The Little Match Girl is a widely read story by Andersen which delves n the themes of suffering, love, loss, death and the significance of compassion. It focuses on the plight of the poor children who suffer undeserved hardships just because they were born in the wrong socio-economic strata. Though many suffer the same fate today as well, the living conditions for the children of the poor was particularly miserable back in Andersen’s time . Also, his own troubled childhood gave him an intensely personal perspective insofar as unhappy children were concerned. In this regard, The Little Match Girl is a tale which gives voice to the voiceless and advocates for a more compassionate treatment towards the downtrodden. The theme of suffering, which ties in with Anderson’s personal life is also explored in the story The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the summary of which may be read here.
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The Little Match Girl | Summary
The story unfolds in a cold, dark New Year’s eve. In the heart of this cold and harsh setting, we find a poor little girl walking “bareheaded and barefoot” through the streets. We are told that she had been wearing slippers when she left home but that she lost them on the way – one, as she ran across the street in order to save herself from being hit by two carriages that were being driven too fast; the other, being stolen by a boy. he slippers were too big for her and that it belonged to her mother (who is probably dead). The girl’s feet are “red and blue with cold” and she is carrying a packet of matchsticks as nobody bought a single matchstick from her, leaving her utterly penniless :
“She crept along shivering and hungry, the picture of misery, poor little thing.”
The hungry child couldn’t ‘t think of anything but the “glorious smell of roast goose in the street” , this being New Year’s Eve. It is a day of celebration and she is starving.
The girl huddles down in a corner formed by two houses. She dare not go home, for she hasn’t sold a single match-stick and her father is sure to beat her. We are also told that her home is anything more than a shack and isn’t any better than the place she’s presently huddled in.
She begins to light the match-stick to keep herself warm. She strikes the first match:
” It seemed to the little girl as if one was sitting in the front of a great iron stove with polished brass knobs and brass ornaments. The fire burnt beautifully and gave out such a lovely warmth”
On striking the second match the light falls on the walls and the bricks become “transparent like a gauze”. She sees right into the room where a table is laid and in the center of it stands ” a roast goose stuffed with prunes and apples, steaming deliciously” and the goose hops down from the dish with a carving knife and a fork on its back and waddles straight up to the poor child.
On striking the third match, she finds herself sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree, “much lovelier than the one she had seen last year through the glass door of a rich merchant’s house. The many candles on the Christmas tree rose higher and higher through the air, and she saw that they had now turned into bright stars. One of them fell streaking the sky with light.”
This magical moment is abruptly marked by a strong irony when the girl remarks : “Now someone is dying.”
On striking the fourth match, the girl’s grandmother appears in front of her. She is delighted to have her gentle granny and begs her to take her along with her. She then gets anxious that her granny is going to disappear like all other sights :
” Then she quickly struck all the rest of the matches she had in the packet, for she did so want to keep her grandmother with her”.
The dawn of the New Year finds her dead and all that the wiseacres have to say at the sight of her dead body is this :
“She was evidently trying to warm herself”.
The Little Match Girl | Analysis
The Little Match Girl is a widely read story by Andersen which focuses on the plight of the poor children who suffer undeserved hardships just because they were born in the wrong socio-economic strata. Though many suffer the same fate today as well, the living conditions for the children of the poor was particularly miserable back in Andersen’s time . Also, his own troubled childhood gave him an intensely personal perspective insofar as unhappy children were concerned. In this regard, The Little Match Girl is a tale which gives voice to the voiceless and advocates for a more compassionate treatment towards the downtrodden.
The Little Match Girl is a story which draws an emphatic portrayal of the hardships faced by an innocent girl against the harsh and cruel world. Having said that, it is important to underline at the very outset what the story is not. It is not a helpless plea for pity. It does not beg for kindness. It appeals to it. There is a difference between the two and this must be maintained if we are to get a sound understanding of the story. In fact, by the end of the story it is clear that what the little match girl has understood, imagined and experienced is far beyond the comprehension of the wealthy folks who accept and denote her death as a matter of fact event.
The story opens on a somber note with the setting of the weather/nature complementing the mood the story. This is known as pathetic fallacy in literature. We see the use of this literary device right at the beginning of the story. Pay attention to the words in bold :
“It was bitterly cold, snow was falling and the darkness was gathering, for it was the last evening of the old year. It was New Year’s Eve.”
In other words the year is drawing to its end. It is dying. This must be kept in mind while analyzing the death of the little match girl. The death of the day also heralds the death of the year. This description of the setting in the first line of the story foreshadows the death of the little girl.
A brilliant visual imagery is used to describe the the suffering of the poor girl whose feet are “red and blue with cold” and who creeps along, shivering with cold and hunger and has become a “picture of misery”.
Anderson wrote a lot on child abuse which had become a social problem by and the issue is also dealt with in other stories written by him. The girl is scared to go home as she’s failed to sell the matches and she knows that she will be surely beaten by her father. The certainty about her fear is of great importance as it reveals that getting beaten by her father is a recurrent part of her childhood. We are also given to understand the poverty under which she lives when we’re told that it was a mere shack through which the wind whistled incessantly and was barely a safe shelter. The girl decides to huddle in a corner formed by two houses. She the takes out a match and strikes it – ‘R-r-ratch!’- an effective use of onomatopoeia.
