This is one of my favourites, a parable of rare insight. Presently, I shouldn't perhaps be using my own words and explanations - but let the story speak for itself:
The Red Shoes
THERE was once a little girl,—a very nice, pretty little girl. But in summer she had to go barefoot, because she was poor, and in winter she wore thick wooden shoes, so that her little instep became quite red, altogether red.
In the middle of the village lived an old shoemaker’s wife; she sat and sewed, as well as she could, a pair of little shoes, of old strips of red cloth; they were clumsy enough, but well meant, and the little girl was to have them. The little girl’s name was Karen.
On the day when her mother was buried she received the red shoes and wore them for the first time. They were certainly not suited for mourning; but she had no others, and therefore thrust her little bare feet into them and walked behind the plain deal coffin.
Suddenly a great carriage came by, and in the carriage sat an old lady: she looked at the little girl and felt pity for her, and said to the clergyman,—
“Give me the little girl, and I will provide for her.”
Karen thought this was for the sake of the shoes; but the Old Lady declared they were hideous; and they were burned. But Karen herself was clothed neatly and properly: she was taught to read and to sew, and the people said she was agreeable. But her mirror said, “You are much more than agreeable; you are beautiful.”
Once the Queen travelled through the country, and had her little daughter with her; and the daughter was a Princess. And the people flocked toward the castle, and Karen too was among them; and the little Princess stood in a fine white dress at a window, and let herself be gazed at. She had neither train nor golden crown, but she wore splendid red morocco shoes; they were certainly far handsomer than those the shoemaker’s wife had made for little Karen. Nothing in the world can compare with red shoes!
Now Karen was old enough to be confirmed: new clothes were made for her, and she was to have new shoes. The rich shoemaker in the town took the measure of her little feet; this was done in his own house, in his little room, and there stood great glass cases with neat shoes and shining boots. It had quite a charming appearance, but the Old Lady could not see well, and therefore took no pleasure in it. Among the shoes stood a red pair, just like those which the Princess had worn. How beautiful they were! The shoemaker also said they had been made for a count’s child, but they had not fitted.
“That must be patent leather,” observed the Old Lady, “the shoes shine so!”
“Yes, they shine!” replied Karen; and they fitted her, and were bought. But the Old Lady did not know that they were red; for she would never have allowed Karen to go to her Confirmation in red shoes; and that is what Karen did.
Every one was looking at her shoes. And when she went across the church porch, toward the door of the choir, it seemed to her as if the old pictures on the tombstones, the portraits of clergymen and clergymen’s wives, in their stiff collars and long black garments, fixed their eyes upon her red shoes. And she thought of her shoes only, when the priest laid his hand upon her head and spoke holy words. And the organ pealed solemnly, the children sang with their fresh sweet voices, and the old precentor sang too; but Karen thought only of her red shoes.
In the afternoon the Old Lady was informed by every one that the shoes were red; and she said it was naughty and unsuitable, and that when Karen went to church in future, she should always go in black shoes, even if they were old.
Next Sunday was Sacrament Sunday. And Karen looked at the black shoes, and she looked at the red ones—looked at them again—and put on the red ones.
The sun shone gloriously; Karen and the Old Lady went along the foot-path through the fields, and it was rather dusty.
By the church door stood an old invalid soldier with a crutch and a long beard; the beard was rather red than white, for it was red altogether; and he bowed down almost to the ground, and asked the Old Lady if he might dust her shoes. And Karen also stretched out her little foot.
“Look what pretty dancing shoes!” said the Old Soldier. “Fit so tightly when you dance!”
And he tapped the soles with his hand. And the Old Lady gave the Soldier an alms, and went into the church with Karen.
And every one in the church looked at Karen’s red shoes, and all the pictures looked at them. And while Karen knelt in the church she only thought of her red shoes; and she forgot to sing her psalm, and forgot to say her prayer.
Now all the people went out of church, and the Old Lady stepped into her carriage. Karen lifted up her foot to step in too; then the Old Soldier said,—
“Look, what beautiful dancing shoes!”
And Karen could not resist: she was obliged to dance a few steps; and when she once began, her legs went on dancing. It was just as though the shoes had obtained power over her. She danced around the corner of the church—she could not help it; the coachman was obliged to run behind her and seize her: he lifted her into the carriage, but her feet went on dancing, so that she kicked the good Old Lady violently. At last they took off her shoes and her legs became quiet.
At home the shoes were put away in a cupboard; but Karen could not resist looking at them.
Now the Old Lady became very ill, and it was said she would not recover. She had to be nursed and waited on; and this was no one’s duty so much as Karen’s. But there was to be a great ball in the town, and Karen was invited. She looked at the Old Lady who could not recover; she looked at the red shoes, and thought there would be no harm in it. She put on the shoes, and that she might do very well; but they went to the ball and began to dance.
