Agency’s 2 Powerful Roles in Dark and Deepest Red

It is no secret that Anna-Marie McLemore is one of my favorite authors. Their Dark and Deepest Red is a triumphant exploration of the past and present’s connection. A story alternating between the sixteenth century and present-day, with a focus on two women coming to terms with their identity and coming into power to have agency over their bodies.

An image of Dark and Deepest Red with the post's title. Agency's Two Powerful Roles in Dark and Deepest Red.


A dual narrative storyline drives this Red Shoes fairytale retelling. At the start of the story, McLemore presents a modern-day town where red shoes come from a special family-run shop. As all the popular girls don these shoes, however, an old spell resurfaces. Every wearer of the red shoes is cursed with ceaseless dancing. In order to break the spell, Emil and Rosela must dig into their past. This leads readers to Lala’s timeline in the 1500s. 

The Red Shoes Fairytale 

Written in the 1800s, the Red Shoes fairytale is about detaching from materialism. Its goal is to prioritize the divine. The main character is Karen, a poor girl with wooden shoes. A wealthier old woman adopts Karen and gifts her a pair of red shoes. As Karen’s first present, the shoes become objects of affection and eventual obsession. 

The narrative presents Karen as a vain person because she values the shoes so much.  After all,  she wears the red shoes to church, which is a place of worship rather than showing off one’s personal possessions.  Karen is punished through the shoes, which force her to dance involuntarily.  The dance is all-consuming, to the point that she misses her adoptive mother’s funeral.

Out of despair, Karen begs for her feet to be cut. But, even detached, her feet keep dancing and lead her to a church, where she spends her life repenting for her vanity. The fairytale concludes with Karen’s redemption.  

Fun fact: did you know that the writer of the Red Shoes fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen, was friends with Charles Dickens? That’s one friendship I’d want to witness for myself. Read more about it here.

Vanessa Thorpe

Interpretations of the Red Shoes Fairytale 

Fairy tales act as a way to teach people about the cornerstone social norms and moral lessons of a community. In the case of the Red Shoes, several lessons stand out. First, there is vanity as a central theme. After all, when Karen has the red shoes, they are described as ones fit for a princess. Suddenly, Karen sees possibilities in social mobility.

These help her gain recognition. The woman who adopts her gifts her the red shoes, which symbolically link her to a different life. She gets an education as a side benefit to her adoption. Therefore, the shoes symbolize Karen’s access to more job opportunities through her new skills and higher-status connections. Mari Ness puts it aptly, “associating red shoes with wealth and stability and beauty—is taken by the old lady to get a new pair of shoes. There, she sees a ready-made pair of shoes just like the ones the princess had been wearing—originally made for, then discarded by, a nobleman’s daughter.”

The shoes are a window to a world beyond Karen’s. They present her with possibilities far beyond her wildest dreams. They lead her to see social mobility. She steps into the shoes of a nobleman’s daughter. Suddenly, she can become educated enough to make her own money and to afford her shoes. She can go places! She can become more than what she was: a girl with wooden shoes. 


Which fairytale do you want to read a retelling of?

Dark and Deepest Red, Racism & Social Immobility

With this awareness of the fairytale’s interpretations, let’s jump into an analysis of Dark and Deepest Red. In both timelines, identity plays a major role. Lala is an immigrant hiding her identity to safely live in her new home. But that means that she lives in fear of being caught. “Lala may be small, but she’s old enough to listen. She knows how many gadje mothers and fathers suspect Romnia of being witches” (4).

Emil and Rosalla have similar discomfort with their heritage because of witchcraft accusations. This discomfort rings throughout Emil’s early chapters. McLemore writes, “He looked at his own hands, at the shade of brown, in a way that felt unfamiliar, unsettled” (9). But this uneasiness comes from social pressure for him to reject his roots. He and his family are othered for having different roots than those around them, much like Lala did. The author explains that in his childhood, Emil innocently asked to set an ancestor table to honor his family during the holidays. They write, “It was everyone else who turned it into summoning ghosts from graveyards” (6).

