The Little Match Girl - Taschen's The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen
--- "In the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year."
Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are timeless, and Taschen's collection is quite a beautiful book with its exquisite illustrations. The Little Match Girl is perhaps the most tragic of Andersen's work. Someone once remarked to me that fictional work lacks the epistemic value of their non-fictional counterparts. I think the person is mistaken, and The Little Match Girl is a great example.
Written in 1845, the story created such indelible imageries of homelessness and child labor - two pervasive and pressing social issues of the time - that perhaps no non-fiction can replicate in so few words. Take, for example, the short paragraphs that explained why the little match girl was bare-footed. To start, the little match girl's slippers were too big for her because they were her mum's, and she lost them while avoiding a rattling carriage. This is a simple and yet powerful contrast of the bourgeois and the peasants, and how the latter was at the mercy of the former. One of the slippers she could not find anymore, and the other was picked up by a boy who ran off with it commenting that he could use it as a cradle when he has children someday. A slipper as a substitute for a cradle. That's a pretty strong statement of the state of poverty, and what people were capable of doing for the hope of improving their lives.
The little match girl and Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire share the same theme of desire and despair. Both yearn for someone to truly care for and love them, and, in despair and hopelessness, started hallucinating, the little girl of warmth, food and her grandmother, and Blanche, a wealthy lover who would take her away and provide her a stable, new life. Both endings are heart-wrenching.
Below is a condensed version of this very sad story
The girl had lost her slippers running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by. Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's Eve.
She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her.
Her hands were almost dead with cold. She drew one match out and lighted it. How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, and it seemed like she was sitting before a great iron stove. How comfortable it was! Then the little flame went out, and the stove vanished.
She struck another match against the wall. The light fell upon the wall, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white table cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor, with a knife and fork in its breast, right over the little girl. Then the match went out, and all she could see was only the thick cold wall.
She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches. The little girl reached both her hands towards them. Then the match went out.
She looked up the sky and saw a bright sky falling down, forming a straight line of fire. "Now, someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down, a soul went up to God.
She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely. "Grandmother!" cried the child, "Oh, take me with you!, I know you will disappear when the match is burnt out, You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose, and the beautiful big Christmas tree!"
And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. Grandmother took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hungry, nor fear.