Matchless is a fractured fairytale by Gregory Maguire based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Matchless makes for an interesting case study in storytelling.
First, the brief would have been to create a story for ‘all ages’ — for regular NPR listeners to enjoy with their kids. This ain’t easy. How is it done?
Second, Gregory McGuire has invented his own type of fairytale logic. What can a storyteller get away with?
Third, Matchless is a perfect example of techniques such as empathy for a main character, ‘the overview effect’ and linking an animal symbolically to a character.
Everyone can read along with this one because the entire text is available online. NPR release one every year. This ‘re-illumination’* of The Little Match Girl was also turned into a book. It’s binding suggests it will be mostly purchased as gifts. I was given a copy, and it may interest you to know, I was given this book because my friend, a huge McGuire fan, couldn’t stand this one. Too damn depressing, she said. The world’s biggest Wicked fan said that.
*Re-ilumination is McGuire’s word. (I can see why one might reject ‘fractured‘. Often, these new fairytales are fixing something about the story that now seems broken.)
For the printed book, McGuire sketched his own illustrations. This is an illustrated short story rather than a picture book. The graphic design of the book allows for a lot of blank space (green, rather than white). There are few words on each page of text — sometimes a single sentence. The book is smaller than average size, to reflect the miniature world I mention below, and also, probably, so it can be crammed into a stocking.
STORYWORLD OF MATCHLESS
The Pedersens lived in a couple of rooms tacked onto a herring smoke house on an island in the harbor. From their threshold Frederik looked across the water to the prosperous city on the mainland. The town was bedecked with necklaces of evergreen. Setting out across the low stone causeway that joined island to mainland, Frederik caught a whiff of a goose roasting for a holiday luncheon.Matchless: A Christmas Story
Especially in stories about death, writers love islands. There are many examples; just yesterday I wrote about I Kill Giants, so I won’t go into the death/island connection again with Matchless.
Because this is a fishing village, birds are hovering around — seagulls, scavenging. Frederik has a special connection with these scavengers — he himself is a bit of a collector, scavenging the wooden spools when thread’s used up and eventually, the ultimate scavenge: the fateful slipper. Birds are also associated with death in stories — in films, a cut to birds flying away is very often symbolic of death. Some birds are so closely associated with death that there can be no other reading — I’m thinking of ravens. Seagulls are known for their scavenging, though. Frederik = a seagull, for narrative purposes. But why? Because seagulls also live by scavenging on the fringe of society, including on dead things sometimes. While seagulls are generally considered annoying — most of us encounter them only when we’re trying to enjoy a picnic — Frederik, too, is linked to death in this story. The link isn’t strong, but it’s there for those who look, adding an extra dimension. This is the kind of depth which makes this a story with a dual audience. (Children and adults alike.)
McGuire changed New Year to Christmas, but this may simply be because he was contracted to write a Christmas story. He could just as easily have kept it New Year.
The most interesting thing about this setting is the mise en abyme effect, and use of the miniature in storytelling. (See below.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF MATCHLESS
Matchless is a short story of 2,792 words, written in third person which varies — close third person for Frederik, deep third person for the match girl, deep again for section four, which ties the story — and all the characters — up.
When setting out to rewrite a well-known tale, a common tactic is to take a minor character and re-spin the tale from that character’s point-of-view. There is a very minor character in Andersen’s original — the boy who steals the match girl’s shoes.
Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening— the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet. When she left home she had slippers on, it is true; but what was the good of that? They were very large slippers, which her mother had hitherto worn; so large were they; and the poor little thing lost them as she scuffled away across the street, because of two carriages that rolled by dreadfully fast.
One slipper was nowhere to be found; the other had been laid hold of by an urchin, and off he ran with it; he thought it would do capitally for a cradle when he some day or other should have children himself.
the opening of Andersen’s The Little Match Girl
The urchin is so minor that the reader of Matchless may not even realise the connection. Andersen writes as if the urchin might have run off with the slipper despite knowing it belonged to the Match Girl, but in Matchless McGuire has decided to make him unambiguously sympathetic — the boy finds the shoe but he has no idea who it belongs to. The urchin is also more sympathetic now that he has been named: Frederik. Although Andersen’s boy is a minor character, the detail he did provide is an unusually detailed one, and therefore intriguing if you stop to think on it. We get the sense of a paternal sort of boy, already thinking of a time when he’d be a father. This character provides the perfect opportunity for an author to break down gender stereotypes, by depicting a boy who has a caring nature most often associated with mothers.
