In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors of the unremembered past of the parents, the uninvited guests at the christening.
Selma Fraiberg 1987
Most of Andersen’s fairy tales are very unlike traditional folk tales as they lack happy endings; and “The Story of a Mother”is probablythe unhappiestof them all.
The moral lesson, which a 19thcentury reader could have got from it wasthe reinforcement of a belief in faith, humility andobedience to thewill of God. But,as in every great piece of literature,new generationsof readers discover new meanings and morals, witness the many plays, ballets, animationsand live-action filmsthat Andersen’s fairy tales have inspired.
At the beginningof thisfairy talea young mother falls asleep by the bedside of her sick baby. She is exhausted with worry,as any new mother wouldbe. But it is not just a mother and a baby in the nursery; exactly like in another famous fairy tale, “The Sleeping Beauty,”the nursery is crowded: fairies and witches are gathering around the crib, waiting to pass on a blessing or a curse. They appear as an old man, an old woman, a rose bush, a lake and even Death itself. But who are these uninvited guests?
Psychoanalysis says they are allfamily – grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and nieces, stepbrothers and cousins. Each has brought his or her own story as a present to the new-born, part of the inheritance that will form the child’s so-called Life Script. Some stories are happy, someare boring, and some are very sad.But the scariest ghostsare silent. They were never able to telltheir stories: of love and loss, illegitimate children, stillbirths and miscarriages, mad relatives put away and never mentioned again, whole families perished in the Holocaust. We can only guess at their existence by sudden silences, dreams,certain unexplained facts in family histories.
They are all unwilling participants in the intergenerational trauma, the “as if” experience of being occupied or possessed by another being from a different time or place, and feelings that are hard to explain.All of us are carrying inside us these “uninvited” guests, our unknown ancestorspleading to be heard.All that these ghosts want is to be seen and acknowledged,andthen set free. They just need someone to know that they ever existed,and that we remember their names.
The Garden of Death is full of these “secret lives:” some flowers are somebody’s dreams suffocating, or choices never made. Some are dying and some have been dead and dry for a long time, but the Mother’s only concern should be about her own “little flower,”it is not her taskto rescue or to decide thedestiny of the other plants.
But sheis confused and frightened, she hearsstrange stories unfoldinginside her, andshe is tempted to succumb to the ghostly voices and lether baby go. As many mothers before her, she allows un-embodied emotions of somebody else’s past dictate both her and her child’s future.Trapped in the Garden of Death, the Mother facesa terrible choice.
For an attentive reader, the theme of choice is central tothisfairytale. At the very beginning of the story, when the Mother asksif her baby is going to die, the old man nods in a way that can be interpreted either way. But the exhausted Mother assumes the worst,and the baby is gone. When Death is leaving, he also stops the clock, symbolically allowing the Mother time to recover her loss.
In the orangery, when asked by the old woman how she foundherwaythere, the Mother replies that God led her. If this is so, then why the negotiations with tricksters and demons that she encountered along the way? It does seem thatAndersenwould like us to trust in God and in our own heart, rather than listen to evil-meaning advice.
Grieving, the Mother gives her beautiful hair to the old woman, who has already told her how to find her child. Distressed and hopeless, she would now believe anyone but her own heart or commonsense. Yet, without any help, she herself finds a little blue crocus, the one representing her child,recognising himamongst millions. She should grab itand run, but instead she continues to listen to the old woman’s advice, believing, like many new mothers do, that older people know better.
In the final dramatic scene, Death is playing with the Mother’s feelings, confusing her,with other babies’destinies and other mothers’miseries, making hercarry other people’s feelings,to feel responsible for their misfortunes.Neitherof the two flowers that the Mother threatens to uproot,represents her child; and so it is that Death tricks her,and this is how Death usually wins.
Bewildered and lost, the Motherhas forgottenabout her own task– to look after only herself and her child.She is ready to let him go.But Death hasone final question: “Do you want your child back or shall I take him to the faraway land?”Even at the very end the choice has to be made by the Mother.
Throughoutthe story, Andersenis trying to show the reader how our own particular interpretation of confusing circumstances can sometimes make all the difference, that often the events we like to call fate are in fact the result of the choices we make.