Guilt and a Lack of Social Mobility: The Red Shoes

I’ve talked quite a bit here about fairy tales I’ve loved.

Time to talk about a fairy tale I’ve hated, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.”

Hans Christian Andersen is generally renowned for his magical, exquisite images, for moments where a mermaid learns to walk on land and fall in love with a prince, or a young girl struggles through flowers, thieves and snow to save her childhood friend through her tears. But this beauty is often mixed with cruelty, and in some cases, his tales seem to have nothing but cruelty, even when they have a happy ending of sorts—with “The Red Shoes” as one of the primary examples of this.

I’d forgotten, until reading this, just how many pairs of red shoes this story has—not just the famous pair at the heart of the tale, but two more. Indeed, although packaged as a story of redemption, this is just as much a story about footwear and feet.

That focus appears in the very first sentences of the story. The protagonist, Karen, is so poor that she has only a pair of rough wooden shoes in the winter, and nothing for the summer. As a result, her feet are swollen and cold and, well, red. An elderly neighbor takes pity on her and makes her the first pair of red shoes: a cheap pair made from red cloth that Karen—hold your shock—wears to her mother’s funeral.

Fortunately, Karen is then adopted by an elderly, relatively well-off lady. Andersen notes:

Karen believed that this was all on account of the red shoes…

Just to hammer this point in, from Karen’s viewpoint, these cheap red shoes aren’t just the only pair that she has to wear for her mother’s funeral, but they are also a pair of shoes that accomplish something magical: they transform her from someone desperately poor to someone with hope, to someone dependent upon the community for basic clothing, to someone who knows how to read and sew and can find a job.

The second pair of red shoes appears shortly after this, on the feet of a princess. (Andersen may well have seen a princess in similar footwear on his trips to court, or, as in the scene he describes, when one of them made a public appearance.) Andersen notes:

There is really nothing in the world that can be compared to red shoes!

Which is our introduction to the third pair of red shoes. Karen, rather understandably obsessed with shoes at this point—and associating red shoes with wealth and stability and beauty—is taken by the old lady to get a new pair of shoes. There, she sees a ready-made pair of shoes just like the ones the princess had been wearing—originally made for, then discarded by, a nobleman’s daughter. Both Karen and the shoemaker fail to tell the old lady that the shoes are bright red; she buys them for Karen, who soon becomes obsessed with thinking about them, even in church.

And, I’ll add, why not? They are the first genuinely pretty things she’s ever had a chance to own—shoes that could have belonged to a princess. I’m not exactly condoning thinking about your shoes instead of religious thoughts while you’re in church, but as sins go, I can think of worse.

Well, ok, I can think of one good reason why not: an old man says something about her pretty dancing shoes, and the next thing Karen knows, her feet are dancing.

She is able—at first—to take the shoes off and give her feet a much needed rest. But, after getting invited to a ball, where no one would want to wear old black shoes, she puts the red shoes on again. This time, she can’t take them off, until she finds an executioner willing to cut off her feet and replace them with wooden feet. Even that doesn’t solve the situation: the shoes keep following her.

It’s meant to be terrifying, and it is, but it’s also infuriating. As I noted, it’s not that I’m condoning, exactly, thinking about shoes—that is, decidedly earthly things—during church. Nor can I exactly applaud Karen for abandoning a sick elderly woman who has treated her with almost nothing but kindness (apart from burning the original red pair of shoes) just to go to a ball.

No, what got me as a small child, and what gets me now, is just how much overkill this is. Fairy tales, of course, are filled with unfairness: indeed, to a certain extent the very point of fairy tales is to showcase and explore unfairness. Thus, Snow White, who should have lived a life of cosseted privilege as the only child of a king and queen, finds herself driven out into the woods, working as a housekeeper for working class dwarfs. The innocent protagonist in “The Girl Without Hands” loses her hands thanks to her father’s deal with the devil. Even good fortune is often unfair or unearned: the youngest son in “Puss-in-Boots” gains a title and a happy marriage to a princess not thanks to anything he’s done, but to the trickery of a cat.

In “The Red Shoes,” in contrast, the narrator seems to think that Karen deserves to lose her feet just for thinking about her shoes at inappropriate moments. This is not, then, a fairy tale of unfairness and overcoming that, but a tale of guilt and punishment. Like many fairy tale heroines, Karen must earn her happy ending through hard work. But unlike most of them, she isn’t rewarded with a prince, but with death.

It doesn’t really help to realize that the red shoes don’t just punish Karen, but also the old lady, who is left alone and sick after the shoes force Karen to dance away. Which, ok, yes, mostly Karen’s fault for deciding to go to a ball instead of nursing the woman who kindly took her in, and for later failing to mention this woman to anyone, like, Karen, I know you have shoe problems, but your mentor is sick. Then again, given that this woman was also the person who gave you these cursed shoes, maybe your decision to let her just stay in bed alone is a bit understandable. But also, shoes, must you punish more than one person here? Again, overkill.

Reading this now from the perspective of someone living just a few miles from a place that wants to assure all small girls that yes, for a price, they can become princesses for a day, though, I can’t help seeing something else here: an argument against class mobility. It’s significant, I think, that no one, even the narrator, criticizes the princess for wearing red shoes, or the nobleman’s daughter for ordering a pair and then not wearing them. It probably helps, of course, that the princess is presumably so used to fine footwear that she doesn’t need to think about the shoes in church; still, the princess also wasn’t suffering from frozen feet in the first place, making the contrast between the two rather galling.

But it’s equally significant, I think, that Karen only achieves her happy ending (of sorts) by humbling herself and working as a servant—that is, abandoning her attempts to reach, or at least emulate, the upper classes through shoes and dancing at balls. Indeed, even though she’s invited to this ball, unlike Cinderella, she never gets the chance to dance at it because her shoes dance left when she wants to dance right, and vice versa.

We could probably discourse for months, if not years, about Andersen’s near obsession with walking and feet: images of feet appear again and again in his fairy tales, and any number of Andersen’s protagonists experience trouble walking, more than once. But I think we also have to wonder about this story, which punishes a girl for thinking about the shoes that helped make her life a fairy tale, about the fact that a man, not a woman, says the words that force Karen to dance, and why a fairy tale writer who could imagine such wonders, a writer who himself climbed from the depths of poverty to earn a place in court and acceptance among the aristocracy for his talents, was so determined not to let a young girl follow his path and dance.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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