A story of adventure and development with sorrows, triumphs, and love, along with magical qualities, dire situations, and complex characters is perhaps one of the most entertaining types of tales. “Inchelina,” by Hans Christian Andersen, was published in 1835, a time in which women did not have the same opportunities as women do today. By writing “Inchelina” during this time period, Anderson was able to demonstrate the sexism of society, as well as give women some empowerment by writing about a female who is on a journey to discover who she is and where she belongs. Andersen, in addition to being a social critic, was also a Romantic writer. He stressed the importance of nature and emotions when discovering your own existence. This is apparent throughout the story, but society also plays a critical role in Inchelina’s experience. “Inchelina” is a female bildung, a journey to independence, in which nature and society teach her to find her existence as a woman of the nineteenth century.

There are a few key differences between a traditional bildung and a female bildung. In the traditional context, a bildung is the journey of a young man who learns right from wrong through his actions with aid from a few wise characters, usually including a good woman. In the end the young man marries and is reintroduced into society as a mature and sophisticated man.1Scott Mellor, “Hans Christian Andersen” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, February 25, 2014). Andersen takes an interesting spin on the bildung in Inchelina by making it a female bildung. A female bildung is a journey of a woman to earn her independence. Inchelina’s bildung is finding her own importance and existence in her world. The beginnings of the female and male bildungs differ in that “while the traditional male hero enjoys from the outset a position of relative autonomy, the female protagonist’s initial situation is generally one of dependency and powerlessness.”2Siobhan McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” The Modern Language Review 92, no. 1 (1997): 61. Inchelina is taken advantage of several times during her journey before she finds where she belongs. Dr. Siobhan McIlvanney, a professor who studies women’s rights and progress, argues that “women must alter the denouement of such a plot, since, for them, marriage generally entails self-suppression, not self-assertion.”3McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” 68. The heroine should not marry in the end, but instead be alone to continue her life as she pleases. 4Kimberly Radek, “Women in the Nineteenth Century,” Women in Literature, last modified 2001, http://www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/women_in_the_nineteenth_century.htm. However, for the purposes of this story, and maybe many other female bildungs, this view can be refuted. Marriage is not always a bad option, but it is understandable how it is given a bad connotation in the context of the nineteenth century when many women were suppressed by their husbands and given little freedom. Most women were unable to work, especially if in the higher class, and education for women was limited as well because it could have affected their housework.5Ibid.

Another big difference between male and female bildungs is that the secondary characters in the story are more active in the female’s journey and development. They are necessary for helping the heroine grow and develop.6McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” 64. Inchelina is greatly influenced by many characters in the tale; and without them, her bildung could not have progressed. Two characters in particular, the mole and the bird, are extremely influential to Inchelina’s bildung. Inchelina embarks on her bildung when she is forced from her home, but she is first allowed to experience comfort.

Before the bildung really begins, Inchelina is young and dependent on the woman who cares for her and nature plays a role in making her childhood comfortable. At the beginning of Inchelina’s life, she is pure and a friend of nature, while she is raised by an unnamed woman. The woman has no real importance to the story, but she does provide a safe life for Inchelina before she begins her story. While at the woman’s house “the lacquered shell of a walnut became Inchelina’s cradle, the blue petals of violets her mattress, and a rose petal her cover.”7Hans Christian Andersen, “Inchelina,” in Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1974), 29. Inchelina is surrounded and protected by nature and it becomes her cradle. “Cradle,” as a noun, is a baby’s crib or bed that represents Inchelina’s initial innocence. As a verb, cradling is holding, comforting, and protecting someone or something; Inchelina felt secure in her walnut shell bed. She is also portrayed as a child here, which is exemplified by the word “cradle.” Inchelina is a young girl at this point in the story and this portrayal of childhood sets the girl up to begin her bildung. With the use of the word “cradle,” nature is described as a protectant, but the wonders of nature are beautifully described at the beginning of the tale and it is apparent here that nature can be everywhere. That is, the pure can experience nature’s beauty anywhere8Vanessa Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist: Nature, Romanticism, and Contemporary Paganism,” Anthropology of Consciousness 20, no. 1 (2009): 42. and it is clear that Inchelina is able to appreciate nature in the home of the woman which leads to the suggestion that she is a pure and innocent child. Just like all children, she is dependent on others for safety and livelihood. Inchelina will soon be ready to begin her bildung and abandon her childhood.

