Societies inherently possess many problems. These problems can range from hierarchical issues to problems concerning collective action. In many of his tales, Andersen is critical of these very issues. “The Year’s Story” is no exception. Written in 1852, “The Year’s Story” is a story about the changing of the seasons, and upon further examination, it is also so much more than that. To give some historical context, Denmark’s elite decided to transition away from absolutist rule in 1849 after a wave of democratic uprisings swept through Western and Central Europe the prior year. This transition was not without issue, and the years immediately following left many Danes in a state of uncertainty over what was going to happen to their country.1Ditlev Tamm, The History of Danish Law: Selected Articles and Bibliography (Copenhagen: DJØF, 2011), 121. The stable, absolutist government had ruled without much incident for decades, and there was trepidation about switching to a more populist ruling government. “The Year’s Story” reflects this trepidation by emphasizing, through allegorical imagery and elements of romanticism, that the top levels of the social hierarchy are the most effective decision-makers.
There are a limited number of circumstances in which allegory is particularly useful, and these certain circumstances often revolve around a veiled social criticism, which according to Theresa Kelley’s “Proteus and Romantic Allegory,” is given almost exclusively in narrative form.2Theresa Kelly, “Proteus and Romantic Allegory,” ELH 49, no. 3 (1982): 625. The narrative form is important in “The Year’s Story.” Andersen’s skills as a storyteller defined his place in society, and so writing an extended political essay would not benefit him. He was a fixture of society who was exclusively admired for the art he produced; however, this social status was unfair to Andersen and limited any direct commentary that he might want to make. If he was going to comment on society, he had to be tactful in how he did it; therefore, this narrative format of conveying social criticism is beneficial and a technique that Andersen could really capitalize on.
While the narrative form of allegory played to Andersen’s strengths as a writer, allegory’s propensity to exist as a mysterious literary device and provide plausible deniability to the author is also one of its major assets. In “Interpretation, Allegory, and Allegoresis,” author Peter Berek describes an allegory as a “dark forest” in the sense that the view is murky, the brush is thick, and that smaller bushes and other types of vegetation also surround the forest.3Peter Berek, “Interpretation, Allegory, and Allegoresis,” College English 40, no. 2 (1978): 118. In this metaphor for allegory, the vegetation on the outside of the forest is indicative of the surface level interpretation of the allegory. This surface level of the interpretation in “The Year’s Story” would be the basic plot—that is, a tale about changing seasons and the activities of nature. In contrast, the forest itself represents the deeper, more subversive layers of allegory, but just like a thick forest that is hard to traverse, these deeper levels of an allegory are more difficult to navigate. In effect, this complexity of interpretation adds a level of mystique and intrigue to the tale. That which the author hopes to convey through the use of allegory is often unclear, and though the readers may have ideas about this message, there is no way to be certain. Lending this level of uncertainty to Andersen’s intended message is one of the major assets of allegorical form. If any given allegorical reading of his story offends someone in power, Andersen can write it off as a misinterpretation of the message.
In “The Year’s Story,” one potential reading indicates an allegory about social structure. This allegorical reading suggests that groups on the higher end of the social hierarchy are better at making decisions than those at the lower end. Given the inherent controversy involved in criticizing society, it would make sense that Andersen then would choose to approach this topic with an allegorical flair. In Denmark, Andersen existed outside of the class structure. A member of the servant class who eventually rose through the ranks to become a quasi-member of the bourgeoisie, he exists as a national treasure more than anything. He does not belong where his roots once lay, and he does not have the independent wealth and social acumen required to succeed as a member of the bourgeoisie. Given this peculiar social existence, he had to be careful as to how he commented on social affairs—speak incorrectly and he could lose his funding or his reading audience, and then he would be left with no place to turn. Thus, the smoke-and-mirrors tactic employed by allegory, that is leaving it up to interpretation, gives Andersen the ability to deny any interpretation of the story that might leave him worse off in social standing, even if it is an interpretation Andersen intended for the reader to see.
Another tool used in the story that provides Andersen distance is the allegorical use of animals. In comparison to how ambiguity in allegory provides generic cover, animals in allegory more specifically provide cover to authors because it is harder for people in society to see themselves reflected in nature. While the average citizen can pick up on a social criticism in which humans are doing something stupid, it is much harder to know beyond doubt that an animal that acts stupidly is representing humans and society; therefore, using animals gives authors even more plausible deniability. Onno Oerlemans explains this tool in his article, “The Animal In Allegory: From Chaucer to Gray,” stating, “Equally obvious, animals give human speakers cover, allowing authors to say things that might be otherwise forbidden or unpalatable.”4Onno Oerlemans, “The Animal in Allegory: From Chaucer to Gray, “Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 20, no. 2 (2013): 297. By using animal representations to critique society, Andersen can further push himself away from the controversial claims he is making in this tale. Likewise, the use of nature to critique human affairs implies a certain natural order to society. Since these hierarchies exist in nature, and human society is an extension of that nature, these hierarchies also exist in human culture.
