Tagged: Issue 2 Vol 4

Misery and Mistress: The Politics of Fantasy in Fairy Tales

“They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die.
I’ll wink and couch; no man their works must eye.”
-William Shakespeare, in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Childhood is incomplete without the delicious nectar of fantasy, stories, and fairy tales. Childhood is the stage when the boundaries between fantasy and reality, truth and illusion become blurred. And thanks to Walt Disney, the fairy tale characters have become more magnificent through the magic of animation. Generally, fairy tales are seen as a vital source of entertainment, they cater to the child’s imagination and allow him or her to enter a fantastic world of rich palaces, evil monsters and a whole lot of heroic adventures. But the question one might want to raise- are these stories as innocent as the children themselves? In other words, they may look simple on the surface, but analyzed critically, we find that they are indeed skilfully crafted and strongly rooted in gender stereotypes and social prejudices. Under the guise of fantasy, they strongly reinforce the socially constructed ideas of the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ thereby celebrating male power and domination while upholding female decorum and subordination. They speak the language of conduct books; they instruct even as they entertain. This paper looks closely at some of the Grimm’s tales such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Red Riding Hood’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and so on in order to trace certain recurrent patterns and motifs that reflect women’s position in a patriarchal society.

Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm were best known for the collection of over two hundred German folk tales, published in two volumes of Nursery and Household Tales in 1812 and 1814. And Edgar Taylor made the first English translation in 1823 thereby popularizing these tales in Victorian England. The fairy tale heroines, be it the princess or the poor orphan, represent the perfect feminine ideals of purity, domesticity and propriety, in the manner of the Victorian ‘angel in the house’. But the ‘pure’ must have a ‘fallen’ counterpart and the fallen Magdalene is shown through the figures of the malicious, devilish ‘stepmother’ and also the witch. In fact, it is interesting to note that the stepmother is the most essential character in the stories and she is never redeemed. In my view, she is used in order to highlight the importance of maternity and motherhood. She represents everything that an ideal mother must not be. The heroine is usually powerless to confront the evils that threaten her, just like the ‘damsel in distress’ figure in Gothic fiction. She is rescued by an external power, which can be a fairy or a god-mother but most of the times, it is a “handsome prince” whose arrival marks the end of all her woes. Finally, her virtue is rewarded as the story conveniently ends with a happy marriage, absorbing the young woman once again within the patriarchal system.

Cinderella is portrayed as a plain, simple, wretched maiden ill-treated by her cruel step-mother. But the kind fairy transforms her into a beautiful and gorgeous lady, enabling her to enter the aristocratic society symbolized by the ‘prince’ and the ‘palace’. The fairy can be seen as a surrogate mother figure. To my mind, Cinderella’s “slipper” in the story becomes important because it shows us how a woman is objectified and fetishized in a patriarchal society as Cinderella’s identity and destiny is solely determined by this trivial, material object. The ‘prince’ figure acts as a powerful symbol of gender and class. As mentioned earlier, he represents the patriarchal authority. At the same time, he also carries a class signature. He exposes the murky contract between ‘money’ and ‘matrimony’; he is the prototype of the Darcys and Bingleys in Jane Austen’s novels and pampers the idea of women gaining social mobility only through marriage. I agree with Micael Clarke who draws connections between Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the Grimm’s Cinderella . Bronte seems to have used some elements of the fairy tale genre but she strongly negates the feminine stereotype. The novel begins by showing Jane as a ‘Cinderella’ like figure, a poor orphan ill-treated by her aunt Mrs Reed who acts as the cruel ‘step-mother’. But unlike Cinderella, she charts a heroic journey confronting the world on her own and comes back to her lover as his equal, not as his inferior. She is the one who protects and not the one who is protected.

Almost all the stories strongly emphasize the ‘feminine beauty ideal’. Beauty is seen both in physical as well as in the spiritual sense and it is interesting that the heroines are gifted with both. Most of the time, their physical beauty invites danger- they become victims of witchcraft or sorcery yet their inner beauty guards them from harm. We see this at work in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. The wicked stepmother lacks inner beauty, she is full of malice and the ‘magic mirror’ reveals and also threatens her narcissism. On the other hand, her step-daughter, Snow White seems to represent purity and virginity, keeping in mind the colour symbolism. In the forest, the seven dwarfs act as her male guardians protecting her whenever her life is in danger while she herself excels in the art of domesticity. The story has a typical ending. Though she consumes the red apple and faints, she is saved when her coffin breaks and the apple comes out of her mouth. The witch dies and finally we hear the wedding bells. In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar have analyzed the ‘Snow White’ tale in order to argue how the literary tropes of the ‘angel’ and the rebellious, monstrous, ‘madwoman’ represent the two aspects of femininity. The monster woman represents the angel’s rebellious self. “The monster may not only be concealed behind the angel, she may actually turn out to reside within (or in the lower half of) the angel.”(Gilbert and Gubar 29) In other words, like Bronte’s Bertha Mason and Jane Eyre, the wicked stepmother is both Snow White’s self and her opposite. The Queen struggles to free herself from the passive snow White in herself, where as Snow white must struggle to repress the assertive Queen in herself

In ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Little Briar Rose is wounded by a spindle and falls asleep for a hundred years as she has been cursed by a witch. She wakes up from her deep sleep when a prince comes and kisses her. This can be seen as a sexual awakening. The story also reflects the larger gender politics which create a binary between the ‘active’ and the ‘passive’. The masculine is associated with activity and action where as the feminine is characterized by passivity and inaction. Briar Rose’s passivity is metaphorically represented by her sleep. She has been confined to her palace, unknown to the public world. She is a mystery and a wonder, just like Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’. According to psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, many fairy tale heroes, at a crucial point in their development, fall into a deep sleep or are reborn. Each reawakening or re-birth symbolizes the reaching of a higher stage of maturity and understanding. (Bettelheim 214).

In ‘Beauty and the Beast’ we see a kind of inversion .It is Beauty who comes and ends the curse, thereby transforming the Beast into a handsome prince. This again reminds us of Jane Eyre where at the end of the novel, Jane becomes the redeemer whereas her lover, the blind Mr.Rochester is the one who is redeemed, just like the beast in the tale. Beauty is shown to us as the perfect daughter and now she will be the perfect wife. She stakes her own freedom as the curse ends after she agrees to marry him. Bettelheim points out that the marital union in a fairy tale symbolizes the integration of separate aspects of the personality and discordant tendencies of the male and the female. It also symbolizes moral unity. The marriage of Beauty and the Beast can be seen as the “humanization and socialization of the id by the superego”. (Bettelheim 309)

The story of Red Riding Hood is explicitly didactic, preaching a code of conduct for young, innocent girls. It has sexual undertones as well. For instance, the emphasis on ‘red’ hints at her adolescent sexuality. The wolf in the story can be seen as the representative of the lusty, male predator and his act of devouring the grandmother and attacking the girl seems like a sexual assault or an attempt to rape. On the other hand, the hunter who comes and kills the wolf can be seen as a protective father figure. We have seen how the forest or wilderness acts as a recurrent motif even in the other tales like Snow White, Hansel and Gretel and so on. The wilderness seems to represent the dangers of the world in the form of material and sexual temptation. As it lacks the protection of the civilized society, women should avoid the path of wilderness. In psychoanalysis, forest represents the dark forces of the unconscious mind.

In ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, we are shown how a young woman is caught up in a triple web of oppression and is controlled by male power and authority. Within the short span of the story itself, we see her in the three roles of the daughter, the wife and the mother. Firstly, it is her own father who exploits her in order to raise his status. He lies to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king too uses her to satisfy his greed, he shuts her in a room and orders her to spin for three nights. A goblin comes and helps her but he has his share of greed too. In return for his favour, he demands her ring, her necklace and finally claims her first new born child. However, he lays down the condition that if she is able to find out his name, he will give up his claim. But in the whole process, a woman has lost her selfhood, identity and agency. She doesn’t even have a name. Both the king and the goblin desire control over her body, they metaphorically strip her and make her a ‘commodity’.

‘Hansel and Gretel’ is one of the very few stories where we have a smart and brave heroine. Initially, in the story, when the siblings are left all alone in the forest, Hansel becomes his sister’s guardian and reassures her when she feels threatened. But when they are trapped by the nasty witch in the strange cottage, it is Gretel who saves her brother, by burning the witch in the oven. Both the cruel step-mother and the witch, who belong to the ‘fallen women’ category, are destroyed at the end. Bruno Bettelheim argues that fairy tales deal with four basic elements- ‘fantasy’, ‘recovery’, ‘escape’ and ‘consolation’. They take the child on a trip on to a wondrous world and at the end they also return him back to reality in a most reassuring manner. “Although these stories are ‘unreal’, they are not ‘untrue’. What these stories tell about does not happen, it must happen as inner experience and personal development.” (Bettelheim 73) In other words, they respond to the child’s inner reality, offering in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence.

The points raised in this paper finally move towards the conclusion that the element of fantasy in the fairy tales is strongly imbued with the ideology of gender and class. These stories can indeed influence any child who reads or listens to them as he/she begins to internalize the patriarchal norms and accepts its comfortable stereotypes. On the whole, fantasy is not just an inversion of reality, it is also the reaffirmation of reality.


Bibliography –

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tales. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1976.
Clarke, Micael M. “Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the Grimms’ Cinderella.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol.40, No.4, The Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 2000), pp.695-710. JSTOR. 11 November, 2009 .
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer And The Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979


Deeptangshu Das
M.A (Final) English
St. Stephen’s College
University of Delhi


Author’s Note: This paper was presented at Logos (2009-2010), the Annual Festival of the English Literary Society, St. Stephen’s College.