Today I was listening to Revisionist History talk about The Little Mermaid – from the look of things they’ll be discussing it for quite a while, but even this first episode made a couple of interesting points, I think.
I’d never really thought about how odd the Disney version’s portrayal of contracts IS – Ariel’s is rather Faustian, with the whole of the narrative sort of tacitly assuming that such a contract, once signed, is inviolable and unbreakable, never mind whether it was made on misleading or false premises, or whether all parties to the contract were of legal age (though now I really wonder just what the mermaid age of majority is, exactly.)
Younger me was pretty pleased with Disney’s happier ending for the story – Andersen’s original is pretty depressing, though if what Malcolm there says about him writing it in a kind of paroxysm of romantic rejection is true it…would actually make a fair bit of sense. The whole story is just searing longing, all the way down, and although Disney’s iteration has many fine points it doesn’t quite…burn like that.
Later, on Aria Code, La Traviata surprised me by echoing that same fierce yearning – “Addio del passato,” an equally searing representation of almost and not-enough and too-late, of the acknowledgment that to pass now, like this, will mean to lie forgotten in a pauper’s grave, forgotten too quickly. Not having gained that immortal soul the Little Mermaid craved so deeply.
Because it is that the original Little Mermaid wanted; the chance at more, at after, at a spiritual profundity that her long undersea life could not give her. The love of the prince was certainly nice, as means to an end go, but that Higher Thing…that more. Something worth losing your voice and your identity for; something worth walking on knives for always.
And in the same way Violetta – or the Lady of the Camellias on whom she is based, or perhaps even the real-world woman who inspired her – had a lovely life, of beautiful people and glamorous parties and witty partners, but love was something else, and to be remembered when she passed something else again.
To dance at the wedding that means your doom; to bear a public shaming from the man you love most in the world, for reasons you cannot explain. To cast away the knife that could have saved you; to yield up your own love for the chance at happiness of another.
The Little Mermaid flung herself into the ocean, fully expecting to become nothing more than sea-foam. Violetta sings of the existential terror of a pit without even a cross to bear her name. Marie Duplessis was buried in a pauper’s grave at first, her worldly goods quickly yielded up to creditors.
But then, the Daughters of the Air, and a chance at something greater after all.
And then, a kindness, and a tomb in Montmartre where to this day some still leave camellias.
A little hope in the end after all. If only things didn’t have to be so very dire first to get there.