The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen/The Red Shoes

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For other English-language translations of this work, see The Red Shoes.

The Red Shoes

HERE was once a little girl who was delicately pretty, but who was obliged to walk about with bare feet in summer (for she was poor), and to wear coarse wooden shoes in winter, so that her little insteps were red all over.

In the village lived an old shoemaker’s wife, who fashioned a little pair of shoes as well as she could out of some old strips of red cloth; they were rather clumsy, but the intention was kind, for they were to give to the little girl, whose name was Karen.

She received the red shoes, and put them on, for the first time, on the very day her mother was buried. They were not fit for mourning, it is true, but having no others, she put them on to her bare feet, and followed the pauper’s coffin to its last resting-place.

There happened to pass by a large, old-fashioned carriage, in which sat an old lady, who took compassion on the little girl, and said to the preacher: “Pray, give me that little girl, and I will adopt her.”

And Karen fancied that all this was owing to the red shoes; but the old lady thought them abominable, and ordered them to be burnt. Karen then was dressed in clean and tidy clothes, and was taught to read and to sew, and people said she was pretty. But the looking-glass said: “You are more than pretty—you are beautiful!”

The queen once travelled through the land, with her little daughter, who was a princess. And crowds flocked towards the palace, and Karen stood amongst the rest, to see the little princess, who stood at a window, dressed in the finest white clothes. She had neither a train, nor a golden crown, but beautiful red morocco shoes—which, it must be confessed, were a trifle prettier than those the shoemaker’s wife had patched together for little Karen. Surely nothing in the world can be compared to red shoes!

Karen was now old enough to be confirmed. She had new clothes given her, and she was to have a pair of new shoes likewise. The rich shoemaker of the town took the measure of her little foot in his own house, in a room where a number of glass cases were filled with elegant shoes and shining boots. It was a very pretty sight; but as the old lady could not see very well, she took no pleasure in it. Amongst the shoes was a pair of red ones, just like those the princess wore. How pretty they were, to be sure! The shoemaker said they had been made for a count’s child, but had not fitted well.

“Are they of polished leather?” asked the old lady, “for they shine so.”

“They shine, indeed,” said Karen; and they fitted her and were purchased. But the old lady did not know they were red, or she would never have allowed Karen to go to be confirmed in red shoes, which she, however, now did.

Everybody looked at her feet. And when she stepped across the church to reach the choir, she fancied that even the old pictures over the graves, the portraits of preachers and their wives, with their stiff collars and long black clothes, were fixing their eyes on her red shoes. And she thought of nothing but them, even when the preacher laid his hand on her head, and descanted on the holy baptism that admitted her within the pale of God’s servants, and reminded her that she must now behave like a grown Christian. And the organ pealed solemnly, while the children’s voices joined with those of the choristers; but Karen thought of nothing but her red shoes.

In the afternoon, the old lady heard everybody say that the shoes were red; and she said it was quite shocking, and highly improper, and that in future Karen must always go to church in black shoes, even though they should be somewhat worn.

Next Sunday she was to receive the sacrament; and Karen looked first at the black shoes and then at the red ones, and then looked again, and finished by putting on the red ones.

The sun shone brightly. Karen and the old lady went by the footway across the cornfield, which was rather dusty. Near the church door stood an old invalid soldier, with a crutch-stick, and a singularly long beard, that was red rather than white, for he had red hair. And he stooped to the ground, and asked the old lady if he might wipe her shoes. And Karen likewise put out her little foot. “See, what smart dancing pumps!” said the soldier; “they will stick on firmly when you dance”; and thereupon, he slapped the soles with his hand.

The old lady gave the invalid soldier some alms, and entered the church with Karen.

And everybody inside looked at Karen’s red shoes, and all the pictures looked at them; and when Karen knelt before the altar, and put the gold cup to her lips, she thought only of her red shoes: and it seemed to her as though they were swimming in the communion cup; and she forgot to sing her psalm, and forgot to say the Lord’s prayer.

The congregation now left the church, and the old lady got into her carriage. As Karen raised her foot to step in after her, the old soldier said: “See, what smart dancing pumps!” And Karen could not help making a few dancing steps, and having once begun, her feet went on dancing. It was just as if the shoes had some power over her. She danced round the church corner, and could not stop herself, and the coachman was obliged to run after her and catch hold of her, and lift her into the carriage; but her feet went on dancing, so that she trod upon the good old lady’s toes at a great rate. At last the shoes were taken off her feet, which then obtained rest.

The shoes were put by into a closet at home, but Karen could not cease looking at them.

The old lady now fell ill, and it was said she could not live. She had to be nursed and waited on, and it was nobody’s business to attend her so much as Karen’s; but there happened to be a great ball in the town, to which Karen was invited, and she gazed at the old lady, who was not likely to recover, and then looked at her red shoes, and thought there could not be any very great sin in putting them on—and so far there was not—but she next went to the ball, and began to dance: only, when she wanted to go to the right, the shoes would dance to the left: and when she wanted to go up the room, the shoes persisted in going down the room; and then down the steps into the street, and out through the town gate. And she danced on, in spite of herself, right into the gloomy forest.


