Well, the good news is that the protagonist of this story is not a horrible, awful brat.
The bad news is that unspeakable tortures are still visited on her, ostensibly as a way-out-of-proportion punishment for her "vanity." Also, HCA is showing disturbing signs of a creepy sadistic little-girl foot fetish.
Don't believe me? Well, let's dig right in:
"There was once a little girl, very delicate and pretty, and yet so poor that in summer she always had to go barefooted and in winter she had to wear big wooden clogs which chafed her insteps most horribly, until they were quite red."
Aaaand we come firing out of the gates already talking in great detail about a pretty little girl's feet. I think I'll cut Andersen some slack for this one, though; I imagine it's hard to avoid putting foot-related details in a story about shoes.
Anyway, this little girl, Karen, is temporarily saved from her state of nonexistent/crappy footwear possession by a kindly neighbor woman who makes a pair of shoes for her out of some old scraps of red cloth. Unfortunately for Karen, the first occasion she has to wear her new shoes is her mother's funeral. But as she's following the coffin to the graveyard, she has an unexpected stroke of luck:
"Just then a large old-looking carriage drove up with a large old-looking lady inside it. She caught sight of the little girl and felt sorry for her. So she said to the parson, 'Look here, if you let me have the little girl, I'll take care of her.'"
Yeah, that seems legit.
But HCA had to keep this story family-friendly, so Karen is mercifully not shanghaied to an underground creepy-old-carriage-lady-run brothel of kidnapped tween girls. Instead she is taught genteel Victorian pursuits such as reading and sewing. People are constantly telling her how pretty she is, so naturally she starts developing a bit of an ego. We are also told that she believes her red shoes were the reason for her newfound fortune--which is probably supposed to be a bit of foreshadowing, but seems like a pretty standard bit of kid logic to me.
Soon Karen is old enough to be confirmed, and she and the old lady go shopping for a suitable outfit for the ceremony. Unbeknownst to the old lady, Karen has been quietly obsessing over the red shoes she saw the Queen's daughter wearing on her visit to town. She is overjoyed to see that the shoemaker has a pair in stock:
"Among the shoes was a red pair just like the ones the Princess had been wearing--oh, they were pretty!...as they were a good fit, the shoes were bought. But the old lady didn't realize that they were red, for she would never have allowed Karen to go to Confirmation in red shoes."
So what exactly is wrong with going to Confirmation in red shoes? Well, according to the next paragraph, it makes all the stodgy old churchgoers ogle her feet and clutch their pearls and gasp, and it's distracting to Karen herself:
"Everybody stared at her feet and, as she walked up the aisle to the chancel, she felt that even the old pictures over the tombs...were fastening their eyes on the red shoes. It was these that filled her thoughts, when the priest laid his hand on her head and spoke of holy baptism, of the covenant with God, and of her duty to become a fully-fledged Christian."
The old lady finds out from gossip after the service that the shoes are red and forbids Karen to wear them to church again. But that does not keep Karen from taking advantage of the old lady's fading eyesight once more:
"Next Sunday there was Communion, and Karen looked at the black shoes, and she looked at the red ones...And then she looked at the red ones again--and put the red ones on."
I should pause here to note that Karen hasn't done anything that sticks out at me as being egregiously wrong at this point. Spending an entire church service daydreaming about one's appearance and disobeying the dress code set down by one's guardian are slightly obnoxious behaviors, yes, but I defy you to find a teenager who hasn't done either of these things.
So Karen goes to church in her prized red shoes once more, and on the way she has the bad fortune of encountering the creepiest character in this story:
"Karen and the old lady took the path through the cornfield, where it was a bit dusty. At the churchdoor stood an old soldier with a crutch and a funny long beard which was more red than white--in fact, it really was red. He made a deep bow to the old lady and asked if he might dust her shoes. And when Karen also put out her foot, 'My, what lovely dancing shoes!" said the soldier. 'Stay on tight when you dance!' and he gave the soles a tap with his hand...Presently everyone came out of church, and the old lady stepped into her carriage. As Karen raised her foot to get in after her, the old soldier, who was standing close by, said, 'My! What lovely dancing shoes!' Karen couldn't resist--she had to dance a few steps and, once she had started, her feet went on dancing just as though the shoes had some power over them."