While allegory is an important tool used in the story, the Romantic notion of the individual in society or nature as an initiate, a creative genius of sorts, also works to display the story’s social criticism by providing juxtaposition to the collective group. This sentiment is reflected in “The Year’s Story.” Throughout the tale, there are numerous examples of either the individual or a small group of individuals who alone possess knowledge and wisdom, and are able to control the environments around them. Gregory Maertz, in his article, “Romanticism and the Idealisation of the Artist,” describes this artist as a “special vocation” who possesses “special powers” in the work in which it is featured.5Gregory Maertz, “Romanticism and the Idealisation of the Artist,” in Romantic Prose Fiction, ed. Gerald Gillespie, Manfred Engel, and Bernard Dieterle (Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Pub., 2008), 42. This ability to effect change separates these individual artists/singular geniuses from the rest of society. That is, when there is a problem or someone who represents that society is in trouble, it is the artists and the geniuses who come to the rescue. The people with the problems sit, paralyzed by the problem of collective action, which is the idea that there are so many voices and so many different opinions as a consequence of having a large group, that it is almost impossible to accomplish anything.
One of the first examples of the romantic genius is shown with the birds. Through the use of the sparrows and the ravens, Andersen conveys the importance of the romantic genius in relation to his comments on the social hierarchy. At the beginning of the story, the sparrows collectively ponder as to whom this far-off strange figure is, struggling to answer their own question without seeking help. The one who provides the answer to that question is a singular raven.6Hans Christian Andersen, “The Year’s Story,” trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, in The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 394–400. The choice of the raven is interesting in context with Andersen’s use of the sparrows. The raven is the voice of knowledge in the story and the one the sparrows look to for answers about the mysterious figure. The interaction between the two types of birds indicates that the raven is considered wise and trustworthy by the sparrows. Interesting to note is that throughout the entire tale, there is only ever one raven. Unlike the sparrows that exist as a massive hoard, the raven acts individually, and unlike the sparrows that are seemingly brainless, the raven appears to be very knowledgeable. By providing an outside comparison of a chaotic unit like the sparrows, Andersen demonstrates the importance of individualistic thinking and the power of the individual genius in the form of the raven. The sparrows do not work to answer their question amongst themselves; instead they look to a wise figure to solve their problem for them. The raven represents the top of the hierarchy because, unlike the sparrows, there is only one of him, and when the sparrows need help they turn to the raven instead of solving the problem on their own. This relationship helps demonstrate the importance of the romantic genius and enforces the idea that those at the top of the social hierarchy are more effective at decision making than those at the bottom.
While the raven helps to demonstrate the idea of the romantic genius, the Spring Children demonstrate more powerfully the importance of the artist. While there are technically two children, they act in concert.7Andersen, “The Year’s Story,” 394–400. Prior to the arrival of the Spring Children, the natural environment is frigid and desolate, stuck in a state of winter. After their arrival, however, the desolation begins to change and turn into new life. Andersen writes, “[w]herever the two children went, green buds appeared on the bushes and trees. The grass in the meadows grew taller and taller…she clapped her hands and the boy clapped his, and birds came…”8Ibid., 396. Before they begin their walk, the sparrows gripe about the frigid cold yet do nothing. By comparing the before and after of the state of nature with the involvement of the Spring Children, an image emerges of the children as a positive force of change. Like aristocracy in a traditional setting, the Spring Children are the ones implementing change and moving the state of nature forward. Furthermore, there are only two Spring Children. Unlike the sparrows that are massive in number, the two Children are effective at implementing change and answering the complaints of the sparrows. The frigidity that the sparrows hated is now gone, replaced with vibrant spring and new life. Much like the aristocracy, they make decisions on behalf of the people that benefit the masses. In context of the romantic artist and the idea of the lower half of the hierarchy being paralyzed by the problem of collective action, this relationship shows that the Spring Children, who are far fewer than the sparrows, are more effective at creating progress.
In addition, the Spring Children are brought down to earth by a mystical force. They are not born of this earth like the sparrows and other creatures. When the work they do is taken into consideration, this relationship shows that the Spring Children are uniquely tasked with instigating spring and the subsequent seasons as well. There is no indication in the text that they volunteered for this position or that it was appointed to them, but every year they complete the task. It is as if some force of divine providence wants it to be this way. Likewise, this view of class determinism is seen in the form of the Danish social hierarchy. Class mobility is almost impossible to achieve, and because of this, the socioeconomic situation into which a Dane is born determines their life. Because those who are born into a lower class are not in position to facilitate decision-making, but those in the aristocracy are, the text demonstrates that the lower classes will be less effective in making decisions.