But when she wished to go to the right hand, the shoes danced to the left, and when she wanted to go up-stairs, the shoes danced downward, down into the street and out at the town gate. She danced, and was obliged to dance, straight out into the dark wood.
There was something glistening up among the trees, and she thought it was the moon, for she saw a face. But it was the Old Soldier with the red beard: he sat and nodded, and said,—
“Look, what beautiful dancing shoes!”
Then she was frightened, and wanted to throw away the red shoes; but they clung fast to her. And she tore off her stockings: but the shoes had grown fast to her feet. And she danced and was compelled to go dancing over field and meadow, in rain and sunshine, by night and by day; but it was most dreadful at night.
She danced out into the open church-yard; but the dead there do not dance; they have far better things to do. She wished to sit down on the poor man’s grave, where the bitter fern grows; but there was no peace nor rest for her. And when she danced toward the open church door, she saw there an angel in long white garments, with wings that reached from his shoulders to his feet; his countenance was serious and stern, and in his hand he held a sword that was broad and gleaming.
“Thou shalt dance!” he said—“dance on thy red shoes, till thou art pale and cold, and till thy body shrivels to a skeleton. Thou shalt dance from door to door; and where proud, haughty children dwell, shalt thou knock, that they may hear thee, and be afraid of thee! Thou shalt dance, dance!”
“Mercy!” cried Karen.
But she did not hear what the Angel answered, for the shoes carried her away—carried her through the door on to the field, over stock and stone, and she was always obliged to dance.
One morning she danced past a door which she knew well. There was a sound of psalm,—singing within, and a coffin was carried out, adorned with flowers. Then she knew that the Old Lady was dead, and she felt that she was deserted by all, and condemned by the Angel of heaven.
She danced, and was compelled to dance—to dance in the dark night. The shoes carried her on over thorn and brier; she scratched herself till she bled; she danced away across the heath to a little lonely house. Here she knew the executioner dwelt; and she tapped with her fingers on the panes, and called,—
“Come out, come out! I cannot come in, for I must dance!
And the Executioner said,—
“You probably don’t know who I am? I cut off the bad people’s heads with my axe, and mark how my axe rings!”
“Do not strike off my head,” said Karen, “for if you do I cannot repent of my sin. But strike off my feet with the red shoes?”
And then she confessed all her sin, and the Executioner cut off her feet with the red shoes; but the shoes danced away with the little feet over the fields and into the deep forest.
And he cut her a pair of wooden feet, with crutches, and taught her a psalm, which the criminals always sing; and she kissed the hand that had held the axe, and went away across the heath.
“Now I have suffered pain enough for the red shoes,” said she. “Now I will go into the church that they may see me.” And she went quickly toward the church door; but when she came there the red shoes danced before her, so that she was frightened and turned back.
The whole week through she was sorrowful, and wept many bitter tears; but when Sunday came, she said,—
“Now I have suffered and striven enough! I think that I am just as good as many of those who sit in the church and carry their heads high.”
And then she went boldly on; but she did not get farther than the church yard gate before she saw the red shoes dancing along before her: then she was seized with terror, and turned back, and repented of her sin right heartily.
And she went to the parsonage, and begged to be taken there as a servant. She promised to be industrious, and to do all she could: she did not care for wages, and only wished to be under a roof and with good people. The clergyman’s wife pitied her, and took her into her service. And she was industrious and thoughtful. Silently she sat and listened when in the evening the pastor read the Bible aloud. All the little ones were very fond of her; but when they spoke of dress and splendor and beauty she would shake her head.
Next Sunday they all went to church, and she was asked if she wished to go too; but she looked sadly, with tears in her eyes, at her crutches. And then the others went to hear God’s world; but she went alone into her little room, which was only large enough to contain her bed and a chair. And here she sat with her hymn-book; and as she read it with a pious mind, the wind bore the notes of the organ over to her from the church; and she lifted up her face, wet with tears, and said,—
“O Lord, help me!”
Then the sun shone so brightly; and before her stood the Angel in the white garments, the same she had seen that night at the church door. But he no longer grasped the sharp sword: he held a green branch covered with roses; and he touched the ceiling, and it rose up high and wherever he touched it a golden star gleamed forth; and he touched the walls, and they spread forth widely, and she saw the organ which was pealing its rich sounds; and she saw the old pictures of clergymen and their wives; and the congregation sat in the decorated seats, and sang from their hymn-books. The church had come to the poor girl in her narrow room, or her chamber had become a church. She sat in the chair with the rest of the clergyman’s people; and when they had finished the psalm, and looked up, they nodded and said,—
“That was right, that you came here, Karen.”
“It was mercy!” said she.
And the organ sounded its glorious notes; and the children’s voices singing in chorus sounded sweet and lovely; the clear sunshine streamed so warm through the window upon the chair in which Karen sat; and her heart became so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it broke. Her soul flew on the sunbeams to heaven; and there was nobody who asked after the Red Shoes.