Hans Christian Andersen may be best known for writing “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” but his lesser-known stories may reveal more about the author than the well-established classics. At least that’s what many of the students in my fairy tale class at Indiana University South Bend think.
One of Andersen’s most intriguing, but long-neglected stories is “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf.” It’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 “otherwise, she’d have been slapped a good deal oftener than she was.”
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 didn’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 Devil’s own great-grandmother recognizes Inger as “a girl with talent.” The old lady decides she’d make a good statue for her offspring’s abode of the damned. And so, Inger’s decision to sacrifice a good chunk of bread for a pretty pair of shoes leads her to Hell’s waiting room.
For a number of pages, Andersen revels in Inger’s torment. I won’t spoil it for readers by describing it too much. Suffice it to say that Inger’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 can’t help wondering why Andersen is compelled to wallow in descriptions that include wingless flies crawling over Inger’s eyes. What’s more, Inger is not the only pretty girl in Andersen’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 “The Red Shoes.” She only finds redemption after her feet are cut off. And “The Little Match Girl”? Well, her travails begin with a description of her walking barefoot on a cold New Year’s Eve.
Scholars far more accomplished than I have noted the degree to which Andersen “tortures” 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 shoemaker’s son “with a foot fetish”?
We’ve never been able to settle those questions in my classes. The story provides us with intriguing material for provocative discussion, and perhaps that’s all we need to know about the stories and Andersen. Maybe Andersen’s motivations don’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 “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf” 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 Andersen’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.