In Matchless, the match girl’s grandmother is now changed to mother — Andersen makes it clear that the mother is deceased in the opening paragraph (‘which her mother had hitherto worn’ — in an era when peasants wore footwear until they wore out). This is a good choice for a modern audience, who may not necessarily know their grandparents as well as they know their parents — and makes me wonder why Andersen chose grandmother and not mother. Perhaps in the peasant class, grandmothers may well have been closer to the children than the parents, who were forced to work long hours in the pre-labour law era.
The story opens with Frederik and so Frederik becomes our sympathetic hero as well as viewpoint character. He has been written sympathetically in every respect — McGuire gives him a Save The Cat moment when he makes tea for his poor old mother, hoping to warm her up. We’re also naturally sympathetic towards poor people who don’t have money for basics like matches to keep warm. We also quite like ordinary kids. We can relate to them. When McGuire tells us that ‘his fingers were the only clever part of him,’ he’s not only foreshadowing the slightly silly things he’ll do later in the story, but is also creating empathy. Northrop Frye created a hierarchy of ‘relatability’ in characterisation. Frederik falls into the low mimetic category: a human who is just regular. Just to make sure we’re fully on Frederik’s side, McGuire goes that extra mile and has the mother complain about the tea he’s made her. A favour given, returned with a complaint. Frederik is stoic — he offers to boy some more, WITH HIS OWN HARD-EARNED MONEY.
There’s no better way to engender sympathy for a main character. When Tony Soprano takes a stereo system to his old mother in the pilot episode of The Sopranos, the writers make sure we side with Tony. When Skyler complains that Walt has used the wrong bank account to buy stationery supplies, the Breaking Bad writers are doing the same thing. McGuire knew that the reader was coming to this with heavy empathy for the Little Match Girl herself, so he uses every trick in the empathy book to get us to like Frederik.
(Have you noticed the gender of the ungrateful character in each case above? Male main character does something nice for woman; woman complains when he gets it wrong. Audience falls in love with put-upon man. It’s almost like there’s a pattern.)
As is often the case with children in fairytales — and in stories reminiscent of fairytales — Frederik’s biggest shortcoming is his youth, which makes him especially precarious as a member of the peasant class.
Although writers are generally advised to give characters a moral shortcoming as well as a psychological one, this doesn’t always apply to fairytale child heroes, but this boy takes something which may have contributed to a little girl’s death. Though this is a pure accident rather than an act of immorality, it does what any genuine moral shortcoming does to a story — adds an interesting layer. The morality of a character encourages us to ask deeper questions: We don’t have to act out of malice for our actions to affect another person badly. Might something minor we have done have contributed to someone else’s downfall, and we’d never even know it?
The Little Match Girl
I wonder what McGuire’s reasons were for naming the urchin but refusing to name the match girl. Readers with a solid grasp on history will understand the history of erasing women completely from the books, which makes this is an irritating political decision. Naming a character is a heavily symbolic act — the name alone affords humanity.
I can only guess at why McGuire made this decision when writing Matchless, preferencing narrative reasons over political ones; when writers don’t name a character, that character can stand in as proxy for many characters just like them. There would have been many match girls around (if not selling matches then selling baskets, or candles). I’m not sure this argument holds water.
In Matchless McGuire has retained the sense of melodramatic poverty from Andersen’s original, with the descriptions of the abject poverty, exclamations of “Oh!”, ‘wandering this way and that’. If we empathise with Frederik, ’empathy’ is not quite the word for the emotion evoked by the utter misfortune of The Little Match Girl. This character remains one step removed from full empathy — her story is just too terrible. When we read a story about a boy sort of like us who is under-appreciated and underestimated, it’s easier than empathising with Syrian refugees on the six o’clock news, whose misfortune is so heavy as to be unimaginable. The Little Match Girl occupies that space in our minds.
