The Princess and the Pea Summary, Characters and Themes

“The Princess and the Pea” is a classic fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1835. 

This short but memorable story has become a staple in children’s literature, known for its simplicity and peculiar test of royal authenticity.

Summary

The tale begins with a prince who is seeking to marry a real princess. He travels far and wide but finds none that meet his expectations or that he believes are genuine. Disappointed, he returns home. 

One stormy night, a young woman, drenched from the rain, knocks at the castle door seeking shelter. She claims to be a real princess, but her appearance, soaked and bedraggled, raises doubts.

The queen, seeking to test the claim of the young woman, devises a peculiar plan. She places a single pea on the bedstead and then layers twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds on top of it. The idea is that only a true princess, with exceptionally delicate and refined sensitivity, would feel the pea through such a massive pile of bedding.

The next morning, the young woman is asked how she slept. She complains of having a terrible night’s sleep, troubled by something hard in the bed that left her bruised and sore. 

This complaint is taken as irrefutable proof of her royal lineage, as only a real princess would have the sensitivity to feel a pea through twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds.

The prince rejoices in having found a real princess and marries her, convinced of her authenticity. The story concludes with the pea being placed in the royal museum, where it supposedly can still be seen, if no one has taken it.

The tale is often interpreted as a commentary on the absurdity of the aristocracy’s preoccupation with pedigree and the superficial criteria for determining nobility and authenticity. 

Andersen’s story is notable for its whimsical, light-hearted tone and its fairy-tale logic that defies real-world practicality, a characteristic feature of his works.

The Princess and The Pea Summary

Characters

The Prince

The Prince in “The Princess and the Pea” is a central character who is on a quest to find a real princess to marry. He is depicted as sincere and earnest in his search, suggesting a certain idealism and perhaps naivety. 

His journey to find a genuine princess takes him to many places, but he is unable to find someone who meets his criteria for authenticity. This search demonstrates his strong desire to adhere to the standards of royalty and nobility.

The Princess

The young woman who arrives at the castle during a stormy night claims to be a real princess. Her character is pivotal in the story, as her sensitivity to a pea placed under twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds becomes the litmus test of her royal authenticity. 

She does not display any overt princess-like qualities initially, especially given her bedraggled appearance upon arrival, which makes her claim questionable. 

However, her discomfort and inability to sleep due to the pea affirm her delicate and refined nature, key traits expected of a princess in the context of the story.

The Queen

The Queen is a clever and resourceful character. She is the one who devises the unique test to ascertain the authenticity of the young woman’s claim to royalty. 

By placing a pea under a mountain of mattresses and featherbeds, she creates an almost absurd but effective method to discern the sensitivity expected of a true princess. 

The Queen’s character, though not deeply explored, is instrumental in the progression and resolution of the story’s plot.

The King

While the King is not a prominent character in many versions of the story, he is generally portrayed as a supportive figure to the Queen and the Prince. His role is more passive, often providing a background presence in the royal family dynamic.

Other Characters

Other characters, such as the castle staff or additional members of the royal family, are not typically detailed in the story. The focus remains on the primary trio – the Prince, the Princess, and the Queen – with the narrative centered around the test and its outcome.

Themes

1. The Critique of Nobility and Elitism

One of the most prominent themes in the novel is a critique of the arbitrary and often absurd standards set by the nobility to determine worthiness or authenticity. 

The entire premise of using a pea under twenty mattresses as a test of true princesshood satirizes the extreme lengths to which the upper classes go to preserve their exclusivity. 

This test, unrealistic and impractical, mirrors the often arbitrary and superficial criteria used in society to determine status, purity of lineage, or even moral character. 

Andersen seems to be subtly mocking the aristocracy, suggesting that the measures they use to define themselves are as insignificant and trivial as sensing a pea beneath a mountain of bedding.

2. Sensitivity and Perception

The tale also delves into the theme of sensitivity, both literal and metaphorical. 

The princess’s ability to feel the pea is a testament to her acute physical sensitivity, which is taken as a sign of her royal blood. 

This exaggerated sensitivity can be interpreted in various ways: as a metaphor for emotional sensitivity, suggesting that true nobility lies in empathy and awareness, or as a commentary on the delicate sensibilities that were expected of the upper classes. 

The story raises questions about perception and reality – the idea that what is significant and noticeable to one person might be completely irrelevant or invisible to another, thereby exploring the subjectivity of human experience.

3. The Nature of Authenticity and Identity

At its heart, the story is a quest for authenticity – the prince’s search for a “real” princess. 

This theme resonates with the universal human pursuit of genuineness in relationships and experiences. The pea becomes a symbol of authenticity, a tool to uncover the truth beneath appearances. 

However, the absurdity of the test also suggests the elusive nature of authenticity, especially when it is based on arbitrary or superficial standards. Andersen seems to be questioning what truly makes someone authentic or noble. 

Is it their lineage, their sensitivity, or something more intrinsic and less definable? 

The story subtly encourages the reader to ponder how we determine and value authenticity in ourselves and others.

Final Thoughts

“The Princess and the Pea” is a succinct yet profound fairy tale, rich in its simplicity and irony. 

It humorously critiques the arbitrary and often absurd standards of nobility and authenticity. Andersen’s tale remains a timeless piece, reminding readers of the peculiarities in societal norms and the often whimsical criteria used to discern true quality or status.

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