Monday with the Wolves: Little Match Girl

match girl

A friend told me that many years ago she had convened a womens’ storytelling circle to discuss Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s famous book, Women Who Run With the Wolves. When they got to the tale of The Handless Maiden they thought they might spend a few weeks on it. Two years later, they finally exhausted all they wanted to say about it.

I want to see if it’s possible, here, to paraphrase some of the stories Dr Estés features and build a storytelling circle of another kind.

I finished the book a few weeks ago, and of all the stories, my mind jagged on The Little Match Girl. I assume different stories will leap out at different women. For me, it was this harrowing tale many will have heard before. Following is my paraphrase of Dr Estés’s version which was told to her by her Aunt Katerina, a woman who migrated to the US after World War 2. She says of her aunt:

During the war, her simple Hungarian farming village had been overrun and occupied three times by three different hostile armies. She always began the tale by saying that soft dreams under hard conditions are no good, that in tough times we must have tough dreams, real dreams …

Following the story are some pointers to Dr Estés’s analysis, which I may include in another post. Her analyses are profound, insightful, but bear in mind that anyone’s response is equally valid.


Once upon a time, there lived a little girl who had neither mother nor father, and she lived in a dark forest. She learned she could buy matches for a half-penny in the village near the forest, and sell them on the street for a full penny. If she sold enough matches, she could buy a crust of bread, return to her hut in the forest and sleep in all the clothes she owned.

Winter came and she was very cold. She had no shoes and her coat was so thin she could see through it. She wandered the streets and begged strangers, would they please buy matches from her? But no one stopped and no one paid her any attention.

One evening, she told herself, “I have matches. I can light a fire and warm myself.” She had no kindling or wood, but she decided to light the matches anyway.

As she struck the first match, it seemed the cold and snow disappeared and in its place was a beautiful room with a great dark green stove. She snuggled up close to the warmth of the stove and it felt heavenly.

Suddenly, the stove went out and she was again sitting in the snow shivering. She struck a second match and, this time, she saw a room with a table and on the table was a goose that had just been cooked. As she reached for the food, the vision disappeared and again she was back sitting in the snow.

She struck a third match and by its light saw a beautiful Christmas tree with thousands of little lights. As she looked up the trunk of this enormous tree, it stretched higher and higher until it reached the heavens, and suddenly a star blazed across the sky, and she remembered her mother had told her that when a soul dies, a star falls.

And out of nowhere her grandmother appeared, so warm and kind, and the child felt happy to see her. The grandmother picked her up and held her close with both arms, and the child was content.

But the grandmother began to fade. And the child struck more and more matches to keep the grandmother with her … and more and more matches to keep the grandmother with her … and more and more … and together she and the grandmother began to rise together up into the sky where there was no cold and no hunger and no pain. And in the morning, between the houses, the child was found still, and gone.


Dr Estés discusses the story from points including these:

  • fantasy as the great anaesthetiser of women
  • the pursuit or non-pursuit of warmth
  • the loss of intention, being frozen
  • finding nurture
  • the difference between comfort and nurture
  • the giving of light for little price
  • the instinct-injured woman
  • the final morphia.

What do you think of the story? Does it speak to you? Does it ravage you as it does me?


Image: Silje Kristin


12 thoughts on “Monday with the Wolves: Little Match Girl

  1. The story reminds me of real children I’ve seen in Tanzania sleeping in traffic circles at night because they feel it’s the safest place for them to be, or children in India rummaging through garbage piles looking for food. Horrific.


  2. I can easily believe that a group could spend two years in discussion of this material. What struck me about the story was that strangers would not buy her matches–they did not see any value in what she had to offer (her little light). This is something that happens to many people, but it happens in a particular way to girls. I remember that when I was about to go to university, I had to take an aptitude test. There was a section of the test dealing with aptitude for engineering, but the girls were told not to fill out this part of the test because engineering was not a field that was open to us. While this is not happening to girls in this part of the world anymore, there are still many messages given to little girls about their capabilities (or lack thereof) and their place in the world. This message gets internalized, and we forget about our true talents and ambitions (our little lights). So, something is frozen in us and cannot move into the world.


    • That aspect chills me too, Mrs Daffodil. The girl, the woman, in great need, and everyone blind to it. And what she has, as you and CPE say, is something priceless — the light, the creative spark, the fire with which great things can be made. But she’s in an environment without nurture or succour — the absence of the kindling and wood, the turned backs — and cannot make anything of her priceless gift. So she begins spending her capital and, without being able to envisage a better future, falls into fantasy.

      The example from your own life is chilling too. It’s exactly the predicament of the match girl in the hostile environment. Horrid.


  3. It is a beautiful story and poetic. The allegorical need for warmth and comfort is in all of us and that’s why it spoke to me (as a non woman). So glad the little girl finally found her warmth and ‘home’ rising upwards, united with her grandpmother, into the wellcoming sky. Of course it is so sad as well, but that’s the reality of life. We all, at difficult times, seek resort to lighting little matches to keep warm. The real sadness is for those that cannot imagine lighting those matches.
    Hungarians are masters story tellers, both in words and music,dance etc. My teacher in art was Hungarian. His name: Desiderius Orban. A great teacher.


    • I’m glad it spoke to you too, Gerard. It’s for everyone, and especially for women.

      You are right, we all at times resort to spending our capital to keep warm. Yet the girl in the story falls into real danger. Because she can’t envisage a better future, she starts spending her capital on purchasing the narcotic of fantasy. The cycle starts — “I’ll just do this …” , then comes the high, and then the come-down. The next cycle ensues — “I’ll just do it one more time …” , the high, the come-down, and so on.

      In the meantime, she is doing nothing different. She remains frozen until death arrives.


  4. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘ if it’s dark, light a candle.’ She said it much better, but you get the idea. When I tried to register for a drafting class, I was told it was only for boys. When I went to apply for a job, I was told I was “too pretty, and I would distract the men”. Quite unbelievable today. When I graduated, it was expected that I would get married and have babies. I did get married, and I did have babies, and then I never let my female students feel they were any less than the men students.


    • On the other hand; I once stood up in the train for a lady who said; “do I look that bad?” I slunk away to the next carriage and it took some years before I had the courage again to offer a seat. Now, of course some stand up for me. Noone ever told me I was too pretty. The closest ‘you are a nice old man’ some weeks ago and I am still, very carefully, living of that.


    • Bravo! I like the way you say that, “I never let my female students feel they were any less than the men students.”

      I don’t know the ER quote but I take it she’s saying something similar to Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her analysis. She talks about these stories as medicine, and the medicine of this story she would give to a woman who’s stuck or one she calls “instinct-injured”. A woman in a match girl situation, she says, must do something new and must find a new environment which nurtures her. In short, she must take action, any action. “If her instincts were intact, her choices would be many. Walk to another town, sneak into a wagon, stow away in a coal cellar.”


  5. An old Japanese saying goes: “Man who say a thing cannot be done, should not interrupt woman doing it.” Such stories are “medicine” as Clarissa says, showing that we can overcome. But I also think we all need appreciation. and The lady on the strain was not appreciative of your kind effort Gerard. Shame on her!


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