Puberty is important for a woman’s bildung to proceed as well as curiosity and the willingness to explore the world around her. When Inchelina goes through puberty, her innocence is lost. Nature seems to turn against Inchelina; it is suddenly troubling and mysterious, not like it was when she was a young girl. She is growing up, becoming a woman, and she finds some of the changes to be quite difficult. When her blanket was mentioned before, it was not described with any color. Inchelina was still an innocent girl. However, Inchelina now sleeps “under a red rose petal.”9Andersen, “Inchelina,” 30. Red is the color of blood and a girl’s passage into womanhood. It is often suggested that an unspoken loss of innocence accompanies this rite of passage and the audience is able to learn that sexuality is a driving force of human nature. Although Inchelina is not yet sexually active, this change in a woman does bring a nuance of sexuality. It brings women into what Philip Blair Rice, an expert on Existentialism, calls “the principal dimensions of existence.”10Philip Blair Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” The Kenyon Review 12, no. 2 (1950): 313. Growing up physically as well as mentally and becoming a sexual being is an important facet of living and experiencing what humans are supposed to experience. This is exactly what Inchelina’s bildung objective is, finding one’s own existence; for her, it is in the context of the nineteenth century and thus may differ from what one might imagine for a female bildung today. Because her innocence is lost, Inchelina is thrust into the real world, out of the woman’s safe home. A mother toad enters through a cracked windowpane and kidnaps Inchelina, bringing her to the swamp and states, “here is my son. He is to be your husband; you two will live happily down in the mud.”11Ibid. The toad takes Inchelina for the sole purpose of marriage without any concern for the girl’s opinion. She is far from happy despite what the mother toad wants. This is a great example of the overwhelming powers of nature. Nature is a “vast, powerful landscape where one could not help feeling insignificant.”12Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist,” 37. This view from Vanessa Sage’s article on Romanticism and its uses in a modern Pagan world is helpful in understanding how Inchelina felt alone in a large scary world. Nature is often depicted as being very powerful and in this story Inchelina is so small compared to the world around her, literally and figuratively. She is only one inch tall and is thrown into the large world in which she does not know how to handle the new, scary situations. But this is also important for her bildung, learning to be humble and accepting nature’s dominance and gifts is what helps Inchelina become the woman that she strives to be. She is sad with her new arrangement and feels hopeless and trapped while floating on a lily pad in the middle of the pond. When society helps her, a school of fish releases her from the pond; she turns to another society for comfort, thinking that she may belong there.

An experience in which you are rejected helps one’s emotions and resilience flourish which are necessary in a bildung. An interesting and powerful way of viewing the world, humanity, and all the communities within is by comparing nature and society. Nature is often a tool that many Romantics use to challenge their characters to question and discover their place in a community and their ultimate goals.13Ibid., 36–37. A bildung requires this kind of thought as well as discovering who and where one belongs. Inchelina finds herself among a society of May bugs. One of the May bugs thought that Inchelina was “the loveliest thing he had ever seen, even though she didn’t look like a May bug.”14Andersen, “Inchelina,” 31. This May bug put Inchelina on a figurative pedestal, not uncommon for some women in the nineteenth century.15Scott Mellor, “Hans Christian Andersen” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, February 12, 2014). Inchelina may have felt comfort and peace with this being who acted like a friend to her, but she would soon learn that this was not the end of her journey and that receiving attention only on the basis of appearance is not a good way of deducing who are your real friends. When the other May bugs came to see Inchelina, they exclaim, “No antennae and a thin waist, how disgusting! She looks like a human being; how ugly!”16Andersen, “Inchelina,” 31. Obviously appearance means very little, but acceptance is something that most beings strive for; it is an important aspect of learning about yourself. An individual may believe something to be beautiful and another may have the opposite opinion. After being rejected by the May bugs, Inchelina left to continue her bildung. Inchelina will further grow and learn about her own desires as she continues her adventure of experiences.

