The Little Match Girl

The Little Match Girl Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish author, primarily of fairy tales and short stories geared towards children. The only son of working-class parents, Andersen became all too aware of the inequities of the class system from a young age, supporting himself and his education through a series of apprenticeships. Though initially interested in a career as an actor, Andersen’s passions soon switched to writing, and, at the urging of theater director and benefactor, Jonas Collin, he began to pen a series of works that would remain in the public conscience for centuries. Many of his stories, such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Ugly Duckling” have since become so deeply ingrained in popular culture that it is easy to forget they had an original author to begin with. Andersen enjoyed considerable success during his later years as his stories were translated and garnered international fame, eventually becoming the recipient of a stipend from the Danish government that allowed him to make a comfortable living as an author. This newfound financial freedom gave him the ability to travel, and he wrote several travelogues chronicling his adventures across various countries and continents. He went on to forge a friendship with British novelist Charles Dickens, bonding over their shared concern for the poor and working classes. Andersen died in Copenhagen in 1875 from injuries sustained after a fall in his home.  
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Historical Context of The Little Match Girl

The story’s focus on the bleak and desolate fate of the little match girl showcases the difficult effects of the Industrial Revolution, a period beginning in the mid-18th century that saw the rise of factory labor. Though this era of heightened efficiency in manufacturing brought with it many positives—including the widespread growth of the middle class—it was also responsible for creating several enduring problems, including terrible working and living conditions for the poor, severe overcrowding of cities, and rampant pollution. This age of industry was a crisis for many writers of the time, as large swaths of the population moving from the pristine rural countryside to the dirty urban city signified a move away from the traditional Romantic values of nature and spirituality and ushered in a new age of economic growth that came often at the expense of the most vulnerable workers. The way these societal changes impacted children was an area of particular interest, as the Industrial Era’s penchant for unsafe child labor and general cruelty towards young people was a startling departure from the importance that the previous era had placed on a child’s innocence.

Other Books Related to The Little Match Girl

“The Little Match Girl” is one of many works from the Victorian Era concerned with the cruelty and hopelessness of child labor, a common practice that led many children to an early grave. Though Andersen is a Danish writer, this motif is especially prevelant in British literature. British Romantic writer William Blake, for instance, provides a similar depiction of a child in peril in both versions of “The Chimney Sweeper” in his 1789 collection of poems, Songs of Innocence & Experience. Blake’s idea that death was the only reprieve from life as a child laborer (presenting it as an angel’s rescue) has echoes in “The Little Match Girl.” Andersen’s contemporary and friend, Charles Dickens, is also renowned for his focus on the poor and working class in his fiction, with orphaned and unfortunate children often appearing as his protagonists such as those in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. The format of the fairy tale was also undergoing a resurgence in popularity at the time, as the world-famous Brothers Grimm had published the first installment of their now universally-known Grimms’ Fairy Tales in 1812, ending with its final edition in 1857. The noted darkness and morbidity of these tales, despite being marketed for children, was likely influential to Andersen. Reverberations of that influence can also be seen in works from authors such as Oscar Wilde, whose novel The Picture of Dorian Gray combines the folkloric underpinnings of Goethe’s Faust with gothic and philosophical elements.
Key Facts about The Little Match Girl
  • Full Title: The Little Match Girl
  • When Written: 1845
  • Where Written: Denmark
  • When Published: 1845
  • Literary Period: Victorian, Danish Golden Age
  • Genre: Fairy Tale
  • Setting: An unspecified city on New Year’s Eve
  • Climax: The little girl burns all her matches to keep the vision of her deceased grandmother with her, resulting in her death.  
  • Antagonist: Forces of nature/poverty
  • Point of View: Third person limited

Extra Credit for The Little Match Girl

The Disney Connection: Several of Andersen’s stories have been the basis for popular Disney films and shorts, including The Little Mermaid, Frozen, and The Ugly Duckling.