Though an author of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen typically did not write rosy stories of royalty and magic, or triumphant feats with happily-ever-after endings. Instead, his works often dealt with more realistic (and often morbid) themes of betrayal, sin, violence, and—as in the case of “The Little Match Girl”—death. By using the conventions of the fairy tale genre as a framework (namely the story’s choices of character, structure, and tone) alongside the morbid realism of the story, Andersen is able to subvert the reader’s expectation that the impoverished protagonist will triumph over her circumstances and live a happy life. Instead, Andersen’s fairy tale protagonist is caught in a crushing life of poverty that she cannot transcend except through a grisly death, which shows that the whimsical happy endings of traditional fairy tales do not generally apply to the real lives of the poor.
While most fairy tales show an impoverished protagonist triumphing over her circumstances, “The Little Match Girl” uses a bleaker plotline to show how removed the reality of the Industrial Era is from the Romantic ideals that preceded it. To do this, Andersen relies on certain fairy tale tropes: much like Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, for instance, the little girl’s father is bluntly stated to be abusive (“She didn’t dare go home because she had sold no matches and was frightened that her father might beat her”). However, instead of being doomed to a lifetime of menial chores, the girl is forced into a much more disturbing reality of risking her life selling matches on the street in the cold. Furthermore, much like Cinderella, Andersen describes the girl as having “long yellow hair that curled so prettily at the neck,” but he notes that she “never gave a thought” to her appearance, likely because of her low social status and the more pressing concern for her mere survival. This contrasts with the convention of the fairy tale genre that a poor protagonist’s beauty helps her to transcend her circumstance: here, the little match girl’s beauty doesn’t save her. Instead, her beauty is destroyed when she dies of exposure, suggesting that in reality—unlike in fairy tales—a person’s appearance is secondary to the hardship of their life.
The way Andersen depicts the power of childhood imagination (another common fairy tale trope) also emphasizes the story’s difference from a traditional fairy tale. Whereas other stories might use imagination to invoke visions of enchanted kingdoms or other fantastical whimsies, here the girl imagines basic Earthly realities: warmth, food, and love. In this sense, Andersen portrays the grim reality of growing up in poverty, painting basic comforts as being just as unattainable and imaginary as dragons, princesses, or magic.
The tone with which Andersen narrates the story also mirrors the moralistic, emotional tone of fairy tales. The way Andersen describes the girl’s poverty, as if the odds are continually stacked against her, is designed to invoke an emotional response of pity in the reader. His visceral descriptions of the “cold and hungry” little girl whose feet are “swollen and red from the cold” are a stark contrast to her “pretty” yellow hair, emphasizing the harsh reality of her life in spite of her youth, innocence, and beauty. An audience familiar with the convention of fairy tales featuring children with difficult lives may expect these mounting pressures and cruelties to be resolved with an eventual change in luck, and—in a sense—the story does resolve them with a change in fortune. However, this turn is morbid and bittersweet: the little girl’s untimely death is a significant departure from the happy and fortunate escape some may have been conditioned to expect from a story of this type. Andersen thereby subverts the conventions of a fairy tale to force the reader to contend with the fact that real life does not always have a fairy tale ending.
By using the tone of a whimsical fairy tale to portray the crushing reality of poverty, Andersen highlights the underbelly of industrialized society. In doing so, he causes the reader to recognize the ways in which the Romantic ideals of fairy tales can meet their limits in a dehumanizing economic reality that does not offer children like the little match girl the basic necessities they need to thrive.
Fairy Tales vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Fairy Tales vs. Reality Quotes in The Little Match Girl
In this cold and darkness walked a little girl. She was poor and both her head and feet were bare. Oh, she had had a pair of slippers when she left home; but they had been too big for her—in truth, they had belonged to her mother. The little one had lost them while hurrying across the street to get out of the way of two carriages that had been driving along awfully fast. One of the slippers she could not find, and the other had been snatched by a boy who, laughingly, shouted that he would use it as a cradle when he had a child of his own.
The snowflakes fell on her long yellow hair that curled so prettily at the neck, but to such things she never gave a thought. From every window of every house, light shone, and one could smell the geese roasting all the way out in the street. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve: and this she did think about.
She didn’t dare go home because she had sold no matches and was frightened that her father might beat her. Besides, her home was almost as cold as the street. She lived in an attic, right under a tile roof. The wind whistled through it, even though they had tried to close the worst of the holes and cracks with straw and old rags.
“Someone is dying,” whispered the little girl. Her grandmother, who was dead, was the only person who had ever loved or been kind to the child; and she had told her that a shooting star was the soul of a human being traveling to God.
She struck yet another match against the wall and in its blaze she saw her grandmother, so sweet, so blessedly kind.
“Grandmother!” shouted the little one. “Take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match goes out, just like the warm stove, the goose, and the beautiful Christmas tree.” Quickly, she lighted all the matches she had left in her hand, so that her grandmother could not leave. And the matches burned with such a clear, strong flame that the night became as light as day. Never had her grandmother looked so beautiful. She lifted the little girl in her arms and flew with her to where there is neither cold nor hunger nor fear: up to God.
In the cold morning the little girl was found. Her cheeks were red and she was smiling. She was dead. She had frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The sun on New Year’s Day shone down on the little corpse; her lap was filled with burned-out matches. “She had been trying to warm herself,” people said. And no one knew the sweet visions she had seen, or in what glory she and her grandmother had passed into a truly new year.