Thumbelina. Vilhelm Pederson, for Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, 1848. WikiCommons.

Thumbelina is a tiny girl, about the size of a thumb (surprise), created by Hans Christian Anderson in his fairy tale of the same name from 1835. Born inside of a flower, Thumbelina lives in the woods and interacts with humans and animals. Her size makes her very vulnerable to the intentions of those around her. Several of the forest creatures, specifically moles, toads, and beetles want to marry her, but Thumbelina wants to wait until she falls in love. And of course she eventually does, and marries a flower fairy prince.

Thumbelina spends a great deal of her time being a victim — she is kidnapped multiple times, sold as a bride, and then is discarded when her company is found inadequate. Often it is other female characters pushing her to marry someone she either does not know or despises. In this illustrated scene, she has just escaped from being abducted by toads for the purpose of being married off and imprisoned on an island made of a lily pad. In order to escape she ties a ribbon from her dress onto a butterfly to carry her far away from the toads. Her desperation to get away is not very evident, but she does seem grateful for the butterfly.

Typically, Thumbelina is depicted as a child rather than an adolescent or even a fully-formed woman, which makes the unwanted sexual advances towards her very disturbing. This is evident in the above illustration, as Thumbelina only has a white shift for a dress — and it is clear from her flat chest and rather chubby figure that she is still a child. While she spends much of her time trying to survive or get out of the situation she is in, she is also desperate to find her true love.

When this finally happens, the prince transforms her body by giving her wings and changes her name. Stripped back, this is an unpleasant tale of a child who’s been pawned off for the pleasure of others and who the story is intended for is up for debate. Certainly it is a warning to little girls. Many of Anderson’s stories, like The Little Mermaid, are said to be written for children, but clearly have adult themes and situations that would be quite frightening to them.

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