Every real story . . . contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers.
Once upon a time (in the early nineteenth century), in a land far, far away (Germany), there lived two brothers—well, five brothers and a sister. Now, although each of these siblings had remained hardworking throughout their lives, and while each of them was admirable, it is only two of the brothers— Jacob and Wilhelm—who will be of concern here, for these two brothers were gentlemen with grand intentions. At this time, both the lands and language belonging to these brothers was being ravaged. Threatened by the menace of globalisation, [End page 55] their cultural heritage was being slowly crushed; and, all of a sudden, the fantastical “far, far away” of their imaginations had begun to look decidedly like France.2 Seeing such an ogre looming before them, the brothers packed themselves a hearty lunch, armed themselves with their sharpest quills, and set forth, travelling around the land and talking to peasants. Collecting these common peoples’ stories, the brothers set about concocting a remedy for their nation’s affliction. Together they faithfully recorded every tale that the peasants conveyed to them, collecting them and printing them in the hope that they could, once again, envisage a Germany that was “far, far away” from France. It was a noble cause, for the brothers were preserving the Germanness of Germany against the budding Frenchness of the rest of the world. And in this way, they imagined, they would defeat this great threat: they would became heroes, prosper, and live happily ever after.
To this day, the Grimm legend is believed to be thus. However, just as the stories contained in the brothers’ Kinder und Hausmärchen collections are imaginary, so is this history a fanciful fiction. Although the Grimm brothers are commonly believed to have collected their tales from peasants and commoners, scholars have repeatedly proved, mostly during the latter half of the last century, that this was not in fact the case. Critics and historians such as Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar, Valerie Paradiz, and John Ellis have all noted that contributions to this collection of fairy tales came predominantly from a group of educated ladies of the Grimms’ acquaintance, including the Grimms’ sister Lotte Grimm, and their friends, the women of the Wild, Hassenpflug, von Haxthausen, von Drote-Hulshoff, and Viehmann families.3 Among these critics, Paradiz for one argues that it was the fervent manner and protective way in which the Grimms guarded the identities of their contributors that permitted the historical myth to arise—that is, they myth in which the brothers are thought to have travelled around the country and collected their stories from common people.4
The homogeneous nature of the Grimm tales and their stylistic coherence supports the proposition that the Grimms [End page 56] were not just the collectors of the stories (as was claimed) but also, at least, their “editors, retellers and adaptors,” for the changes that the Grimms made were more than just stylistic modifications.5 Their editorial procedure, taken together with the evidence of the tales’ sources, is sufficient to undermine any notion that the Grimms’ fairy tales are of folk, peasant, or even necessarily of German origin.6 Through the processes of editing, codifying and translating, the Grimm brothers produced a set of texts that were distinctly characteristic of the nineteenth century, tales that incorporated both “the gender assumptions of the Grimms’ informants and of Wilhelm Grimm himself.”7 While it is commonly observed that the Grimms were searching for a particularly German geist—tales that could serve patriotically as the symbol or spirit of the richness of Germany and its people—the brothers’ editing process created a text that was infused with their own ideological orientations, a worldview defined by the middle-class, bourgeois, patriotic, and patriarchal society in which they lived.
As the tales may be traced to their non-German origins (with multiple versions of each fairy tale easily locatable across multiple continents), it is on the “Grimm-ness” of the tales in Kinder und Hausmärchen that this study will focus. 8 Jack Zipes notes that the Grimms made major changes while editing the tales, such as removing certain sexual elements that they felt may have offended the sensibilities of their middle-class audience. In the first edition of “Rapunzel,” for instance, Rapunzel asks the sorceress to tell her “why it is that my clothes are all too tight” and “no longer fit me.”9 In the first edition, this question serves to reveal Rapunzel’s trysts with the prince and her resulting pregnancy, directly confirming the eponymous protagonist’s sexual activity outside of marriage. By the 1857 edition, however, the brothers had changed the text to remove all traces of this seeming obscenity, with Rapunzel instead enquiring, “Why it is that you are so much heavier to draw up than the young king’s son, who only takes a moment to reach me?”10
The Grimm tales emphasised distinctly gendered roles for male and female protagonists—roles that accorded with the patriarchal codes of the brothers’ contemporaneous milieu. The tales [End page 57] emphasised the traits of passivity, industry, and self-sacrifice in girls, while promoting activity, competition, and the accumulation of wealth to boys. As the archetypal world of the fairy tale invites the reader (or indeed the listener) to embed themselves within its fictive context, so do the archetypical roles that these tales introduce to boys and girls—roles that are highly resistant to change—serve as instructions to the child audience. As Jack Zipes suggests, psychologists and educators alike have amply demonstrated that stories and fairy tales influence the manner in which children understand the world and their place within it. Referring to the influential work of Arthur Applebee, Zipes notes that “story characters become part of a child’s ‘real world’ and form part of their cultural heritage.”11 Accordingly, it follows that fairy tales play an important role in early socialisation and in forming the basis of their ideas about gender and gender relations; and, as various critics have suggested, this is particularly so in the case of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, which have been so pervasive.12
