A human life is a story told by God

Hans Christian Andersen
Illustration by Rachel Isadora

Most fairy tales usually end with the phrase, they lived happily ever after. But some fairy tales, end in darker dead ends, in a dreadful balance act between the narrative of a fairy tale and the reality, where ultimately the fairy tale prevails. The little matchstick girl by Hans Christian Anderson falls in the latter class of fairytales.

It is a story of high contrasts and juxtaposed ironies about a young, neglected girl desperately trying to sell matchsticks in the cold ruthless winter. Neither the complementary paradox of the cold weather and the matchsticks nor that of extreme poverty and the abundance of Christmas could change the fate of the girl, for she escapes into the realm of mysteries.

The story presents the gripping grimace of life as a long spell of sleep in which death blossoms like dreams. The wish fulfillment through the visions revealed by rubbing the matchsticks, namely, the stove, the goose and the Christmas tree, are all expressions of the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.

It is at this tipping point that the little girl transcends herself into the welcoming hands of her grandmother. In death, as much as it appears sad to the reader, the little girl feels secure. She feels valued and loved and is comfortable in her grandma’s arms. That’s when she grows beyond the confines of this life.

The story, like other fairy tales is a bridge between the world of adults and the universe of children. At its centre poverty churns the tale, creating a tension between free will, as represented by the little matchstick girl and frosty determinism in her cold society. Like her brief, yet brightly burning match sticks, freewill offers glimpses of hope in an otherwise perpetual glum of cold, indifferent determinism. Like Christmas at the heart of winter the story has a strange sense of optimism at its deep cores. The story is thus an ode to the Pegasus of imagination that lighten the burden of life and its inherent suffering.

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