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. The girl strikes her matches one by one, first trying to derive warmth, and then to see the beautiful images their light provides. 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. She lights all of her matches and it's as if she can celebrate with her grandmother right there, and on New Year's Day all that's left is her frozen body huddled against the building and surrounded by dead matches, smiling.

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.

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%.

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.
  • Barefoot Poverty: In the freezing winter, and just a part of the reason that she froze to death.
  • Died Happily Ever After: The Little Match Girl, after having finally reunited with her grandmother in the afterlife.
  • Disneyfication:
    • Averted, even by Disney. Unlike most of Andersen's other works, adaptations usually stick with the original story. The only exception is the Michael Sporn version where she had a Disney Death and eventually revives in that adaptation.
    • That said, many adaptations do paint the events as a tragedy, while the tone of the original treats this as a happy ending.
    • In one film version, the Virgin Mary takes the girl to Heaven. It is unclear if the little girl is meant to be dead or if she is taken to Heaven physically, which is an obvious parallel to the Virgin Mary herself.
    • In the HBO Storybook Musicals version the little girl does not die and it ends Happily Ever After.
    • In a German adaption, she still dies, but her death leads to the arrest of the leader of her Orphanage of Fear which improves the other orphans' lives significantly. Also, she actually sold her matches but bought another orphans matches so he doesn't go home without having sold anything. So her death could be interpreted as a Heroic Sacrifice.
    • A rather dark aversion came along with Christopher Nielsen when he related the story of the female drug addict Audrey, replacing the matches with heroin shots. Every hallucination (the christmas tree, the dinner and finally the grandmother) was drug-induced, and the final "match" was an overdose.
    • Strangely enough it happens in Discworld (Along with a Take That), where Death, standing in for the Hogfather (Discworld's equivalent to Santa Claus) finds the the dead little match girl. His assistant explains that dying is sort of her purpose, makes people feel better about not having it as bad as she does. Death doesn't buy it and revives the girl - despite the fact that it's against Death's own rules. Death cannot bring back the dead.
    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, Too Good for This Sinful Earth.
  • 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.
  • Stars Are Souls: Inverted, falling stars represent someone dying.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Little Match Girl