Children are conditioned to accept and conform to arbitrary gender roles, and face consequences if they do not do so, such as gender prejudice.13 Socially reinforced in various ways, gender role expectations prepare girls to be passive, subservient, and self-sacrificial while they prepare boys to be competitive, authoritarian, and ambitious.14 The added air of domesticity that the Grimm brothers’ tales achieve by using what Zipes describes as “diminutives, quaint expressions and cute descriptions” allowed the tales to enter the familial confines of the home and to seem more personal, intimate, and innocent.15 However, by manipulating and subverting the expectations that readers had already formed with regard to the genre of fairy tales—one that had hitherto been used primarily by women to entertain and educate their children—the brothers were able to deliver subtle moral instructions and behavioural guidelines to children, perhaps without offering the explicit moral instruction typically expressed at the dénouement of, say, Perrault’s French tales.16
The simplicity of the Grimms’ tales, and the exclusion of any features that may clutter the narrative unnecessarily, [End page 58] indicates how the tales were carefully and efficiently designed to deliver clear moral instruction to their readers. Lutz Rörich notes that the instructional aspect of fairy tales has been well known for centuries; after all, fairy and folk tales have long served the purposes of the Church, often forming an integral part of priest’s sermons or supplementing its teachings as a secular means of instruction.17 In his book-length study of fairy tales, Bruno Bettelheim has argued that the simplicity of many fairy tales—especially in relation to their simple characterisation of heroes and villains—promotes sympathetic identifications among readers. “The more simple and straightforward a good character,” he writes, “the easier it is for a child to identify with it and to reject the bad other.”18 In more general terms, Bettelheim’s study also shows how “fairy tales have great psychological meaning for children of all ages,” and are often centrally important to the way in which children learn about the world and their place within it.19
Writing some five or six years before Bettelheim, J. R. R. Tolkien foreshadowed Bettelheim’s claim when he argued that the function of fantasy is to lure and hold a reader in a secondary world with its own inner logic and integrity. This process of absorption, Tolkien asserted, gives that secondary world a kind of primacy over the reader, placing them in a position in which they do more than simply will themselves into a suspension of disbelief.20 Indeed, what Tolkien called the “arresting strangeness” of these worlds is a beguiling aspect of fantasy, since they both remove the reader from their own life and yet allow them to confront matters in their own life too. For instance, the quests that these fantasy narratives involve, that their characters embark on, are, while fantastical, almost always fundamentally for normal human needs, such as love, riches, food, as well as for a “happily-ever-after,” and to avoid death.21
Like Bettelheim, the psychologists Steven Fromm implies that fairy tales reflect universal psychic operations among men and women. However, various items of historical evidence demonstrate just how imperfect these tales are as universal representations of the psyche, from the homogeneous nature of the [End page 59] tales, through to the editing and reediting that is apparent in the many changes visible between drafts, to the addition and removal of various aspects of the tales, variously undertaken by the Grimms at different points in time. Indeed, the tales’ histories of emendation indicate that they must be seen rather as the product of a pair of male writers who, as Zipes notes, “projected their values onto the actions of fictitious characters.”22 Following Zipes, the tales may be read less as works of literary expression and imagination and more as tools of the educational system—as instruments within an institutional structure that “indoctrinates children to learn fixed roles and functions within bourgeois society.”23
This paper takes the position that the Grimms’ texts advocate a repressive model of feminine behaviour grounded in the patriarchal bourgeois culture within which the brothers wrote their tales. I make this argument by highlighting the brothers’ prescriptive representation of female characters in their stories, the intended readers of which were largely women and children. Of course, other scholars have advanced similar theses. The literary scholar Elizabeth Harries, for instance, has noted that such Grimm brothers’ figures as Snow White and Ashypet provide patterns for feminine passivity and martyrdom, while the wicked stepmothers, witches, and fairies represent the dangers that powerful women pose to the patriarchal establishment.24
Indeed, each of these representations of woman, both “good” and “bad,” represses and subordinates women equally. That is, the tales provide listeners and readers in their early and formative years with a roadmap of behavioural norms and patterns, gendered expectations, and the punishments they can expect to face in the event that they transgress these prescriptions. Focusing on the operations of these tales, I want to analyse the formal means by which, as Andrea Dworkin suggests, the fantastical worlds of fairy tales have been pivotal in the formation of identities—how their “values and consciousness [are] imprinted on our minds as cultural absolutes long before we were in fact men and women.”25 Writing of the “ancient world” of myth and fantasy that has “formed us,” Dworkin writes that [End page 60]
We ingested it as children whole . . . We have taken the fairy tales of childhood with us into maturity, chewed but still lying in the stomach, as a real identity . . . At some point, the Great Divide took place: they (the boys) dreamed of mounting the Great Steed and buying Snow White from the dwarves: we (the girls) aspired to become that object of every necrophilliac’s lust—the innocent, victimised Sleeping Beauty, beauteous lump of ultimate, sleeping good. Despite ourselves, sometimes knowing unwilling, unable to do otherwise, we act out the roles we were taught.26
Examining the roles and rules that these fairy tales “teach” to us remains important today, especially in light of the contemporary resurgence of fairy tales in various film and television productions. Recently, Disney has released live action big-screen adaptations of previously animated tales alongside their popular Once Upon a Time television series. Recognising such instances of the ongoing reproduction of prescriptive models of gender, this paper aims to examine the primary sources of these narratives— the Grimm fairy tale collections—and argues that these tales aspire to internalise or normalise the codes of bourgeois gender roles endorsed by patriarchal society.
