Mermayhem: Reading Louise O’Neill’s the Surface Breaks

Madeleine Hunter is a second-year PhD candidate at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Cambridge. She studies adaptation and media convergence in twenty-first century children’s media and culture. None of her texts involve mermaids. Yet. 

*Here be Spoilers

I love mermaids.

I always have. I grew up in Australia, so it goes without saying that the sea has always been a big part of my life – whether it’s swimming in the surf down at Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove, navigating the rock pools down at Point Lonsdale, swimming with dolphins off the west coast, snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef (RIP) or celebrating New Year’s in the savage tranquillity of Diamond Bay.

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Pictured: Diamond Bay, Sorrento – a snapshot from my island home.

I was born the same year Disney released their adaptation of The Little Mermaid. I’m old enough to have grown up in the era of the VHS and the video store and I can still remember going in there with my mother to return a copy we’d borrowed only to immediately run around to the children’s section and grab another for the next week. I loved Ariel – to the point that I dyed my hair red and have allowed my life to slowly morph into a living cosplay of the hipster-Ariel meme

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Pictured: Me proposing a new idea to my supervisor

I also had my own little copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s text, retold by Deborah Hautzig and illustrated by Darcy May; a book designed to help me ‘step-into-reading’ that I kept reading well into my teens, time again enraptured by Andersen’s sweet, sad story. Needless to say, when Nic Hilton suggested looking at Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks, a recent reimagining of the text, I not only said yes, I scheduled that reading group for my birthday and made sure we would be out on the water for the day.

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Reading on the River Cam: It’s not the sea but you work with what you have

It took me a very long time to realise what it was about The Little Mermaid that made it so powerful for me. There are myriad readings and discussions of the text that frame it as a parable of feminine oppression – a tale about where exactly your desire will get you, girls. It’s easy enough to see why: read enough of Andersen’s stories and you’ll notice he has a habit of writing his female characters out of the reproductive order; of making female bodies shrink (Thumbelina);  decompose (The Girl who trod on the Loaf); dissipate (the Marsh King’s Daughter) or evaporate (The Little Mermaid). Andersen may have loved women (and a few men, it must be added) but I don’t think he liked them very much; I still remember having to hold back a snort of laughter when my colleague, Dr. Victoria Tedeschi, gave a talk about Andersen’s women, only to be asked if she thought he might have been a feminist.

No. No he wasn’t.

And the Disney text is seen as following in much the same vein – girl mutilates her body  to win a man’s approval; worse, she gives away her voice, because “it’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man!” and oh, isn’t it interesting how totally okay the prince is with having a silent partner…

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Pictured: The song you will have in your head for the rest of the day

This is the point in the conversation at which The Surface Breaks steps onto the stage. O’Neill’s text reads very much as an attempt to grapple with Andersen’s text and its legacy; to confront the figure of the little mermaid and what she has come to embody to so many young women, particularly in the wake of the great Disney diffusion.

The result is a blood-letting.

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O’Neill gives us a sea where conformity reigns and where mermaids are seen and not heard – unless it is to sing for the entertainment of others; where an authoritarian Sea King ranks his daughters by how attractive he finds them and jokes about how “if they weren’t his daughters…” O’Neill gives us a prince who is handsome but immature, whose selfishness leads him to hurt and discard the women who love him, and a sea witch who is more akin to a fairy godmother, albeit one who practices a ‘tough love’ approach to wish fulfillment.

For O’Neill, The Little Mermaid is a tale about the loss of the female voice, about suffering in silence. In The Surface Breaks, O’Neill focuses on the violence men do to women and the violence women do to themselves and one another under patriarchy. Men are either date-rapists or enablers whom women are powerless to stop so long as they remain trapped in seemingly unending sexual competition with one another. Every character in this text is a monster of the world’s own making. As O’Neill’s little mermaid, Muirgen, finds herself wondering at the text’s conclusion: “A mermaid or a monster? What is the difference?”

The Surface Breaks views the little mermaid’s decision as a mistake, one born from a tragic inability to understand either the world in which she lives or herself. It’s not a bad reading of Andersen’s text, and there’s certainly many with whom it will resonate. But it’s not my reading; it doesn’t capture what for me is most powerful in this text. As our own Professor Maria Nikolajeva was at pains to point out to our undergrads this year, the little mermaid’s longing to be a human superseded her encounter with the prince – he is in some senses, a means to an end. And even if he wasn’t, if it truly was just a text about a teenage girl falling hopelessly in love with a boy to the point that she sacrifices everything to be with him, to read that as shallow, to see that as unworthy of critical heft, is to come perilously close to what another colleague of mine back in Melbourne, Dr Athena Bellas, once described to me as girl-shaming: the sustained trend of attacking things that girls like as being dumb and frivolous, based on the fact that girls like them. Want an example? Take a look at this 2015 GQ interview with One Direction. You should only need to get as far as “we all know the immense transformative power of a boy band to turn a butter-wouldn’t-melt teenage girl into a rabid, knicker-wetting banshee” to get the general idea…

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For me, The Little Mermaid has always been a story about longing, and for more than just the romantic. It is a longing for recognition, for acceptance and to be more than what she is. What made the little mermaid so important to me when I was younger and what keeps her so close to my heart even now is that even though she is silent she is not invisible. She is still wanted, still valued, still loved. Even though she’s quiet, she’s still deemed to be good and even desirable company – you can read that as a commentary about male narcissism and female silence if you want, but to a painfully shy little girl and later a teenager with some pretty serious social anxiety, that was everything.

Even though she is silent, the little mermaid remains charming, warm, graceful, beautiful. And it’s not enough. It was never going to be enough and for reasons that actually have very little to do with her. That’s where the tragedy of the story is. She is rejected but unlike so many others would, she does not let that rejection turn to resentment; instead she embraces her fate, not because she is too passive to do otherwise, but because she accepts that every choice leading up to this moment has been her own. This is what she wanted. She didn’t get it, but that doesn’t make the wanting  foolish or wrong.

The sneaky thing about autonomy is that it includes the right to make bad decisions. The moral of The Surface Breaks seems to be that in an oppressive culture we’re all monsters anyway so why not just lean into it? It’s an understandable moral but it’s one which doesn’t leave much room for autonomy. O’Neill’s mermaid doesn’t escape the good/bad woman dichotomy, she just chooses to occupy the other side – I’m not convinced that’s much of a choice. But then, I’m also not convinced that it’s Muirgen – or Gaia, or Grace as she’s also known – who is the actual little mermaid at the heart of the text; it’s her mother. O’Neill gives us a little mermaid whose longing is not for the human world itself but for the mother who disappeared into it after rescuing her own prince. Muirgen seeks to find this woman so she that she might understand both her world and herself – the purpose of all good fairy tales, really.

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Consult your local library to find out more!

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