Karen dances so hard that she has to be carried back to the carriage and stuffed in--and even after that she accidentally gives the old lady "some dreadful kicks" as her feet try to keep on dancing. Finally the shoes are pried off her feet and the spell is broken, and even though it's not mentioned in the text I'm pretty sure the townspeople should be clamoring for that creepy soldier to be burnt as a witch right about now. Dude's bad news.
The shoes are locked away in a cupboard when Karen and the old lady get home--I question the wisdom of not just pitching the damn things after all the trouble they caused--and remain there until Karen breaks them out for the one (in my opinion) truly punishment-worthy act she commits in this story: she leaves the death bed of the old lady who raised her to go to a ball, where she has a great time until this happens:
"Up among the trees she saw something shining. It looked like a face, and so she thought it was the moon; but it was the old soldier with the red beard, sitting and nodding and saying, 'My! What lovely dancing-shoes!'"
GAAAH! That guy again? I'm...pretty sure he's supposed to be Satan in disguise. Or just a skeevy pervert with a fetish for dancing girls in red shoes. Either way, his attentions are bad news for Karen:
"This made her frightened, and she tried to kick off the red shoes, but they still stuck on tight. She tore off her stockings, but the shoes had grown fast to her feet..."
After being forced to dance nonstop for an unspecified period of time--the text implies that it was at least several days--she finally encounters a real, live, honest-to-God angel in the church courtyard. Good! Surely the kind and merciful angel will help her break free of her bondage to the Evil One, right?
Uh...nope. This guy is actually more of the judgy asshole type of angel.
"'Dance you shall,' said the angel, 'dance in your red shoes until you are cold and pale, until your skin shrivels up like a skeleton's!'"
With that lovely little gem of good Christian mercy ringing in her ears, Karen continues to dance until she makes her way in desperation to the executioner's house and asks him to help her solve her problem in the most disturbing way possible:
"'Please don't cut off my head!' said Karen, 'for then I can't show how sorry I am for my sins. Cut off my feet with the red shoes.'"
See what I mean about the whole sadistic foot fetish thing? It's not quite as bad as The Little Mermaid (which I will not review as I can never read it all the way through without wanting to kick a hole through the wall, and I'm renting my place) but it's still freaky as shit. Also, this happens:
"...and she kissed the hand that had wielded the axe and went her way across the heath."
I...cannot begin to tell you how creepily kinky that sounds to me. Whenever I read that line, I feel like it was added into the story by a sketchy guy who has a fully stocked S&M dungeon in his basement, but can't get sex partners to save his life anymore because he has a well-known reputation for repeatedly "forgetting" safe words.
Anyway, now that that little spot of unpleasantness is over, Karen hobbles back to town on the wooden feet the executioner kindly fashioned for her, repentant of her vanity and much wiser than she was before and...completely unable to live a normal life because her own severed feet keep following her around, still dancing in the red shoes.
Unable to go to church and show her repentance because the shoes keep chasing her off, Karen goes the Mandatory Long Suffering route of working as a servant in the parsonage. Then, years of hard labor later, Douchiel the judgy angel finally decides she's suffered enough and helps her get to church:
"But instead of a sharp sword he was holding a beautiful green bough that was covered in roses, and he touched the ceiling with it so that it arched itself higher...And he touched the walls so that they grew wider...You see, the church itself had come to the poor girl in her narrow little room...they nodded to her and said: 'It was right you should come, Karen.' 'It was God's mercy!' she answered."
And then Karen promptly dies and ascends to heaven, "where there was no one to ask about the red shoes."
That's mercy in Andersen's world.
In Conclusion: I can't get over how harshly this story punishes Karen for offenses that were--for the most part--rather minor and ultimately harmed no one but herself. Yes, I will concede that ditching the dying old lady to go to the ball wasn't nice; but a teenage girl obsessing over her pretty new clothes isn't a deadly sin, it's an annoying-but-harmless normal behavior trait. And if divine wrath was visited upon every child who daydreamed at church, then I--along with my siblings, childhood friends and pretty much all of my ninety or so classmates at Catholic high school--would be more screwed than an actual screw in a screwdriver factory.
Oh, and the soldier never gets his comeuppance either. He's still out there somewhere, staring lecherously at young women's feet and awaiting his next opportunity to dust off an unsuspecting victim's shoes. Yeah, I think I'll go throw away all my crimson footware now. Can't sleep; Corporal Lucifer will make me dance.