Friday, December 7, 2012

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf

(Rolls up sleeves) Time for some deconstruction.

Before we begin, I'd like to note that when I wrote my last post, I was tired and cranky and mad at myself for setting off the fire alarm with my cooking...twice.  So it's possible that I was a wee bit uncharitable, that maybe these tales have their redeeming qualities after all, and I may even end up liking one or two.  We'll see.

So...The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf.

Our protagonist is a little girl named Inger.  Here's the first bit of description we get of her, right in the second paragraph:

"She was a poor child, proud and vain; there was a bad streak in her, as the saying is.  When quite a little child she enjoyed catching flies and pulling off their wings, so making creeping things of them.  She would take a cockchafer* and a beetle, stick each of them on a pin, and then place a green leaf or a little bit of paper up against their feet.  The poor creature would hold on tight to it, turning and twisting it to try and get off the pin."

Okay, so Inger's a right little shit.  But hey, she's a kid; she hasn't developed the capacity for empathy yet.  Good thing she has a mother to keep her in line and mold her into a good human being with a firm but loving hand...

"'It'll need a desperate remedy to cure your disease,' said her own mother.  'Often, when you were little, you trod on my apron; now you're older, I'm afraid you'll end by treading on my heart.'"


Because making passive-aggressive, woe-is-me, don't-you-love-your-poor-mother emotional appeals to bratty children works so well.  I know that bullshit like this pissed me off and made me want to misbehave more when I was a kid, and I was anything but bratty.  Quit your moaning and get out the spankin' plank, lady.

How do I know that this little speech wasn't delivered after dear old mom tried her best to discipline Inger, and Inger just shrugged it off like the bad seed she is?  Why, she's pretty, of course! And you can't spank pretty children! It's right there in the paragraph immediately before it, where Andersen notes that Inger would have gotten "slapped a good deal oftener than she was" if she wasn't so darn cute.  I'm inferring that this is one of the missed slapping opportunities on mom's part.

So eventually Inger "goes out to service" with a wealthy family.  Since this is the nineteenth century, I'm assuming this means that she works for them as a domestic servant.  Since, again, this is the nineteenth century, I'm also assuming that they will work her very hard and probably also mistreat her in a rather Dickensian manner, and she will be miserable but will also start gradually learning patience, humility and compassion...

"They treated her as if she was their own child and dressed her in the same way; she was very good-looking, and she grew vainer than ever."

Or...they'll just spoil her even worse.  Whatever.

After Inger has endured a year's worth of the harsh punishment of living in the lap of luxury, her mistress sends her home to visit her mother.  But as she nears the outskirts of her town Inger sees her mother in a dirty threadbare old dress, gathering firewood for the winter.  She is annoyed and "ashamed that she who was so finely dressed should have a mother who went about in rags collecting sticks" and turns back in a huff without talking to anyone.  Then her mistress sees that her entitlement complex has raged out of control and sits her down for a long-overdue lecture about the importance of respecting one's elders and not being ashamed of where one comes from.

Ha ha, just kidding.  Six months pass.  That's literally all that the story has to say about it, so it seems Inger suffered no consequences for her bad behavior yet again.

To her credit, the lady of the wealthy household tries again.  She sends Inger home with a "big white loaf" as a present for her mother and father.  Inger takes it, presumably with a sulky air, and schleps right on back to the Town of Apparently Embarrassing Poverty where her parents live.  But there's trouble brewing when she comes across a wet and muddy section of the path:

"...she flung the loaf down into the mud, so as to tread on this and get across without wetting her shoes."

That is about the stupidest plan to avoid stepping in a puddle I have ever heard.  That loaf is going to sponge up all the moisture and get soggy, and it'll almost certainly collapse under the weight of anyone who tries to freakin' step on it.  So you'd end up not only with mud on your shoes, but squooshy bits of waterlogged bread gunk as well.  Nice plan, Inger, you insufferable little dipshit.

Fortunately(?) for Inger, though, we're in the Hans Christian Andersenverse instead of reality, so the loaf doesn't squish when she tries to use it as a stepping stone.  It just starts to sink into the swamp, and pulls her down with it until she reaches the marsh-woman's brewery.  Once there she finds that the loaf has become stuck to her foot and rendered her immobile, which is some tough luck for her since a cesspit is apparently "a gay palatial apartment compared to the marsh-woman's brewery," which "stinks enough to make a man faint."  It seems no one has the heart to tell the marsh-woman that she sucks at brewing.

But Inger's in luck! The Devil and his great-grandmother** happen to be inspecting the marsh-woman's brewery that day, and if anyone can scare a bad kid straight it's the Devil.  Sure enough, Satan's great-grandma is very taken with Inger's monumental awfulness and decides that she would make a perfect statue for Hell's entrance hall.  The Devil obliges her, no doubt wishing that his crazy old nana would stop giving him weird knickknacks, and sets Inger up as the grisly infernal equivalent of one of those concrete porch-geese that little old ladies like to dress in funny clothes.

Then we have the Mandatory Long Suffering.  HCA seems to be ridiculously fond of these.  Since it's pretty much nothing but a whole two pages of Inger being passively tormented in Hell, I'll gloss over it a bit.  Basically, she can't move anything except her eyes, she's miserable because her nice clothes are all muddy now (horrors!) and she's so incredibly hungry that she longs to take just one bite of the nasty mud-caked loaf stuck to her foot.  The author waxes rhapsodic about these things for two pages.  Two. Full. Pages.