Furthermore, I argue that these tales contrive to pressure women into predefined and predetermined moulds. In particular, I want to show how the most vulnerable and pliable group in the Grimms’ tales—the “maiden figures,” represented by the likes of Ashypet, Little Red Cap, Rapunzel, Briar Rose, and Snow White—are forced into a state of naïvety that requires them to become and remain dependent on men. By representing women in this group as variously subordinate to men, the tales disempower young sympathetic female figures. The tales advocate and normalise: (1) the forced infantilisation of women in general; (2) the deliberate humiliation of women who demonstrate agency outside of the patriarchal order; and (3) the violence enacted on a woman should she fail to conform to the role allocated to her, advocating a right to force such a woman into submission. The article will conclude by asserting that the Brothers Grimm set out to discover, create, and immortalise a particularly German [End page 61] geist that, due to the norms of German society at the time, was also a particularly patriarchal geist: that is, a spirit in the sociocultural milieu that allowed women to be systemically stripped of power and agency.
Historical Social Structures and Female Disempowerment
In the introduction to his Don’t Bet on the Prince, a collection of feminist fairy tales and feminist essays of fairy tales first published in 1986, Zipes explains how various modern creative writers have highlighted the socialising functions played by the Grimms’ fairy tales, often reutilising them in the present day.27 Among the tales Zipes describes, his introduction draws special attention to the feminist fairy tale, which, he observes, typically uses subversive counterexamples to critique the sexist and the racist aspects of the original. So, as Zipes suggests, where many modern writers use parody, the feminist fairy tale critiques the sexist and the racist; and where the former may show innovation, the latter will usually represent a change from archaic attitudes.
Of course, when one considers the functions of fairy tales
in this way, it becomes possible to see the Grimm’s own motivations in the same manner. That is, it becomes possible to consider how the changes that the Grimms made to their stories served their own agendas too. As I have already indicated, Zipes’ study refers to the pathbreaking work of Applebee to show how psychologists have demonstrated that stories influence the way in which children interact with the world and conceive of their place within it.28 In The Child’s Concept of Story: Ages Two to Seventeen, Applebee draws on the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to explain how, as children grow into adolescents, their psychological development means that they are likely to read and interpret these stories differently, now not only to categorising and recognising the various stories’ characters, but identifying with them, analysing both “the structure of the work or the motives of [those] characters.”29 [End page 62] While the first edition of Kinder und Hausmärchen was intended by the Grimms to be a collection of historical literature steeped in German tradition, the later editions took on a different agenda. By the 1819 edition, the tales were published as an Erzehungsbuch—that is, as an educational book—and, through their editing processes, the Grimms began to place an explicit emphasis on the passivity, industry, and self-sacrifice of adolescent girls, traits that are not simply cultivated in these characters but venerated. For example, compare the two passages below, which I take from extracts in Zipes’ book The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World.30 The first is extracted from the edition of“Snow White” in the Olenberg Manuscript, compiled in 1810, whereas the second is extracted from a printed edition of “Snow White.”
When Snow White awoke the next morning, they asked her how she happened to get there. And she told them everything, how her mother, the queen, had left her alone in the woods and gone away. The dwarfs took pity on her and persuaded her to remain with them and do the cooking for them when they went to the mines. However, she was to beware of the queen and not let anyone into the house.
When Snow White woke up, they asked her who she was and how she happened to get into the house. Then she told them how her mother had wanted her put to death, but the hunter had spared her life, and how she had run the entire day and finally arrived at their house. So the dwarfs took pity on her and said, “If you keep house for us and cook, sew, make the beds, wash and knit, and keep everything tidy and clean, you may stay with us, and you will have everything you want. In the evening, when we come home, dinner must be ready. During the day we are in the mines and dig for gold, so you will be alone. Beware the queen and let no one into the house. [End page 63]
Whereas the earlier manuscript includes just one duty for Snow White to perform, only one job that allows her to “earn her keep” (and, even then, the distressed woman seems still to retain some authority, as she has to be persuaded to remain to perform that job by the dwarves), the later manuscript outlines a woman’s role with an entire itinerary of expectations. The implication of the second version is that, should she leave her jobs unattended, Snow White (and woman more generally) will also see her own needs going unfulfilled. Thus, it is quite clear that, by the time the later edition of the fairy tales is published, the figure of Snow White has descended into mortal peril, having been groomed into passivity, subservience, and unquestioning obedience.
