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I was reading a fairy tale from Andersen, "It's Quite True", and there was one phrase that I don't understand the meaning of - 'she heard and she didn't hear'. It sounds ambiguous to me. I'm confused whether she's heard it or not?

The context is:

'There it went,' she said. 'Indeed, the more I preen myself, the more beautiful I become!' It was dark all around. Hen sat beside hen, and the one who sat next to her did not sleep. She heard and she didn't hear, as indeed you should in this world if you are to have peace of mind. But still she had to tell it to her other neighbor. 'Did you hear what was said here...'

Thanks!

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3 Answers 3

She heard, but for politeness' sake, she must pretend she did not hear. That is clear from the added 'as indeed you should .. if you are to have peace of mind'

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I believe it's a play (or pun) on the word hear.

Hear has quite a few meanings; it can mean to perceive with the ear (e.g., "I hear the taxi blowing its horn"), or it can mean to fully listen to a point of view (e.g., "The judge will hear the case tomorrow").

The Andersen story is a tale about how gossip can result in distortion of the truth.

As she [the hen] settled herself on the perch, she plucked herself with her beak, and a tiny feather came out.

"There it goes," she said. "No doubt the more I pluck, the more beautiful I will get." But she said it only in fun, for she was considered the jolliest among the hens, although, as we've said before, most respectable. Then she fell asleep.

There was darkness all around, and the hens sat closely together. But the hen that sat closest to the white hen was not asleep; she had heard and had not heard, as one should do in this world, if one wishes to live in peace. But still she couldn't resist telling it to her nearest neighbor.

"Did you hear what was said? Well, I don't want to mention any names, but there is a hen here who intends to pluck out all her feathers just to make herself look well. If I were a rooster, I would despise her."

I think the phrase in question means, "She heard the words, but she did not hear – or perceive – their meaning." In other words, she thought the hen was being vain, when in fact the hen was merely making a lighthearted joke. Thus begins the chain of events that slowly distort the original comment.

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This is a tale about how a story changes as it is passed from person to person. One hears but does not hear perfectly because one cannot always pay perfect attention.

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