I would like to address these two passages:

"Then the flies came and crawled over her eyes, to and fro.  She blinked her eyes, but the flies didn't fly away; they couldn't, because their wings had been pulled off and they had become creeping things."

Okay.  I admit I sort of like this part.  People who torture animals push my 'exterminate with extreme prejudice' button.  Flies crawling in your eyes for eternity 'cause you pulled their wings off? Too bad.  You reaps what you sows, beeyotch.

"Then a burning tear fell on her head.  It trickled down her face and breast...Another tear fell--and many more beside...Sorrowing tears a mother sheds for her child will always reach it, but they don't set it free; they burn, they only make the torment greater."

This...not so much.

What is Andersen saying here? That mothers who have lost their children should go through life as emotionless robots, because if they let one careless tear fall dear departed little Suzie will instantly be afflicted with first-degree sadness-burns in heaven?  That is some seriously horrible and depressing shit right there.  If I were a teacher, and one of my students wrote that little detail into a story, I'd worry that he was biting the heads off chickens in his spare time.***

Anyway, apparently Inger was such a miserable excuse for a human being that people on earth start telling stories about how awful she was.  And because this is, after all, Hell she's in, she can hear every word of it.  Her mother pisses and moans some more about what a disappointment she was, someone writes a whole song about her nasty ways, and even her pathetic pushover old master and mistress get in on the action:

"'She was a wicked child,' they said.  'She had no respect for God's gifts, but trod them underfoot; the door of mercy will be hard for her to open.'
'They should have corrected me more often,' thought Inger, 'cured me of my bad ways if I had any.'"

Damn straight.

Understandably, Inger becomes a bit bitter about the whole thing...until she sees one little girl have an unusual reaction to hearing the Tale of Inger the Terrible Horrible No-Good Very-Bad Monsterbitch:

"...she noticed that the little girl burst into tears at the story of the proud Inger and her love of finery.  
'But won't she ever come up again?' asked the small girl.  And she was told, 'No, she'll never come up again...'
'Oh, I do wish she would,' said the little girl, and refused to be comforted.  'I'll give up my doll's house, if they let her come up.  It's so horrible for poor Inger."

Finally, someone realizes how deeply fucked up this whole situation is!

This is an important moment, because it plants the seed of hope in Inger's heart that is necessary for this to happen, decades later when the compassionate little girl dies and her soul ascends to heaven:

"She stood like a child in the kingdom of heaven and wept for poor Inger; her tears and prayers rang like an echo down into the hollow empty shell that hemmed in the imprisoned tormented soul, and it was overcome by all this undreamed affection from above."

Notice that these tears cause Inger no pain, presumably because they're a stranger's tears.  Only mothers' tears burn suffering children with toxic acid-fire in this universe, because Hans Christian Andersen was a very sick man.

Inger's stone shell crumbles away and she is reborn as a little bird, with the promise that if she does a good deed, she'll find her way to heaven.  So what good deed does she do?

She collects breadcrumbs that kind-hearted souls have scattered for the birds and gives them to other birds, having kept only a single crumb of each haul for herself.  I see nothing wrong with that.  It's pretty nice as good deeds go.  There is, however, one thing that bothers me:

"In the course of the winter the bird had collected and given away so many crumbs that the weight of them all would have equaled that of the whole loaf that Inger had trodden on so as not to dirty her shoes..."

And only then is she allowed to go to heaven.  Because redemption and grace and forgiveness are nothing but a petty game of debt repayment and the treasuring up of old grudges.

In Conclusion: The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf is, in my opinion, the tragic tale of a girl who was essentially left to raise herself while everyone who should have taken responsibility for reining her in--from her mom on down to the Devil himself--kept on passing the buck until it took another child being traumatized for life to redeem her.  Not the worst thing I've read, but it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.  Good thing I have an emergency supply of chocolate I can raid.

*A kind of European beetle, according to Wikipedia.  It even appears in a German nursery Rhyme:

Cockchafer fly...
Your father is at war.
Your mother is in Pomerania.
Pomerania is burned to the ground.
Cockchafer fly!

I'm sure it's just as cheerful and upbeat in the original German.

**I am intrigued by the idea of the Devil having a great-grandmother.  If God created the Devil, and is therefore the Devil's "parent," does that mean that the Devil's great-grandmother is also God's grandmother? I must know.  Curse you, Hans Christian Andersen, for leaving the most intriguing details of your stories unexplored!

***And then I'd have no choice but to exterminate him with extreme prejudice.

1 comment:

  1. Thank-you for that beatdown. I used to read this tale as a child and bawl my eyes out at Inger's fate. Much like the child in the story. I suppose I always thought of myself as Inger albeit without the cute beauty bit.
    I always felt that the hero of the story was the little crying girl. She could have been peer pressured into contempt for Inger, despite how she felt, but stood firm in her actions not to demonize Inger. Even to the point of verbalising it, challenging the authority or the idea that Inger deserves the treatment she is getting.
    I suppose when everyone is scapegoating Inger the little girl is there to challenge the myth that Inger is deserving of her fate
    Again thank-you for a great beatdown.