Snow White’s labour exchange value brings into focus the related observation that folkloric heroines are often required to toil for their salvation while their male equivalents are allowed access to magic and helpers (devices that the structural narratologist Vladimir Propp called “adjuvants”) to attain their glorious ends.31 For instance, as Maria Tatar suggests, in the Grimms’ tales, women’s docility is often associated their attractiveness. As Tatar writes, “The Grimms seized nearly every available opportunity to emphasise the virtue of hard work and made a point of correlating diligence with beauty and desirability wherever possible.”32 Perhaps the most obvious example of this correlation is in the case of Ashypet, the character who would later be renamed Cinderella. Despite being covered in soot and denied the prospect of going to the ball, Ashypet manages to marry the prince, largely, as we learn, because she does as her dead mother has asked and remains both “godly and good.”33
Such a correlation of obedience and subordination (to both one’s society and parents) with desirability and self-realisation (inasmuch as self-realisation may have then entailed a woman’s marrying a prince) is not to be taken lightly in the early-nineteenth-century patriarchal society in which the tales were first published. In this society, women were inexorably dependants: they were excluded from public-sphere work and had very few options if they sought to earn a wage and to survive by themselves, ever expected to “marry and leave the permanent workforce.”34 [End page 64] Moreover, bourgeois women could only market their educational achievements as governesses and, failing that, would remain dependent on the good will of their male relations or begin a swift slide into poverty, thus encouraged by all circumstances to adopt the role of the “bourgeois housewife.”35 Then as now, such dependence as this necessarily produces docile bodies, where rigid control by one party and reliance by another trains women into a state of deference and permanent infancy.36 At the same time, these roles made clear what women could not be: women were not to possess an inquiring mind, nor to question the authority of their husbands or of any other authority that served to reinforce these established gender norms.
It may be unsurprising, then, that the sins that are committed both by women and children in these fairy tales concern, as Tartar argues, behaviours directly associated with curiosity and disobedience.37 In “The Rose,” the curiosity of a young girl invites death into her home. Curiosity leads the heroine to use a spinning wheel—a metonym for women’s labour— whereupon Briar Rose (later known as Sleeping Beauty) pricks her finger and falls into her deep sleep, a fatal slumber already prophesied by an evil fairy. But curiosity also causes Snow White to succumb to each of her stepmother’s traps, and it causes the wives of Bluebeard to open forbidden doors and thus be placed in mortal peril.38 As well as curiosity, disobedience also attracts the condemnation of the tales. In the tale of “The Wilful Child,” a child who falls sick promptly dies, seemingly for no reason other than that he refuses to obey orders. Disobedience also sees Little Red Cap become a meal for a wolf, along with her grandmother; and similarly, it causes the second sister in “Mother Holle of the Snow” to find herself permanently tarred. Moreover, disobedience leads to the fall and subsequent punishment of the girl for “Our Lady’s Child.” By thus aligning the actions of females with those of children, many of the Grimms’ tales infantilise these adult women. Furthermore, the tales teach us that women who indulge their curiosity or who exhibit disobedience will be led unerringly into peril; they suggest, that is, that adult women require patriarchal supervision. [End page 65]
By contrast, the tales actively encourage curiosity and entrepreneurship in male figures. Briar Rose’s prince, for example, is rewarded with a beautiful bride for his daring industriousness. Likewise, the young king in “Faithful John” is driven by his curiosity to look into the forbidden room; however, his circumstances, unlike those of his female counterparts, are improved by his unorthodox inquisitiveness. Thus, the tales present the traits of curiosity and disobedience as negative only when they inhere in women and children. In this way, the tales allocate women to the same rung in the patriarchal hierarchy as that occupied by dependent children, to one that is distinctly below their male counterparts. The subordination of women in these tales not only highlights the disparity between the sexes in terms of acceptable behaviour, however, but also serves to relegate women to the domestic sphere, transforming them not only into property but prizes that propel the curious male upon his quest.