Gaining knowledge through independently experiencing something captures the essence of the female bildung. Nature allows Inchelina to explore and learn to survive independently. Many Romantics believe that nature can be used to improve a person’s character. They tend to lean away from society and the ways of man, which are untrustworthy because humans are manipulative, but find refuge in nature because it is always true.17“Romanticism,” Encyclopædia Britannica, October 30, 2014. http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/508675/Romanticism. Inchelina moved into a very Romantic setting in which she lived in the forest for summer and autumn. The only reason that she had to find somewhere else to live is because winter came and she was too small to be left out, as she would have frozen to death. She survived alone on nature’s gifts for two seasons; “she wove a hammock out of grass and hung it underneath a dock leaf so that it would not rain on her while she slept. She ate honey in the flowers and drank the dew that was on their leaves every morning.”18Andersen, “Inchelina,” 32. She took initiative and found that she could live independently and even comfortably. This is a huge step in a bildung, when a person can learn something through experience, without needing the help or instruction of others.19Scott Mellor, “Hans Christian Andersen” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, February 12, 2014). It is also great in terms of the female bildung in which the ultimate goal of the protagonist is often to live alone and independently.20McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” 68. Nature’s importance here is not only in helping her learn skills independently, but also by forcing her to seek help when in trouble and to teach her humility. When the cold became too much to bear, Inchelina “wrapped herself in a wizened leaf” and “like a beggar child, [she] stood outside the door and begged for a single grain of barley.”21Andersen, “Inchelina,” 32. Although Inchelina, as a woman, was reliant on others for her survival, she now understands that she truly needed the help after she learned the skills of taking care of herself in the forest. Nature can greatly influence humans and can teach many important lessons through its powerful and beautiful existence.

A female bildung requires the heroine to recognize her own desires. Inchelina’s next challenge arises when she is forced to face a situation that is intolerable and she learns of her own desires as a woman to be freed from the situation. Probably the most difficult situation that Inchelina is put through in the story is the prospect of marriage to an eligible bachelor, a mole; but Inchelina does not like him at all. Despite the opinion of the field mouse, with whom Inchelina is living at this time, that she is “getting an excellent husband; he has a velvet coat so fine that the queen does not have one that is better. He has both a larder and kitchen, [Inchelina] ought to thank God giving [her] such a good husband.”22Ibid., 35. Inchelina only “cried and said she did not want to marry the boring old mole.”23Ibid. Inchelina realizes her opinion on the matter of her marriage and finally makes her protests known to someone, the field mouse, who had the opinion that marriage is a business proposition to better oneself rather than an act of love; a common view of marriage in the nineteenth century.24Scott Mellor, “Hans Christian Andersen” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, February 12, 2014). Like the toad, the field mouse has no consideration for Inchelina’s opinion on the matter of the marriage proposal. The mole also represents the opposite personality of Inchelina and another creature who is soon to become Inchelina’s only true friend.

Because secondary characters are so important to the female bildung,25McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” 64. the two most important characters in Inchelina’s adventure must be highlighted. The mole and the bird represent two opposite ideals in Inchelina’s life and journey to maturation. It is important that she encountered both characters in order to be able to form her own opinion. The bird is the antidote to the mole just as “imagination provides the antidote to reason, emotions are esteemed, and, above all, it is possible to discover goodness.”26Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist,” 29. The mole cares only about reason and logic in the world; for example, marrying Inchelina is logical because she is beautiful and sings well and he can help her climb the social ladder because he is described as a good husband. The bird is a good character who believes in the importance of emotions and imagination. He loves the beautiful outdoors, singing for no reason but for enjoyment and imagination, and cares for Inchelina’s feelings. The mole is a dismal creature who hates sunlight, flowers, and singing birds whereas the bird rejoices in the sunlight and sings his heart out. When the mole sees the bird, who is at death’s door, he “kicked the bird with one of his short legs and said, ‘now it has stopped chirping. What a misfortune it is to be born a bird,’”27Andersen, “Inchelina,” 33. Inchelina was horrified by this and thought to herself, “[m]aybe that was one of the birds that sang so beautifully for me this summer… How much joy you gave me, beautiful little bird.”28Ibid. Inchelina’s own personality is similar to that of the bird and marriage to the mole would force her to sacrifice all the things that she loves in order to live underground. These characters display an element of the pathetic fallacy in that the mole lives underground and likes darkness and the bird lives out in the sun and in winter he even moves south to where the sun always shines. Nature is a means for the characters’ spirits. Romantics often use nature to reflect personality.29Robert Schwartz, “Unmasking the Bourgeois, The Romantic Era,” The France of Victor Hugo, last modified 10 May, 1999, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/jkr/romanticism.html. The bird is special because of how Inchelina treats him and how he treats her in return as well as the fact that he represents the opposite personality of Inchelina’s greatest enemy, the mole.

