Example Close Reading or Critical Analysis of The Little Match Girl

Close reading or critical analysis is a key skill in reading but how do we do it?

Students often ask for examples so here goes … a simple example of how to do a close reading of a text. The text in dark blue is the original, words in bold will be discussed in the notes – it’s the equivalent of underling or circling words as you read. My notes are in black. What follows is an extract. You can read the full version here: https://www.english-lecturer.com/notes-on-the-little-match-girl/. Good luck with your own close reading!


One slipper was nowhere to be found; the other had been laid hold of by an urchin, and off he ran with it; he thought it would do capitally for a cradle when he some day or other should have children himself. So the little maiden walked on with her tiny naked feet, that were quite red and blue. She carried a quantity of matches in an old apron, and she held a bundle of them in her hand. Nobody had bought anything of her the whole livelong day; no one had given her a single farthing.

Urchin – street ‘urchins’ were children who begged and sometimes stole to survive. In that sense the two children are in competition as they try to survive, she by selling matches, he by stealing. There is no romanticisation of the poor here. The boy is also poor, although he is stronger than she is – he is able to run while she can barely walk. The match girl is treated badly by the rich but also by the poor.

It is particularly shocking that he takes the slipper which she needs desperately not because he needs it but because he may want it one day. The image of a slipper acting as a cradle is of course ludicrous – he just wants it.

Little maiden emphasises how young she is.

Tiny – the repetition of little and tiny in the text emphasise how vulnerable she is.

Red and blue – from cold. It’s a striking image with bold colour, emphasising how raw her feet are.

Nobody, anything, no one, single, all emphasise that she was given nothing.

Whole and livelong emphasise that the day felt long to this small child – a day with plenty of time for someone to help but no one did. A farthing was the smallest coin in Victorian England; there was a half farthing in the mid 19thc but the image is still of the smallest coin, with the lowest value. People were not prepared to give her even that.

She crept along trembling with cold and hunger—a very picture of sorrow, the poor little thing!

The repetition of poor, little and tiny in the text emphasise how vulnerable she is.

Crept and trembling give the impression of something small and afraid, further emphasising her vulnerability.

The flakes of snow covered her long fair hair, which fell in beautiful curls around her neck; but of that, of course, she never once now thought. From all the windows the candles were gleaming, and it smelt so deliciously of roast goose, for you know it was New Year’s Eve; yes, of that she thought.

Flakes of snow sets a gentle and peaceful tone for this paragraph – it’s what the reader expects from a New Year’s tale.

Beautiful curls – the description of her curls reflects Victorian sentimental ideals of beauty and innocence.

From all the windows (the whole world seems to be celebrating), the candles were gleaming, another traditional image of light, hope and seasonal cheer – part of family celebrations.

It smelt so deliciously. Andersen appeals to the sense of sight but also smell to give us a vibrant picture of a world celebrating the coming of the New Year.

The little girl’s lonely suffering is juxtaposed with the trappings of New Year celebrations, with food and warmth and light and family gatherings. Somehow people are so busy getting ready to celebrate with their families that they don’t see this little girl.

See here for full version: https://www.english-lecturer.com/notes-on-the-little-match-girl/

See also http://www.english-lecturer.com/what-is-textual-analysis-or-close-reading/