However, by just examining the Spring Children and the sparrows separately, a lot of information is missed. While the general uses of allegory are mentioned previously in this paper, the allegoric characteristic of symbolic connectedness is a more specific use of allegory and is instrumental in defending the idea that the upper end of the social hierarchy is better at decision-making. In his article, “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory,” Bainard Cowan describes this symbolic connectedness: “…[an allegorical world] is fragmentary and enigmatic; in it the world ceases to be purely physical and becomes an aggregation of signs.”9Bainard Cowan, “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory,” New German Critique, no. 22 (1981): 110. This aggregation of signs is important for a few reasons, the most important being that symbols alone are not necessarily indicative of an allegory. Rather, it is how those symbols link to one another that creates multiple and deeper levels of meaning. Therefore, reading “The Year’s Story” in different manners can produce different outcomes, but within the story, the more profound and interesting conclusions are drawn the farther one gets into the story.
In “The Year’s Story,” this aggregation of signs is clear. The first sign of importance that shows itself in the story is the group of birds. One reading of the story indicates that the birds act as a symbol of society: “‘When does Spring come?’ asked the sparrows. ‘Then we will get a decent government, the last one was no good!’”10Andersen, “The Year’s Story,” 400. In this instance, Andersen uses the birds, and specifically his selection of the sparrow, as a method to comment on the state of society. Their use speaks towards the general restlessness of the people and their tendency to fall victim to the “grass is greener” syndrome. These birds erroneously think that the transition from old man winter to the youthful spring duo will have an impact on the state of affairs in nature, but just like the description of winter at the beginning of the story, this winter has come about relatively unchanged. Andersen further perpetuates this image of sparrows as society by writing, “‘This is all very well,’ said a little sparrow that had been peeping all the time without really saying anything…”11Ibid., 394. While only a singular sparrow is speaking in this quote, the important part to illustrate here is the second half of the quote, which describes the sparrow as peeping all the time. In all this frenzy, it is very hard to extrapolate exactly what the sparrows want, and this individual sparrow is simply adding to the noise and chatter. This confusion is very similar to what often happens in society with masses of people; conversation gets so crowded with voices that it becomes less about the ideas and more about who can speak the loudest, resulting in a very unclear idea of what the public wants. The fact that the sparrows are restless, indecisive, and unclear in their desires works to establish them as a symbol of society, which is similarly marred by the collective action problem which makes it hard to accomplish anything.
Andersen further perpetuates this image with the interactions nature has with the Spring Children. In describing one of these interactions, Andersen writes, “[h]ere the queen bee and her court built a castle of wax and filled it with honey. Only Summer and his wife saw it; and truly, it was for their sake that the offering was laid on the alter stone…”12Ibid., 398. This quote shows the different elements that Andersen uses to assert the Spring Children as representatives of the aristocracy. By using the relationship between the royalty of nature (the queen bee) and the Spring Children, Andersen is able to suggest that the Spring Children hold a special place in culture and society. Given that hierarchies exist even at the most basic natural level, the symbolism of the queen bee, one of nature’s monarchs, recognizing herself as subservient to the Spring Children establishes further the elevated, aristocratic nature of the Spring Children.
As previously stated in Cowan’s definition, an allegory is not merely various symbols, but an aggregation of symbols and how those symbols interact with one another. The sparrows act like the autonomous, hive mind of society and suffer from the collective action problem, in which they cannot achieve anything because there are too many of them making coordination difficult. In contrast, the Spring Children are productive members of society, bringing sweeping changes to the landscape and are recognized by some of nature’s own royalty as being important. Comparing the two, and taking this dichotomy in relation to historical climate at the time, lends credence to the idea that Andersen believes the upper classes are more effective at leading.
In 1849, Denmark transitioned from an absolutist monarchy to a more open democratic monarchy. This change in government was the result of many violent uprisings across Europe, and instead of facing revolt in Denmark, the king decided to begin the transition himself; however, the June Constitution that was written in 1849 was not without problems. In fact, by 1866 it had been amended three times.13Tamm, The History of Danish, 124. Therefore, taking into account the relationship of these two symbols could suggest that Andersen feels, if not more comfortable with an aristocratic-style government, at least wary of the change that is to follow when people have a more direct say in how they are ruled. The text exhibits this idea because the Spring Children are viewed as more productive members of society in the story, as opposed to the sparrows who are very ineffectual and suffer from the problems of collective action.
