Hans Christian Andersen may be best known for writing â€œThe Little Mermaid,â€ â€œThe Ugly Duckling,â€ and the â€œEmperorâ€™s New Clothes,â€ but his lesser-known stories may reveal more about the author than the well-established classics. At least thatâ€™s what many of the students in my fairy tale class at Indiana University South Bend think.
One of Andersenâ€™s most intriguing, but long-neglected stories is â€œThe Girl Who Trod on the Loaf.â€ Itâ€™s a tale that fairly writhes with cruel descriptions of the travails a girl named Inger suffers as a statue in Hell. The story begins by letting us know that Inger was vain and cruel. She pulled wings off of flies; she was ashamed of her poor old mother. Andersen even laments that Inger has beauty, because â€œotherwise, sheâ€™d have been slapped a good deal oftener than she was.â€
Inger ends up in Hell because, on the way to see her mother (whom she normally avoids), she steps on a loaf meant as a present for her mother. After all, Inger didnâ€™t want her pretty shoes to get muddy. After that, interesting things happen to Inger, none of them pleasant. But things get worse when the Devilâ€™s own great-grandmother recognizes Inger as â€œa girl with talent.â€ The old lady decides sheâ€™d make a good statue for her offspringâ€™s abode of the damned. And so, Ingerâ€™s decision to sacrifice a good chunk of bread for a pretty pair of shoes leads her to Hellâ€™s waiting room.
For a number of pages, Andersen revels in Ingerâ€™s torment. I wonâ€™t spoil it for readers by describing it too much. Suffice it to say that Ingerâ€™s sufferings would pose a great challenge to any film director experienced in the art of depicting torture on the screen. She does eventually find redemption, but the story is largely about punishment — at least the fun parts are.
When reading the story, one canâ€™t help wondering why Andersen is compelled to wallow in descriptions that include wingless flies crawling over Ingerâ€™s eyes. Whatâ€™s more, Inger is not the only pretty girl in Andersenâ€™s stories who suffers dreadfully, and usually feet are somehow involved. We all know that every step the Little Mermaid takes on land is piercingly painful. We also know what happens to Karen of â€œThe Red Shoes.â€ She only finds redemption after her feet are cut off. And â€œThe Little Match Girlâ€? Well, her travails begin with a description of her walking barefoot on a cold New Yearâ€™s Eve.
Scholars far more accomplished than I have noted the degree to which Andersen â€œtorturesâ€ his beautiful and footsore heroines. And my students often wonder: Was Andersen getting his revenge against the women who rejected his marriage proposals when he wrote these stories? Was he describing his own feelings of pain, hopelessness, and isolation (ones that plagued him despite his professional success)? Was he, as many students write, just dedicated to showing that all suffering has a purpose, as all of his miserable heroines do go to Heaven? Or, as one of my less artful students once wrote, was he just a shoemakerâ€™s son â€œwith a foot fetishâ€?
Weâ€™ve never been able to settle those questions in my classes. The story provides us with intriguing material for provocative discussion, and perhaps thatâ€™s all we need to know about the stories and Andersen. Maybe Andersenâ€™s motivations donâ€™t matter. Maybe, he just understood, like slasher film makers of today, that the more you torment a pretty girl, the more likely people are to pay attention.
You can find â€œThe Girl Who Trod on the Loafâ€ at www.andersen.sdu.dk. Just be sure to click on the little English translation icon on the left corner of the screen, right at the top. Links on the left will lead you to all of Andersenâ€™s works.
BIO: Kate Wolford is a composition lecturer at Indiana University South Bend. She manages a blog about fairy tales called Diamondsandtoads.com. She is also the editor of Enchanted Conversation, an online fairy tale journal set to debut January 1, 2010.