Fairy Tales 8: The Red Shoes

When vanity has consequences.

IIlustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, for Hans Christian Andersen’s “Red Shoes”

Hans Christian Anderson wrote what he called a new fairy tale, The Red Shoes, in 1845. More than 100 years later it would become the basis the basis for the critically acclaimed film of the same name, about a ballet dancer. Whilst the fairy tale’s lead character, Karen, dances, nowhere in is tale does Anderson mention ballet.

In the tale the ‘heroine’ Karen becomes the owner of two pairs of red shoes. The first, while she is poor, is made for her by the wife of a cobbler in the village she lives in. Later a rich woman, who adopts Karen after her mother’s death, buys her a fine pair which Karen becomes very vain about wearing. Karen seems to forget about her poor origins, after she is bought the second pair of red shoes.

Part of Karen’s obsession with red shoes might have been because woman who adopts her discards her first pair. Karen had worn that pair to her mother’s funeral. People thought they were inappropriate but were they? Karen had only a pair of rough clogs, that made her feet sore, and the red shoes were her best, poorly made as they were. She wore her best shoes to her mother’s funeral.

After the funeral when Karen is adopted by the rich widow, her red shoes are discarded by the widow. Karen then sees a pair worn by a princess and wants a pair. The old woman buys them for her unknowingly as she can’t see well. An old soldier however sees Karen wearing the shoes and comments on them, a prophetic warning about danc

Karen’s later vanity with the fine red shoes, after her adoption, extends to thinking about them during her own confirmation service in church. The implication being that even during the confirmation service, by her obsession with the red shoes she has forgotten about God.

Red is a colour of danger and warning, and also it is the colour of temptation and desire. Karen’s obsession and vanity tempted her away from God. She wanted to copy the princess too, a kind of celebrity worship. Why so many advertisers today hire celebrities to promote their products.

Karen becomes cursed by an angel to dance and she is unable to stop, resorting to cutting of her feet in an attempt to stop dancing, but the shoes, still with her feet in continue to dance blocking her way. There is a direct parallel in the Bible to the cutting off of Karen’s feet. We find a direct parallel to the cutting off of Karen’s feet in The Bible. Matthew 18:8 (NKJV) tells us “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire.”

Even trying to get to the church the red shoes blocked Karen’s way. She was taken in at a parsonage where she worked for her keep, forgoing wages. The next Sunday the clergyman invited her to church with his family but she declined, knowing the red shoes would stop her. She went to her room and opened her hymn book and called out “O Lord, help me”. Karen had found her faith again. Only at this point did Karen fully repent her sin, even the cutting off of her own feet had not been enough.

The angel came again and Karen found herself in the church, it had come to her. “It was mercy” she said, moments before “Her Soul flew on the sunbeams to heaven”. God had not cured Karen but he had healed her and forgiven her.


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