By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Little Match Girl’ is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales for children. It is also one of his shortest, running to just a few pages. In any case, below we’ve offered a brief summary of the tale that highlights some of its salient points, before moving on to a brief commentary on, or analysis of, the key themes of ‘The Little Match Girl’. What is the meaning of this intriguing little tale?
In summary, on New Year’s Eve a poor little girl leaves home, wearing the only shoes she owns in the whole world: her mother’s old slippers, which are too big for her little feet. As they’re too big, they fall off her feet, and a boy runs off with one of them while the other is lost in the street. She wants to go home, but she hasn’t sold any of the matches she left home with yet, and knows that if she returns home without having made any money, her father will beat her.
But she is so cold, with the snow falling about her, that she goes and crouches in the corner of a house, and lights one of the matches. As the flame comes into life, she huddles round it and imagines a blazing fire and a hot stove cooking food; then the match goes out and her dream of a warm fire goes out with it.
She lights another match and fancies she can smell a goose cooking over a stove (she has smelled delicious goose cooking in the houses she’s passed), and sees a table laid out with food ready to be eaten; but once again the match goes out and the dream disappears.
The little match girl lights a third match, and this time she imagines herself sitting under a Christmas tree in a warm house. She can see and feel the warm candles decorating the tree; but then the match goes out and the girl sees that the candles are only the stars up in the night sky. A star falls, and the little match girl recalls the idea that a star falling means someone has died and gone up to heaven.
She lights another match, and sees her grandmother, fearing that it is her grandmother who has gone to heaven; and the little match girl, who so longs to escape the cold, pleads with her grandmother to take her with her up to heaven, where there will be no more cold, no more hunger, no more suffering.
Knowing that her grandmother will disappear when the match goes out, the little match girl lights another match, and then another…
In the morning, they found the little match girl slumped against the side of the house – dead. She had tried to keep herself warm by lighting the matches, they said. They had no idea of the beautiful visions she had seen, or that she had been happy to escape the suffering and want of this world and join her grandmother in heaven.
‘The Little Match Girl’ was first published in 1845 with the Danish title Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne (‘The little girl with the matchsticks’). In some ways, it shares something with Charles Dickens’s stories highlighting the plight of the poor, and indeed, we might draw a (tenuous) link between Dickens’s famous story A Christmas Carol from two years earlier and this story.
Both have a snowy, wintry, December setting: both focus on children dying (Tiny Tim’s death in the future Christmas glimpsed by Scrooge, of course), both contrast this world of hunger and want with the idea of the festive feast involving a goose or turkey, and both utilise the idea of successive ‘visions’.
This comparison is a little stretched, perhaps, and it’s not meant to be offered as a rigorous analysis designed to demonstrate a chain of influence from Dickens to Andersen (although the two men knew each other, and Andersen even went to visit Dickens, with disastrous consequences).
Moreover, there is no happy ending for Andersen’s little match girl. Yet both he and Dickens appear to have wished to highlight the plight of the poor and needy to their middle-class readers. Of course, Andersen often focuses on lonely and isolated characters (see Thumbelina for another notable example, and just one among many), but here there is no fairy-tale happy ending for the little match girl.
Yet it is not quite so straightforward as that: given how dire her poverty is, the little match girl is happy to join her grandmother in heaven, although we as readers feel this is no happy ending, not when compared with the fate that befalls Thumbelina or the Ugly Duckling, for instance.
In the last analysis, then, ‘The Little Match Girl’ is an atypical fairy story in many ways: it is largely plotless, it doesn’t offer its protagonist a chance of happiness in this world at the end of the story, there is no magical or supernatural intervention that saves her from her plight, and it only really features one character (two if we count the grandmother), with no on-stage ‘villain’ (only the violent father waiting back home). Yet in some ways it is one of the most representative fairy stories in Andersen’s oeuvre.