Something was gleaming through the tops of the trees, and she thought it was the moon—for it was a face—but it was the old soldier with his red beard, who sat and nodded, saying: “See, what pretty dancing pumps!”

She was now frightened, and tried to fling off the red shoes, but they clung fast; and she tore off her stockings. But the shoes had, as it were, grown to her feet, and dance she must, across fields and meadows—in rain or in sunshine—by day and by night—only by night it was far more dreadful still.

She danced up to the open churchyard, where the dead did not dance, having something much better to do. She would fain have sat down on some pauper’s grave, where grows the bitter fern; but there was no rest for her. And as she danced towards the open church door, she saw an angel, in long white clothes, and with wings that reached from his shoulders down to the earth. His countenance was stern and grave, and his hand grasped a broad and shining sword.

“Thou shalt dance!” said he, “dance in thy red shoes, until thou art pale and cold, and till thy skin has shrivelled up to a skeleton. Thou shalt dance from door to door; and thou shalt knock at the doors where proud and haughty children, that they may hear thee, and take warning! Thou shalt dance—yea, dance—”

“Mercy!” cried Karen. But she heard not what the angel answered, for the shoes carried her from the door into the field, away—away—still dancing on and on.

One morning she danced past a well-known door; she heard the sounds of a dirge from within, and a coffin, decked with flowers, was brought forth: and she now knew that her old patroness was dead, and she felt as though she were abandoned by every one, and cursed by God’s angel.

On she danced, for dance she must—aye, dance through the gloomy night. The shoes carried her through brambles and stumps of trees, which scratched her till she bled. And she danced across the heath, to a little lonely house, where she knew the executioner lived; and she tapped at the windows with her fingers, saying:

“Come out—come out. I cannot come in, for I am obliged to dance.”

And the executioner said:

“Do you not know who I am? It is I who strike off wicked men’s heads, and I perceive that my axe now clinks.”

“Do not strike off my head,” said Karen. “for then I shall not be able to repent of my sins. But strike my feet off, that I may get rid of my red shoes.”

And she then confessed her sins, and the executioner struck off her red shoes only, though it gave her as sharp a pang as if her toes had come off with them. And away the shoes danced, across the fields, and into the depths of the forest.

He then gave her crutches, for she felt unable to walk, and taught her the psalm that penitents sing, and she kissed the hand that had directed the axe, and went away across the heath.

“I have now suffered enough for the red shoes,” said she; “so now I will go to church, that people may see me.” And she hobbled up to the church door, but had no sooner reached it, than the red shoes danced before her, and frightened her back.

She was in deep affliction that whole week, and shed many bitter tears; but when Sunday came round again, she said: “I have now suffered and struggled enough! I believe I am quite as good as many of those who are sitting at church, and bridling up.” And she sallied boldly forth, but she reached no farther than the churchyard gate; for she saw the red shoes dancing before her, and was so frightened that she turned back, and heartily repented of her sins.

She then went to the parsonage, and begged, as a favour, to be taken into the family’s service, promising to be diligent, and to do everything she could. She did not care about wages; all she wanted was to have a roof over her head, and to be with good people. The preacher’s wife felt compassion for her, and took her into her service; and she proved very industrious and very thoughtful. She sat and listened with deep attention when the preacher read the Bible aloud in the evening. All the children made much of her; but when they spoke of dress, or finery, or beauty, she would then shake her head.

On the following Sunday they all went to church, and they asked her if she would accompany them; but she looked at her crutches with tearful eyes. And so the others went forth to listen to the Word of God, while she repaired alone to her little chamber, that was only just large enough to contain a bed and a chair. And here she sat down with her psalm-book in her hand; and as she read its pages, in a pious frame of mind, the wind wafted to her the sounds of the organ from the church, and she raised her tearful countenance, saying: “O Lord, do Thou succour me!”

Then the sun shone brightly, and before her stood God’s angel, in white clothes, such as she had seen him that night near the church door; only he no longer bore the sharp sword in his hand, but held a beautiful green branch, all full of roses; and he touched the ceiling with it, and the ceiling forthwith became lofty; and at the spot where he had touched it shone a golden star. And he touched the walls, and they widened; and she could see the organ that was being played upon. She saw, too, the old pictures of the preachers and their wives, and the congregation sitting on their neat chairs, and singing out of their psalm-books. For the church itself had come to the poor girl in her small chamber, or she had come to it. She sat on a chair, amongst the rest of the preacher’s servants, and when they had finished the psalm, and looked up, they nodded, and said: “That was right of you to come, Karen.”

“It is by the grace of God,” said she.

And the organ pealed forth, and the chorus of children’s voices sounded most sweet and lovely! The bright sunshine shed its warm rays through the window, over the pew where Karen sat; and her heart was so overwhelmed with sunshine, peace, and joy, that it broke; and her soul was carried up to God on a sunbeam, and in Heaven there was no one who asked about the red shoes.