January 1, 2016

'The Little Match Girl' Happy New Year

Did you ever think about the fact that "The Little Match Girl" is a not-very-happy new year story? It's also my least-favorite Hans Christian Andersen tale. Such a bring down. His penchant for torturing his beautiful, young heroines has been well noted by scholars for some time, yet Andersen was unlucky in love and said he identified most with another suffering beauty, "The Little Mermaid." Who can ever say what motivates a writer? His own story? His anger at the pretty people (and unpretty ones) who rejected him?

Andersen was also a religious man, if not always dogmatic. Many, if not most of his fairy tales contain religious or moral messages. "The Little Match Girl" is no different. His ending clearly calls people out for ignoring the poor and homeless, and an explicitly Christian heaven is invoked in this story. By showing the suffering of "The Little Match Girl," is he merely strengthening his message about the importance of charity?

SPOILER ALERT*: However, the big question of "The Little Match Girl" is whether she is simply a victim of poverty and exposure or is a passive suicide--or even an active suicide, That's up to the reader. Whatever your answer, there's no question that although Andersen's tale is a miserable one, it lends itself to beautiful imagery. That's why I've included three of  my favorite illustrations with the tale.

*The story is well over 100 years old, and you've probably read it. I have little patience with the "spoiler alert" crowd. Is the ending of a story really that important? Don't all the only elements count? But this is the Internet, and I am bound by its mob conventions. Bah! Humbug!

So, with these questions in mind, without further ado, "The Little Match Girl."

Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening-- the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet. When she left home she had slippers on, it is true; but what was the good of that? They were very large slippers, which her mother had hitherto worn; so large were they; and the poor little thing lost them as she scuffled away across the street, because of two carriages that rolled by dreadfully fast.

One slipper was nowhere to be found; the other had been laid hold of by an urchin, and off he ran with it; he thought it would do capitally for a cradle when he some day or other should have children himself. So the little maiden walked on with her tiny naked feet, that were quite red and blue from cold. She carried a quantity of matches in an old apron, and she held a bundle of them in her hand. Nobody had bought anything of her the whole livelong day; no one had given her a single farthing.
She crept along trembling with cold and hunger--a very picture of sorrow, the poor little thing!

The flakes of snow covered her long fair hair, which fell in beautiful curls around her neck; but of that, of course, she never once now thought. From all the windows the candles were gleaming, and it smelt so deliciously of roast goose, for you know it was New Year's Eve; yes, of that she thought.
In a corner formed by two houses, of which one advanced more than the other, she seated herself down and cowered together. Her little feet she had drawn close up to her, but she grew colder and colder, and to go home she did not venture, for she had not sold any matches and could not bring a farthing of money: from her father she would certainly get blows, and at home it was cold too, for above her she had only the roof, through which the wind whistled, even though the largest cracks were stopped up with straw and rags.

Her little hands were almost numbed with cold. Oh! a match might afford her a world of comfort, if she only dared take a single one out of the bundle, draw it against the wall, and warm her fingers by it. She drew one out. "Rischt!" how it blazed, how it burnt! It was a warm, bright flame, like a candle, as she held her hands over it: it was a wonderful light. It seemed really to the little maiden as though she were sitting before a large iron stove, with burnished brass feet and a brass ornament at top. The fire burned with such blessed influence; it warmed so delightfully. The little girl had already stretched out her feet to warm them too; but--the small flame went out, the stove vanished: she had only the remains of the burnt-out match in her hand.

She rubbed another against the wall: it burned brightly, and where the light fell on the wall, there the wall became transparent like a veil, so that she could see into the room. On the table was spread a snow-white tablecloth; upon it was a splendid porcelain service, and the roast goose was steaming famously with its stuffing of apple and dried plums. And what was still more capital to behold was, the goose hopped down from the dish, reeled about on the floor with knife and fork in its breast, till it came up to the poor little girl; when--the match went out and nothing but the thick, cold, damp wall was left behind. She lighted another match. Now there she was sitting under the most magnificent Christmas tree: it was still larger, and more decorated than the one which she had seen through the glass door in the rich merchant's house.

Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands towards them when--the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven; one fell down and formed a long trail of fire.

"Someone is just dead!" said the little girl; for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now no more, had told her, that when a star falls, a soul ascends to God.
She drew another match against the wall: it was again light, and in the lustre there stood the old grandmother, so bright and radiant, so mild, and with such an expression of love.

"Grandmother!" cried the little one. "Oh, take me with you! You go away when the match burns out; you vanish like the warm stove, like the delicious roast goose, and like the magnificent Christmas tree!" And she rubbed the whole bundle of matches quickly against the wall, for she wanted to be quite sure of keeping her grandmother near her. And the matches gave such a brilliant light that it was brighter than at noon-day: never formerly had the grandmother been so beautiful and so tall. She took the little maiden, on her arm, and both flew in brightness and in joy so high, so very high, and then above was neither cold, nor hunger, nor anxiety--they were with God.

But in the corner, at the cold hour of dawn, sat the poor girl, with rosy cheeks and with a smiling mouth, leaning against the wall--frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. Stiff and stark sat the child there with her matches, of which one bundle had been burnt. "She wanted to warm herself," people said. No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.

Hope your 2016 is a good one. Don't forget that the submissions window is open for the Valentine's Day Fairy Tale issue.

Illustrators, in order, are Anne Anderson, Arthur Rackham and Willy Pogany.


Lorraine said...

I read somewhere that some of Andersen's endings were changed to be more Christian--like going to heaven. Was it true for this story too? Anyhow this is one of my favorites--some of his stories make you cry, true, but that shows how affecting they are. And it has inspired me to write my own version recently.

Kate W. said...

Rewrites of this story have been happening for generations. It's a good story to try that with, because while it's an intriguing story, for many people (me included) the story doesn't satisfy. As for Andersen deliberately making it more Christian, that's hard to say. Andersen really was a believer. I'm not sure about this story. But it's a great question! Happy New Year, Lorraine!

caroline yu said...

Hope you don't mind my disagreeing, but I would have to say that The Little Match Girl is one of my favorite stories. I can understand why some find it sad, but I feel the ending leaves us with a happy thought. Though others only see the poor little girl who has died, the reality is that her spirit has found joy and has been reunited with her grandmother beyond the stars. I like that idea: a hidden joy only the main characters and the readers know about. Thanks for sharing this for new year's! I have it included in one of my Christmas treasury books too.

Kate W. said...

Many students agree with you! I don't see it as positive, but a great many people see it your way. I'm glad you commented.