That said, she’s plenty affecting. The Little Match Girl was the most disturbing picture book I owned as a kid. It was the only story I ever heard which ended in a child’s death. I hadn’t realised children could die. (I didn’t see Bambi or Old Yeller or Where The Red Fern Grows — those movies didn’t make it to New Zealand’s TV channels, and if they did I missed them. There was no way of seeing them otherwise.)
Clearly, then, Matchless is Frederik’s story. The Little Match Girl’s section doesn’t let us into her head — not really. It’s not just that McGuire decided not to name her; he decided to hew The Little Match Girl’s narrative to Andersen’s original, which is not about a girl — it’s about poverty. In a story of this length McGuire didn’t have the room to flesh both children out equally. He could either flesh out the girl, or the boy.
There exists a gender imbalance in stories, and a disproportionately large number of stories in which a female character dies to inspire a male character’s arc. However, since McGuire gave us Wicked and has proved himself plenty capable of writing female characters, I will emphasise that this is a general problem with the corpus of literature, not with any individual author, necessarily. Also, you could claim Matchless in its own right is a feminist story: None of the characters are limited by their gender. The boy plays with dolls. That’s the very definition of a feminist story.
For someone in the peasant class, keeping alive is the overriding desire. Homeless people will tell you that just performing the basics of keeping alive takes up the entire day. But have you noticed this desire alone doesn’t make for a complete story? No matter how destitute someone is, writers generally give even the poorest main characters a short term desire. There are several reasons for this:
- Without a desire either fulfilled or unfulfilled, the story can have no end. (Well, you can leave off where you like, but to your audience it won’t feel finished.)
- A desire which is more specific than food/water/shelter individualises a character.
- Readers like to see characters rise bravely above their poverty and hope for something more. I’m not sure what this says about us as a culture. Optimistically, I’d say we like to see poor people as human, and perhaps this allows us to see ourselves as poor. Pessimistically, I’d say we find it supremely uncomfortable to imagine what it’s really like to be poor. We don’t want to go there; we don’t want to imagine ourselves as poor. I try doing the thought experiment where I have absolutely nothing. I find myself thinking, “But I have an education and I could probably go back to a salaried job.” I have to force myself to imagine if I didn’t have the benefit of an education. “But I’m healthy. I could clean people’s houses.” But what if you weren’t healthy? The thought experiment where you spiral right down is not easy to do.
Frederik wants to keep his family warm; he wants to eat (fish), but McGuire has given him this side hobby — an endearing one — in which he collects discarded items to create his own miniature world.
Now this is interesting for a different reason, and relates to the overall setting: The reader is reading a book in the real world about a sub- fairy-tale world which includes an even smaller imaginary world… This is a mise en abyme effect — the kind you get in a dressing room, with mirrors on three sides. This world goes on forever — at least, the illusion goes on forever. McGuire will use this mise en abyme effect later to tie up the story. When he talks about the stars, we are encouraged to regard the entire world as just a small sub-world within something much larger. Astronauts who view Earth from space all describe the psychological effect of seeing the entire world in one view:
The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface.
It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.
The Overview Effect, Wikipedia
McGuire demonstrates in Matchless how authors can attempt a cognitive shift in their audience by making use of the miniature technique.
There’s a universal ideology running throughout narrative, and throughout our culture — that an abundance of imagination trumps abundance of toys. We are universally charmed by characters living in difficult circumstances who make the most of their situation by delving into their minds. McGuire spends a paragraph describing Frederik’s miniature world:
On the planks of the attic floor waited Frederik’s secret: a town hunched on an island, a heap of netting that had washed into his path once when north winds drove the waves clear across the causeway. The houses were made of empty boxes that he’d lifted from merchants’ rubbish bins. Frederik cut out windows and folded the cardboard: perfect hinged shutters. He built eaves out of slates that the wind had liberated from real roofs. He planted trees by poking sprigs of balsam into dollops of boat caulking. Best was the customs house: A gold-papered chocolate gift box sporting a porcelain dome — an upturned bowl of chipped blue china.
We admire Frederik for this even though he seems to subscribe uncritically to the dominant culture’s established hierarchies: In his attic ‘he was not fish-thief, but governor’.
