Thursday’s Tale: The Red Shoes

Illustration by Thomas Vilhelm Pedersen, 1849
Illustration by Thomas Vilhelm Pedersen, 1849

“The Red Shoes” was written by Hans Christian Andersen and first published in 1845. Andersen’s fairy tales tend to have a distinctively moralistic and Christian bent, but usually I enjoy them for the imagery and phrases. “The Red Shoes,” however, may be my least favorite of the fairy tales I’ve read.

A pretty peasant girl named Karen is so poor she has to go barefoot in the summer until an old shoemaker’s wife takes pity on her and makes her a rough pair of shoes from red cloth. On the day of her mother’s funeral, Karen is adopted by a rich old lady who promises the clergyman to take care of her, but she grows up vain and spoiled. The old woman burned the red shoes, but Karen tricks her adoptive mother into buying her a new pair of fancy red shoes fit for a princess. Karen repeatedly wears them to church, without paying attention to the service. She ignores the anger of her adopted mother and disapproving stares she receives for wearing red shoes in church. A mysterious soldier appears and remarks about what beautiful dancing shoes Karen has. Karen does a small dance but then can’t stop until the shoes are taken off and put in a cupboard.

Karen’s adoptive mother becomes ill, but instead of staying with her the entire time, Karen attends a party wearing her red shoes.  Soon after, Karen begins to dance and she can’t stop. The shoes take over; she cannot control them and they are stuck to her feet. The shoes continue to dance, through fields and meadows, rain or shine, night and day, and through brambles and briars that tear at Karen’s limbs. She can’t even attend her adoptive mother’s funeral.

An angel appears to her, bearing a sword, and condemns her to dance even after she dies, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen begs for mercy but the red shoes take her away before she hears the angel’s reply.

Karen finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so but the shoes continue to dance, even with Karen’s amputated feet inside them. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches, and teaches her the criminals’ psalm. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church in order for the people to see her. However her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking of herself at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way.

Karen gets a job as a maid in the parsonage, but when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. Instead she sits alone at home and prays to God for help. The angel reappears, now bearing a spray of roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: it is as though the church comes home to her and her heart becomes so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, and no one there mentions the red shoes.

Isn’t that an awful little story? I know being stuck dancing in shoes is a theme used in several fairy tales, but poor little Karen just wanted pretty shoes and loved to be seen in them. I realize Christianity was a powerful cultural influence in the 19th century and that is evident in the story. The church is a focal point throughout tale and the themes of redemption and temptation are not even close to subtle. I know that church was a much more solemn occasion then, but to be condemned by God to dance forever is harsh. And then when she finally realizes the “error of her ways” and becomes a devoted, pious girl, she dies. Of course, I think that Andersen sees this as a happy ending. Heaven is what we should strive for and she is allowed to go, right then and there. Still I don’t like it.

You can read the story several places on-line, including at Sur la Lune.

Are there any fairy tales you particularly dislike?

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.

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