Bread in Hell

Inge’s punishment

There’s a fairy tale I read when I was about eight or nine, and it has really stayed with me over the years. It’s not one that comes up very much… “The Girl Who Stepped on a Loaf.”

I had to Google its origins… originally, it was written by Hans Christian Andersen.

The gist of the story is that there was a little girl named Inge, who was the most beautiful person in the world. People would come from all over just to stare at her. Eventually she was “hired” by a rich family, but they didn’t have her do any work. They just dressed her up and continued to display her. Needless to say, this ruined her character, and she became known for cruelty as much as her beauty. But nothing changed in the way she was treated. Then the rich family sent her to visit her mother with a loaf of bread as a gift. It had rained before Inge started the journey, and she soon came to a puddle. She used the bread meant for her mother as a stepping stone, was frozen to it, and sank into Hell, where she remained, stuck in the act of stepping on the loaf. On Earth, the people who stared at and spoiled Inge laughed at her, and used her as a cautionary tale to frighten their own children into good behavior. For years, she suffered there, learning her lesson over and over, wishing something could be different. Only one little girl expressed pity for her, and prayed for her to receive mercy. As a result of those prayers, Inge was released from Hell, and changed into a bird.

I could come at this fairy tale from so many angles… the objectification, the self-satisfied blaming, the theology… but I’ll only come at it from two.

I’ll start with the blaming. That’s always been kind of a sticking point for me. Probably because of the school I went to. One of my history teachers insisted that the passengers aboard the Lusitania were at fault for being on the ship, and by implication, deserved to be torpedoed. When one of my English classes had a segment on Greek mythology, the teacher made us all agree that Persephone deserved to be kidnapped and forced to be Hades’ wife for daring to stop to pick flowers in a field.

What the hell is wrong with them? Seriously.

Anyway… Inge is clearly somewhat culpable in her fate. She used her mother’s food as a stepping stone, which is indefensible. But, she didn’t get to that point in her life without help. And even the people who liked her in life, her mother, and foster family, don’t look at their contributions to her fault at all. They only say “oh, if only she hadn’t been such a bad person” not “gee, maybe we should have treated her like a person instead of a painting and actually disciplined her.” In fact, the only person who brings that up in the entire story is Inge herself, while in Hell. She wishes she’d been punished for her misdeeds on Earth, so that she could have learned better and not stepped on the loaf.

You could frame it, as her not wanting to accept blame onto herself, but she does condemn herself. And she is right. She was not raised. And as soon as she became a liability, the people who’d professed to love her, didn’t hesitate to throw her under the anachronistic bus. It evokes celebrity culture, definitely, but it’s also a sad truth about people. They don’t want to admit when they’ve been wrong, and it’s easy to throw a mess into someone else’s lap, especially if they can’t defend themselves. It’s even a joke in my family. If something goes wrong, we’ll laugh and say, “It’s Aunt Cathy’s fault, because she’s not here.” Dark humor, I guess.

And now for the theology.

What comes to mind clearly is Jesus’ words to the disciples, post Ressurection. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:23).”

That’s weighty responsibility, and we see if played out in Andersen’s fairy tale. When Inge is condemned by everyone who had admired her in life, she is literally damned. But when the child asks for forgiveness, she is forgiven.

The retain and forgive is honestly pretty disturbing… how many people do we neglect to forgive in an average day? I work in a call center, and my forgiveness numbers aren’t that great, if I’m brutally honest. And think of other cultural examples of this forgiveness admonition. The Tom and Jerry cartoon “Heavenly Puss” asserts that Tom will go to hell unless Jerry forgives him, and it takes Jerry a long time to understand the stakes. Tom’s terror is palpable.

But back to the fairy tale. The fact that Inge’s salvation comes from a child is also theologically significant. This time from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus admonishes the disciples to become like a child (18:3). To humble themselves, become the lowest thing… and that’s what the forgiving child is. She is expected to sit politely while self-satisfied adults tell her scary stories to keep her in line, but she still has pity for someone in a worse position than her. Unlike countless others before her, she doesn’t kick down. She is this story’s Christ figure.

This story, which is a cautionary tale against pride and vanity, still subverts the formula. The finger shakers aren’t the heroes, and the villain-protagonist learns something that no one else does. And the little girl, the child, holds the insight that everyone else lacks. When someone goes wrong, we shouldn’t just take delight in their wrongness and make fun of them. In fact, blaming them only, and not examining yourself in the process, is to engage in another wrong. We are called to forgive, even though it is incredibly difficult.  Could any of us stand up to the scrutiny of making our worst mistake a cautionary bedtime story? Without the option of forgiveness, where would any of us be?