‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Andersen: Short Story Analysis
This is one of the most widely read stories of Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a story about the stark realities of being poor and needy in a society that is uncompassionate, despondent, and averse to anything concerning ‘reality’. The reality of the poor match girl was that she fell into the ‘have nots’ bracket, and therefore was doomed. She is doomed to die of the freezing cold and is doomed to never be able to give ‘her light’ in the form of the matches she was selling on the last evening of the old year. I have made mention in an earlier blog short story analysis that ‘The Little Match Girl’ is very similar to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story titled ‘The Little Orphan’ which takes place in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky’s story was penned in 1887 whereas Andersen’s story was penned in 1845. Today, I shall analyze and compare these two short stories, which comprise of the many ironies in life, one of them being the season of Christmas.
This short story takes place on the last day of the old year, in other words, New Year’s Eve. It is a time of celebration among the Christian community and is part of the Christmas season. Christians keep their Christmas decorations on till the sixth of January and may start putting them up from the latter part of November. Thus, this is a long season of celebration, joy, and goodwill. But this is only so for the ‘haves’ and not the ‘have nots.’ The little match girl in this story is a ‘have not’. She has to struggle to earn money so that she can get a meal and not get beaten up by her father. She goes about selling matches which is ironically a prop in itself as the Christmas season is all about ‘light’. Jesus Christ the ‘light of the world’ came down from heaven to live among mortals. Christians celebrate this moment in religious history. However, in this story, it seems the elite in Andersen’s story have forgotten the humbleness of Christ’s birth in a manger, and have associated Christmas and New Year’s Eve with elements very much different, if not diametrically opposite to the real essence of the birth of Jesus Christ. The matches the girl is selling is the symbol of potential light. It is also a medium to ‘draw light’ to the fact that New Year’s Eve is not a day for joy for everyone in this world. The girl has not sold a single match stick all day and is dying of the cold. She ducks into an alleyway and tries to naivély warm herself by striking match after match. Here enters a supernatural element to the story: through the lighting of each match, the little girl sees certain visions. The visions she sees are:
- The vision of the warm stove.
- The vision of a table covered with a white cloth on which food is placed.
- The vision of a beautiful lighted and decorated Christmas tree.
- The vision of her dead grandmother who was the only person who had ever loved her.
If you notice, the ‘visions’ that she sees are all according to her needs, like Maslow’s pyramid hierarchy of needs and wants. At the bottom, she desperately needs warmth because she is dying of the cold and so sees a stove first. Then she needs food and so next up she sees a table full of delicacies. Then she needs love and something concerning security and then self-realization which she sees in the form of the Christmas tree and then her grandmother. I want to draw your attention to the Christmas tree. She sees the vision of the Christmas tree which then changes into the dark starry night sky. This is a promise from fate, God, Jesus Christ whatever you may perceive it to be. This promise is the promise which only the Baby Jesus could give another child, that though you can’t have a Christmas tree of your own, here is the Christmas tree in the form of the sky with stars as decorations. Something which the ‘haves’ don’t, can’t, and will never be able to give to the little match girl. This is the real peace of Christmas.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. John 14:27
Also, in this vision of the sky, she sees the falling star which her grandmother told her is symbolic of the death of a person. This is indicative that the girl herself was going to be that person who was about to die. Then she sees her grandmother, for she is dying and is being called into the next world. She tries to keep her grandmother’s vision there with her and strikes all the matches in one bundle. When her dead body is found in the alley the next day, the people passionately just comment that she died because of the cold. There is no ‘warmth’ in them because they did not accept the ‘warmth’ of the little match girl that is, her match sticks. There are certain other takeaways from this short story:
- The girl was bareheaded and barefooted. One of her slippers were ironically stolen by a street urchin to be saved as a cradle for his child in the future. This is a sign of pathos, despair, and harsh reality, that the poor horde things from the time they are children.
- The girl at the beginning of the story is given the status of a poor creature and called ‘poor little thing’ to show her vulnerability and helplessness.
- The goose walking towards her is a humorous element added in the story for children.
- The girl was a beauty, but what was the use of beauty without money.
This story is very similar to Dostoevsky’s ‘The Little Orphan’. While Dostoevsky’s orphan boy dies on Christmas eve, the little match girl dies on New Year’s Eve. They both die during the festive season of Christmas; therefore, a highly Christian theological element shows itself to be very prominent in the story. But we will not focus on those elements here, though there are plenty. There is a direct relation to Jesus Christ in Dostoevsky’s story and not at all in Andersen’s tale. However, both stories take place in the bustling cities of Europe. The little orphan does not see visions until he dies while the little match girl sees visions as she dies and after that as well. Both the mothers of the two concerned children are probably dead. Both children seem to be depicted as the innocent victims of nineteenth-century capitalism and Industrialization. Both stories were penned during the nineteenth-century and show the aloofness of the ‘haves’ and the misery of the ‘have nots.’ There is a Kierkegaardian element in both stories but more especially in the Andersen story. Kierkegaardian elements are indicative of Christian doctrine being different from the way Christians live; one needs to live the Christian life and not just worship its external forms. In Dostoevsky’s tale, his Hegelian angle is quite apparent. These stories seem to be setting the theme for a socialist view of life. Also, both the children were loved by only one person in their life: the boy was loved by his mother, while the match girl was loved by her grandmother. The little boy was not keen on dying and leaving the beautiful world of St. Petersburg during Christmas, but the weary match girl wishes to leave this world and go away with her grandmother.
I have compared ‘The Little Match Girl’ and ‘The Little Orphan’ only to a limited extent. I can dwell on this in depth but it will need to be in another blog post. Nevertheless, both stories are heartbreaking and full of everything that forms the basis of the life of our poor even today. I hope things improve in the near future. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis, poems, essays, and other bookish articles, then you can visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then check out my website fizapthanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you this coming weekend!
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