Why does she want the red shoes? She wants to be special and she wants to be looked at. In Hans Christian Andersen's famous tale, Karen, a peasant girl, goes barefoot in summer and in winter wears wooden clogs that rub her feet raw, but the mirror tells her she's lovely and she thinks that wearing the red shoes will make her feel like a princess. Like selfish Heidi and tomboy Katy, Karen is a mid-19th century girl crippled by egotism. The shoes force her to dance non-stop and to display herself 'wherever proud and vain children live'. Though it seems simply a punitive response to female narcissism, this is a Christian morality tale intended to warn against the sin of self-love. Karen is cast out of her community and her church; she has her feet hacked off, and the story ends with her repentance. What we remember, though, is not the final image of her blissful reunion with God but the red shoes, with the little feet still in them, going on dancing. Shoes were a homely and powerful symbol of status for Andersen, the son of a cobbler, a lonely, ungainly outsider. He was greedy for fame yet tormented by guilt at his success; 'The Red Shoes' inflicts a cruel comeuppance on exhibitionists and social climbers like himself.
LRB 18 December 2008 | PDF Download