On a cold and snowy New Year’s Eve, a little girl walks the city streets barefoot and without a hat. Earlier in the day, the girl lost her slippers (which were too big for her) when she ran across the street to avoid two carriages that were going “awfully fast.” She couldn’t find one slipper, and the other was taken by a boy who—while laughing—said he could use it as a cradle for his own children someday. Without slippers, the girl’s feet are “swollen and red” from the cold. She is trying to sell matches, but nobody has bought any all day—she is “cowed by life, the poor thing!”
By sequencing descriptions of her poverty alongside the cold, selfish, and uncaring attitudes of the citizens around her, Andersen makes it immediately clear to the reader that the harsh environment of the urban city is no place for such a little girl. Additionally, his characterization of her intentionally evokes the reader’s sympathy and thus plays into the common fairy tale trope of the misfortunate child as a protagonist, potentially impacting where the reader may expect the story to go next.
As she wanders the streets, the snow falls on the girl’s long blonde hair, which “curled so prettily” along her neck. However, “to such things” the little girl “never gave a thought.” All of the windows surrounding the girl are full of light and she can smell roast goose from the New Year’s feasts—something the girl “d[oes] think about.”
The fact that the little girl’s poverty is so all-consuming that she cannot even take pride in her appearance like a middle or upper-class little girl is meant to highlight her differences from typical protagonists in the fairy tale genre to which many of Andersen’s stories belong. Although the description of her pretty blonde hair aligns with stereotypical images of princesses, here the girl’s beauty only serves as an ironic juxtaposition to how ugly her circumstances are.
The little girl sits on a street corner against a building. Although she is getting colder, she does not “dare to go home” because she hasn’t yet sold any matches, an offense for which her father would beat her. Besides, their house isn’t much warmer than the streets—the roof leaks, letting the cold wind inside.
Andersen continues to layer on the levels of misery and suffering in the poor girl’s life, making it ever clearer that life offers her no love or comfort whatsoever. Readers anticipating a normal fairy tale may think this is designed to build towards some kind of fantastical intervention, but it actually foreshadows the idea that she is ultimately better off in death.
With her hands “numb from cold,” the little girl lights one of her matches to warm them. She holds her hands over the warm, bright flame, which gives a “strange” light. The match, it seems, has become an iron stove, and she is finally comfortable sitting by this fire. However, the match soon sputters out, which makes the stove vanish, returning the little girl to her reality.
The girl’s first vision being something as simple as a warm stove keys the reader into the fact that her wants and needs are not magical or outside the bounds of reality. Rather, they are basic necessities that she is being denied because of her low status in the class system.
The little girl strikes another match, and when the flame hits the wall of the building, the wall becomes “transparent as a veil” and the girl can “see right into the house.” Inside, there is a table set with “finest porcelain” featuring a roast goose that leaps up from its dish and waddles towards the girl. When the girl reaches towards the goose, however, her match goes out and she touches only the cold wall of the building
The cartoonish imagery of the goose in this vision is fairly comedic to imagine and not far removed from that of a whimsical fairy tale, but the quick cut to the harsh reality the girl inhabits brings the reader right back to the feelings of hunger and cold she is experiencing.
The little girl burns yet another match, the flame this time conjuring a brilliant Christmas tree “much larger and more beautifully decorated” than one she’d recently seen at the “rich merchant’s.” She smiles at the tree, which is adorned with “colorful pictures” like ones she’d observed through the windows of shops in the city. As before, the vision dissipates as soon as the flame goes out.
The fact that Andersen compares the Christmas tree and its ornaments to those of the rich merchant and the shop windows allows the reader to gain another insight into the little girl’s level of poverty. The flamboyant wealth of those around her is something she is only allowed to see from a distance and conjure in her imagination, and serves to further highlight the wealth inequality between the little girl and the city’s upper class.
The little girl views a shooting star create “a line of fire across the sky” and notes that her recently deceased grandmother (the only person to ever show her love or kindness) once told her that shooting stars represent “the soul of a human being traveling to god.” Remembering this, she notes that someone somewhere is dying.
This representation of shooting stars as a kind of omen for death differs from the more common association they have with granting wishes. In some sense, this presents a conflation between typical fairy tale mythology and Christian ideology surrounding death and the afterlife. They also foreshadow the girl’s own death. The fact that her subsequent wish to join her grandmother in heaven is granted as a result of the star is a dark abstraction on the stereotype of wish fulfillment in fairy tales.
The girl burns another match, this time viewing the face of her “blessedly kind” grandmother. She implores her to take her with her and, knowing that she will disappear “just like the warm stove, the goose, and the Christmas tree,” the girl burns the rest of her matches so her grandmother “could not leave.” The grandmother takes her in her arms and up to God, “where there is neither cold nor hunger nor fear”
The girl’s wish is effectively granted in death, as she is no longer plagued by the cold and harsh realities of poverty and can live in heavenly peace with her grandmother forever. Her recognition that the visions she conjured before, though pleasant, were only temporary and hold no candle to the bastion that the afterlife offers reflects Andersen’s belief that death is ultimately preferable to a life in poverty, and is the only lasting form of escape for such an impossibly difficult existence.
The little girl’s body is discovered with all of her matches used up the next day, having frozen to death “on the last evening of the old year.” Despite this, her face is flushed and she is smiling. The townspeople blandly speculate on her demise with no knowledge of the “sweet visions she had seen” or the “glory” with which she had passed on “into a truly New Year.”
Although the fate of the little girl is morbid, it is portrayed as a happy ending, befitting the tone of a fairy tale because the little girl is finally free of the suffering that she has lived with for her entire life as a result of her poverty. The way Andersen describes the reactions of the townspeople suggests that they are the ones missing out on the glory of the afterlife, and that their “New Year” pales in comparison to the transition that the little girl has undergone. This suggests that she is finally being rewarded for the suffering she endured in life, while the townspeople are forced to continue their comparatively flawed, selfish lives on Earth.