How to use these notes:

This is a simple example of how to do a close reading of a text. My notes are in black. The text in bold dark blue is the original, words which are underlined will be discussed in the notes much as you might underline or circle words as you read. Text which is underlined is not a weblink. Weblinks are in lighter blue, bold and not underlined, as in ‘see here’ immediately below. 

See here for an explanation of what we mean by close reading or critical analysis.

Notes on Close Reading or Critical Analysis of ‘The Little Match Girl’

The little match girl is not of course real but she is a powerful representative of the obscure, the excluded, the outcast, the marginalised, the unloved, the alone, the forgotten, the excluded. We don’t even know her name. She is defined by her function in society, a child who sells matches, defined by her poverty. She is treated as ‘less than’, her needs invisible to those around her because they simply do not care enough to see.

Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening—the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet. When she left home she had slippers on, it is true; but what was the good of that? They were very large slippers, which her mother had hitherto worn; so large were they; and the poor little thing lost them as she scuffled away across the street, because of two carriages that rolled by dreadfully fast.

Most terribly emphasises how very cold it is. Terrible implies something frightening.

Naked feet emphasises that her feet are bare and vulnerable, lacking the normal coverings essential in winter.

Scuffled – she can’t walk properly because her feet will be numb with cold and presumably she’s trying to keep her one remaining slipper. It’s a pitiful image.

Dreadfully fast – the outside world speeds by, not noticing the harm that it causes her.

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.

In a corner formed by two houses, of which one advanced more than the other, she seated herself down and cowered together. Her little feet she had drawn close up to her, but she grew colder and colder, and to go home she did not venture, for she had not sold any matches and could not bring a farthing of money: from her father she would certainly get blows, and at home it was cold too, for above her she had only the roof, through which the wind whistled, even though the largest cracks were stopped up with straw and rags.

Cowered suggests fear and hopelessness, the response of someone who knows that their environment is dangerous and hostile.

Home’ and ‘blows’ or physical violence should never go together. Her ‘home’ is not a warm, light and welcoming place like the ones she sees beyond the windows. The father who should protect, love and provide for her, sees her as a means of gaining income. We don’t know what he’s doing but he’s at home, leaving his hungry child out in the cold with responsibilities beyond her years (to provide income for the family) and the fear of nothing but violence at home. That fear is so great that she remains in the cold.

Straw and rags – her ‘home’ is in stark contrast to the welcoming decorated homes we see elsewhere in the text. There is no light or warmth, just large cracks where the roof should be to protect her, a roof through which the wind whistled. Clearly there is no money for repairs – the cracks are filled by what is available – straw and rags, cloth which once was clothing but now is a symbol of poverty.

Her little hands were almost numbed with cold. Oh! A match might afford her a world of comfort, if she only dared take a single one out of the bundle, draw it against the wall, and warm her fingers by it. She drew one out. “Rischt!” – how it blazed, how it burnt! It was a warm, bright flame, like a candle, as she held her hands over it: it was a wonderful light. It seemed really to the little maiden as though she were sitting before a large iron stove, with burnished brass feet and a brass ornament at top. The fire burned with such blessed influence; it warmed so delightfully. The little girl had already stretched out her feet to warm them too; butthe small flame went out, the stove vanished: she had only the remains of the burnt-out match in her hand.

A match might afford her a world of comfort – we see the young girl’s imagination here as she dares to hope for some comfort.

Rischt!” – onomatopoeia – the word suggests the sound, like the tick tock of a clock.

Blessed is a religious term, meaning an act of favour from a benevolent deity. This tiny word suggests some possible hope.

The small flame went out, the stove vanished – it was only ever a tiny flame, offering a very short respite; her imaginary stove vanishes with the dying match.

Only the remains of the burnt-out matchthe match here is an image of burnt-out hope, something beautiful but not strong enough to survive its environment.

She rubbed another against the wall: it burned brightly, and where the light fell on the wall, there the wall became transparent like a veil, so that she could see into the room. On the table was spread a snow-white tablecloth; upon it was a splendid porcelain service, and the roast goose was steaming famously with its stuffing of apple and dried plums. And what was still more capital to behold was, the goose hopped down from the dish, reeled about on the floor with knife and fork in its breast, till it came up to the poor little girl; when—the match went out and nothing but the thick, cold, damp wall was left behind. She lighted another match. Now there she was sitting under the most magnificent Christmas tree: it was still larger, and more decorated than the one which she had seen through the glass door in the rich merchant’s house.

It burned brightly – the match continues to function as an image of hope, the brief warmth and light feeding her imagination, opening up a parallel world where she has access to warmth, light, food.

