In his stories, Hans Christian Andersen often highlights the plight of the poor during the Industrial Revolution, with a particular interest in how this tumultuous period impacted the lives of children. In “The Little Match Girl,” he focuses on the titular little girl as she struggles for warmth while out selling matches in the bitter cold of New Year’s Eve. The story’s morbid ending (the girl dies from exposure after she uses all of her matches to warm and comfort herself) is presented as a welcome reprieve from the continued suffering of her existence as a child laborer. In portraying the innocent girl’s helpless, futile attempts to escape her difficult circumstances, Andersen shows that poverty is brutal, inescapable, and ultimately a worse fate than death.
By emphasizing the contrast between the little girl’s bleak, hopeless surroundings and her imaginary visions of warmth and nourishment, Andersen draws attention to the stark divide between the lives of the poor and the upper classes. When the girl burns the matchsticks (her only source of income), she finds that their flames spark imaginary visions of comforts like a “big iron stove,” a “table spread with a damask cloth and set with the finest porcelain,” and a Christmas tree with “thousands of candles.” These are comforts that are available to the wealthier people who surround the little girl in the city, but she can only access them in her imagination.
While these visions provide the little girl with emotional comfort, they don’t change the harsh reality of her life. The city’s callous fellow inhabitants—from the reckless carriage drivers “driving along awfully fast” to the little boy who steals one of the girl’s slippers for himself—treat her with astounding cruelty and disregard. Furthermore, Andersen’s characterization of the girl as being “cowed by life” extends to her home life; the drafty attic her family lives in is described as being “almost as cold as the street,” and her father is so abusive that she won’t return home even to escape the harsh cold. While holiday stories are traditionally lighthearted and feature luxurious celebrations and feasts, here Andersen portrays the comfort and joy of the holidays as things the little girl cannot access. The fact that the little girl can’t enjoy something as basic as a warm room or a meal on New Year’s Eve shows just how harrowing her life is compared to the average middle- or upper-class child.
Due to the little girl’s tragic circumstances, Andersen presents death as a worthy alternative to a life spent in poverty, because it allows the girl to be free of her suffering and live with God. Andersen seems to suggest, then, that poverty is unreasonably harsh and incredibly difficult to overcome, and that death is often the only lasting escape. Among her visions of the warm stove and holiday feast, the little girl also imagines that her beloved grandmother has returned from death to be with her. The characterization of the grandmother as “the only person who had ever loved or been kind to the child” implies that the girl’s suffering has been overlooked or even directly perpetuated by those around her. As a young, innocent child, she is truly powerless to overcome the powerful societal forces working against her, and her poverty also leaves her physically vulnerable to the natural world, as she slowly freezes to death on the street.
With nobody to help her and no more matches with which to help herself, death is the only possible escape from the little girl’s destitute circumstances, since it is only in death that she will be with God in a place “where there is neither cold nor hunger nor fear.” Given that the little girl grapples with all of these perils in life, Andersen suggests that poverty (particularly when suffered by children) is unjust and unbearable, and that a peaceful death is ultimately preferable to a life of barely scraping by.
The Cruelty of Poverty ThemeTracker
The Cruelty of Poverty 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.