Poor, Unfortunate Societies: Getting to the Bottom of The Little Mermaid

Of all the works of art that haunt modern life — James Joyce’s Ulysses, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring — perhaps none has caused as much critical puzzlement and dispute as The Little Mermaid. Terry Eagleton, in his book Ariel’s Tempest, described the film as a “delightful romp for the whole family,” unsettling a whole tradition of Wittgensteinian criticism that began with Stanley Cavell. Cavell, writing in The Strange Object: Combs and Cutlery, was famous for such statements as “the dinglehopper is the real protagonist of Disney’s unsettling sea-shanty, which raises the crucial question of what we mean when we speak of a dinglehopper” (TSO 13).

For my part, I want to examine the way the film ends, because, while watching it with my friend uncomplicatedly, the events leading up to the climax were so wretched that she exclaimed: “Oh wait, how do they get out of this one? It looks like they’re totally fucked.”

The way they “get out of it” is, the prince steers the carcass of a sunken boat right into the heart of the monstrous Ursula, who by this time has assumed gigantic proportions. When the boat pierces her, she dies, and all the spells she has cast over merfolk and oceans fade. This is a resolution on the level of the symbolic, as well as the solution to the riddle of the plot. It restores a traditional way of life, structured by myth, to a society corrupted by rationalism and contractual economies.

The Little Mermaid is a romance, and the love between the mermaid and the prince symbolizes a pre-lapsarian social whole, where men and merfolk live in harmony. The film takes place in a world cut off from tradition. The prince can’t remember the name of the human princess he was supposed to marry, and apparently has no parents. Triton, the mermaid’s father, is superficially a traditional figure, but he can’t think of any of Ariel’s suitors names either, and has actually usurped Ursula, though you need to watch the bonus features to have this confirmed.

Ariel and Prince Eric, in their respective worlds, have nostalgic myths imposed upon them in the form of art. Triton is outraged when Ariel fails to play her part in the enormous pageant held in his honor. A clam shell opens, symbolizing Ariel’s birth, but Ariel isn’t inside — which only makes sense, since according to the Venus myth Ariel should actually emerge from the sea onto land. Later, Ariel will be missing at the end of Sebastian’s “Under the Sea” musical number.

In the same vein, the rationalist tutor Grimsby (I call him “Voltaire,” and he doesn’t believe in merfolk) makes the odd gesture of commissioning a statue of Prince Eric in an antiquated pose, with a sword. Eric rejects the statue, and it later becomes part of Ariel’s collection of human objects. In other words, both Ariel and Eric refuse to be turned to stone by assigned roles in nostalgic artworks that compensate for the evident state of lack: missing parents, disgruntled sea-witch, undistinguished suitors, and war between the two kingdoms. Art only takes you so far, as Ariel admits when (in “Part of Your World”) she sings about her boredom with merely collecting human objects. Sebastian’s songs neither convince Ariel to stay undersea, nor get her the kiss she needs. (However, it is significant that when he leaves the king’s service, and enters her’s, he stops trying to write symphonies, and returns to his roots by singing lite reggae.) Art can even be perverse, if it substitutes for the real thing. Ursula steals Ariel’s voice, and her song convinces Eric to abandon Ariel, via an aesthetic illusion of presence.

Art is a compensation in a society run by contracts: Triton’s rules, Grimsby’s insistence that Eric wed, and above all Ursula’s contracts with customers in need of magic. Ursula is a Usurer. If you don’t pay your debt to her in time, she is legally able to turn you into a small, boneless chicken of the sea. Her victims live in a garden of the oppressed that is meant to resonate with the Medusa myth and the theme of petrifaction. The force of the contract first protects her against Triton’s old-fashioned magic, then allows her to re-claim it.

Like Grimsby, Eric is nostalgic, but he’s nostalgic for a real person. He’s nostalgic for the maternal figure of Ariel, who is singing to him at the moment he is brought back to life on the shore, and reborn. So he follows her out to sea, having been primed to believe in mermaids by the old salts among his crew. Ursula, returning to the position of ruler of the seas, stirs up the shipwrecked boat from the bottom of the ocean. Yet she is still vulnerable, because she can’t return to the Ariel-like being she was formerly. So the prince drives the masthead into her: disturbing. We know from countless establishing shots that the masthead is a mermaid, and in effect, Ursula is killed by the cold statuary in her own heart, of herself as she was. She becomes a monster by confusing herself with that effigy in a way Eric and Ariel will not.

The resurrected ship, like the parallel scenes of Ariel and Eric’s rebirths on the mediating strip of shore, is a symbol of the present reunited with the past through living practice, rather than lifeless art. The very holes along its sides are indices of the prince’s ability to look beyond the thing, to see the thing as a mere sign, just as he was close to doing by kissing mute Ariel out of love for her voice. The separation between the aesthetic world of fantasy, and the hierarchies of contract, are swept away and replaced by a holistic order. Art withers away and becomes the free festival, rather than the imposed pageant.

Yet, in its way, this too is a Cold Pastoral, a trick to tease us out of thought. Who are these coming to the sacrifice? First of all, most of all, not Ariel’s mother, Eric’s parents, or Ursula herself (though she was more usurped than usurious)…but Flounder, the fat kid.