Splendid porcelain service – expensive – the sort of dinnerware that would be used in times of celebration.

Roast goose was steaming famously with its stuffing of apple and dried plums – these are popular images of festive food.

Capital – in this context it means splendid or delightful. 

The goose hopped down from the dish. This is likely to strike a 21st century UK reader as grotesque. A few notes: Victorians were less sentimental about animals bred for food than we are and a goose was more likely to have been seen as delicious. This tale was written for children and children do see things differently They can somehow engage imaginatively with the surreal without questioning it. I was quite shocked to see a Disney cartoon recently where Donald Duck and his nephews (also ducks 🙂 ) were enjoying eating a turkey for Christmas! Context is everything. Disney is clearly not promoting cannibalism. Children will identify with Donald and his nephews without asking themselves about Donald’s potential kinship with the roast turkey, which will simply remind them of images of fine Christmas lunches. Nonetheless there is something rather disturbing about the poor goose reeling about (indicating pain to me as a sensitive 21st century reader but children may well be inclined to laugh as it staggers around) and coming up to the little girl.

She strikes a match and is mesmerised by the beauty and warmth of the flame. Her imagination takes hold of her and she has a blissful moment when she almost feels as if she too is by a cheerful warming fire, then under a beautiful Christmas tree, marvelling at the lights.

Magnificent Christmas tree – a decorated Christmas tree is perhaps the ultimate symbol for Christmas and New Year cheer.

Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-coloured pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands towards them when—the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven; one fell down and formed a long trail of fire.

Thousands of lights and gaily-coloured pictures. The little girl is drawn to the coloured lights, which represent hope but her only experience of such lights has been seeing them through a window – a window onto someone else’s world. She can see this world but she cannot be part of it. She has to remain outside the window, which shows her what life can be like but not for her.

Stretched out her hands – instinctively she is drawn to light and beauty so she stretches out her hands as if to take hold of the beauty but the images die with the match.

Rose higher and higher – the rhythm of the text (higher and higher) emphasises the rising lights which draw her eyes upward to the heavens and the stars. Her thoughts are also drawn upwards, as she focuses now not on the beauty of the light but on the falling star.

Someone is just dead!” said the little girl; for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now no more had told her, that when a star falls, a soul ascends to God.

Someone is just dead!” The ‘someone’ is her, about to die.

The only person who had loved her … now no more. The reader feels the profound sense of loss here. The little girl was loved but only by one person and that person, her grandmother, is ‘no more’ ie she has died.

When a star falls, a soul ascends to God. Grandmothers are ideally figures of love, nurture and protection but the grandmother took those qualities with her when she died and the little girl is now alone. Yet the grandmother has left something of value for her – hope – she has taught her granddaughter about death and life after death in heaven.

She drew another match against the wall: it was again light, and in the lustre there stood the old grandmother, so bright and radiant, so mild, and with such an expression of love.

It was again light. Once more the lighting of the match symbolises hope in the young child, for a little warmth, a little beauty. The match is all she has.

Lustre, bright and radiant This time she sees her grandmother, surrounded by ‘lustre’ (a word suggesting beauty and bright light) but also the source of light – she is ‘bright and radiant’, a word which suggests that light radiates from her. The grandmother stands in physical light but also has an inner light which radiates outwards. Unlike the girl, who is crouched, cowering in weakness, the grandmother stood – she is standing, a position of strength.

Grandmother!” cried the little one. “Oh, take me with you!You go away when the match burns out; you vanish like the warm stove, like the delicious roast goose, and like the magnificent Christmas tree!” And she rubbed the whole bundle of matches quickly against the wall, for she wanted to be quite sure of keeping her grandmother near her. And the matches gave such a brilliant light that it was brighter than at noon-day: never formerly had the grandmother been so beautiful and so tall. She took the little maiden on her arm, and both flew in brightness and in joy so high, so very high and then above was neither cold, nor hunger, nor anxiety—they were with God.

The matches burn out and she is left with the cold dead used-up match matches but also a hint of hope, as she recalls her deceased ‘grandmother, the only person who had loved her’. Take me with you! The child’s longing for the loving figure of her grandmother is clear here.

You go away when the match burns out. Clearly the little girl associates images of light, warmth and beauty with her grandmother. She is frustrated by brief glimpses of the loving person she longs for – images which last only as long as the light of the lit matches.

She rubbed the whole bundle of matches. In one last act of desperation the little girl gives all that she has to feel closer to her grandmother.

Brighter than at noon-day. The little girl’s plea is granted in a crescendo of light. The light imagery becomes stronger and stronger, the growing light reflecting the increased strength and beauty of the figure of the grandmother.

