At first, things seem to be going well, but then the time comes for Karen to be confirmed. When shopping for new shoes for the occasion, Karen, who has developed a vain streak, sets her eyes on a beautiful red leather pair that had been made for a count's daughter but had not fit her, and that are just like those she has seen on a young Princess when her mother the Queen had taken her through the land. The old lady buys them for her, however, she has poor eyesight and does not see that they are red, otherwise, she would never have let Karen wear something so gaudy to church. At her confirmation, Karen does not pay attention to the service, thinking of nothing except her new shoes. People notice, and gossip about it. When the old lady hears that Karen has worn red shoes to church, she tells her that it was naughty of her to do this and that in the future she is to wear her old black shoes to church. The next week, though, Karen puts on her red shoes anyway. It is the week of holy communion and again, Karen thinks only of her shoes and does not participate actively in the service. This time, however, a mysterious stranger had met Karen and the old lady at the church door: a crippled old soldier with a long red beard. He had offered to dust off the old lady's shoes and when Karen had put out her foot as well he had commented, "Oh, what beautiful shoes for dancing," and had then said to them, "Never come off when you dance," as he tapped the sole of each of them with his hand. Indeed, on leaving the church, the soldier meets them again and again says, "Oh, what beautiful shoes for dancing!" just as they are boarding the coach. Karen can’t resist trying a few steps, but soon she cannot stop dancing. The coachman has to chase her, catch her, and lift her into the coach, where she keeps trying to dance, kicking the old lady in the process. It is only when she takes her shoes off that her legs calm down. The red shoes are taken away from her and put into a cupboard.
Soon after, the old lady takes ill and is not expected to live. It falls upon Karen to nurse her, but then she gets invited to a ball and reckons that there would be nothing wicked in going. Of course, she puts on her beloved red shoes. But when she gets to the ball, the shoes take control of Karen's feet again and this time there is no stopping them. They soon make her dance out into the wide world for days on end, taking her all over the place and physically wasting her. She dances into the dark woods, where she comes across the old soldier again. He ironically repeats, "Oh, what beautiful shoes for dancing." When she dances up to the church, she finds an angel sternly guarding its doors, sword in hand, who threatens Karen that she will dance until her flesh shrivels down to the skeleton and that she must knock on the door when she comes somewhere where proud and vain children live, until they are afraid of her. Karen will have to live through physical and emotional torment in order to achieve adequate repentance for her sins.
This gruesome didactic story, written at a time when Andersen was experiencing an increase in religious sentiment, is notoriously difficult to adapt satisfactorily. Even if some of the gorier details are omitted, there is little in it that could be considered optimistic or positive enough to present to children today. Nowadays, it is more popular as a historical curiosity for adults to analyze. Among its better-known adaptations is the 1948 (adult) film of the same name. The original can be read here.
Andersen's more obscure The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf about a cruel and haughty girl who sinks bodily into Hell and does penance there is a companion piece, as is Anne Lisbeth, a story about a proud woman haunted by the soul of her son, whom she had abandoned in order to care for a nobleman's son.
This work contains examples of the following tropes:
- An Aesop: Don't let the vanity of this world become more important than caring about God, your family, and the world to come.
- All Women Love Shoes: The story is built around this trope. Not having proper shoes in her early years probably contributed to Karen's red shoe fetish.
- Ambiguously Human: The mysterious soldier may indeed be just a crippled old veteran. It seems more likely, however, that he has an otherworldly origin. He could, for example, be a demon tempting Karen. He would certainly seem to be the one who curses Karen's shoes into forcing her to keep dancing.
- Animate Inanimate Object: The shoes not only compel the poor heroine into an Involuntary Dance, they dance off with her severed feet after she has them amputated.
- The Atoner: Karen becomes this once her feet are struck off along with the red shoes. She spends the rest of the story working on achieving sufficient, genuine repentance.
