The phenomenon of nineteenth century romanticism as an artistic, intellectual, and literary movement finds its homogeneity in a shared orientation with regards to how one should approach existence and the world, an approach that is defined above all by an appeal to a certain creative and harmonious inter-subjective worldview. Thus, according to Michael Ferber, romanticism denotes “a European cultural movement…which found a vehicle for exploring one’s self and its relationship to others and to nature, which privileged the imagination as faculty higher and more inclusive than reason, which sought solace in or reconciliation with the natural world.” (10) Accordingly, romanticism can be summarized in its antagonism to the European Enlightenment: as opposed to the latter’s emphasis on reason, logic and subjectivity, with the work of the Romantics, rationality does not denote the ultimate possibility of human thought, nor is the subject the crucial unit of existence. Rather, motifs such as a national and communal consciousness and the latter’s belonging to the greater whole of nature become the main values of this movement. The works that constitute romanticism can be viewed as explorations and developments of such values.
The situating of Hans Christian Andersen’s work within the horizon of romanticism remains a legitimate theoretical classification from the perspective of literary criticism. For example, Harold Bloom describes Andersen as “wholeheartedly romantic and anti-academic eagerly concerned with folklore and the popular cause.” (132) Bloom’s remark clarifies what romanticism may mean in the context of Andersen’s work: romanticism primarily signifies a movement that emphasizes the importance of a folk consciousness and the imagination and radical interpretations of reality that this consciousness can produce, interpretations which are more harmonious with nature. The following essay shall analyze a particular work of Andersen’s, “The Toad”, with the intent of identifying such romantic motifs, in order to legitimate the thesis that Andersen’s work is reflective of a romantic approach. This shall be done by analyzing the story’s emphasis on a decentralization of any privileged status of the human within the world, a decentralization that is consistent with romanticism’s opposition to the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment.
The immediate romanticism of Andersen’s text shows itself in the form of the work as a fairy-tale, and the anthropomorphization of the animals, such as the toads and the frogs as speaking creatures. Yet this apparent example of personification can be better understood as Andersen’s displacement of what are believed to be purely human traits. In other words, everything in nature possesses its own unique existence, and thinks, feels and speaks in its own particular way. This is demonstrated in the speech of the Stork from the tale: “’Man is the most conceited creature!’ said the Stork. ‘Listen how their jaws are wagging; and for all that they can’t clap properly. They boast of their gifts of eloquence and their language! Yes, a fine language truly! Why, it changes in every day’s journey we make. One of them doesn’t understand another.’” (Andersen) Accordingly, Andersen advances a critique of the view that what is understood as intelligence is only native to man: man remains a part of nature, and not an exception. This fits with the romantic motif of “reconciliation with the natural world” that Ferber mentions, because the tension between man and the natural world is primarily a tension created by the discourse of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason and rationality. Other animals are able to reflect and communicate, however in their own unique manner. The conceit of man is the scientific conceit that he is the only animal who exists in this manner.
This tension is demonstrated within the story through the characters of the poet and the naturalist and their reaction to the toad. The naturalist, as a man of science, sees the toad as a specimen to be taken out of its natural environment in order to be studied: “’There sits a good specimen of a toad,’ said the naturalist. ‘I must have that fellow in a bottle of spirits.” (Andersen) The poet’s response is diametrically opposed to the naturalist’s, and echoes Andersen’s romantic viewpoint: “’Let the thing sit there and enjoy its life.’” (Andersen) Accordingly, the poet sees in the toad another being that exists in the same manner as he does: the toad also lives a life and possesses an existence constituted by its own unique enjoyments, as do humans. The poet does not make any rupture within nature, but instead postulates the unity of the natural world. The naturalist, in his quest for knowledge and analysis, must break up this unity in order to acquire his particular epistemological truth. The romanticism of Andersen in this story lies in his injection of these traits of existence into the animal world, which Frank describes as follows: “Andersen’s firsthand experience with a world in which nonhuman entities behaved uncannily.” (13) Yet this uncanniness of behaviour of the non-human world is only uncanny from the perspective of rationality and naturalism: From the romantic perspective that attempts to promote reconciliation with nature, there is nothing uncanny about the suggestion, as the poet makes, that an animal may enjoy and live their own existence. The mistake is to believe that rationality, such as in the form of the detached analysis of the naturalist in the story, is the only possible way to describe the world.
Accordingly, Andersen’s “The Toad” conveys the author’s romanticist inclinations through his account of the world from a perspective entirely foreign to rationalist or enlightenment perspectives. This is most clearly evidenced in the story’s attempt to displace the anthropocentric perspective on nature through the critique of a privileged place assigned to man, while at the same time stressing the ultimate harmony of nature. Man should not be viewed at odds with the natural world, but as part of it. One of the ways to alleviate this antagonism is to show that all of nature can be conceived in terms of apparently anthropomorphic terms, such as existence and the enjoyment of life. In this regard, Andersen’s “The Toad” can be understood as a certain manifesto for basic romanticist principles.