Arguably the most influential character in Inchelina’s bildung is the bird. The bird is the only character in the story that is truly a friend to Inchelina. Every other character only interacts with Inchelina in order to exploit her or marry her off (besides the woman with whom Inchelina first lives, but she is hardly mentioned at all). Inchelina nursed the bird back to health after she found him, nearly dead, in a tunnel underground and “the bird stayed all winter. Inchelina took good care of him, grew very fond of him.”30Andersen, “Inchelina,” 34. This is where Inchelina really grew as a character and as a woman, when she learned to love and to give selflessly. An important part of the human experience, existence, and, thus, a bildung story is being able to value others over yourself as suggested in Burkill’s essay “Romanticism, Existentialism and Religion.”31T.A. Burkill, “Romanticism, Existentialism and Religion,” Philosophy 30, no. 115 (1955): 324. Loving others above yourself can be a religious idea, but also a very Romantic one. It is important in finding one’s own existence as well. Inchelina is in turn rewarded for her development by gaining a friend and returned love from the bird. Unlike every other character that did not listen or care for Inchelina’s wishes and overall wellbeing, the bird even sacrifices something in the end in order to allow Inchelina to complete her bildung. At the end of the tale, the bird lets her go to be where she belongs despite his great love for her. The bird recognizes Inchelina’s development and knows that she must be given the freedom to choose for herself, especially because he knew of the situation with the mole and how she was always “subjected to continual demands.”32Ibid, 323. She is exactly the kind of person who needs to have the ability to make her own decisions. The bird’s realization of her needs is particularly important for it demonstrates Inchelina’s own growth and ability to make decisions for herself.

Inchelina takes a step forward in her bildung when she makes a decision for her own happiness and the nature around her reflects the significance of her action. Taking actions on one’s desires is what drives the female bildung. She decides not to marry the mole, but instead to go away with the bird to a nicer place. This was Inchelina’s ultimate test that would lead her to her independence and happiness. Freedom and real human existence among others requires one to “become something definite”33Philip Blair Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” The Kenyon Review 12, no. 2 (1950): 315. by being the driving force of their own life. On the day of her wedding “[s]he tied herself with a ribbon to one of [the bird’s] feathers, and the swallow flew high up into the air.”34Andersen, “Inchelina,” 36. It is important that she tied herself; she was not forced by the bird or anyone else to leave. Inchelina made the decision alone and the bird was willing to help after she helped him in the tunnel underground. It was a wise decision too, as we can discern from the natural surroundings while she traveled. The bird and Inchelina flew “far away from the ugly mole and his dismal house; across the greatest mountains, to the countries where the sun shines more beautifully than here and the loveliest flowers grow and it is always summer.”35Ibid. This adventure can be perceived as a metaphor for Inchelina’s bildung. She begins at a very lowly place, the mole’s home for example, and needs to cross great mountains, which can be representative of the many hardships and challenges. In the end, Inchelina obtains her ultimate goal, she finds the place where the nature reflects her own passions and desires.

Once a woman recognizes her own existence within herself, society brings the bildung process to an end when she finds who she belongs with. Inchelina’s journey ends when she discovers where she belongs. Despite the fact that she is in a place of nature where “the loveliest flowers grow and it is always summer,”36Ibid. that which she needs to complete her bildung is society. All people need human interaction to fully develop, as believed by “the French Existentialists, the engagement by which the self discovers itself is above all a social process, ”37Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” 316. which suggests the importance of social awareness and its effects on knowing one’s self. Social interactions and acceptance are necessary for a bildung to progress and succeed despite the negative Romantic views on society. Inchelina found a place where she fit in among the others who lived there and even took a liking to the king who “was no taller than Inchelina.”38Andersen, “Inchelina,” 37. She was finally ready to settle down with a man, as was appropriate for a woman in the nineteenth century. He was perfect for her, however, unlike the other potential partners in this story. Inchelina was thrilled to be with him, not sad like she had been for the previous portion of her life. In fact there were many of these small people and “in every one of the flowers there lived such a tiny angel.”39Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” 317. Inchelina not only found the man whom she could be with, but also an entire community of people to which she could relate.

In this female bildung, Inchelina does not remain independent and alone, but instead she marries and joins a society. This is important because she finds where she belongs in the context of a nineteenth century woman, but also because she marries someone that she cares for. “Being-for-other”40Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” 317. is significant for the human experience. There is no purpose in life if living with only selfish feelings. Existence depends on the perception of yourself by other people in addition to living and being the sole person in your own decision-making.41Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist,” 28. Experiencing love and returned love brings value to existence. Inchelina has completed her bildung here because she has learned, through many challenges, what it means to exist; her life is no longer without meaning. Inchelina now lives in a community of people like herself and even found love. She learned who she is and where she belongs through a long, hard maturation journey.