- Body Horror: In order for Karen to stop dancing, the executioner has to cut her feet off. As if this were not enough, the red shoes dance off with her severed feet and later reappear to remind Karen of her sin.
- Clingy MacGuffin: The coachman is able to get the titular shoes off Karen's feet the first time she starts dancing uncontrollably, but they're permanently stuck the second time she puts them on.
- Died Happily Ever After: Implied. At the church service that Karen has been transported to following her repentance, her heart breaks and her soul travels along a shaft of sunlight to Heaven, "where no one questioned her about the red shoes".
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Karen has to suffer both physical and psychological punishment and genuinely realize the error of her ways and repent of her sin before she can be redeemed.
- Family-Unfriendly Violence: The heroine has her feet chopped off because her cursed shoes won't come off and won't stop dancing.
- Good Is Not Soft: The moral guardians and responsible adults in this story display or lack this trope to various degrees:
- The angel is a straight example. He threatens Karen with destruction while her shoes are overpowering her and blocks her path into the church, taunting her with a sword. But when she attains genuine repentance, he appears to her in a more compassionate guise, bearing a rose branch.
- The executioner falls somewhere between this and Good Is Not Nice. When the shoes dance Karen to his house, he says that he cuts off the heads of bad people and that he feels his ax beginning to quiver. Karen asks him to cut off her feet instead. He complies. Then, however, he makes her a pair of wooden feet and some crutches (and teaches her a hymn sung by repentant prisoners).
- The old lady subverts this trope. She forbids Karen to wear the red shoes to church, but proves incompetent in enforcing this rule and Karen outright defies her. The first time the shoes took control of her feet the old lady could have had them discarded or burned. Instead, the shoes are merely placed in the cupboard, leaving Karen to put them on again when the opportunity arose.
- The pastor and his family avert it completely. On taking Karen in as their servant, they accept her as a member of their household, appear to be genuinely kind people and are not seen to preach to her, but rather to let her come round to full repentance at her own pace.
- Happily Adopted: Subverted. Karen and her foster mother don't see eye-to-eye on the issue of wearing red shoes to church. Karen doesn't seem to have warmed up to the old lady too much, and leaves the latter on her deathbed to go to a ball when she should have been nursing her.
- Involuntary Dance: The punishment of the red shoes.
- Irony: All the protagonist wanted to do was dance. Then it was literally all she could do.
- No Name Given: Apart from Karen, none of the characters are referred to by their actual name.
- Plot Hole: A minor one may occur the first time the shoes overpower Karen's feet. It happens when she and the old lady are entering the coach after church communion. However, the author specifically states that they had walked to the service through a cornfield. Of course, the coachman could have come to pick them up after the service, but wouldn't he have been more likely to drive them there and back and attend church with them? Or perhaps they really preferred to walk on the way there?
- Red Is Violent: From the very beginning of the story, there are references to red things that invoke and imply negative ideas and connotations. When Karen is poor, her clogs make her ankles red. The red shoes are symbolic of worldly pride. The ominous old soldier has a beard "more red than white", and finally, when the shoes force Karen to dance, she is dragged through thorn and briar that scratch her until she bleeds. Eventually, the curse can only be lifted by shedding further blood.
- Redemption Equals Death: Once Karen has achieved genuine contrition, she is transported to the Sunday church service. She is so moved by the experience of being there again that her heart breaks and her soul is lifted up to Heaven.
- Spared by the Adaptation: Pretty much any modern re-telling has to soften the story and omit the more morbid elements, in particular by having Karen find a less painful way of removing the title Clingy MacGuffin and ending the story with her still alive. A version featured in the Fairy Tale Classics Anime series makes (more or less) the whole sequence from where the shoes take control of her feet, across the death of her foster mother, and to her own ascent to Heaven, All Just a Dream and both she and the old lady live Happily Ever After in the end.
- Scare 'Em Straight: With the threat of gruesome divine punishment no less.
- Vanity Is Feminine: Type 1. This is a major character flaw of Karen's, and it brings about her downfall.