(gif credit goes to disneygoldmine)
This particular scene in the film has always struck me as exceptionally intriguing in terms of wording as well as offered an additional insight into how Ariel approaches her personal goals, what she aspires to get from life and relationships (and it’s not random that the following musical number is the reprise of her defining “Part of that World” song).
“What would I give to live where you are, what would I pay to stay here beside you”
Note how she isn’t saying “what would I give to be with you” or “what would I do to make you love me”. Her goal of living on land, being around people, socializing and communicating with them (“ask them my questions and get some answers”) without the fear that her oppressive father literally destroys her efforts and work has not changed just because she found herself interested in Eric romantically.
Ariel isn’t planning to force him to love her nor is she naively presuming they are meant to be together and he has to reciprocate her feelings because she saved his life. In fact, her initial ambitions have not been altered one bit - she wants to LIVE where he is (on land, “where the people are”) and she wants to STAY beside him so she could get to know him. Ariel says no word about eternal love or even romantic involvement of any kind, she’s not making plans for the future that would revolve exclusively around Eric. She doesn’t assume they can effectively work out as a couple yet because she strives to communicate with him first. Ariel’s original goal was to communicate with people, to see them dancing, walking around, “wandering free”, to participate in their activities, to learn more information about how the human world functions and socialize without being “reprimanded”.
The only thing that has changed now is that Ariel is no longer referring to abstract humans (”where the people are”, “what the people know”) but to a specific one. Her goals aren’t being sabotaged by Eric, they are becoming more definitive.
In a span of that short time when Ariel finally got a chance to see humans closer than ever before (per her own admission) she had seen Eric interacting with others and had enough material to get an idea of the kind of person he was, the kind of person Ariel wouldn’t mind to know more about. She saw Eric interacting with Grimsby, clearly an individual fulfilling the role of his father figure as well as someone in the position of less power than Eric - which didn’t in any way affect the way Eric treated him. Ariel was right there when Eric received a Birthday present in a form of a literal gratuitous picture of himself, a gigantic statue (of a questionable artistic value and taste) a person with narcissistic leanings would have appreciated immensely. But Eric was startled, visibly uncomfortable and obviously found that present utterly ridiculous which indicated lack of pompousness, pretension and elitism on his part despite his royal background. He preferred playing flute, starring at the sea, rejecting the idea of a loveless marriage and interacting with his fluffy friend Max. Same exact way Ariel preferred to explore sinking ships, spend time with Flounder and neglect the concert arranged by her controlling father who wanted to place her on public display to stroke his own ego (the song Ariel’s sisters were performing was all about how upstanding of a leader and father Triton is, not about them or their interests) and brag about her singing skills (all while shaming her natural curiosity and repressing her opinions that didn’t align with his bigoted views concerning humans). Ariel had, however, no problem singing in her grotto in private environment because it was not about exposing her singing voice to public to please her father or celebratory shindig’s attendants but about what she wanted to express.
In that same scene on the ship it was also obvious that Eric cared about Grimsby enough to spare his feelings making sure to at least try to pretend he liked the present. Which showed that Eric was a compassionate, considerate person who still had a mind and opinions of his own, all the traits Ariel could easily relate to.
Finally, the very reason she even HAD to save him was because Eric chose to risk his life and place himself into mortal danger in order to save Max, his beloved pet (even when he realized he was very likely doomed Eric’s first impulse was to throw Max overboard - he was willing to die to make sure his DOG escapes a fatal explosion. Which is surely enough of an evidence to conclude that Eric is exceptionally noble, devoted and rather dangerously brave of a human being). This is a direct and fascinating parallel to Ariel herself dropping the bag with significant findings, ones she was previously willing to let the shark bite her limb/tale/head off or eat her alive in order to preserve, sacrificing her work and safety so she could rush into mortal peril and place her life on the line to save her friend Flounder from the aforementioned shark (proceeding to, again, put her own safety in mortal danger in order to grab the bag and acquire knowledge when she picked it from the ocean floor despite still being in now partially trapped shark’s proximity, AFTER having effectively saved her friend which nearly got her killed).
Therefore, after realizing Eric was exactly the type of person Ariel would like to communicate with her first thought isn’t about kissing him or marrying him.
“What would I DO to see you smiling at me” - all she wants from this relationship as of right now is for them to be positive and mutually uplifting, to do something that simply makes the other person smile. Ariel implies action and communication when uttering those words - she wants partnership and equality. She wants to be able to cultivate her curiosity and engage in her preferred activities while simultaneously hoping her potential interactions with Eric will be enlightening and meaningful for him as well as rewarding for her.