So beautiful and so tall She is not just standing here, she is standing ‘tall’, she is not described as old here but ‘beautiful’. This is not an old, tired figure but a youthful strong one. 

Took the little maiden – the little girl gets what she longs for – the presence of her grandmother and an escape from her life.

Flew in brightness and in joy so high, so very high – flying represents escape, freedom. They fly in bright light, here specifically associated with joy (a deeper emotion than happiness); ‘high, so very high’ – the language itself rises along with the characters, encouraging the reader to follow their rise both physically as they fly away and into increasing joy.

Neither cold, nor hunger, nor anxiety—they were with God. The end of this paragraph echoes the well known verse about Heaven in the Bible: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain’(Revelation 21:4).

But in the corner, at the cold hour of dawn, sat the poor girl, with rosy cheeks and with a smiling mouth, leaning against the wall—frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. Stiff and stark sat the child there with her matches, of which one bundle had been burnt. “She wanted to warm herself,” people said. No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendour in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.

But (this word stands in stark contrast to the warmth and beauty of the last paragraph) in the corner (in the margins, out of the way), at the cold hour of dawn (dawn is described here as cold and unfriendly, rather than the hopeful start of a new day). Dawn on New Year’s day should be a time of hope. The beautiful images of the last but one paragraph lead to a devastating picture – a small child, dead from the cold, still forlornly holding her matches … ‘stiff and stark’.

The poor girl – she is poor literally because she had no money but also poor in the sense that her life was miserable.

With rosy cheeks and with a smiling mouth (pink cheeks suggest warmth and well-being, underlined by the fact that she is described as smiling).

Frozen to death – the juxtaposition of a happy image of a rosy cheeked smiling child with the brutal phrase ‘frozen to death’ is stark and emphasises the horror of the child’s death.

Stiff and stark – the words are simple but bitterly effective in conveying the brutal reality of a frozen child.

She wanted to warm herself,” people said. They notice her all too late, after her death.

This is not a jolly Dickensian tale where Scrooge learns his lesson. People see her, realise that she must have been cold but it’s too late. We don’t know if the passers-by who finally see her actually change. If they do learn it will be a bitter lesson to live with. All we know is that the child dies.

Splendour, joys of a new year. Having given us a cold, stark picture of the dead child in a dusty street corner, the narrative changes direction again. Finally people see the child but they only see part of the truth. Her physical death is shocking. That tiny silent frozen figure tells a brutal tale. But that’s no longer her reality. She and her grandmother are enjoying a splendour and joy in Heaven that these people cannot imagine.

Andersen conveys the tragedy of her death starkly but his focus is on the little girl’s future, not the pain of her past. How? The answer is given as she dies: ‘they were with God.’ This passage looks to a future described in the Bible: ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain’(Revelation 21:4).

Victorians would have been culturally familiar at least with the Bible’s teaching that Heaven is where God’s people go to join Him, to rest. This passage raises the question of whether these passers-by should have some understanding of Heaven. Both the grandmother and the little girl looked forward to Heaven after this life. The passers-by seem to focus on the material world – there is no indication of them thinking about God.

The little match girl stands as a powerful image of child exploitation and abuse, with relevance way beyond the literal practice of sending children out to work in awful conditions (this was also the era of child chimney sweeps and factory workers in the UK).

The language is deliberately simple, at times starkly so. This reflects the child subject but also the intended reader – children and of course the adults who read to them – but it also brings the tragedy into sharp focus. The truth here is brutal and the simple language emphasises this with devastating clarity.

The power of this story lies partly in the simplicity and immediacy of its language, the unmistakable emotional pull on the reader. The story focuses on fire, warmth, light. These things are powerful images of cosy family homes as well as literal needs – if humans are deprived of light and warmth we die. So they operate on a literal level but also a symbolic one. This child has been deprived of the light and warmth of love as well as the physical deprivation which causes her to die.

This story is not a comfortable read. The adults in this narrative don’t see or pay attention to the child’s needs but at least some of them have power to change things – this is implicit in words like ‘warmth’, which they could have provided. She knows what she needs but cannot provide it. The child doesn’t have power to change things. Andersen doesn’t imply that if you work hard enough you can change anything. This child has worked and she cannot change her situation.

There’s something compelling about the simple dignity of this little figure, a quiet challenge which demands a response from the reader: how would we respond to such a figure? The little match girl is ignored or abused by those around her, let down by her family and society. She goes to be with a loving God, a heavenly father who will never fail her, but her death, while a liberation for her, is a damning indictment on those left behind – the adults in the story and, by extension, the culture and the reader.

Andersen text courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.

You can read the original story without my notes here.

For an explanation of close reading or textual analysis, see here.