It is unlikely that Hans Christian Andersen would have ever intentionally written a story about conforming to social norms as killing a person’s spirit. In story after story of his own devising, we see the theme of downtrodden individuals enduring trial after trial until they ascend from the lowest ranks of society/spirit to the highest. The mermaid becomes a human becomes a spirit of the air, the duckling becomes a swan, the girl with red shoes dances and repents til she is allowed entry into the church and — ultimately — heaven.
But Andersen was himself very creative and spent his life trying to support himself in a number of arts before it became clear to him that his future lay in reimagining the stories of old. He wanted to be a singer, but hadn’t the talent for it; he worked as a dancer, but was unable to persevere physically and mentally at the same time; and, even as he found his way to writing fairy tales, he would have rather called himself a poet. So why would he vilify an artform as usurping one’s religious devotion, rather than glorify it as an act of devotion?
The answer, I believe, is in the chalice and the tansy weed. For in literary history there were periods of time where gentlemanly writers did not write of certain things explicitly, because it was unseemly and or they didn’t have the understanding of it that we have now, and so they would instead allude to it in ways that would be understood by their contemporaries (and hidden from children who don’t quite need to know about it yet). In this case, I believe the story is a conceit/extended metaphor regarding the experience of addiction, specifically alcoholism.
The first pair of red shoes the little girl owns were handmade by the shoemaker’s wife, someone in the know about what is necessary for one’s physical survival and with an eye for making those necessities a little more enjoyable. In Andersen’s day, cordials and brandies were sometimes used as medicine, and medicine was often made with some sort of alcohol. It was common for individuals to pick up bad habits by first becoming fond of their medicine.
The second pair of red shoes, the dangerous ones, were purchased by an old woman who could not see what she was doing; meanwhile, the little girl had seen a little princess in red shoes. Some people are so focused on doing things their way, they cannot see a way to live and let live; while some are so focused on what others have, and they themselves want, that they blind themselves to the value of what’s right in front of them. The story on its surface speaks to children of the girl’s vanity/pride, but adult readers of the day would have seen the unfolding of all seven sins starting to point toward that vice which encompasses them all and boasts “I can hold my liquor!”
Finally, when she wears the shiny red shoes to church, the scene is described with every possible detail of the artwork and the congregation and the singing, with only one thing left out. At the point of communion, there is the chalice but floating inside appear to be the shoes and not the wine. The wine itself is the only thing “missing” from the church scene, and its absence is meant to be noted.
Painting The Town Red
These days, we all know enough about addiction to know what a destructive force it is. The way it reels in the addict again and again, the way the addict really believes one little sip won’t hurt anything, the way it actually hijacks the part of brain that prioritizes deep and abiding relationships (often misexplained when people describe romantic love as affecting the brain the same way drugs do, when really the reverse is at work). Addiction is a disease of body and mind that prioritizes itself above all other aspects of an individual’s existence.
Giving in to her desire for the shoes that first Sunday resulted in her kicking the old woman who took her in. Giving in to her urge for the shoes even as the old woman lay on her deathbed caused her to miss the funeral and may have even hastened the old woman’s death since the girl hadn’t stayed home and provided hospice. Giving in to her addiction takes her to the most fearful places in town; the churchyard where the dead are buried, the place where the “bitter tansy weed grows”, the woods where stands the executioner’s hut.
The tansy weed is particularly telling. It’s an herb Andersen’s contemporary readers would have recognized as one causing liver damage in cattle and horses, a reference meant for the grownups who knew that excessive drink could lead to such damage within a human body. And she dances among the herb at a point when we can all agree the timing of her dancing is itself excessive.
When her life of excess finally leds her to seek help, she seeks it from the local executioner whose trade is that of justice most final. He describes his axe as impatient while she seeks to have her feet removed rather than her head so that she might still have a shot at redemption. Also, before he cuts off her feet, she confesses her sins to him.
All this is not unlike the relationship between addict and sponsor. Sponsors, being addicts themselves, are very familiar with the destructive nature of addiction and having to continue carrying the burden of that nature within themselves at all times. When seeking sobriety, any and all addicts must own up to what they are and what they’ve done so they can move forward with a head clear of all substantial and mental toxins.
The executioner/sponsor then goes on to give the girl/addict what she needs, a cold-turkey clean break from her intoxicant of choice (as painful as the separation might be) and the resources to carry herself forward; namely wooden feet, wooden crutches, and a hymn “sung by sinners.” Given that the story was published in 1845, about 25 years into the Temperance Movement, it’s possible that Andersen’s adult readers would have recognized the girl not only as a drinker, but also as seeking to be a teetotaller. The question then becoming for those readers: Can she do it?
Red Letter Days
After having her feet cut off and watching them dance away in the red shoes, the girl attempts to go to church two Sundays in a row and two Sundays in a row has her entry blocked by her own bloody feet still wearing the red shoes and still dancing. Just in approaching the church, which during communion would have gifted her a sip of wine, she sees only her own sinful desire. But now she also sees the danger inherent to that desire.
She also sees that just as she wasn’t strong enough to make a clean break from her addiction on her own before, she isn’t strong enough to steer clear of it by herself now. So she seeks support in exchange for her services around the parsonage. The parson, his wife, and their children are her support system of people who respect her decision in avoiding temptation.
By living and working in the parsonage, she lives and works in an environment built to uphold and sustain all virtues. Her new community and environment, together with the tools acquired from her sponsor, set the scene for her to heal her intemperate nature and learn to accept wholly that help which is available to her. With her focus on her healing and her fully fleshed out support system, she is finally able to go into the church and commune spiritually, receiving salvation in place of the eucharistic bread and wine.
Her final moment is vital. The spirit of her better life is what brings her into church, and the light of God takes her away to heaven before she can be tempted even once more by the communion wine. In heaven, she is never again asked about her shoes, but the reader knows that her feet still wear them and still dance upon the earth.
As a Christian of his day, Andersen would have been well-familiar with the belief of sin as being of the earth and all in heaven being completely free of it. No one needs to ask her of the shoes because they cannot reach her soul now. But we readers must ask ourselves about those shoes because they are always out there dancing, always out there trying to convince us that we can dance with them without losing our own feet.
It’s a story of pride allowing one’s greatest temptation disrupt one’s temperance, and of gaining absolution by way of abstinence. The shoes and the dancing aren’t a dig at seeking a creative life, they’re a conceit/an extended metaphor for addiction. Even when accounting for its full historical and biographical context there is nothing irrelevant about this story; we each of us need something larger than ourselves and our desires to see us safely to the end of our quest.