Back when Saturday Night Live was good, it had a skit in which a young man was wearing shoes that danced uncontrollably whenever they heard music. The implication was that he couldn't remove them. What I remember most clearly is while he was making cereal for breakfast, music started playing. Up in the air and all over the kitchen went the bowl, cereal, milk and spoon, as he twitched spastically and spun in circles.
I wonder if that skit was partly based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Red Shoes? "Partly," because if true, it was so abbreviated and incomplete that, compared to Anderson's tale, it was almost meaningless. Although, unlike the fairy tale, it was funny. The fairy tale is deadly serious. Whether humorous or serious, both illustrate a horror that everyone wants to avoid: being mired in something from which you cannot escape.
The image of the red shoes is striking. It resonates with many: why else did Dorothy wear red shoes? Why did Elvis Costello write a song about angels wearing red shoes? Why The Red Shoe Diaries? Are all in some degree based on the Anderson story?
The tragedy that befalls the young man in the skit also strikes the young woman in the fairy tale. Unable to remove her red shoes, she dances night and day, down roads and through fields.
Fairy tales are more than just children's entertainment. They were originally meant to both entertain and educate, to impart age-old wisdom in the form of short, easily told stories. The bulk of that wisdom warns that most of our problems are self-inflicted, and that they are easily escaped.
My opinion is that the tale needs to be rewritten, in order to make it clearer and bring it up to date. Even so, there are still a lot of accurate observations in it, which is about a young woman who is given a pair of red shoes. She's not supposed to wear them to church, but does. She's supposed to wear black shoes.
You get a clue what's wrong with her on the first page: "People said she was pretty, but her mirror said, 'You are more than pretty! You are lovely!'"
That's more of a clue than it sounds like. She looks in the mirror, the way Narcissus looked at his reflection in the water, and like him, thinks more of herself than others do, even though others think very highly of her.
She's self-absorbed. She lives in her own little world and pays no attention to the opinions of her betters. That's why she wore her red shoes to church instead of her black ones.
The second clue comes on the next page, when in church she "thought only about her red shoes." Again, this shows how self-absorbed she was. Self-absorbed people are almost invariably selfish and irresponsible, which is why she wears her red shoes to church when she knows it's against the better judgment of others. She is afflicted with what the Bible calls "pride."
Even though people tell her she should not wear her red shoes to church, she "looked at the black shoes and then at the red ones. Then she looked again at the red – and at last put them on."
Even though she is fully aware, and has been warned, that she should not wear her red shoes to church, she still does. She consciously makes the choice to be self-centered and immature. "...she thought only of the red shoes," the story reads. "She seemed to see them floating before her eyes."
She finds later she cannot get the shoes off. Worse, they began to dance. She dances day and night, though the countryside. Unable to stop dancing, she has the shoes cut off, with her feet in them. The shoes dance away.
Relieved, she says, "Now, then, I have suffered enough. I should think I am quite as good as many who sit holding their heads so high in church." What happens? The shoes come dancing back to her. This time, with "real repentance in her heart," she gives up her pride and self-centeredness.
There is a profound message to this fairy tale. The young woman, being childish and self-centered, illustrates the Biblical saying, "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." The Greeks would call what happened to her Hubris followed by Nemesis.
Her red shoes are a symbol of the destruction that follows vainglorious pride. The full sequence that the Greeks outlined is Koros (stability) to Hubris (excessive pride) to Ate (a kind of "madness") to Nemesis (destruction).
The fairy tale clearly shows that the young woman's excessive self-centeredness and lack of concern for others is a kind of madness. The lesson is that it is kind of madness for anyone, because in that self-absorption, immaturity, and irresponsibility, other people always cease to be fully human. The afflicted then makes one catastrophic mistake after another, because they live in their own closed world, unaware of the lives of others. The self-centered, in their hubris, always ignore wise advice.
To use concepts from modern psychology, we can look at what Lawrence Kohlberg said about the "egocentric judgment" of those who morally remain children: "The child makes judgments of good on the basis of what he likes and wants and what helps him, and bad on the basis of what he does not like and what hurts him. He has no concept of rules or of obligations to obey or to conform to independent of his wish."
That is an exact description of the young woman in The Red Shoes. She had "no concept of rules or of obligations to obey." She was self-absorbed, childish and irresponsible. She thought she was right, no matter how many wiser people warned her she wasn't. What followed, as it always does, was nemesis.
The only thing that halted her destruction was giving up her hubris. Repentance and atonement. Unless a self-centered, childish, irresponsible person repents and atones, some kind of destruction invariably follows.
In other words, all that is necessary is to take off the red shoes, before it is too late.