The relationships in “The Year’s Story” hint at Andersen’s concerns of transitioning to democracy, but so does the role of nature, its cycles, and history. The ideas presented in the tale are counter to one aspect of Cowan’s argument. Cowan contends that the use of nature in allegory almost always points towards decay. As nature progresses, and therefore as history constructs itself, it follows a downward path of declension.14Cowan, “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory,” 117. Interestingly, Andersen’s use of allegory would seem to disagree with this point that Cowan is attempting to make. Instead, Andersen’s use suggests that nature is a constant—there is no process of attrition, no wearing away. This is demonstrated in a few ways throughout the story, but most importantly in the sparrow’s interactions with winter at the beginning and the end of the tale. Andersen writes, “Where did this voice come from? Were the words spoken by the strange old man who was sitting in the middle of the big snowdrift over there? A long white beard, he had, and frosty silver hair…”15Andersen, “The Year’s Story,” 395. As the story draws to a close, the sparrows express a similar sentiment, speculating as to who the strange old man with the white hair is.16Ibid., 400. The relationship between these two examples, at the beginning and the end of the tale, acts countercurrent to the sentiments expressed by Cowan. In effect, Andersen’s use of this constancy implies a manner of equaled constancy with government that is ruled by an aristocracy. Though the sparrows chirp and complain throughout the tale, the Spring Children act decisively from start to finish without incident, and the fact that Old Man Winter is met both at the beginning and the end of the tale further shows that this constancy will continue to be the case. Old Man Winter can thus be considered a representative of the top end of the society in much the same way that the Spring Children are considered the upper echelon of society. Like an aging monarch, he is now sitting watch over the land until the next set of Spring Children arrives. The sparrows’ representation as constant whiners throughout the stories further suggests that the lower end of the hierarchy does not get anything done.
By using allegory, tenets of romanticism, and the importance of nature in “The Year’s Story,” Andersen suggests that the uppermost end of the social hierarchy acts as an effective decision-maker in contrast to the lower ends of the hierarchy. This came at a tumultuous time in Danish history, and as a skeptic of change, Andersen’s comments make sense. That being said, this relationship between the masses and the few elite still plays out today. While Andersen wrote tales in nineteenth century context, tales such as this one still have an important place in contemporary society.
Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Year’s Story,” translated by Erik Christian Haugaard. In The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, 393–404. New York: Doubleday, 1974.
Berek, Peter. “Interpretation, Allegory, and Allegoresis.” College English 40, no. 2 (1978): 117–132.
Cowan, Bainard. “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory.” New German Critique 22 (1981): 109–122.
Hunt, Maurice. “A Speculative Allegory in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Comparative Drama 34, no. 4 (2001): 423–453.
Kelly, Theresa. “Proteus and Romantic Allegory.” ELH 49, no. 3 (1982): 623–652.
Maertz, Gregory. “Romanticism and the Idealisation of the Artist.” In Romantic Prose Fiction, edited by Gerald Gillespie, Manfred Engel, and Bernard Dieterle, 41–52. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Pub., 2008.
Oerlemans, Onno. “The Animal in Allegory: From Chaucer to Gray.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 20, no. 2 (2013): 296–317.
Tamm, Ditlev. The History of Danish Law: Selected Articles and Bibliography. Copenhagen: DJØF, 2011.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Ditlev Tamm, The History of Danish Law: Selected Articles and Bibliography (Copenhagen: DJØF, 2011), 121.|
|2.||↑||Theresa Kelly, “Proteus and Romantic Allegory,” ELH 49, no. 3 (1982): 625.|
|3.||↑||Peter Berek, “Interpretation, Allegory, and Allegoresis,” College English 40, no. 2 (1978): 118.|
|4.||↑||Onno Oerlemans, “The Animal in Allegory: From Chaucer to Gray, “Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 20, no. 2 (2013): 297.|
|5.||↑||Gregory Maertz, “Romanticism and the Idealisation of the Artist,” in Romantic Prose Fiction, ed. Gerald Gillespie, Manfred Engel, and Bernard Dieterle (Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Pub., 2008), 42.|
|6.||↑||Hans Christian Andersen, “The Year’s Story,” trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, in The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 394–400.|
|7.||↑||Andersen, “The Year’s Story,” 394–400.|
|9.||↑||Bainard Cowan, “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory,” New German Critique, no. 22 (1981): 110.|
|10.||↑||Andersen, “The Year’s Story,” 400.|
|13.||↑||Tamm, The History of Danish, 124.|
|14.||↑||Cowan, “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory,” 117.|
|15.||↑||Andersen, “The Year’s Story,” 395.|