What follows next is Andersen’s pure genius where he pits imagination versus reality. The things imagined by the girl in order to escape her harsh reality is very moving one. One can also understand the link between imagination, reality and memory, partly by analyzing the hallucinations and sights she sees while lighting up the matches.
She imagines a great iron stove with silver brass knobs burning before her. The reality of the terrible cold makes her imagine a source of warmth : the burning stove.
Similarly, on lighting the second matchstick, she sees the sight of a roasted goose, a source of food which might satiate her hunger. What we see is that her imagination helps her conjure sights which may at least theoretically satisfy her immediate needs in order to combat the harsh reality she’s in.
On striking the third match, she finds herself sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree, “much lovelier than the one she had seen last year through the glass door of a rich merchant’s house”.
This vision by the little girl shows the link between imagination, memory and desire. It tells us how she had seen a lovely Christmas tree last year and the memory reproduces the desire in the form of a much lovelier Christmas Tree
” The many candles on the Christmas tree rose higher and higher through the air, and she saw that they had now turned into bright stars. One of them fell streaking the sky with light.”
This magical moment is abruptly marked by a strong irony when the girl remarks : “Now someone is dying.”
The fourth matchstick produces a vision of what she held as most valuable in her life : her grandmother . The beautiful and living grandmother takes the girl in her arms and the two fly towards heaven in brightness and joy to a better world devoid of any suffering and pain.
Notice that she burns all the matches to keep her grandmother. She hasn’t done this earlier in order to keep any of the previous sights – neither for warmth (though she’s cold) nor for food (though she’s dying from hunger). She burns up all her matchsticks because what she craves for the most is love, care and compassion as is embodied by her dear Granny.
The matchsticks represent a symbol of hope and her desperate will to live. The little girl stays alive as long as the little fire of hope is burning and she dies when all her matches are extinguished.
The girl is frozen to death by the time the rays of the New Year’s dawn reaches the little body of the unfortunate child. This is what the people have to say about her lifeless body : She was evidently trying to warm herself.
This is a scathing comment by Andersen on the cold, rationalizing, matter-of-fact attitude of the people who look without seeing, for they see what what lies in front of them but they are blind to what lies within. The idle spectators are not only rude. Their cold, rationalizing attempt in trying to explain away the death of the little girl is also completely fallacious. The girl in fact didn’t burn up her candles “trying to warm herself”. She did so in order to keep her granny with her even if only for a little longer.
The last sentence of the story unmasks the petty mindset of such people and proclaims that the little match girl- with all of her sadness, joy, yearning and misery has felt and experienced far greater and deeper than what people can ever fathom :
“But no one knew what beautiful visions she had seen and in what a blaze of glory she had entered with her dear old grandmother into the heavenly joy and gladness of a new year.”
By the end of the story, we see that the girl’s emotion, imagination and experience is much greater than the harsh reality her body has been subjected to. The empathic portrayal of the girl’s plight, the physical and emotional abuse she has to go through, her unfortunate and possibly avoidable death and the utter apathy with which her death is is received by the people that transforms this fairy tale by Andersen in an effective social commentary.
One might as well say that the girl died from the cold in both physical and emotional sense. She died due to the cold weather as well as she the cold hearts that refused to identify her humanity.
The Little Match Girl : About the Author
The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Thumbelina The Princess and the Pea, Little Ida’s Flower, The Steadfast Tin Soldier… It is difficult to believe that all these iconic fairy tales originated from the pen of a single author. And yet it did.
Hans Christian Andersen, the G.O.A.T of literary fairy tales was born on 2nd April 1805 in Odense, near Copenhagen, Denmark.
Hans was educated in boarding schools for the privileged despite being born to working class parents. His exposure to economic hardships at an early age was influential in making him champion the cause of the oppressed and the marginalized children in most of his writings. Andersen went to Copenhagen to work as an actor in the Royal Danish Theatre at the ripe old age of 14. He was encouraged to focus on writing instead by the director of the theatre who helped him secure a grant from King Fredrick VI which allowed him to further his education and travel around Europe, writing stories.
His first success as a writer came with the publication of the short story A Journey on Foot from Holmens’ Canal to the East Point of Anager (Say that in one breath). Though he tried his hand in theatre, he was chiefly known as a novelist and a writer of travelogues in the Danish literary circles. Books like O.T and Only a Fiddle cemented his reputation as a novelist. His first collection Fairy Tales for Children was published in 1835 which featured stories like Thumbelina, Little Mermaid And The Emperor’s New Clothes among others. This was followed by a collection titled Fairy Tales Told for Children which featured stories like The Ugly Duckling and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. It was the translation of such stories to English and other languages which made him popular across Europe. His faithful representation of reality combined with elements of fantasy have endeared him to both young and mature audience alike. This commitment to representing reality in an impressive manner is seen in stories like The Little Match Girl .
Anderson died on 4th May 1875, aged 70. Today, his works have been translated to more than 125 languages around the world.