Saturday, January 5, 2008

Little Match Girl Redux

Now I ain't much fer fancy book learnin' but it occurs to me that "The Little Match Girl" is a classic parable. Parables are meant to illustrate profound or abstract truths with relatively simple word pictures or stories. Usually the characters are nameless as in this case, because they are more symbolic than narrative.

Our main character is the girl...we know she is little, cold, poor, tattered, abused, motherless, weak and likely malnourished. She is the ultimate symbol of innocence and helplessness. You could not find an object more worthy of charity....she has a father who is abusive, neglectful, and cruel. He has failed in his duty to his daughter in the most basic ways, by not providing for her life & safety and emotional well being.

Society (albeit 19th century society) is also implicit here because she dies selling matches at night to passers by on the open street who obviously have no pity on her plight or who (like us perhaps?), just assume somebody else will intervene to help. I can conjecture that she is rather plain looking because the world values physical beauty and would have more likely responded if she were exceptionally cute.

The matches are of course, the fleeting vestiges of light which itself is symbolic of life, heaven and ultimately of God. In their illumination, she sees her deceased grandmother, a symbol of the only love she has known in her life. Granny is hope and acceptance personified.

Our little one also sees an oven symbolizing (warmth), food (sustenance), a magnificently lit evergreen Christmas tree (regeneration), and a shooting star which the author reveals as prophetic of what will soon happen to her.

The whole context is set on a cold & windy (life's tribulations) New Year's Eve which represents among other things: transition, a fresh start, and the wonder of what will that things will get better.

In my opinion, this is no mere exercise in nihilistic story telling. Oddly enough, that kind of cynicism is more in vogue in our modern world where we have so much. Even the poor in today's western civilization live much better than the majority of the folks who lived in Andersen's 1800's. The author was very familiar with poverty (see his bio here) but he is not necessarily focusing on the tragedy of her short miserable life, but the fact that she is given hope that as her last match is extinguished, she would find herself in a place, "where there's no cold, no hunger, no fear."