Study Guide

Vain Little Girls in Andersen's Fairy Tales

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Vain Little Girls

We have a feeling that Andersen woke up every morning, looked at his reflection in the mirror, and came up with ways to instill fear in the hearts of vain little girls.

Not convinced? Just have a look at "The Red Shoes." The main character, Karen, is a poor girl whose mother dies. A wealthy widow adopts her, and apparently Karen cleans up real nice: "Everyone agreed that she was a very pretty child" (35.5). Once she gets a pair of beautiful red shoes, she gets really full of herself and even wears them to church (where the point is to worship God, not to show off your fine footwear). But then Karen abandons the widow, who's sick, to wear her shoes out to a ball. Because shoes. They are the ones that are truly worthy of worship!

Well, guess what? An old soldier curses her to dance endlessly, and so she does. She's on track to dance until she dies, when she asks an executioner to cut off her feet. He does, but her feet keep on dancing anyway, still wearing the red shoes—ew.

It's not until Karen hits rock bottom and prays for God's help that she's finally free of the red shoes: "The sunshine filled Karen's heart til it so swelled with peace and happiness that it broke. Her soul flew on a sunbeam up to God; and up there no one asked her about the red shoes" (35.48). Because having your feet chopped off and then dying young totally is a happy ending.

If you'd like another example, look no farther than "The Girl Who Stepped On Bread." The main character of this tale, Inger, also has some serious vanity issues: "Pretty she was and prettily was she dressed, and prouder and prouder she became" (91.7). Yes, that should be setting off alarm bells in your head. After all, pride is one of those seven deadly sins everyone's talking about.

And Inger is so proud that she throws a loaf of bread that's supposed to go to her poor parents into a puddle just so she can step on it and not dirty her fine clothes. This act causes her to sink down into the mud, and become a statue in hell. And if that's not bad enough, we find out that now, she's neither pretty nor prettily dressed:

All her clothes were so covered with mire that she looked as if she were dressed in mud. A snake had got into her hair and hung down her neck… It was all very unpleasant. (91.20)

Oh, she's also continually starving, but because she's frozen, she can't reach the bread that's under her foot.

Think Andersen is done punishing poor Inger for her self-involvement? Nope. We learn that Inger can hear everything people say about her, including all the nasty gossip about how she disappeared underground because of her pride. At first this just pisses her off: "her soul became as hard or even harder than her shell… And her soul was filled with hatred against all other human beings" (91.31). So, we don't feel that bad for her at this point.

But Inger does finally realize the errors of her prideful ways: "Her tortured soul thought back upon its life on earth and remembered every deed it had done. The soul trembled and wept the tears that Inger had never shed. The girl understood that her folly had been her own" (91.43). So it's only once Inger realizes what a brat she'd always been that she has any chance in hell (sorry, that was corny) at escaping her fate and getting into heaven.

So, yeah, it's cool that Inger and Karen both eventually get into heaven, but they sure have to suffer a lot first. Again, we wonder: what exactly did Andersen have against vain little girls? Was he the ugly duckling of his own life story? Is Andersen's penchant for punishing the proud a reflection of the less-feminist, more religious times in which these tales were written? Or is something else going on here?

We're not sure, but these sound like some pretty awesome "getting to you know you" questions for your next first date. Go get 'em, tiger!

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