“Where would WE walk, where would WE run if WE could stay all day in the sun” - Ariel’s set of goals has not changed, she still earns for experience but now she also has a person she wants to gain said experience WITH.
This sentiment is the echo of the grotto scene where Ariel stated she was willing to give and pay (as in, “invest” rather than take/steal. Ariel was willing to make investments and sacrifices in order to obtain freedom, knowledge and personal empowerment long before she even laid her eyes on Eric) a lot in order to “live out of these waters, to spend a day warm on a sand”. Which was not some absurd or blind fascination with the human culture - in the next line she clarifies why EXACTLY she wants to live on land.
“Betcha on land they understand, bet they don’t reprimand their daughters, bright young women sick of swimming, ready to stand”.
To Ariel, land represents freedom she can potentially have because she knows she can never have any measure of said freedom when she is under her oppressive father’s rule (and what’s important to highlight is that Ariel never forced Triton to conform to her views - all she asked of him was to respect hers. “Maybe HE is right [but] I just don’t see things the way he does”. What Ariel really wanted from her father was to allow her to exercise her own agency and form her own opinions without persecuting her for doing so, especially when she put legitimate effort into learning up on the culture he discriminated against while clearly having no issue with Ursula consistently enslaving his subjects. That is, until Ariel AND Eric - a representative of the culture Triton labeled as “barbaric” - liberated Ursula’s slaves due to effective team work). This segment also made it clear that if Ariel had found herself confronted with the same treatment on land she wouldn’t have settled for it. She was not going to let anyone take decisions for her - she was out for a chance to live her life the way SHE wanted to and she was going to pursue that goal despite the impossible odds.
Ariel herself poked fun at her own extensive collection of human items by saying it technically had to be considered complete at one point - “wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?” - and that she had “everything” in terms of the number of material possessions she had managed to acquire by means of diligent exploration of the ships and by placing the opportunity to expand her knowledge over her physical safety. In that segment of the song she lists the items featured in her collection but states it’s not enough, that she “wants more”. Ariel acknowledges material possessions are meaningless when you don’t even know the exact terms to define them, when you cannot communicate with people who use and invent them, when you have to hide like a thief from your father’s prying eyes. Just because she “does not see things the way he does” and DARES to have a mind of her own.
It’s not enough for Ariel to know the terms such as “street”, “feet” or “fire” - she wants to know WHY the fire burns. She wants to “explore the shore up above”, to dance and walk WITH the people and she knows that “fins” won’t get her too far. “Legs are required for jumping, dancing”. Long before seeing Eric she already knew what she wanted to achieve, how she wanted to act and look.
Her transformation into a human had nothing to do with Eric - Ariel was going to meet him in a MERMAID form before her father showed up, invaded her personal space, intimidated her and ruined years of determined and passionate work she had poured every ounce of her enthusiasm and perseverance into.
THAT was when she went to Ursula whom Ariel refused to antagonize until Ursula’s actions proved she was cunning, backstabbing and malicious. Ariel was not going to antagonize someone simply on base of them being an outcast or different (like her father did) or deny them a chance to “repent, see the light and make a switch” like Ursula claimed she had done. It was only when Ursula showed via her behavior that she had no interest in exercising her magical skills or helping “miserable, lonely and depressed” but instead strove for power and dominance did Ariel go up against her, ending up saving her father and Eric (all Eric had to do after playing the role of a damsel in distress once again was to steer his ship competently and finally return the favor to Ariel, fulfilling the role of an equal partner she aspired to see in him).
When Ursula informed Ariel the latter was about to get a chance to spend three whole days as a human like she dreamed - to do all the things she wanted to do long before Eric was anywhere in sight and to for once NOT hide her interests and passions from someone who holds the ultimate power over her - Ariel’s eyes radiated with inspiration and determination, genuine smile gracing her lips. For the first time since her father destroyed her collection and her grotto, the only place where she felt safe to cultivate her ambitions and personal needs. However, when Ursula added that the rule for Ariel to remain a human permanently (as opposed to not only reluctantly regaining her mermaid form but becoming Ursula’s slave for life) was going to include making sure Eric falls in love with her and grants her a “kiss of TRUE love” Ariel hesitated for the first time. Because true love was not the goal she was after.
What she initially wanted regarding Eric - before her father destroyed all the links Ariel had established with the world she longed to be a part of and made it more than blatantly obvious he was never going to respect her individuality - was to meet and get to know Eric as a mermaid. Because Ariel expected him to accept her the way she was if they were going to make it work. Regardless of whether she finds a way to become a human eventually (like she always wanted) or not. Now Ursula was finally offering Ariel such a chance, a chance to fulfill her dream that existed long before she saw and later saved Eric. But on a bizarre condition - that Ariel will have to MAKE someone love her in three days and commit to that person via True Love. Ariel’s face immediately falls off in that scene.