Knowing who you are and what drives your life and decisions is how humans are able to exist and thrive. Growing up is very important and comes with many challenges, but it is important to learn from all those experiences and to mature. “Inchelina” is the story of a girl who travels through a female bildung to discover who she is and where she belongs as a woman of the nineteenth century, without sacrificing her desires. Nature and society play huge roles in this bildung, both as aids and obstacles. Nature is a great vehicle for discovering. Being immersed in something bigger than oneself and having the ability to connect with it can change people and help them to know what is important to them personally.42Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist,” 28. But nature can also get in the way of the human experience and growth. Social interactions are necessary for development and are a big part of existence.43Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” 306. With the help of the many characters in this story, Inchelina is able to find her own desires and eventually live life to the fullest. Although some of the situations that she faces are difficult and seem impossible to escape, and most of the secondary characters are antagonists, it is critical that Inchelina experience all of these in order to learn. And she did, the girl completed her bildung and became a woman of the nineteenth century. Inchelina finally found her importance to self and to others, and that is the greatest outcome of a bildung.



Andersen, Hans Christian. “Inchelina.” In Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. Translated by Erik Christian Haugaard. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1974.

Burkill, T.A. “Romanticism, Existentialism and Religion.” Philosophy 30, no. 115 (1955): 318–332.

McIlvanney, Siobhan. “Feminist “Bildung” in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli.” The Modern Language Review. 92. 1 (1997): 60–69. Web. 02 April 2014.

Mellor, Scott. “The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.” Lecture at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, January 22, 2014.

Mellor, Scott. “The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.” Lecture at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, February 12, 2014.

Mellor, Scott. “The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.” Lecture at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, February 25, 2014.

Radek, Kimberly M. “Women in the Nineteenth Century.” Women in Literature, last modified 2001, accessed 20 February, 2014, http://www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/women_in_the_nineteenth_century.htm.

Rice, Philip Blair. “Existentialism and the Self.” The Kenyon Review. 12. 2 (1950): 304–330. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

“Romanticism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed October 30, 2014, http://global.


Sage, Vanessa. “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist: Nature, Romanticism, and Contemporary Paganism.” Anthropology of Consciousness 20, no. 1 (2009): 27–52.

References   [ + ]

1. Scott Mellor, “Hans Christian Andersen” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, February 25, 2014).
2. Siobhan McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” The Modern Language Review 92, no. 1 (1997): 61.
3. McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” 68.
4. Kimberly Radek, “Women in the Nineteenth Century,” Women in Literature, last modified 2001, http://www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/women_in_the_nineteenth_century.htm.
5. Ibid.
6. McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” 64.
7. Hans Christian Andersen, “Inchelina,” in Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1974), 29.
8. Vanessa Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist: Nature, Romanticism, and Contemporary Paganism,” Anthropology of Consciousness 20, no. 1 (2009): 42.
9. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 30.
10. Philip Blair Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” The Kenyon Review 12, no. 2 (1950): 313.
11. Ibid.
12. Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist,” 37.
13. Ibid., 36–37.
14. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 31.
15. Scott Mellor, “Hans Christian Andersen” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, February 12, 2014).
16. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 31.
17. “Romanticism,” Encyclopædia Britannica, October 30, 2014. http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/508675/Romanticism.
18. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 32.
19. Scott Mellor, “Hans Christian Andersen” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, February 12, 2014).
20. McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” 68.
21. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 32.
22. Ibid., 35.
23. Ibid.
24. Scott Mellor, “Hans Christian Andersen” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, February 12, 2014).
25. McIlvanney, “Feminist ‘Bildung’ in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli,” 64.
26. Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist,” 29.
27. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 33.
28. Ibid.
29. Robert Schwartz, “Unmasking the Bourgeois, The Romantic Era,” The France of Victor Hugo, last modified 10 May, 1999, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/jkr/romanticism.html.
30. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 34.
31. T.A. Burkill, “Romanticism, Existentialism and Religion,” Philosophy 30, no. 115 (1955): 324.
32. Ibid, 323.
33. Philip Blair Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” The Kenyon Review 12, no. 2 (1950): 315.
34. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 36.
35. Ibid.
36. Ibid.
37. Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” 316.
38. Andersen, “Inchelina,” 37.
39. Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” 317.
40. Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” 317.
41. Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist,” 28.
42. Sage, “Encountering the Wilderness, Encountering the Mist,” 28.
43. Rice, “Existentialism and the Self,” 306.