Interpreting Andersen's Nightingale
In the world of The Nightingale, The Emperor is driven by his obsession to gather the best of everything and make it his own. In a sense, the Emperor himself is "owned" by his penchant to collect and dominate things of beauty. However, the story shows the complications involved when the "thing" he seeks is alive, when that which he covets actually talks back, as indeed Jenny Lind must have to decline Andersen's proposal for marriage.
At the beginning of the story, the Emperor is protected from his boundless avarice through his own ignorance. He can't covet that which he doesn't know exists, and this is the case regarding the creature in his forest we come to know as the Nightingale. The Emperor eventually learns of the Nightingale's existence as well as her virtues not through his own direct encounter or even through courtiers, but rather through reading a book. In this reflexive gesture, Andersen takes pleasure in satirizing his own medium, as well as the anti-intellectual person in power. "Something, it appears, may be learnt from books," declares the Emperor (this and all quotes from the fable are from the 1872 Andersen collection). The Emperor here comes across as one who rarely reads or at least fails to learn when he does so.
The Emperor then instructs his first lord to bring the Nightingale to the palace and a series of telling encounters ensues, revealing not only the caste system in place in the kingdom but the way in which the working classes are romanticized as being closer to the natural world, in contrast to the ruling classes who are cut off (the latter are mercilessly satirized as ignorant sycophants). Ultimately, a lowly kitchen worker leads the entourage to the Nightingale who sings upon request. We are told she sings as if the Emperor were present when in fact only his courtiers are before her. The narrator pretends that the Nightingale's singing for the Emperor in the woods (where he does not deign to enter) is simply a misunderstanding. It is however possible that she may always sing in this way, as a metonymic stand-in for the romanticized Artist who privileges the present moment of performance over whoever may or may not be in the audience. In contrast to the Emperor's future-oriented drive towards ownership, the Nightingale-Artist invests the present moment with meaning, singing to the best of her abilities, for kitchen worker and Emperor alike.
The Emperor, for his part, does not return the Nightingale's favor in kind. Despite Andersen's pleasant tone in this fable, the Emperor's actions towards the Nightingale are fundamentally aggressive (in the same way that the veneer of genteel conversation covered the gross class inequalities of the time). Like the imperialist colonizing the indigenous, the Emperor has sent out his people to capture the Nightingale under a ruse (i.e. that she is asked only to perform). She is brought back to the palace, and following a beauteous performance that causes the Emperor to fill with emotion, he has the Nightingale caged: "She was now to remain at court, to have her own cage, with liberty to go out twice a day, and once during the night. Twelve servants were appointed to attend her on these occasions who each held her by a silken string fastened to her leg." She is allowed to fly only when tethered, under strict controls.