The Story of a Mother is a neat story because it has a metaphorical level and a more concrete level and Andersen is able to blend the two masterfully.
In The Story of a Mother, there is a mother with a baby who is sick, rocking him by the fire on a cold winter night. The mother is very worried about her baby. An old man comes inside, but he is really death. Death takes the baby and disappears into the night.
The mother runs out into the snowy night, determined to find her child. She meets an old woman, who is really night. Night tells her that she knows where Death has gone with the baby, but she will not tell her where until the mother has sung to her all of the lullabies she sings to her baby. The mother sings for night all of the lullabies, then night tells her that death went into the pine forest with the baby.
The mother next meets a thorn-bush in the forest. She asks the bush about Death and her baby. The bush replies that the mother must warm the bush up by holding it close to her hearts. The mother holds the bush tight, getting pricked by the thorns.
The mother crosses a lake, then comes to another old woman. She asks again about Death and her baby. The old woman responds that if she will trade her hair with the old woman, she will tell her. The mother trades her young black hair for the old woman’s white hair. The old woman points to Death’s greenhouse.
In the greenhouse, the mother finds many plants growing, from all over the world. These plants have heartbeats of their own. Each represents a human life. The mother recognizes the heartbeat of her child in a small crocus.
The old woman tells the mother not to touch the crocus, but when Death comes, to place her hands on two other flowers nearby. When Death comes, he will not take the crocus, because he is responsible for plucking the flowers at the right time, according to the plan of God, and the threat of plucking the others too soon will deter him.
Death comes, bringing with him a chill in the air. Death asks the mother how she has come so far. The Mother responds simply, “I am a mother” (location 272).
Death reaches for the crocus. The mother tries to shield it from him, but finds she cannot. Death tells her that there is nothing she can do to save her child. The mother responds “the Our Lord can” (location 274). Death responds by telling her that he is only doing God’s bidding.
The mother reaches instead for two nearby flowers. Death warns her, “Touch them not! Thou say’st that thou art so unhappy, and now thou wilt make another mother equally unhappy” (location 275).
Death has the mother look into a well. He tells her that what she is seeing is the whole future lives of the two children whose flowers she would have torn up. One life is full of joy. The other life is full of sorrow and torment. Death tells the mother that both lives are God’s will, but he will not tell her which flower goes with which life.
Death then tells her that one of the lives she witnessed was her own child’s future life, if he lived, but he still will not tell her which one.
The mother pleads with Death, if her child is to suffer, take him from her, forget her prayers and tears. Death is confused. Death asks her which it is, life or death for the child.
The mother makes a prayer “Oh hear me not when I pray against Thy will, which is the best! Hear me not! Hear me not!” (location 291). Death takes the child away.
On the concrete level we can imagine the mother holding vigil over her sick baby, singing it lullabies, praying for it and holding it, all while the more metaphorical stuff is going on. That is well done on Andersen’s part.
That’s all for A Christmas Greeting for this year. I will start where I leave off next Christmas time, so join me then!
Click Help for a short biography of Hans Christian Andersen
Click Here for a review of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Old House
Click Here for a review of Hans Christian Andersen’s A Drop of Water
Click Here for a review of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Happy Family
Click Here for a review of Hans Christian Andersen’s Story of a Mother
Click Here for a letter from Hans Christian Andersen to Charles Dickens