Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Reading Disability in Children's Literature: Hans Christian Andersen's Tales

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Reading Disability in Children's Literature: Hans Christian Andersen's Tales

Article excerpt

The article examines the diversity issues that are embedded in fairy tales and explores socio-political implications for the construction of so-called able-bodiedness. Critical disability theory is discussed, as are studies that provide alternative approaches to reading children's texts that explore disability. In order to expose the discourses of power, four of Hans Christian Andersen's tales that feature non-human characters with disabilities are analyzed. The conclusion is that, though seemingly innocent and thus supposedly pertinent for children's reading, fairy tales are loaded with ableist ideology.

When reading fairy tales we usually take for granted that the events are improbable and that the primary purpose is to entertain. While this may be true, as we engage with the texts and get carried away with the characters, their deeds, and all that is happening in their world, as we consume all the cultural images that are present in the genre, there may be moments when we pause to ponder a certain action, character, or event. It is at these moments that we may realize that the tales from which we derive simple pleasures may often be loaded with ideology (Hollindale 10). Even though we may not acknowledge the fact, these tales, as cultural artefacts, have more to offer readers than pleasure. They expose us to a particular world view, as conceived by an author who may have lived in a world, region, and/or time that differs from our own in social values and norms; an author about whose intentions we may only speculate. One such author is Hans Christian Andersen.

Renowned for being one of the first creators of the literary fairy tale (Norton and Norton 48; Russell 199; Tatar, Annotated, xxxviii), Andersen's "genius" lay in his "ability to transform his private conflicts into metaphorical tales that address universal social problems" (Zipes et al. 215). Additionally, Maria Tatar asserts, the tales are magical and "give psychological depth" (Annotated, xviii). Though fascinated with the magical touch that Andersen brings to his art, it is the daily struggles of his characters that enthrall me, making me ponder why, for example, a princess would opt out of a world where she is cherished, and trade off her "fish's tail [...] to have two supports [...] like human beings" ("The Little Mermaid," 142). For critics like Tatar, these stories that have characters who endure "silent suffering," and who for the most part end up dying, tragically embracing a better life in the spiritual world (Classic Fairy Tales, 214), have "engaged generations of children and adults alike with their melodramatic depictions of desire, loss, and self immolation" (Classic Fairy Tales, 216). We read them and may only conjecture as to why Andersen chooses to put his characters through so many trials and tribulations. However, if we remember the stories as "innovative narratives that explored the limits of assimilations in closed social order" (Zipes 82), it becomes difficult to ignore the power dynamics and/or the issues raised in a genre that hides behind what Vanessa Joosen refers to as a "magic mode" (228).

On rereading some of my favorite Andersen tales I have found myself interrogating the texts for their stance on disability (having grown up with a sibling with a physical disability).1 In this article, I explore how characters with disabilities in four of the tales interact with their environment and other members of their community (humans and non-humans). It is my hypothesis that power plays a significant role between the characters with disabilities (all of whom are non-humans) and those without disabilities. I draw on Lissa Paul's assertion that "without ever being explicit" fairy tales "confirmed" the "order of colonial authority," which had become a "natural order," with husbands and parents in domineering roles and wives and children in subservient roles (24). This power structure is expanded to include relationships between humans and non-humans. …

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