Outside of the narratives themselves, it is also possible to imagine how the Grimms’ tales subordinated women—and supplanted their voices—in another way. As I suggested earlier, in the early nineteenth century, the primary tellers of the Grimms’ fairy tales would have been women—women who were often engaged in repetitive labour, and who told the tales to their children, grandchildren, wards and students as they carried out their daily tasks. By publishing their collection of tales, the Grimms effectively silenced these women storytellers, supplanting and subordinating their voices. For while these women may still have been the speakers who relayed the stories, the inventiveness, the quirks, and the foibles that these women brought to the tales would have been lost as they began to read them out to their children from the Grimms’ books directly, now less with their own voices than with those of the Grimm brothers.39
An example of the supplantation of the woman’s voice by the text appears in the historical circumstances surrounding the dissemination of tale “Little Red Cap.” The oral versions of the tale, named “The Story of Grandmother” and “The False Grandmother,” were not recorded until 1885 and 1883 respectively; however, folklorists and historians have determined that the oral [End page 66] versions predate the version by Perrault published in 1697 by at least a century.40 According to historical sources, these oral tales, often featured a girl who performed a striptease for the monster (sometimes a wolf, sometimes a bear, and sometimes an ogress); and this girl was usually found lying in her grandmother’s bed. From this precis alone, it is easy to imagine a ribald telling of the tale—and, indeed, the early tales are rife with sexual overtones. Such tales also acted as manifestoes or cautionary stories that instructed young women on how to avoid being raped. The girl protagonists, with their ingenuity and without any outside help, would manage to escape their predators. The stories were thus parables that, albeit with an excess of violence, purported to incorporate practical advice to women about how they might trick a predator or escape from a dangerous situation.41 The nuances of this advice, which was originally doled out to young girls by experienced women, could not be sustained within the writings of the Grimms, for these writings were not only strictly edited but invested with additional ideological and doctrinal meanings related to women’s conduct. For instance, in their version of the tale, the Grimms add an episode in which the wolf once again tries to lure Little Red Cap from the path, except that now the wolf’s demise is planned and executed by women. But for all ingenuity, the women’s diligent enterprise is undercut by the fact that the women of the tale have already been dependent on men: that is, they were required to be rescued by the patriarchal infrastructure, represented as it is by the woodsman. What is more, the tale reinforces women’s obedience: because Little Red Cap has adhered to her socially defined limitations, and has not strayed from the path, she may escape the wolf and its violent attack.
Disempowerment through Voicelessness
While the dissemination and popularity of the Grimms’ tales deprived women storytellers of their unique voices, the tales also often represent women within these tales as voiceless, their speeches and utterances curbed by the story itself, drowned out by the narratorial voice, or problematised in various other [End page 67] ways. In “The Twelve Brothers,” the heroine of the tale is forced into silence, her muteness in fact being required to break a spell that has caused her brothers to assume the forms of ravens anthropomorphically. Though the heroine’s silence leaves her open to accusations of immorality and stupidity, and invites general slander from her mother-in-law, all of which results in her being condemned to death, her silence, curiously, does not prevent her from marrying the king. Throughout the story, the heroine’s silence forms a marked contrast with the mother-inlaw’s clamorous exclamations:
“That’s a common beggar girl you’ve brought home. Who knows what godless tricks she is up to in secret! Even if she is dumb and can’t speak, she could laugh once in a while. But those that do not laugh have a bad conscience.”
At first the king didn’t want to believe her, but the old woman carried on for so long and accused her of so many wicked things, that at last the king allowed himself to be persuaded and condemned her to death.42
Later, as the young queen’s motivations for silence are revealed, it is not she who is punished but the speaking woman—the king’s own mother. In fact, the mother-in-law character will be put into a barrel full of boiling oil and poisonous snakes. And yet, as the above quotation indicates, the king’s mother had not said anything that would be reasonably thought to require such a dire punishment, if any punishment at all. And apart from being labelled a “wicked woman,” there is nothing in the narrative to suggest that she is especially cruel or hostile. Rather, the punishment that is prescribed to the king’s mother may be understood as more generally attributable to her speech acts. In presuming to influence the opinion of the king, the very epitome of patriarchal governance, the mother-in-law commits an incommutable offence, destabilising the foundation of the patriarch’s masculine power.
In light of the ominous ramifications of speech in “The Twelve Brothers,” the utterances and silences of the female protagonists in other Grimm brothers’ tales deserves our critical attention. Another illustrative example occurs in “Our Lady’s [End page 68] Child,” sometimes known as “The Virgin Mary’s Child.”43 As with the young queen of “The Twelve Brothers,” the female protagonist in “Our Lady’s Child” is forced to live in an oppressive silence. Born into relative poverty, the maiden is saved from near-certain death by the Virgin Mary, who volunteers to take the maiden from her poor parents, who cannot feed her. Now living in heaven, the maiden is temporarily made a kind of caretaker of the chambers, and is entrusted with keys to the thirteen doors that exist within heaven while the Virgin Mary travels abroad. Before the Virgin Mary leaves, she instructs the maiden that she may open any one of twelve doors and marvel at what she discovers on the other side; however, she is forbidden from opening a thirteenth door. Succumbing to temptation, and defying the Virgin Mary’s instructions, the maiden opens the forbidden door, finding the Holy Trinity inside, “sitting in fire and splendour.”44 On her return, the Virgin Mary, suspecting that the maiden has opened the forbidden door, challenges the maiden about her transgression. The girl compounds her offence by lying, and is banished by the Virgin Mary to the forest back on Earth, where she finds that her voice has been taken from her, and she is incapable of speech. Ironically, the now-silent girl is discovered by a king, who—despite that she cannot speak—finds her beautiful, and takes her to his home to marry her. Here, as in “The Twelve Brothers,” the heroine’s silence serves to secure a desirable marriage, thereby reinforcing the notion that women are favoured by fate, and by men, when they remain silent.
