First, Andersen establishes a brutal setting for her: "It was dreadfully cold; it was snowing fast, and was almost dark." To make matters worse, she is bareheaded and barefooted, having lost her excessively large slippers running across a street to escape the carriages that "were passing terribly fast." Now, her feet are "red and blue with cold." As if these descriptions of the dreadful cold, the terrible speed of the frightening carriages, and the painful visual imagery of her frozen feet are not enough, the narrator tells us, "Poor little girl! Shivering with cold and hunger she crept along, a perfect picture of misery."
Not only is the child rendered terribly sympathetic by word choices such as these, she also begins to smell savory roasted goose from a house she is passing, contrasting painfully with her hunger and need. She huddles against a wall, and, to warm herself, she lights her matches one by one, imagining the feast inside the home, the beautifully trimmed Christmas tree, and, finally—lighting an entire bundle so the vision will not fade—her grandmother, "the only person who had loved her." The child goes to God in the arms of her grandmother, with "neither hunger nor cold, nor care." She is found smiling—and dead—in the morning.
Thus, Andersen elicits our sympathy with the harsh winter setting, the child's abject poverty, careful word choice, vivid description and imagery, and the juxtaposition of the child's reality with her fantasy. Even the fact that he chooses a child as the main character elicits more sympathy than would an adult protagonist.