I just had to revisit this one.
It made sense at the time. This is, after all, the story that set me off in the first place. There was a sense of symmetry, of coming full circle, to reading it again.
I was a fool for thinking so. Now here I sit, broken and drained. This story sucks all happiness and joy out of the universe and leaves slimy grey slicks of condensed misery in its place. I'm pretty sure that if you read this story aloud at midnight on Christmas Eve, a gaping fiery inter-dimensional portal will open and a thousand Lovecraftian elder gods will issue forth to devour humanity.*
So why exactly do I feel this way?
Let's start with the first two-and-a-half paragraphs or so, which kick off the Mandatory Long Suffering right away with an excruciating description of just how miserable and unloved and how abjectly bare-bones dirt-poor this girl is:
"...well, yes, it's true she had slippers on when she left home; but what was the good of that? They were great big slippers which her mother used to wear, so you can imagine the size of them; and they both came off when the little girl scurried across the road just as two carts went whizzing by at a fearful rate."
"She hadn't sold anything all day, and no one had given her a single penny. Poor mite, she looked so downcast as she trudged along hungry and shivering."
"She didn't dare to go home, for she hadn't sold a match nor earned a single penny. Her father would beat her, and besides it was so cold at home. They had only the bare roof over their heads and the wind whistled through that although the worst cracks had been stopped up with rags and straw."
Then, of course, there's my favorite bit of unadulterated WTFery:
"The snowflakes settled on her long flaxen hair, which hung in pretty curls over her shoulder..."
Really? The girl is too poor to possess shoes or a coat, but she's not so poor that she can't have perfect flowing supermodel locks? Considering the state she's in, I would have described her hair as tangled, ragged and filthy, and possibly also lank and brittle from years of inadequate nutrition. Also, what gives, HCA? I thought pretty girls made you all huffy and judgey and eager to sic mean angels on them...
"...but you may be sure she wasn't thinking about her looks."
Oh, I see. The match girl's prettiness is special. She's not a tramp like Karen or a bitch like Inger, oh no; she's pretty like an innocent little angel, because if she was ugly or plain we wouldn't feel for her suffering as much, see? But she can't be too pretty, or aware that she's pretty, or desire to be pretty, because then she'd be a dirty proud scarlet woman and would have to be punished for it.
I know that this was probably a pretty common 19th-century attitude and Andersen might not even have been aware that he was expressing it, but...damn. I hate this. I hate this so much.
Anyway, the little girl gets so desperately cold that she risks using up one of the matches that are her livelihood to get warm, and has a strange hallucination in its light:
"Such a clear warm flame, like a little candle, as she put her hand around it--yes, and what a curious light it was! The little girl fancied she was sitting in front of a big iron stove with shiny brass knobs and brass facings, with such a warm friendly fire burning...why, whatever was that? She was just stretching out her toes, so as to warm them too, when--out went the flame, and the stove vanished."
Still desperately cold, she lights another match and kindles another vision:
"It burned up so brightly, and where the glow fell on the wall this became transparent like gauze. She could see right into the room, where the table was laid with a glittering white cloth and with delicate china; and there, steaming deliciously, was the roast goose stuffed with prunes and apples. Then, what was even finer, the goose jumped off the dish and waddled along the floor with the carving knife and fork in its back. Right up to the poor little girl it came..."
Of course the girl is too weak and hungry to flee screaming in terror from the heavily armed zombie-goose that's obviously intent on revenge against the humans who hacked its head off and shoved preserved fruit into its gutted body cavity. Fortunately for her, the match goes out before it can reach her.
The next match she lights brings a vision of a gigantic Christmas tree "bigger and prettier than the one she had seen through the glass-door of a rich merchant's house at Christmas." This also disappears when the match sputters out, and in the darkness that follows the little girl notices a shooting star:
"'That's somebody dying,' said the little girl, for her dead Grannie, who was the only one who had been kind to her, had told her that a falling star shows that a soul is going up to God."
Thanks for that extra little cheer-bomb, HCA.
As luck would have it, the next match summons Grannie in the flesh. The girl quickly lights all her matches at once, quite rightly fearing that Grannie will fade away like the other visions once the light goes out...except...this time it doesn't happen! Grannie, looking stronger and healthier and happier than ever she did in life, takes her granddaughter into her arms:
"...and together they flew in joy and splendour, up, up, to where there was no cold, no hunger, no fear."
When I first heard this story as a child, this was the part where I assumed, for a brief happy moment of blissful ignorance, that the matches actually were magical keys to another dimension where the little girl would live happily ever after with her loving Grannie.** I'm admittedly not sure about Andersen's claim that an alternate reality in which your dinner won't stay dead is legitimately fear-free, but hey, I'll take the no-cold and no-hunger bits. It's considerably better than anything the little girl has gotten out of life so far.
But alas, I was wrong. Remember that shooting star deal?
"But in the cold early morning huddled between the two houses, sat the little girl with rosy cheeks and a smile on her lips, frozen to death on the last night of the old year. The New Year dawned on the little dead body leaning there with the matches, one lot of them nearly all used up. 'She was trying to get warm,' people said. Nobody knew what lovely things she had seen and in what glory she had gone with her old Grannie to the happiness of the new year."
Translation: And a small child died a horrible and entirely preventable death on a night that symbolizes hope for the future. In the morning the very people who did absolutely nothing to help her find her body, tritely state the obvious, and get on with their day. But it's all totes cool, 'cause she's in heaven with Jesus now! After all, God is the magical janitor-in-the-sky who sweeps away all the dingy poor people so they won't make us feel all sad and guilty on Christmas. It's not like we have to take any action or responsibility for our glaring social problems or anything.
Conclusion: Reading this little tale is kind of like reaching out to pet an adorable kitten, only to discover that its fur is made of steel wool and jagged shards of broken glass. It puts forth some of the ugliest and most disturbing parts of human nature, wrapped up in a sickly-saccharine and cozy package of Christmas trees, warm fires and Grannies coming back from the dead.
In contrast, check out this passage from Oscar Wilde's tale "The Happy Prince," which seems to be a deliberate homage to this particular story:
"'In the square below,' said the Happy Prince, 'there stands a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out my other [sapphire] eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her.'
'I will stay with you one night longer,' said the Swallow, 'but I cannot pluck out your other eye. You would be quite blind then.'
'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'do as I command you.'"
The Happy Prince has more compassion and concern for a destitute child's suffering than the people in Andersen's universe. More importantly, unlike any single one of the people in Andersen's universe, he actually gets off his ass and does something about it.
Which is pretty damn sad, considering that the people in Andersen's universe are flesh-and-blood living human beings and the Happy Prince is a statue whose only real friend in the whole world is some random little bird.
*And whatever you do, don't play that wretched "Christmas Shoes" song at the same time. That song and this story may well be the two most excessively glurgey things in existence, and I'm pretty sure the sugar-shock from being exposed to both at once will kill you on the spot. I'm surprised they're not required by law to come with health warnings for diabetics.
**I'm not sure how my brain somersaulted around the inconvenient fact that the Grannie was dead. I guess I must have assumed she was like the dad in Tron, sucked into a super-awesome world of her own making one day when she carelessly fired up a magic match at the wrong time.