It takes Ursula to remind her in this case she remains a human permanently for Ariel to even consider that deal again. Ariel realizes that between staying in oppressive environment where her ever powerful father wouldn’t allow her any measure of independence and individual thought and pursuing her dream of attaining freedom, knowledge and being able to cultivate her interests as well as forming a possible partnership with Eric the latter was an option that enabled her to finally achieve her already established goals.
Ariel doesn’t promise Ursula that she marries Eric or makes him commit to her forever - the only condition she agrees to is a mutual kiss that would mean something for BOTH of them. Because Ariel still wants to be a human and she still wants to make it work with Eric due to believing (for all the valid reasons listed above) that he can be right for her. She fell in love with him first and she made actual plans to meet him again (as opposed to passively dreaming that fortune or convenient chance brings them back together the way Eric did). And if they end up being wrong for each other they can always part ways whilst Ariel will have her dream of being a human fulfilled, finally able to explore the world on her own. She follows through with the deal because she already planned to make investments and sacrifices on behalf of getting legs.
Ariel’s dream was the freedom of expression (dancing, jumping, asking questions, being social) which she could never achieve by means of singing on celebratory events arranged by her father who doesn’t respect her as an individual (at this stage of the movie). Biological voice is the sacrifice she makes in order to find a metaphorical voice and accomplish her goals. The lack of physical speaking ability does not prevent Ariel from communicating and socializing (and to assume that muteness is somehow an obstacle on a way of self expression is extremely dangerous and ableist), doing everything she always wanted to do, with Eric by her side or not.
During the town tour Ariel is anything but “withdrawn”, she doesn’t “hold her tongue and get her man” - she is exploring the crowded square, watches the performance in street theater (and is so amused and intrigued by the behavior of the “moving puppets” as well as appalled when one puppet hits another on the head that she HAS to interfere and give them a piece of her mind, grabbing one of the dolls and essentially figuring out how the whole thing works and what it really is about) and barely pays any attention to Eric at all. She isn’t sabotaging her goals because of his presence, she’s doing exactly what she vowed to do if she ever gets a chance to “spend a day out of these waters”.
Ariel doesn’t waste an ounce of her time as a human (that can potentially be limited to mere three days) on trying to seduce Eric - she is not there to force him to love her and she is not there to BE likable/lovable to him. In fact, in a process of navigating and exploring the human world Ariel doesn’t hesitate to be overly active, uncomfortable to others due to her unrestrained curiosity and cheerfulness. Ariel expects Eric to accept her the way she is, to accept her interests and an outgoing, persistent, enthusiastic persona and if he does fall in love with her so it be. If he doesn’t at least she will know she had a chance to attain her dream of walking, dancing and being free, even if it only lasts for few days (and she will know she was wrong to believe they could be good partners).
Occasionally, Ariel grabs Eric by the hand and drags him around without giving him so much as a single glance. She makes it clear to him that she wants a partner, not someone she has to cater to and neither someone who would just observe and refuse to support her, to be an active participant WITH her.
It is only when Eric begins dancing with her do he and Ariel start sharing affectionate looks… which last for roughly few seconds before Eric takes Ariel on a cart ride she seems infinitely more excited about than about their semi-romantic dance on the street. Eric - despite having no idea whether this mysterious victim of a ship wreck possesses any cart navigating skills or has any idea how to deal with horses - literally places the reins in her hands, giving Ariel the full power over them both and over her life. Making sure he would never try to interfere with her pursuit of experience “for her own good” like her father did, letting her know she is in a complete control of not only her life but his. This is something Ariel could never have under the sea and this is the moment when she realizes Eric CAN be that equal partner she aspired to share her experiences with.
Their next scene showcases a definite and major change in Ariel’s attitude - on the boat she almost always maintains an eye contact with Eric, she tugs at her hair, she gives him the same look she did on the day she rescued him. Eric has earned her trust and respect by now not only based on how he treated others but based on how he treats HER. Ariel then takes it upon herself to try to initiate a kiss - SHE wants to be the one to take action, again.
