The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

A little girl's vanity gets her trapped in shoes that won't let her stop dancing. What happens? Find out in this lesson, which will summarize and analyze Hans Christian Andersen's ~'The Red Shoes.~'

Once Upon a Time

If you've never read a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, you might be a little surprised when you read ''The Red Shoes.'' Unlike what many of us expect in a fairy tale, this story does not end with ''and they lived happily ever after.'' That doesn't mean Andersen's stories don't have happiness or hope, though. And, like most fairy tales, there is always a message or lesson to be learned. Let's go through a summary of this particular story, then take a moment to analyze his message.

Humble Beginnings

When we first meet Karen, the ''pretty, delicate little girl'' who is at the heart of the story, she is very poor. So poor, in fact, that the only shoes she owns are rough winter shoes made out of wood that rub her instep raw to the point of being ''quite red.'' She either wears the wooden shoes or goes barefoot until one day, the shoemaker's wife takes pity on her and pieces together some shoes out of scraps of red material.

The day the shoemaker's wife gifts them to her also happens to be the day of Karen's mother's funeral. Even though red shoes are ''not at all suitable for mourning,'' they are the only pair Karen has. As it happens, an older woman riding by in her carriage catches sight of Karen. Like the shoemaker's wife, this woman felt bad for the little girl. Her charity goes even further, though: she adopts Karen, giving her a brand new life.

Tricky Vanity

Things start to go downhill when Karen sees a princess wearing a pair of ''beautiful red morocco shoes.'' It just so happens she needs a new outfit since she'll be getting confirmed soon, and there is a beautiful pair of red shoes just like the princess's at the shoemaker's. Karen knows the older woman would never approve of such a color, but luckily her patron doesn't see well enough to know the shoes are in fact red. The old lady's blindness also means Karen gets away with wearing them to her confirmation.

Karen likes that all eyes are on her when she enters church wearing the red shoes. Instead of paying attention to service, she thinks about her shoes. Naturally, everybody is talking about them that afternoon. When the older lady hears she's been deceived, she forbids Karen from wearing anything but black shoes to church - an order Karen promptly disobeys the following week.

Dancing Shoes

When they get to the church there is an old man leaning on a crutch by the entrance. He warns Karen not to let her pretty shoes ''slip off when you dance.'' Inside, Karen is even more distracted by her shoes than last time - she doesn't even say her prayers or sing! The old man is still outside after church. This time, when he calls them ''dancing shoes,'' Karen shows off with a couple of dance moves. Imagine her surprise when she can't stop dancing until the shoes are taken off! The shoes go into the closet after that.

They don't stay there for long, though. On a night Karen should be taking care of her sick patron, she instead sneaks out to a ball wearing the red shoes. Again, the shoes don't let her stop dancing! She dances day in and day out. Once, she dances past the church where she sees an angel with a huge sword. He tells her she is doomed to dance herself to death. Finally, though, she finds her way to the home of the executioner and begs him to ''strike off my feet, that I may be rid of my red shoes,'' but asks him to leave her head so she can ''live to repent of my sin.''

The shoes would not let Karen stop dancing
The red shoes

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