Earlier in the week, I decided to write a post about “The Red Shoes” by Hans Christian Anderson For #FairyTaleFriday. I remembered it as a grotesque tale. Somehow, I had this image of a skeleton in a ponytail dancing in red shoes. it was humorous, in a way.

But when I re-read the story…


It’s a doozy.

It’s a tale of the dangers of vanity. The dangers of taking pleasure in anything other than hard work and God. Ultimately, it’s a story of redemption, but one that the main character pays for dearly. Unlike “The White Cat” and Madame D’Aulnoy, this story is not meant for entertainment, but to teach a serious lesson to LITTLE GIRLS!

The Play-by-Play

These are its major plot points:

  • There was once a little girl, “very nice” and “very pretty” but so poor she had to run around barefoot. Until…
  • A kindly old woman shoemaker gives her a pair of poorly made red shoes.
  • The little girl, we now learn that she actually has a name and it’s Karen, wears the shoes to her mother’s funeral.
  • An old lady sees her at the funeral and takes her home. Karen thinks it’s because of the red shoes, but the old lady hates them and has them burned. She learns to read and sew and, oh yeah, her mirror talks to her and tells her she’s beautiful. Would it be a fairy tale without a talking mirror?
  • A princess comes to town and Karen sees her pretty RED shoes.
  • Karen and the old woman go shopping for her confirmation and she buys a pair of red shoes similar to the ones the princess wore. The old woman can’t tell they’re red, but when they go to church, all of the churchgoers rat out Karen to the old woman. Oh, and this is important, a soldier taps the shoes and tells them that as long as the girl wears them, they shall dance.
  • This is when Karen gets into trouble. She can’t stop dancing! She kicks the old lady in her carriage. When she gets home, they put the shoes in a cupboard. But the old woman soon becomes ill. Karen gets an invite to a ball and decides that the old hag won’t live much longer anyway and so, instead of nursing her, she goes to the ball. She dances all night, but can’t stop this time, and can’t take off her shoes. They’ve grown attached to her feet. She dances out of the gate to town and into the dark woods. By day and night, she dances. Through thorn patches and waste lands. She meets an angel and he curses her to dance always and forever.
  • Finally, she arrives at the house of the executioner and begs him to cut off her feet. He does. The shoes dance away with her feet inside. He makes her wooden feet and crutches.
  • She tries to go back to church to repent but the shoes and her feet block the way. So she begs the pastor’s wife for relief. She becomes a servant to her. She is “faithful” and “serious.”
  • She gives up all her hopes and dreams and vanity and God forgives her…and SHE DIES! Her heart breaks open and her soul travels to heaven and no one questions her about the shoes.


I’m glad I re-read this story — although this time I felt it belonged at a hard-knocks Sunday school rather than as a bedtime story. It’s amazing what context will do for you.

The tale is loaded. It’s obviously a cautionary tale about vanity, but the feminist inside me can’t help to see another a tale. A tale of female ambition.

We have a little girl who’s perfectly nice at the beginning of the story. She has nothing, not even a pair of shoes, and she has to depend on charity to stay alive.

Along the way, she wants a pair of red shoes. Remember, she has nothing else, and this is all she wants. She wants shoes just like the princess. She dares to wear them to church, to admire them, to admire herself, and what does she get for it? She gets cursed by an old soldier!

Sure, she makes some mistakes. She goes to a ball when she’s supposed to be taking care of the sick old lady. What girl, coming from nothing, wouldn’t be tempted to such an event? The ball represents a better life for her. Possibility. A future.

But in this case it is her undoing. She pays for it with her two feet and the damnation of her soul, essentially. She is only able to redeem herself by giving up her ambition and herself entirely. By the end she is personality-less…and then she is dead. The princess gets to keep her feet and her pretty red shoes, as far as we know, and I’m thinking that’s because she’s not trying to go beyond her station. Not that she has far to go…

I’m not sure how I feel about Hans Christian Anderson. I find his tales the least satisfying of the popular fairy tale writers. Many of them leave me feeling vaguely unsettled at best. Have you read “The Little Mermaid”…? Yeah. I’ll leave you to it.

Til next time! Enjoy!

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