However, this is not the end of the story. When the Virgin Mary visits the now earth-bound maiden in about a year’s time, she asks the maiden once more whether she will confess her wrongdoing. Defiant still, even without speech, the girl denies once again that she had ever opened the door. The same turn of events repeats, with the Virgin Mary increasingly vexed by the girl’s abiding denials and silences. And finally, in retribution for her continued lies, the Virgin Mary takes from the girl her newborn children. Then, following the Virgin Mary’s punishments, the king is compelled by his impatient councillors to condemn his own wife to death, arranging to have her burnt at a [End page 69]
Figure 1. Speech of women in a selection of female-centered tales.
pyre. It is at this time, when she is finally to face death, that the silent queen finds herself wishing that she could finally confess her wrongdoing: “Oh, before I die, I’d like to confess to the Virgin Mary that I opened the forbidden door in heaven. I’ve been so wicked by denying it all this time!”45 With this thought having passed through the maiden’s mind, the Virgin Mary appears, restores her speech, revives her children, and grants her a free and happy life thereafter. Interestingly, the episode illustrates not only the importance of telling the truth, but of having truthful thoughts; for, after all, it is not the queen’s utterances that save her children and her life—for she remains silent all the while—but her desire to speak the truth: “Since you want to speak the truth,” the Virgin Mary says, “your guilt is forgiven.”46
Throughout many other of the Grimms’ tales, the incidences direct speech of the female protagonists is negatively correlated with their desirability. As demonstrated in the table marked as Figure 1, the tales’ “good women” seldom speak whereas the “wicked women” speak often. Ashypet (Cinderella), for example, speaks only six times within “Cinderella,” and of those six times, she speaks only once to another person—to her father, when he asks her what she would like upon his return home. Cinderella’s stepmother, by contrast, speaks almost twice as many times in many versions—eleven times in total.47 Similarly, in “Rapunzel,” the eponymous protagonist seldom speaks aloud (only twice in the tale), whereas her wicked godmother speaks six times.48 Time and time again, personified evil speaks more frequently than the embodiment of good, which remains quiet. The tales thus subtly demonstrate to the readers that “good women” are silent women, serving to erase women’s presence, diminish their importance, and deny them their agency.
In “King Thrushbeard” a choosy, finicky princess is punished for seeking to choose her own husband.49 The story rises, and then conveys a sense of triumph when the wilful princess, in her attempt to exercise her freewill and agency, is forced to submit to a husband who appears to occupy a lower social station than she: [End page 70]
The minstrel, in his dirty, ragged clothes, came in and sang before the king and his daughter, and when he was finished he asked for a small gift. The king said, “I liked your song so much that I will give you my daughter for a wife.” The king’s daughter took fright, but the king said, “I have taken an oath to give you to the very first beggar, and I will keep it.” Her protests did not help. The priest was called in, and she had to marry the minstrel at once.50
After witnessing the way in which the princess has mocked previous suitors, the reader is encouraged to view her engagement to the “beggar” as a fitting punishment for her fussy haughtiness. Furthermore, as the princess becomes slowly stripped of her dignity and graces, her status diminishes, now wholly defined by and entirely derived from her husband’s social standing. All the pride and desire for agency that had been the princess’ character is now shown up only as hubristic arrogance, with her personal identity left decimated and her royal power having been passively abdicated under the aegis of her father-king.
The systematic humiliation of women is common throughout the Grimms’ tales. Female protagonists such as Ashypet or Snow White, for instance, are modest and meek by nature. However, the fairy tales often highlight and amplify these psychological characteristics, translating them into elements of the plot. In fact, many of the women in the Grimms’ tales are predisposed to humility, but are made even more humble still as the narrative advances. Though they are as varied as the “daughters of millers and daughters of kings,” these fairy tale women, as Tatar notes, “are not merely designated as humble” but “actually humbled in the course of their stories.”51 Of course, the many indignities and severe embarrassments these women suffer means that they are not merely humbled in the tales but degraded and endangered too. As Tatar suggests, to merely describe these women as having been “humbled” by the narratives’ ends is not quite descriptive enough: this word, she writes, is “perhaps too mild a term to use for the many humiliations to which female protagonists must submit” throughout the tales.52 To be sure, those women in the Grimms’ tales who are haughty or arrogant will only very rarely [End page 71] be so fortunate as the bride of King Thrushbeard, whose ending is a relatively happy one: she is, after all, given wealth and status, notwithstanding that she is stripped of her own personality. Rather, most such women are punished.
