By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Red Shoes’ (1845) is perhaps the strangest of all of Hans Christian Andersen’s well-known fairy tales. Divining the meaning of some of Andersen’s other stories for children is relatively easy, but a number of aspects of the meaning and symbolism of ‘The Red Shoes’ remain troubling. Let’s take a closer look at this unusual and oddly compelling story.
You can read ‘The Red Shoes’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Andersen’s story below.
‘The Red Shoes’: plot summary
The protagonist of ‘The Red Shoes’ is a young peasant girl named Karen. She is so poor she has no shoes except a rough pair of wooden shoes to wear in the winter. The local shoemaker makes her some red shoes fashioned from red cloth. When Karen’s mother dies, Karen wears the shoes, even though their colour is hardly appropriate for mourning attire.
An old lady is passing one day and takes pity on the poor girl. She adopts Karen, burning her awful red shoes soon afterwards. When the time comes for Karen to be confirmed into the church, she is taken to the shoe shop to purchase some shoes. Inspired by the sight of the princess wearing a pair of bright red shoes, Karen persuades the old lady to buy her a pair of red leather shoes in the shop.
The old lady agrees, but only because her eyesight is so bad that she cannot tell what colour they are. After all, red would not be an appropriate colour to wear to one’s confirmation at church.
Indeed, everyone in the congregation is shocked when they see Karen wearing the red shoes in church during her confirmation ceremony. Afterwards, they tell the old lady that Karen wore red shoes during the service, and the old lady chastises Karen for her naughtiness, telling her that she must wear black shoes to church from now on.
But Karen is too in love with the red shoes, so defies the old lady’s command, and wears her red shoes to church the following week, too.
Outside of the church, an old soldier offers to shine their shoes, and he remarks that Karen’s are dancing shoes. In church, her red shoes draw comments and gasps from the congregation again, and Karen is so busy thinking of her shoes that she neglects to sing along with the hymns or recite the Lord’s Prayer.
As they’re leaving the church, the old soldier remarks on Karen’s dancing shoes again, at which point her feet begin to dance of their own accord. She has no control over them. When they get home, the old lady puts the shoes away in a cupboard, but Karen can’t leave them be, and goes to look at them again.
The old lady falls ill and Karen knows she should stay by her side; but she has been invited to a grand ball in the town, so dons her red shoes and leaves the old lady who has done so much to care for her when she had nobody. But at the ball, the shoes do whatever they like, forcing Karen to dance in whatever direction they please. Growing frightened, she tries to take them off, but they are stuck fast.
She dances all the way out of the town but eventually makes it back to the church. At the church door, an angel appears, telling her that she will continue to dance in her red shoes until she is pale and cold. Karen learns that the old lady has died. She goes to the executioner’s house and begs him to cut off her feet so she will be freed from the curse of the red shoes. He does so, making her some wooden feet and crutches so she can walk back to the church.
However, when she gets to the church, she finds the red shoes still dancing in front of her, and she runs home, terrified and saddened. She tries to go to the church a second time, but once again, the shoes appear, dancing in front of her.
She goes to the parson’s house and begs him to take her into his service, and he does so, when his wife takes pity on the girl. When the family asks if she will accompany them to church, she declines, but the angel appears to her once again, bringing the church to her, with the girl’s room slowly turning into the church with all of its congregation seated within.
Overcome by relief at being back in church, Karen feels her heart burst with happiness, and she dies.
‘The Red Shoes’: analysis
‘The Red Shoes’ is one of Andersen’s best-known tales and has frequently been adapted for film and the stage. But its premise is such an unusual one that it requires further comment and deeper analysis for its meaning to become fully clear. What do the red shoes represent? And what does their insistent dancing mean? Is Karen being punished for liking fine things in life, or for neglecting religious contemplation, or both?
Part of the mystery of the story is cleared up by learning about the tale’s origins, which – as is often the case with Andersen’s original fairy tales – deeply personal and autobiographical. Andersen named the story’s protagonist after his own half-sister, Karen Marie Andersen. There was little love between the siblings.
What’s more, Andersen was inspired by something he had witnessed as a child. His father was a shoemaker, who was once sent a piece of red silk with the instruction to make some dancing shoes for the daughter of a rich lady. Andersen’s father fashioned a pair of red shoes from the silk, using red leather (such as features in the story), but the lady refused to buying them, saying that he had ruined a perfectly good piece of silk. Andersen’s father was so incensed that he cut the shoes up in front of the woman.
And poverty is indeed an important element of ‘The Red Shoes’. Karen is given a taste of the finery which the princess enjoys when she sees the red shoes in the shop and tricks her guardian, the blind old lady, into buying them for her. Thereafter, she repeatedly uses deceit in order to be able to wear the shoes, including in church, where she knows they will be frowned upon.
The kind old lady who had taken her in is, finally, abandoned on her death bed because the lure of the grand ball and a chance to show off her prized red shoes is too great for Karen to resist.
In some ways, then, ‘The Red Shoes’ prefigures the themes of what is Dickens’s most fairy-tale-inspired novel, Great Expectations (1860-61), where Pip forgets his family and neglects poor Joe once he has had a taste of life as a gentleman in the city.
Like Pip, Karen must undergo a chastening road to redemption, although the sacrifices demanded of her will be much greater: she must lose her own feet and then, in the end, her own life in order to be rid of the curse of the red shoes and welcomed back into the house of God.
(Curiously, the two writers admired each other, with Dickens even inviting Andersen to stay with him and his family; although when Andersen refused to take a hint and didn’t leave, the Dickenses tired of him. When he finally left, Dickens sprawled on the mirror in the guest room, ‘Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seemed to the family AGES!’)
So the key themes of ‘The Red Shoes’ are vanity, temptation – specifically, the lure of luxuries and fine things in life – and redemption, specifically religious redemption. Karen wants to wear the red shoes and be admired in them. We can hardly blame her for this, given her poor upbringing when she had virtually nothing to call her own at all.
But Andersen is careful to let Karen’s descent into obsession unfold gradually over several pages, until she clearly crosses a line from mere naughtiness (wearing the shoes to church) to wickedness and selfishness (abandoning her dying guardian so she can attend the grand ball in the town).
In many ways, the very surreal and strange central motif of ‘The Red Shoes’ – the shoes almost comically dancing against their wearer’s will – is what makes the story so powerful. Andersen could have had the girl be attracted to a bright shawl (which then fastened tight around her until it strangled her) or a pretty dress (which grew tighter, etc.), but the choice of shoes associated with the gaiety and levity of dancing is inspired, because it constantly draws attention to Karen’s shoes, making her loathe the attention they bring her and the way they wear her out as she send her off across the town and beyond.
But such quasi-comic activity is sharply undercut by the gruesome, Grimm-esque nature of Karen’s penance, which involves losing her feet (tellingly, Andersen gives this job to an executioner, a man responsible for dealing justice to wrongdoers, rather than a simple woodsman) and then, once she has been forgiven and welcomed back into the church, her life.
She has undergone the necessary sacrifice in order to purify her soul so she is fit to enter heaven, where, the narrator tells us, ‘no one … asked about the red shoes.’