Saturday, January 21, 2012

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" (the Disabled would be happiest 'with their own kind')

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier"
By Hans Christian Andersen, 1838
(Excerpt quoted from the The English Translation by Jean Hersholt, 1949)

All the soldiers looked exactly alike except one. He looked a little different as he had been cast last of all. The tin was short, so he had only one leg. But there he stood, as steady on one leg as any of the other soldiers on their two. But just you see, he'll be the remarkable one.

On the table with the soldiers were many other playthings, and one that no eye could miss was a marvelous castle of cardboard. It had little windows through which you could look right inside it. And in front of the castle were miniature trees around a little mirror supposed to represent a lake. The wax swans that swam on its surface were reflected in the mirror. All this was very pretty but prettiest of all was the little lady who stood in the open doorway of the castle. Though she was a paper doll, she wore a dress of the fluffiest gauze. A tiny blue ribbon went over her shoulder for a scarf, and in the middle of it shone a spangle that was as big as her face. The little lady held out both her arms, as a ballet dancer does, and one leg was lifted so high behind her that the tin soldier couldn't see it at all, and he supposed she must have only one leg, as he did.

"That would be a wife for me," he thought. "But maybe she's too grand. She lives in a castle. I have only a box, with four-and-twenty roommates to share it. That's no place for her. But I must try to make her acquaintance."

"But maybe she's too grand. She lives in a castle. I have only a box, with four-and-twenty roommates to share it. That's no place for her. But I must try to make her acquaintance." Still as stiff as when he stood at attention, he lay down on the table behind a snuffbox, where he could admire the dainty little dancer who kept standing on one leg without ever losing her balance.

When the evening came the other tin soldiers were put away in their box, and the people of the house went to bed. Now the toys began to play among themselves at visits, and battles, and at giving balls. The tin soldiers rattled about in their box, for they wanted to play too, but they could not get the lid open. The nutcracker turned somersaults, and the slate pencil squeaked out jokes on the slate. The toys made such a noise that they woke up the canary bird, who made them a speech, all in verse. The only two who stayed still were the tin soldier and the little dancer. Without ever swerving from the tip of one toe, she held out her arms to him, and the tin soldier was just as steadfast on his one leg. Not once did he take his eyes off her.

Then the clock struck twelve and - clack! - up popped the lid of the snuffbox. But there was no snuff in it, no-out bounced a little black bogey, a jack-in-the-box.

"Tin soldier," he said. "Will you please keep your eyes to yourself?" The tin soldier pretended not to hear.

The bogey said, "Just you wait till tomorrow."
So begins the tragic story of unexpressed love, as the bogey-in-the-snuffbox (A practical joke much like the Twentieth Century snake-in-the-can-of-peanut-brittle) initiates a chain of curses that ends with the tin soldier and the ballerina perishing together in the parlor fireplace. Although the bogey's reasons are never spelled out, the implication is that the tin soldier is punished for dreaming "Above his station--" that someone as imperfect as he should never dare to dream of being with someone as perfect as she.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a wholly original story by Hans Christian Andersen -- unlike many of his earlier tales, it was not based on any traditional folktale. As such, it could be argued that the tin soldier is given only one leg simply as a plot device -- a way to set him apart from his twenty-four brothers and explain why he, alone, meets the fate he does and becomes the hero of the story when the others do not.

But the notion that he fell in love with the dancer because (he thought) "...she must have one leg, just as he did," is an assumption held by many: that, naturally, a disabled person would be most comfortable and would only want to love "Someone like them." And while it is often true that attraction comes through shared experience, there is so much more to being "like someone" than a single physical attribute -- especially if the similarity is seen only from the outside.

When I was a junior in college, living on campus in the one dorm adapted to be wheelchair accessible, there was a handsome paraplegic around campus -- not a student at the school, he was the son of one of the people in the Admissions Office. He was studying for the Bar, and rumor had it he played a role with Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July; when he came into the room, people turned their heads to watch him. Two of my dorm mates, who formed a clique of their own, were somewhat smitten with him. But they were both able-bodied. So instead, they would lobby me (and the other young woman in my dorm with cerebral palsy) to date him, saying that we "would make a cute couple," so that he would have reason to come around the dorm more often.

I resisted. I was an English Major, he was a lawyer-in-training. Other than the fact that we both got around on wheels, and needed the elevator to get between floors, we had nothing in common. Besides: I was insulted that my wheelchair use was the only thing they noticed about me, and would try to use that as a means to get closer to their crush. The other young woman they lobbied, however, did give in to their pressure, briefly, I believe as much out of her own curiosity as anything else. As I recall, the resulting "affair" was an awkward one, and lasted less than a week.

Along with the notion that if a disabled person is romantically connected with an able-bodied partner, then it must be a great burden and sacrifice on the partner's shoulders -- that, like the paper ballerina in Andersen's tale, they are destined to have their lives nobly consumed and sacrificed through the support they give -- that they are more caregivers or aides than lovers and spouses.

This creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's hard enough to find a true connection of the heart in this world, but it's harder still when many of the people you meet assume you cannot contribute equally to a relationship.

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