the eyes but would have felt no need to fish them out of the water.
Death’s feelings are also shown when the mother threatens to “tear off all your flowers, for I am in despair”. Were he unfeeling, he could just have frozen her hands again with his cold breath and taken the flowers from her. Instead, he plays on her emotions, pointing out that what she has threatened would make another mother just as unhappy as she is. It is necessary for Death to feel and understand emotion himself, to be confident that his words would have the desired effect on the despairing mother.
For all that Death demonstrates some feeling, he is not beyond practicing some deception even though he is God’s servant. After returning the mother’s eyes to her, Death shows her the fate of two flowers, the two she had been holding and threatening to uproot in herb desperate attempt to get her son back. He tells her that one of the fates she sees is that of her son, but this is a lie. The lie misleads the mother but in doing so allows her to accept the demise of her son, and so begin grieving for him, instead of the desperate, hopeless quest to recover him. At this point when, if the mother returned home, she would wind the stopped clock, re-starting it as time re-starts for her with the acceptance of the inevitable.
It is interesting that Death’s character is shown as a gardener. However in modern terms he might be better described as a nurseryman, who only cares for the tender seedlings and young plants until they are ready to be planted outside of the greenhouse, or “hothouse” as in the story, into a garden. The Catholic church believes in an intermediate state after physical death, called purgatory, thought to be a time of purification for those who will ultimately ascend to heaven. With Death as a nurseryman tending the young plants, I suggest that it is analogous to purgatory. Death looks after the young plants until they have grown sufficiently mature and strong to no longer need the protection of his greenhouse, and can be ‘planted out’ in God’s ‘garden’.
Another facet of Death is his curiosity, that shows up in his response to the mother’s plea “Let my child be free from all that misery”, and “Forget my tears”, when he says “I do not understand you”. If he were simply a dumb servant, he would not need or want to understand the mother’s reaction, he would simply carry out his master’s instructions. Since we know he is serving God’s will, we might think of Death not as an antagonist, in fairy tale terms, but as a helper.
Prima facie Death’s actions and treatment of the mother might appear callous, like the antagonist type character as seen in other tales, though he is perhaps not, as I have shown, unfeeling. He is not however an antagonist in the classic sense. Death has no animosity toward the mother or for the child, he is simply carrying out God’s will.
Death might even be seen as a helper to the mother. He returns her eyes, restoring her sight, and helps her to resume her life when she finally accepts the death of her beloved child and begins to grieve.
The Story Of A Mother presents two universal themes that can be understood in any culture, the death of a child and the lengths that a mother’s love will drive her to for the sake of her child, sometimes taking desperate measures to her own detriment, We find a third lower theme coming in toward the end when the mother finally accepts the inevitability of her situation and begins to grieve for her child.
Most readers would probably assume that the god referred to is the Christian God. There is no explicit statement to this effect, letting a reader to interpret the tale in relation to their own deity.