Eric pulls away but not because he doesn’t like her but because - as he clarifies moments later - he “feels bad about not knowing her name”. Eric too wants to get to know Ariel, he doesn’t merely return her romantic feelings, he returns her need for an equal partner before their relationship goes any further. Eric does not “swoon” over a “withdrawn” woman - in fact, when their communication temporarily halts he is bored out of his mind (his body language - hand supporting his chin as he leans on it - indicates Eric resents the newly formed “silence” between them. Because prior to that Ariel’s muteness didn’t in any way prevent them from interacting and having the time of their lives) despite Sebastian’s obstinate efforts to get Eric to kiss Ariel. Nor is he longer immaturely invested in unrealistic idealized image of “the one” he previously created in his mind, an image of a woman who saved him and had a splendid, memorable voice - a woman who might have as well been a figment of Eric’s half-comatose imagination as he slipped in and out of consciousness listening to her song. Eric didn’t fall in love with “the one” because of her outer appearance, he barely got a glimpse of her before she pulled away and disappeared from view. He fell in love with his rescuer (as he markedly emphasizes to Grimsby - Eric isn’t ashamed of being saved by a woman) and the only thing he had left of her was the memory of her voice.
And he kept clinging to said memory and unfounded dream of what could have been until realizing he has to take a chance and explore the natural bond he has formed NOW with this “girl of flesh and blood”, a girl he has made a legitimate EFFORT to get to know and ended up being drawn to.
Eric isn’t settling for Ariel because he cannot have the “dream girl” unaware that, ironically, they are the same person - quite the contrary, he refuses to settle for anything LESS than the partnership he has now established with this energetic, imaginative, creative, electric young woman. Who “made him smile for the first time” since the drowning incident (Ariel’s initial goal regarding this relationship was to make Eric smile because she wanted to make someone she cared about happy).
But Eric wouldn’t allow himself so much as a kiss with her - a kiss Ariel herself offered to initiate - until he figures out her name. And it is ONLY when he gets it right does Ariel take his hand and he does not shy away from her touch. THAT is when both of them consider the “Kiss of True Love” - when either of them makes sure the other is precisely the partner they were looking for.
When Eric’s wedding with Vanessa is announced Ariel is devastated but her first act isn’t to try to talk Eric out of marriage or attempt to make more advances on him or blame him for choosing someone else. She is crushed and she grieves alone - but Ariel acknowledges Eric’s freedom of choice. She doesn’t want a relationship with him unless he loves and accepts her to the same degree she loves and accepts him. Ariel wants a partner, not a trophy wealthy husband she can win over to get what she wanted.
It is only when she finds out “Vanessa” is actually Ursula, that she put Eric under the spell and therefore DID force him to love her against his will and consent to get what SHE wanted does Ariel slip back into action. She was willing to admit the defeat and even become Ursula’s permanent slave without complaints or self victimization or running to her father so he would use his authority to get her out of trouble (thus fairly upholding their deal. It is only when Ursula violates the deal by means of deception do Ariel’s friends - not Ariel herself as she protested against Triton taking her place - inform Triton about what happened) when she believed Eric had chosen someone else on free will.
Now that she knows it’s not the case and that the only reason Ursula might have resorted to such an elaborate and admittedly despicable trick is because Eric and Ariel’s mutual appreciation, love and respect for each other are in a way of Ursula’s goal to oppress, control and dominate (goals so strikingly similar to Triton’s behavior he himself ends up reevaluating his views after this experience, letting go of his bigotry - after finding himself nearly taken down by the fellow sea creature and saved by a supposedly “barbaric” human - and allowing Ariel to continue pursuing her dreams. Notably, Ariel does not ask or beg Triton to make her a human again so she could be with Eric. Triton does this on his own, inspired by his daughter’s perseverance and determination) Ariel takes action again.
This time Ariel saves Eric from being robbed of his agency (literally breaking Ursula’s spell together with the shell containing her voice) - and as mentioned above it takes Ariel to do it first, before Eric gets a chance to return the favor and save her from Ursula. But not before Ariel physically attacks the sea witch to prevent Eric from getting hit by the trident’s deathly magic.
In conclusion, Ariel only wanted to be a part of Eric’s world on a condition that he becomes a part of hers (in addition to aspiring to integrate herself into the human world and be an active participant there long before she found out about Eric’s very existence, as stated in her “part of THAT world” lyrics). The latter message is prominently and outwardly highlighted right before the film’s title credits preceded by Ariel and Eric’s ardent and fierce kiss. Ariel’s closing line in the movie is not directed at her husband but at her father - tearful, she tells Triton that she loves him. The two attain the mutual understanding either of them earned for so desperately and for so long.
The accompanying music confirms the accomplishment of Ariel’s original goal.
“Now WE can walk, now WE can run, now WE can stay all day in the sun, just you and me and I can be part of your world”.
This is a deliberately gender neutral chorus stating that Ariel and Eric have neither lost nor sacrificed any of their personal goals and dreams for each other but chose to pursue and attain them together, as equals.
(PS: obligatory apologies for the infuriating mediocrity of my English as it’s not my first language)