Literature / The Little Match Girl

The Little Match Girl (originally titled: Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne meaning The Little Girl with the Matchsticks) is Hans Christian Andersen's short story about a dying child's hallucinations on New Year's Eve. First published in 1845, it has been adapted into different media such as a Disney short and a Made-for-TV Movie. While technically a New Years' Eve story, it works at any time during the winter, especially Christmas Eve.

On a cold New Year's Eve, a little girl freezes barefoot outside. She's sold none of her matches and is consequently afraid to return home, expecting a beating from her father. She looks into the window of the house she sits in front of, and imagines how nice it would be to celebrate with a family. Then huddling in a corner, she begins to strike her matches one by one, at first to derive a little warmth, and then to keep seeing the beautiful images of warm fires, roast goose and Christmas trees their light shows. She looks up and sees a shooting star, and recalls that her grandmother once told her that whenever a star streaks across the sky like that, a person goes to heaven. With the strike of another match, she sees her beloved grandmother, and lights all of her matches at once to keep her there. The next morning, New Year's Day, passing people find her frozen body huddled against the building and surrounded by dead matches, smiling. They are filled with pity, but it doesn't matter because the little match girl is now happy in heaven.

Just a reminder; it's considered by its fans to be one of the saddest stories ever written (to the point its detractors have called it "Tragedy Porn"). The chances of it making you cry is somewhere above 90%.

The full English translation can be found here. Additionally, there was a French silent film that can be found here. The adaptation differs from the original, though. It has also been adapted as an audiobook with slideshow here. It's been set to music in the piece "The Little Match Girl Passion" by American composer David Lang, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

For a very similar story with a little boy, see Fyodor Dostoevsky's A Child at Christ's Christmas Party, written thirty years later.

Tropes in "The Little Match Girl":

  • Abusive Parents: The original story says that her father will beat her and not let her stay at home if she returns without selling all of her matches.
  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: Several adaptations of the already grim story (such as the Disney short) leave out the part about how the girl's father will beat her up if she doesn't sell everything. This, however, means that there's no explanation for why the girl is so persistent on selling her matches. A few go with "She feels the need to make money for her family" or "She'd feel bad if she didn't make any money", however many just ignore the issue.
  • Barefoot Poverty: In the freezing winter, and just a part of the reason that she froze to death.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Kind of. It's almost written as a happy ending from the girl's point of view, because she gets to go to Heaven and be with her grandmother again, and doesn't have to suffer anymore in this sinful earth— but this is entirely tempered by the realization that she dies a needless and preventable death due to poverty and exposure at the holiday season.
  • Death of a Child: Part of the reason it is considered such a tragic story- the titular character freezes to death on New Years Eve.
  • Died Happily Ever After: The Little Match Girl, after having finally reunited with her grandmother in the afterlife.
  • Disneyfication: Less than you expect:
    • The Michael Sporn version where she had a Disney Death and eventually revives in that adaptation.
    • In the HBO Storybook Musicals version the little girl does not die and it ends Happily Ever After.
    • In Discworld (along with a Take That!), where Death, standing in for the Hogfather (Discworld's equivalent to Santa Claus) finds the little match girl lying in an alley surrounded by her burnt-out matches. His assistant Albert explains that dying is sort of her purpose, and makes people feel better about their own poor situations. Death is very cross at the fact that a child is freezing to death in the streets even at Hogswatch and revives the little girl, even though it's against the rules, and hands her over to the City Watch to keep her warm and fed. Death is not allowed to bring back the dead, but the Hogfather can.
    Death: The Hogfather can. The Hogfather gives presents. There's no better present than a future.
  • Dying Alone: Technically, but by striking her matches she imagines her grandmother there with her. It's so SAD.
  • Go Out with a Smile: The Little Match Girl dies with a smile because she sees her grandmother while wasting all her matches.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: An innocent young girl.
  • Heaven: When the little girl dies, the spirit of her grandmother carries her soul to Heaven: "They both flew upwards in brightness and joy far above the earth, where there was neither cold nor hunger nor pain, for they were with God."
  • Karma Houdini: The father, although we don't know much about him (meaning he might not be all that bad by Victorian standards) and since he's just lost his daughter, he probably won't be feeling too great right now...
  • Light Is Good: The light of the little girl's matches bring her warmth and comfort and visions of happiness. The light of the stars reminds her of heaven.
  • Nameless Narrative: Nobody is named in the story.
  • Snow Means Death: Of course, here the snow caused death.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Some versions (mostly modern ones) change the ending to a family rescuing the little girl before she could die and giving her food and a warm bed.
  • Stars Are Souls: Inverted, falling stars represent someone dying.
  • Survivorship Bias: An aversion of the Rags to Riches variant. It's about a poor girl who tries to make money selling matches in the middle of winter, and ends up freezing to death.
  • Together in Death: The Little Match Girl and her grandmother reunite in Heaven.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The pure-hearted and innocent Little Match Girl dies and is sent to heaven. To quote from that page, "the narrative does not so much carry this trope as flamboyantly juggle it while singing the complete score to Handel's Messiah." Part of the reason most versions of the story are called "Tragedy Porn".

Alternative Title(s): Little Match Girl