The Little Match Girl is a short story by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1845. The work was inspired by a drawing by Danish artist Johan Thomas, which shows a girl on the street selling matches. The title actually means "Girl with matches", but Andersen based his story on the dreams and aspirations of a child who is dying from cold and poverty, but also hunger.
The story begins with a cold and dark last dinner of the year. The poor girl sells matches on the dark and cold streets, and in order to protect herself from the cold, she hid in a corner of two houses and sat on the cold concrete. She didn’t want to go home because she hasn’t sold a single box of matches and that is why she expects her father to beat her.
Here is shown the unfortunate fate of the girl. Death is represented in bright pictures. The theme of hope symbolized by matches is projected, and the cold winter is a symbol of hopelessness. There is a parallel between the girl's condition and the weather outside. She was miserable and was going through a lot of trouble. She struggled to survive to the end, which means that we must not lose hope, despite the unfavorable conditions.
This is a sad story about a girl who does not lose hope until the last moment. Even though it was a strong winter, she did her best to sell matches, but she didn't succeed. In the end, she was freed from all her pain when hope and faith came hand in hand to help her and take her to a better place - to heaven. Almost frozen, when no one can even dream of how great a life she imagined, she imaginatively enjoyed the New Year's joys with her grandmother.
There are also certain religious beliefs in the story. The author firmly believed in God that he would give us everything we wanted, and that is why an innocent child entered a world where there was no more pain, agony, and suffering. The story also shows the value of the relationship. The girl was so close to her grandmother that even after her death, she talked to her as if she were alive.
She didn't want to lose her, which is why she lit a whole bunch of matches. Superstition in the form of a shooting star also finds its place in the story. According to the author, when a star falls, the soul rises to the sky, so it can be said that the story is a mixture of many elements.
The short story is about the poverty, hunger, and helplessness of a girl who was sent to sell matches when she needed to stay at home or at school. When the whole world seems to be celebrating the New Year, the girl is deprived of that joy. But readers are caught up in the mystery of whether it is pure family poverty or cruelty between father and daughter, and we come to the conclusion that it can be both.
In any case, the author has shown us that sometimes death can be better than life on earth. The poor girl had nothing left, and all the visions she had in the light of matches only reflected her unfulfilled wishes and dreams. She also wanted to enjoy delicious food, to sit under a beautiful Christmas tree, and to be in the company of her dear old grandmother, but that could not be achieved, and the only way she could get it was after death, in heaven. That is why the writer says:
"No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year."
Thus, New Year's Eve is a symbol for the beginning of a new life (after death) of a girl in heaven. The last night of the old year was the last night of the girl's miserable life. The new year brings magnificent changes in the life of a girl that others have not seen.
With this irony, the author touches upon the so-called civilized society in which even today we do not have the eyes to see the troubles of thousands of such hungry people in our cities. So, in its appeal, this story transcends all ages and cultures. Even the girl is unnamed, and the only thing we know is the place and time of the story, which could be a deliberate attempt by the writer to keep the story universal in its appeal.
As for the title of the story The Little Match Girl, it is very clear and represents the protagonist of the story, a poor girl. How the story deals with the poor life of a girl, her dreams and desires, and how she got rid of the cruelty of this world in order to reach paradise, the title is thematically appropriate.
In its plot and environment, the story has easy access. The author tells stories in the third person, where the dialogues are quite short and we can say that this is a one-way story without flashbacks and twists. But we should also mention that the story is rich in the use of irony, images, and symbols, emphasizing the need for compassion for those who are less privileged than us.
The story intertwines several themes: poverty, imagination, cruelty, and death. Poverty is a sharp critique of cultural attitudes toward extreme poverty and inequality during the Industrial Revolution. Using pictures and juxtaposition, Andersen contrasts the poverty of a little girl with the surrounding wealth. Naked and barefoot, the girl is slowly succumbing to hypothermia, while wealthy people are safe indoors, sheltered by the heat and shine of roasted geese.