Emil’s success depends on rejecting his roots. He’d have to be not himself to be socially mobile. This is one thing that the shoes are unable to remove. In the original fairytale, Karen’s race does not play a role in the story which is why Dark and Deepest Red is so powerful. 

The Red Shoes and Agency From A Gender Lens

My favorite parts of Dark and Deepest Red are the parts depicting women moving in socially unacceptable ways. “She carries the look of a saint in stained glass. Pained but transcendent. Eyes cast toward heaven. As though her body remains among them but her spirit has flown” (56).

. “She carries the look of a saint in stained glass. Pained but transcendent. Eyes cast toward heaven. As though her body remains among them but her spirit has flown” (56)

(Anna-Marie McLemore, dark and deepest red, pg. 56)

Women are restricted a lot when it comes to their bodies. Laws criminalize a lot of aspects of women’s bodies as one can see in battles over access to healthcare services and educational resources. The UN writes, “Only 55 per cent [sic] of women are fully empowered to make choices over health care, contraception and the ability to say yes or no to sex.”

It is not only a matter of laws. Some of society’s strongest bonds are embedded as social norms. Let’s push past the pervasiveness of the virgin/whore dichotomy, women are also blamed for being easily tempted. Think of old tales where women are held responsible for some human curiosity. Pandora opened a mystery box and humanity’s demise is pinned on her interest. Eve ate an apple and the weight of humanity’s ability to sin is blamed on her.

This pressure is what the red shoes are kicking at. Women get to move past the social norms and into a frenzied dance beyond rules.

Sexuality and Agency in Both Stories

The red shoes have a connection to a person’s physicality, the expression of one’s identity and beauty. Listen to this stunning quote, “ But if anyone knew what the red shoes had done to me the night before, everyone would blame me, not the odd magic lacing the air in town every year. It would be my body, brown and unknowable, that they would consider at fault.” (96).

Sexuality is rooted in social expectations. Women are expected to be docile, passive, and proper about it. But, Dark and Deepest Red is about women reclaiming what has been robbed from them: agency. It is about finding power in the losses of previous generations. Rosella ultimately finds strength through her abuela, after all. Check this out, “I drove my feet into the ground, dancing in time with the memory of my grandmother’s scissors, flashing silver.” (281).

What is a book you would want to read and discuss with your family (or a friend/friend group)?

Connecting it All to Awareness

The most beautiful part of Dark and Deepest Red is the way it emphasizes power in knowledge. The heroes in the present-day storyline have to learn about their families in the past to understand what the red shoes are doing to them. Part of the red shoes’ power lies in the characters’ ignorance. Not knowing where the red shoes come from, if they had scarred other communities, and finding ways to defeat the curse of the red shoes.

Lastly, in acknowledging all past trauma, we can finally move forward. Here’s one more quote: “Briar Meadow had spent years learning to let go. If you tried to hold on to something past its season, it turned on you. Coywolf pups bit. A reservoir that had been warm enough to swim in froze over. Fireflies caught in jars blew the glass apart with their heart.” (267).

For more discussions of magical stories, check out this post.

See you in my next post!


“Nearly Half of All Women Are Denied Their Bodily Autonomy.” 14 April 2021. Accessed 10 Sept 2023.

Ness, Mari. “Guilt and a Lack of Social Mobility: The Red Shoes” 4 May 2017. Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.

Ruini, Chiara et al. “Positive Narrative Group Psychotherapy: the use of traditional fairy tales to Enhance Psychological Well-being and growth.” Psychology of well-being vol. 4,1 (2014): 13.

Schofield, Paul. “Action and Agency in the Red Shoes.” 25 September 2018. Accessed 24 Dec. 2021.

Thorpe, Vanessa. “How Guest Hans Christian Andersen Destroyed His Friendship With Dickens.” The Guardian. 9 Sept. 2017. Accessed 13 Oct. 2023.

“Woman Artist—Whore Model: Why is the Archetypal of the ‘Red Shoes’ Still Controversial.”

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