This is basically a quest story — Frederik wants a particular item — he wants a boat for his toy people. (The slipper.) Of course, this slipper represents so much more to Frederik; if his little people aren’t lonely, he won’t be lonely either, up there in his poverty-stricken attic that smells of rotten fish.
Some stories are clearly hero versus baddie. Other stories contain a more balanced web of opposition, in which characters each have their own competing goals (desires). No one acts immorally; fate takes its course. Matchless falls into the latter. Our hero, Frederik, is also the key opponent in the little match girl’s downfall.
Who opposes Frederik? His mother is a cold, unhelpful character who serves as token opposition even though she’s probably doing the best she can for him. The mother’s opposition is clearly shown — she’s a member of the working class, at the beck and call of royalty. It’s interesting that McGuire has humanised the Queen. We don’t normally learn of personal details such as a tendency to step on one’s hems. Royalty in story is often presented as next to god. And the Queen herself is not deliberately evil — she offers Frederik and his sisters food in an act of charity which is nonetheless completely underwhelming. (If she really wanted to help she’d pay his mother more.)
This is an interesting dynamic in its own right: We make token gestures to make ourselves feel better. We take our reusable bags to the supermarket and feel good about saving the environment. We donate ten dollars to the SPCA and imagine we’ve saved a puppy. A child audience won’t necessarily read all that into the scene with the queen, but it is this kind of detail which appeals to a dual audience.
Frederik’s plan is to keep his eye out for something that will do for a boat for his dolls. But he realises somehow that the slipper has been lost. Unable to read, he asks his mother to read the tag.
This is what I mean by weird fairytale logic. It makes sense that she would keep her key in her slipper I guess. However, didn’t women’s clothes from the 1800s contain pockets in the apron? But why The Little Match Girl’s key have an address on it? I suppose this works to our modern minds; the address is written on the key in case it gets lost, which it has. People used to do that a lot more often, I think. (Now I’d avoid it — it’s kind of like writing your passcode on your phone, right?)
This is what Alfred Hitchcock called a ‘refrigerator moment’, because I honestly did not think of this at the time of reading this story. I was perfectly happy with this and glossed past it. It’s only coming back that I notice all this and wonder about it. In short, the label on the key did its job. It’s my own problem that I came back later for more musings. Did it work for you?
In any case, now Frederik plans to return the key and the slipper to its rightful owner. But when he arrives he finds the girl frozen solid and the family quietly grieving, intercepted by a neighbour. This scene reminds me very much of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party.
Frederik’s mother puts the sick baby to her breast. So, I can get past the address on the key thing, but this bit of invented fairytale logic is more egregious because it gets biology wrong. And there is a long, long history of getting female bodies wrong which continues to this day. Women aren’t physically capable of suckling a baby just like that. It requires prolactin. The only possible way the mother could be feeding that hungry baby is if she were employed as a wetnurse, but she’s employed as a seamstress. Perhaps she just meant to comfort the baby, despite the absence of milk. However, comfort alone wouldn’t save them. In early modern times people thought differently about ‘nature’ — what is natural, what is unnatural. It was considered natural for women to have children and breastfeed, but it didn’t have to be their own babies. Our sensibilities have changed around that, though the newish industry of sold breast milk is changing that culture again.
The big struggle scene of The Little Match Girl: When Frederik sees a lost slipper, he is so excited he pounces on it, and doesn’t hear the girl telling him to give it back.
Frederick’s Battle: Finding his way home in bad weather, which we already know can kill.
He is guided home by stars twinkling at him which, to the superstitiously inclined, must be meant for him and him alone. McGuire guides us carefully towards this interpretation. This is a Christmas story after all, so Christian ideas about life after death and Heaven, and loved ones looking down on us, guiding us, is part of the ideology.
When Frederik invites his two step-sisters into the attic to play with his toys we know he has accepted them as family, with help from the dead girl, who would also be family if she hadn’t died of hypothermia. Symbolically, in the attic, they are closer to Heaven and closer to the dead sister. The attic has been transformed from a forgotten, unpleasant space for paupers to a special place closer to paradise.
For more on attics, see Symbolism of the Dream House.