First published in 1845, "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Anderson is a story about a young impoverished girl trying to sell matches on the street on New Year's Eve who is afraid to go home without selling enough for fear of an abusive father.
This tragic short story paints a dismal picture of life for the poor in the 1840s but also carries with it that grim hope of a fairy tale with visions of huge Christmas trees and shooting stars appearing before the young match girl-her dying wishes and dreams.
The Harsh Realities of Poverty
Anderson's "The Little Match Girl" is not far from classic fairy tales by the Brothers' Grimm-they both share a certain darkness to their content, a melancholic and an often morbid obsession with consequences for actions or for merely existing. It's an often studied piece in academic circles.
In "The Little Match Girl," Anderson's titular character dies by the end of the piece, but the story is much more about the perseverance of hope. In these sparse, unforgiving lines, Hans Christian Andersen packs so much simple beauty and hope: The girl is cold, barefoot, and poor-without a friend in the world (it seems)-but she is not without hope.
She dreams of warmth and light, of a time when she will be surrounded by love, and filled with happiness. It's so far outside of the realm of her current experience that most of us would have long since given up such dreams, but she holds on.
Still, the harsh realities of poverty haunt the little girl's reality-she must sell a match for fear of being beaten by her father upon returning home and this fear propels her to stay outside all night, which ultimately leads to her death by hypothermia.
Lessons and Adaptations
Thanks to its brevity and delicate approach to the topic of death, "The Little Match Girl" serves as a great tool, like most fairy tales, to teach children important lessons about the tougher topics in life like death and loss as well as social issues like poverty and charity.
We may not want to think about the horrible things that happen every day, and it's certainly hard to explain such things to our children. It does seem, though, that we can often learn the greatest lessons from the children-in how they deal with the most hopeless situations. In those final moments, this little girl sees visions of splendor. She sees hope. But, her passing-punctuated by the shooting of a star in the night sky-is tragic and troubling.
Fortunately, there have also been many adaptations of this short piece by Hans Christian Anderson including several animated and live action short films which provide an easier way for children to access the themes of this brilliant short work of fiction.