The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen: Theme, Meaning & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

''The Nightingale'' is a fairy-tale written by Hans Christian Andersen about the power of music. This lesson will look at the underlying meaning of the story and its literary themes.

The Tale

When you were a small child, can you remember being excited about a brand new toy? Maybe you were so excited that you only wanted to play with it instead of your actual friends. That's a little like what happens in ''The Nightingale'' by Hans Christian Andersen.

This fairy tale, first published in 1843 in a collection called New Fairy Tales, has remained popular over the centuries. This lesson will take a look at some of the meaning found in the story and some key themes.

The plot of the story is about a Chinese emperor who rejected a live nightingale for the fake song of a mechanical bird. As Death comes to claim the old emperor at the end of the tale, the real nightingale returns to sing for him. Death is so charmed by the lovely music that he spares the life of the dying man.

The song of the real nightingale saves the emperor
The Nightingale

Andersen's Back Story

It has been said that Andersen created ''The Nightingale'' to express his pain over an unrequited love for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. Andersen met the famous songstress in 1840, and pursued her in a romantic way; however, Lind insisted on a friendship instead. She wrote to him, ''God bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister.''

Jenny Lind is perhaps the inspiration for the story
Jenny Lind

The two remained friends, but Andersen was disappointed. You can probably understand how painful this kind of rejection can feel. In his autobiography, the famous author commented that: ''Through Jenny Lind I first became sensible of the holiness of Art. Through her I learned that one must forget one's self in the service of the Supreme. No books, no men, have had a more ennobling influence upon me as a poet than Jenny Lind.''

His fairy tale representation about his love and loss over the ''Swedish Nightingale'' appeals to readers in many ways. Everyone has made a poor decision that is later deeply regretted, just like the emperor in the story. Perhaps we have even experienced the unfailing loyalty of someone whose love we don't really deserve.


Some critics have protested the emphasis on Andersen's love for Jenny Lind in the interpretation of ''The Nightingale.'' There are some other themes that lend themselves to a plausible interpretation.

Artificial vs Natural

One of these is the idea of artificial versus natural beauty. In the world of the twenty-first century, there are many more artificial ways to achieve an outer beauty. As you can imagine though, this theme remains relevant regardless of the time period. The artificial bird and the real one don't sing well together ''for the real nightingale sang in its own natural way, but the artificial bird sang only waltzes.''

Nevertheless, the court celebrates the systematic and untiring fake bird, saying ''with a real nightingale we can never tell what is going to be sung, but with this bird everything is settled. It can be opened and explained, so that people may understand how the waltzes are formed....''

However, soon the bird begins to break ''as the barrels were worn,'' and it can only sing once a year. When the real bird comes back to save the emperor from death, she ''sung of the quiet churchyard, where the white roses grow, where the elder-tree wafts its perfume on the breeze, and the fresh, sweet grass is moistened by the mourners' tears.'' Thus her variety and truth set the emperor free.

Cheating Death

Another theme running through the tale is cheating death, in other words, trying to avoid death, even though we know that our time will eventually come. As he faces Death and all his deeds recounted to him, he cries to the fake bird, ''Music! music!...You little precious golden bird, sing, pray sing!'' The emperor's command is in vain, but then the real bird comes and is so moving that Death leaves the emperor alone. The idea that the emperor in the story finds a way to borrow additional time in earthly life is appealing still.

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