Poor despair is also transmitted through a boy who steals slippers from a girl, thinking that one day he will keep his child in them. The boy's desperate need leads him to take what he can, ignoring the safety of the girl. The story clearly emphasizes the price of an unequal society.
The other main theme of the story is the cruelty directed at the girl, and it comes from all sides: her father will beat her if she returns home with unsold matches, a carriage that almost ran over her in the snow, a boy who steals her slippers and, most importantly, no one tries to help her as she freezes in the street. Despite these injustices, the girl never interrogates, retaliates, or practices cruelty. Her ascent to heaven is her way of escaping the cruelty she suffers.
The next main theme of the story is imagination and the relative ability of people to use it. The girl has deep imaginative abilities: with each stroke of the match, she conjures up a new vision of warmth, food, well-being, and love that she lacks in her material reality. In contrast, when people see her frozen body at the end of the story, the narrator comments that they can’t imagine what was in the girl’s mind and heart before she died. All they saw was an impoverished child trying to keep warm while freezing.
The theme of the afterlife and death enters the story when a girl dies and ascends to heaven to be with a dead grandmother and with God. Although the girl suffered from hunger, cold, and lack of love on Earth, the narrator commented that she would not want anything in heaven. As such, the story ends with a sense of hope. The Christian spiritual understanding of life after death prevailed in 19th century Danish culture. Through a lens in which the afterlife is tangible, Andersen does not present death as something to be feared, but as liberation from the cruelty of mortal existence.
Genre: fairy tale
Setting: the streets in a town (likely in Denmark), on New Year’s Eve
Point of view and Narrator: the point of view is written in third-person, in past tense, and switches between the little girl, the narrator, and the Townspeople who find her body. At the beginning of the story, the narrator seems to be omniscient, but there are parts of the story that suggest that the narrator might be limited to the little girl's perspective.
Tone and Mood: The authors represented a sorrowful tone throughout the story. At the very beginning, the writer puts us in the position of a little girl’s shoes. The tone is pathetic and the mood is somewhat magical but mournful.
Style: ironical, using metaphors and symbols
Protagonist and Antagonist: The main protagonist is an unnamed little girl, while the main antagonist remains the Townspeople and the weather as well as her parents (her father) and the boy who steals her slipper.
Major Conflict: The major conflict in the story is that the little girl can’t return home if she doesn’t sell any matches as she would receive a beating from her father, which leaves her wandering the cold streets until she freezes to death.
Climax: The fairy tale reaches its climax when she leaves the cruelty of the mortal world, hunger, and cold by ascending to heaven with her grandmother.
Ending: The little girl dies on the street with a smile on her face.
Symbols and Metaphors
- Symbols: the matches, the goose, the Christmas tree and candles, the shooting star, fair hair
- Metaphors: a picture of misery
The Matches - the matches symbolize the little girl’s happiness and hope. Whenever she would light a match, she would see something where she would rather be or do. Her desperate reaction when matches light off indicates that the matches are the only conformity in the painful situation.
The Goose - the goose symbolizes the little girl’s childish innocence and her persistence to remain happy despite the painful situation she’s in. When she sees the roasted goose, it waddles towards her creating a comic scenery despite the tragic situation. The goose represents her innocence that allows her to be positive through tough situations.
The Christmas Tree and Candles - the candles and the tree represent her ideal life. The holiday spirit is important to the girl and so she imagines her ideal scenery, as the perfect tree she imagines symbolizes her beliefs.
Shooting Star - a shooting star is a symbol already explained in the story. When someone’s dying, one shooting star is falling, meaning that the falling star represents a human soul rising to heaven. She doesn’t know or realize that this shooting star is for her as she was the person dying.
Fair Hair - it is described that the little girl was having long, fair hair. In the author's time, blonde hair was a symbol of youth and purity also emphasizing the little girl’s innocence.
A picture of misery - while the narrator describes the visual imagery of the protagonist walking on cold streets, he refers to the picture of misery. The author emphasizes the little girl’s bad situation by suggesting that she exists solely as a portrait illustration of the conceptual idea of misery.