At the conclusion of “Cinderella,” for instance, when Ashypet’s two proud stepsisters attend the protagonist’s wedding, they are permanently disabled and disfigured:
When the couple went to church, the elder sister was on the right, the younger on the left side: the doves pecked one eye from each one. Later, when they left the church, the elder was on the left, the younger on the right. The doves pecked the other eye from each one. And so they were punished for their wickedness and malice with blindness for the rest of their lives.53
This gruesome moment not only functions as the narrative’s way of exacting vengeance on the sisters, on behalf of Ashypet, for their “wickedness and malice,” but it leaves the sisters both dependent on others in their daily lives and undesirable. In such scenes as these, the tales tend to dwell on the hard and gruelling labours of these women, highlighting the cruel and wounding ways in which they are stripped of their fineries and divested of their social position and status. Each of these women begins the tale in a life of luxury but soon descends into privation, living the impoverished life of a scullery maid. Consider, for instance, the trial that Ashypet faces when she meets her stepsisters, the daughters of her father’s new wife:
“Why should this silly goose be allowed to sit in the parlor with us?” the girls said. “If you want to eat bread, you’ll have to earn it. Out with the kitchen maid!”
They took away her beautiful clothes, dressed her in an old grey smock, and gave her some wooden shoes. “Just look at the proud princess in her finery!” they shouted and laughed, taking her out to the kitchen. From morning until night she had to work hard. Every day, she got up before daybreak to carry water, start the fire, cook, and wash. On top of that the two sisters did everything imag- [End page 72] inable to make her miserable. They ridiculed her and threw peas and lentils into the ashes so that she would have to sit down in the ashes and pick them out. In the evening, when she was completely exhausted from work, she didn’t have a bed but had to lie down next to the hearth in ashes. She always looked so dusty and dirty that people started to call her Cinderella [Ashypet].54
This “humiliation scene,” while typical of scenes in the Grimms’ tales, is especially fast-paced. The tearing, demands, jeers, and taunts all succeed one another quickly, projecting a sense of movement onto the psychological assault that Ashypet experiences, and building such momentum that, by the time we are faced with the image of the sooty little girl, asleep at the hearth, we are struck by the sense of stillness of it all. In this way, the language itself reflects the anxiety and stress of Ashypet, and the fact that her only respite from these assaults—from the chores and the jeers—is sleep. Moreover, the location of the child during this moment makes the maiden glow as though framed by the warm radiance of the dying embers, imbuing her persona with an ethereal quality. And the humiliations, which Ashypet suffers silently and without resistance, amplify this sense of warmth, thus rendering her more attractive and appealing.
In many ways, Cinderella is not just a maligned woman who is condemned to silence but a beautiful sufferer whose misery ultimately places her in a privileged position, one wherein she finds herself admired by a prince. Indeed, as Marcia Lieberman suggests, “the child who dreams of being a Cinderella dreams perforce not only of being chosen and elevated by a prince, but also of being a glamorous sufferer or victim.”55 Cinderella’s story thus illustrates the way in which a humiliated woman, a woman in distress, is at once interesting and desirable to the privileged male. Similarly, the Grimms’ “The Goose Girl” demonstrates that a powerful and successful woman is less attractive than a silent female sufferer. In this tale, the reader not only witnesses the humiliation of the young princess, who discovers that the prince has married her servant, but later discovers that the king will instantly dispose of the prince’s false wife by way of a [End page 73] gruesome death. The sentencing of the princess’ servant to death is a punishment for her deception: the servant had posed as the princess herself, and by that means had won the prince’s favour. Additionally, the princess’ servant had manipulated the princess, convincing her to remain silent about her identity theft. When the king orchestrates a means by which to extract the truth from the real princess, and thereby discovers the servant’s treachery, the king orders that the servant is killed so that the prince may marry his rightful bride: the frail and meek woman who has been silent all along. Consequently, the strength and power of the princess’ servant is associated with wickedness, treachery, and repugnance, while the travails and suffering of the real princess is venerated, depicted as not only attractive but morally virtuous— and, at least in effect, more powerful again.56
Restricting Power by Repressing Female Sexuality
With the issue of power in mind, we may now turn to the way in which women’s sexuality is repressed in the tales, and note that, in these stories, women are effectively denied the power that emanates from the functions and qualities of their bodies. It is no coincidence that whenever a maiden becomes curious, for instance, they are a child who is on the cusp adolescence, and more or less possessed by the reverie of sexual awakening that comes with puberty. As I have already noted, the Grimms fastidiously edited the tales that they collected; however, it should now be added that many of these changes sought to excise from the stories any references or allusions to women’s sex and sexuality. While it can be argued that these changes were made so as to better suit a young readership unprepared for these sexual notions, it is also true that the first edition of the Kinder und Hausmächen was intended as a work of literary history rather than of literary fairy tales. As Zipes notes, the brothers’ aim was
