Marriage and the Nightingale
It has been suggested that Andersen wrote The Nightingale as a tribute to Jenny Lind who he had hoped to marry. To read the story as a commentary on the institution of marriage, then, is within reason. In equating the Nightingale and the Emperor to Lind and Andersen, we may draw an analogy be between the hoped-for marriage and the command performance in the story, one that is followed by a cage and occasional supervised excursions. If the cage, then, is domesticity, it is clearly at odds with the natural order of things where a woman/bird can fly freely.
Or does The Nightingale suggest an even more radical critique of the underpinnings of marriage, taking on monogamy itself? If so, this may well be beyond any reading that Andersen intended. Soon after the Nightingale's imprisonment (read wedding), the Emperor becomes enamored with a much flashier robotic version of the bird, one that is adorned with jewels in contrast to the plain live Nightingale. This is a "mechanical reproduction" (Art in the Age, Benjamin), one that we come to learn lacks the capabilities of the original. But the Emperor is ignorant of this lacking at first—instead he thinks this cyborg-bird is hot. The mechanical mistress is simpler, more predictable, without agency of any kind, complacently acceding to a role of servitude.
In spite of the bird's mechanical (and therefore emotionless) character, the Emperor's infatuation ultimately exhausts the ersatz nightingale, causing it to have a "break down" Exploiting the double meaning of "break down," I am suggesting that both the machine and ultimately the Emperor are being pulled into the gravitational field of human emotion. Even the machine mistress can't sustain its role indefinitely; the inequality of power relations seems to exhaust even this juke bird (who sings the same old songs over and over). In her broken down state, the mechanical nightingale goes into semi-retirement.
At this point, the Emperor has betrayed the living Nightingale first by violating her nature—caging her when she would fly freely—and now for the second time, by taking a mistress songstress, allegorically violating the marriage vow of fidelity. In a morality tale that reaffirms the institution of marriage, this double betrayal of Nature, first, and then of fidelity should condemn the Emperor to some unfavorable outcome. Enter Death.
The Nightingale disappoints as a straightforward morality tale, however. Ultimately, Death fails to redress these betrayals by taking the Emperor. Instead, the living Nightingale returns to save the Emperor in his would-be last moments, when he is condemned to view a visual record of his bad deeds (apparently there were many more in addition to these "marriage" transgressions). Exercising her super-natural powers, the Nightingale forestalls death, and in so doing, compels the Emperor to respect her agency. Following Death's reprieve, the Emperor agrees that the Nightingale should be free to come and go as she pleases. They seem to have negotiated an open relationship! Previous to this negotiation for her autonomy, the Nightingale's character seemed somewhat lost inside the syrupy sweeness of unremitting generosity and good cheer. When she argues, for example, for the preservation of her machine rival, she asserts that the Emperor need not repay her. "You have already rewarded me," she says. "I shall never forget that I drew tears from your eyes the first time I sang to you. These are the jewels that rejoice a singer's heart." Her boundless generosity makes it hard to see the story for the feminist tract that it becomes—an argument for a different kind of relationship between male and female.
By the story's end, the Emperor is a changed man. In renegotiating his relationship with his beloved Nightingale, respecting her as a free agent, he has comes to respect the autonomy of Nature. This forces him to shed his old self: the avaricious collector who sought ownership and control and in so doing lost his emotions, his connection with Nature, and his appreciation of beauty. Now he is able to stand in gratitude and respect.
In discussing a transformation such as this one, Candace Vogler cites Kant's discussion of humanity's relationship to the natural world. Kant suggests that, when an individual faces the overwhelming force (or beauty) of nature, the "imagination strains to represent nature's might, but fails. The self feels itself suddenly diminished...and the human world slides away..." (73) Transformation requires a loss of an old self, in some sense, while moving towards a reformed and integrated self.
The kind of love that the Emperor and Nightingale ultimately share is negotiated by a meta-discussion at the story's conclusion. The Nightingale makes one final request to the Emperor: "Let no one know that you have a little bird who tells you everything. It will be best to conceal it." To paraphrase, she is suggesting that "we will have this kind of relationship, and we won't tell others that we do" which accords a sense of the forbidden to their future. Perhaps the the arrangement must be hidden because it is outside of the moral codes of the time. But in the conventions of narrative, the secret is in a sense a promise of its ultimate revelation; their secret relationship is
inherently unstable because it threatens to be disclosed/discovered eventually. However, by the story's close soonafter the pact is made, the secret remains intact. A mutually satisfying relationship between Emperor and Nightingale has now been agreed upon. Bed death has been warded off (how handy for the author that the impossibility of interspecies sex allows him to avoid the messy erotic desire that must have been part of his pursuit of Lind), and the Nightingale comes and goes freely in exchange for periodic concertizing.