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Literature / The Little Match Girl

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"The Little Match Girl" (Danish: 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 is freezing in the streets. She has bundles of matches to sell, but she hasn't sold any, and she knows her father will beat her if she returns empty-handed. Huddling in the shelter of a house, she looks in the window and sees a celebration inside. Imagining how nice it would be to celebrate with them, she begins to strike her matches one by one, at first to derive a little warmth, and then to keep seeing the images of warm fires, fancy dinners, and brightly-lit trees she sees in the flame. She looks up and sees a shooting star, and recalls that her beloved grandmother once told her that when a star falls, a person is going up to heaven. With the strike of another match, she sees her grandmother, and she desperately lights all of her matches at once, begging her not to leave. She feels her grandmother take her in her arms and carry her away, leaving the cold behind forever.

On New Year's Day, passers-by see her frozen body curled against the building. They are filled with pity at the sight of her surrounded by burned-out matches, but it doesn't matter because the little 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.


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 in Houkago No Kamishibaibu. 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. Animated short adaptations include The Little Match Girl from 1937 and The Little Matchgirl from Disney in 2006; both were nominated for Oscars for animated short film. Even Sanrio made their own adaptation of the story starring Hello Kitty as part of the 2000 OVA series Hello Kitty's Animation Theater which is extremely faithful to the story.

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. Her grandmother was apparently the only person who ever expressed any genuine love and care for her.
  • Actionized Adaptation: Yes really.
    • Robot Chicken had a version where her Grandmother in the match tells her that she has a plan. She sets her father on fire, gets her Grandmother's jewels, and retires to a beach in the Caribbean. Then it ends on an action film credit sequence.
    • In the anime Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, the Dragons plan to put on this as a play. After deciding to make the story more interesting, it mutates into a tale involving two Magical Girls, one of whom's the old man from the Japanese Kasajizo folktale, who set a mansion on fire, then team up with Kuranosuke Oishi to fight Kouzuke-no-suke Kira, who turns out to be a dragon.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: The girl is blonde in the story. Disney's short made her a brunette.
  • 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 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.
  • Afterlife Welcome: The grandmother's arrival to welcome the girl to paradise.
  • Apathetic Citizens: The average people in the story are indifferent to the point of cruelty to the girl's suffering. Two carriages nearly run her down, a little boy steals her remaining shoe, and she's in her current predicament because no one has bought any matches. They feel some pity when they find her dead, but by then it's too late.
  • Barefoot Poverty: A variation. The girl had slippers on when she left home, but they used to belong to her mother, so they were too big for her, and she lost them while running across the street. She had to continue walking barefoot in the freezing winter, which was part of the reason that she froze to death.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The little girl freezes to death. From her perspective it is a happy ending — she goes to Heaven with her grandmother, finally free from misery and suffering — but those who find her the next morning realize how tragic and unnecessary her death was.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: That little boy who stole one of the girl's slippers after she loses the other (which was too big for her feet). Apparently, he stole it with a 'joke' about using it as a cradle for his own children someday.
  • Bystander Syndrome: If a few people had bought some matches or noticed that the little girl was obviously not dressed for the cold, the story could have ended very differently.
  • Death of a Child: Part of the reason it is considered such a tragic story — the titular character freezes to death on New Year's Eve.
  • Died Happily Ever After: The Little Match Girl, after having finally reunited with her grandmother in the afterlife.
  • Disneyfication: Less than you expect:
  • Dying Alone: The little girl dies alone, but by striking her matches she imagines her grandmother there with her.
  • Dying Dream: The whole second half of the story is a series of hallucinations which the little girl sees as she freezes to death. She finds these visions comforting, and at the end she strikes all her matches, desperate to hold onto them.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: The girl's family has no money. They have to make matches (a common job for the desperately poor) and she has to go out and sell them.
  • Go Out with a Smile: The Little Match Girl dies smiling because the last thing she sees is her beloved grandmother.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: The Match Girl's blonde hair highlights how young and innocent she was.
  • 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."
  • Kill the Cutie: The girl dies at the end, surrounded by all the matches she had used up while hallucinating.
  • Let's Meet the Meat: One of her dying visions is of a roast goose, which then gets up off the plate and comes over to her, fork and knife still in its breast (as in the page illustration).
  • 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.
  • New Year Has Come: The story takes place on New Year's Eve, and the girl is found the next day.
  • Snow Means Death: The girl dies of exposure on a snowy night.
  • 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.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: The girl talks to the image she sees of her grandmother, asking her to take her with her.
  • Together in Death: The Little Match Girl and her grandmother reunite in Heaven.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The innocent Little Match Girl dies and is carried to heaven by her loving grandmother. 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