Explain the irony used in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Match Girl”.
Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish writer best known for his fairy tales. However his stories are not restricted to children and it has themes of universal appeal that transcend age and culture.
Andersen did not have the best childhood. In fact, it was very unhappy. Most of his stories reflected sadness dealing with loss and death.
‘The Little Match Girl’ is one such story. Set around the New Year’s Eve, the story tells us of a little girl who, unable to sell his matches, dies of cold and hunger on the street after aimlessly wondering bareheaded and barefooted in the bleak and bitter cold, when the people are celebrating the birth of the Christ and the New Year’s Eve in the comfort of their warm cosy homes.
The tale is rich in irony, imagery and symbolism, emphasizing the need for compassion for those who have much less than we do. Irony ( in Ancient Greek meaning ‘dissimulation’, ‘ feigned ignorance’) in its broadest sense is a rhetorical device, a literary equipment, or an event which on the surface appears to have a case but which differs radically from what the actual case is. There are different types of Irony.
In the short story “The Little Match Girl”, there is situational irony. Situational Irony is described as a situation which has an outcome incongruous to the expected one. It may also be defined as a verbatim containing a lot a contradictions and high discrepancy among the resulting and expected outcomes.
One example of situational irony can be found at the beginning of the story with the treatment and attitude of everyone around the little girl. In society, we expect adults to want to look after their children, and that these children will be protected from all the ‘bad things’ in the world. However, that is not the case in this story. The little girl wanders aimlessly through the streets, barefoot and shivering. No passing adults stop to help her. She also cannot go home because her father will physically harm her for not selling any matches. The narrator mentions that
“she did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, earned not a single penny. Her father would be sure to beat her.”
We are given insight into her family situation. This is certainly not what we would expect to read, regardless of the age of any child.
Furthermore, a second example of situational irony can be found towards the end of the story when the little girl dies. Although there is some foreshadowing of this event earlier in the story, we are nonetheless shocked when the morning sun comes up and the young child has passed away. When the narrator states that
“ … frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The dawn of the new year rose on the huddled figure of the girl.”
We are surprised and shocked by the finality of the result. We like to believe that children will get to live their lives to their fullest potential and grow into adults, but that is not the case with this little girl, who was taken away too soon. The fact that nobody – at all – ever arrives to help her also helps to create this feeling of surprise in the final paragraph of the story.
The Author through various descriptions has brought home the apathetic attitude of the wealthy towards the poor and the issues of social classification, poverty, and child abuse. This story is a didactic story which is intended to teach people a moral lesson. This story is meant to teach especially the wealthy to show empathy towards those who do not have the basic necessities of life. It reminds them not to overlook the needs of their less fortunate brethren, especially the innocent little children. It coaxes them to be charitable towards those who have much less than we do and to have compassion for the poor to alleviate their suffering.
The story told by an omniscient narrator in “The Little Match Girl” revolves around a poor girl’s struggle for existence. But its thematic analysis makes it clear that the plot of the story is conveyed to us through irony.
The literary device of irony is here projected to expose the utter coldness of society to a little girl’s poverty and wretchedness. The final tragic ending of such naive girl is a grave matter of sorrow to readers. It is indirectly a shocking blow to the entire society for its sheer inability to protect a little girl from biting cold of severe wintry night.
The story begins against the background of the celebration of New Year’s Eve. But it is absolutely a bleak night for the little girl who is hard-pressed to go about selling match sticks. Through implicit use of irony, the writer is avidly compassionate to the girl.
That night the girl hardly sold any match stick; not a single penny was earned. She was afraid to go home in fear of her father who might scold her. It persistently heightened the girl’s plight. She was utterly oblivious of her appearance. The girl is the picture of misery in the narrator’s viewpoint. The writer is critical of the unthinking society submerged in pleasure. This is what the writer emphasizes – the exposure of the naked truth of our society’s callousness. Lights are constant reminder of life’s joviality and comfort. But darkness pervades the girl’s life – no comfort can ever penetrate there.
The dreamy girl resorted to momentary visionary gleams – the vision of things that remained unattainable for such lonesome girl. She is blessed by the writer with imaginative thinking expressed through the fairy-tale motif of the story. It is the structural irony that expresses the girl’s innermost desires which remained unfulfilled.
Far away from the crowd the girl lost herself in the luxury of illusion while the people of society enjoy in real life. Such images hasten the progress of the girl’s bitter journey in the world of reality. Again, the girl’s spiritual journey through vision is made possible through the inconsistency between reality and imagination. Such is the use of irony in the story.
Another instance of irony is when people say “she was evidently trying to warm herself”. Such point of view of onlookers is found unstudied and absurd because there was no one there to actually feel for her. Moreover, they had no eyes to see what glorious changes death brought to her life, what heavenly joy she felt in the company of her dear grandmother. With this irony the author takes a dig at the so-called civilized society where we don’t have the eyes to see through the plight of thousands of such hungry faces in our cities and towns even today.