to write a history of old German Poesie and to demonstrate how Kunstpoesie (“cultivated literature”) evolved out of [End page 74] traditional folk material and myths and how Kunstpoesie had gradually forced Naturpoesie (tales, legends, fables, anecdotes, and so on) to recede during the Renaissance and take refuge among the folk in oral traditions.57
Furthermore, Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou Counte du temps passé, Avec des Moralities, which was expressly intended for children, retained some of the more oblique sexual references—many more, at least, than the Grimms retained in their version. In Perrault’s version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, for instance, the narrative largely adheres to the traditional oral tale of “The Story of Grandmother,” a tale in which the wolf instructs the girl to get undressed and hop into bed with him.58 By contrast, the Grimms’ version omits both the maiden’s undressing scene and the wolf’s request to get into bed with her. Consequently, where the maiden had once triumphed against the wolf-figure by utilising her sexual allure—that is, by delivering a performance of seduction—and so distracting the wolf, the Grimm version supresses female sexuality together with any allusion to it, and instead depicts a female victim who requires a male rescuer.59
In the unprinted 1810 manuscript of “The Frog Prince,” the princess is forced to let the frog into her bedchambers. However, once the frog is in the chambers, we learn that
she seized him and threw him with all her strength against the wall in her bed. But as he hit the wall, he fell down into the bed and lay there as a handsome prince, and the king’s daughter lay down with him.60
The first printed version, by contrast, depicts the frog as falling to the bed, whereupon the princess accepts him as her “dear companion,” realising that “she cherished him as she had promised,” and after which “they went to sleep contentedly together.”61 By the second edition, the frog no longer lands on the bed when after bring dashed against the wall; and neither do the pair sleep together, at least not until he “became rightfully and with her father’s approval, her dear companion and husband,” after which they again fall asleep contentedly.62 Having compared [End page 75] only these extracts, it should be clear that the Grimms undertook something of a sanitising process while editing the manuscripts, removing any trace of sexual relations between these two unwed people. Nevertheless, in so doing, the brothers also relegated the princess to the status of a mere chattel, reinforcing the patriarchal norm by which a woman’s petitioner—a prospective husband—requires that woman’s father’s permission to marry; and, further, the Grimms’ amendments worked to deny the frog princess the agency and power that had been conferred on her in the earlier versions, in which she is depicted in the midst of a sexual awakening.
In “Briar Rose,” the eponymous protagonist pricks her finger on a spindle on her fifteenth birthday; but the blood that wells on the maiden’s finger is not just a pinprick but an allusion to her first menstrual period. Any textual intimation of the maiden’s awakening into puberty is swiftly interrupted and then erased, however, as the maiden is made to fall asleep for a century—an event that ensures she shall remain pure and virginal. Of course, while Briar Rose’s long slumber will do well to maintain her purity in a metaphorical sense, it will also mean that she is forever infantilised. “Briar Rose” thus depicts a society that forces a fifteen-year-old girl into a state of utter naivety, not only by keeping from her the fact that an angry fairy had cursed her, and had willed her to death at the age of fifteen, but by keeping from her the larger metaphorical secret of her own psychosexual development. Instead of educating the protagonist and its readers, “Briar Rose” venerates sleep and ignorance, romanticising the maiden’s artificially maintained purity, which is depicted not just as the stuff of legends but as an ideal to which others should aspire.
While the Grimms’ version of the tales set out to deliberately repress any liberating expression of women’s sexuality, they also sought to curb or disguise sexual themes even in their cautionary forms. “Little Red Cap,” for instance, demonstrates the lurking threat of rape to every young woman who strays from the “good path.” The “swallowing whole” of Little Red Cap and her grandmother has been interpreted as a “symbolic [End page 76] double rape”—a motif that was also adopted by the 1996 film adaptation of the fairy tale titled Freeway, wherein the sexual predator does indeed rape the grandmother and attempts to rape the Little Red Cap of the adaptation.63 In this way, “Little Red Cap” adheres to the transgression/punishment model that I have already described. Moreover, the psychoanalytic critics Bruno Bettelheim and Steven Fromm have suggested that the colour red, which is traditionally associated with sin, lust, passion, and blood, alludes in the case of Little Red Cap, to a “certain complicity in her seduction.”64 First introduced in Perrault’s version of the tale in 1697, the red cap was a man’s creation, perhaps reflecting something of the anxiety that men of seventeenth-century France may have had on the subject of women’s sexuality.65 Moreover, the males of the tale—the woodsman and the wolf—are Little Red Cap’s tempter and punisher, desired and desiring, loathed and loathing. Of course, the red hood is retained in the Grimms’s version of the tales, suggesting the brothers’ affinity with Perrault’s symbolic language; although it is notable that the Grimms erase the playful eroticism of the oral tales while retaining this symbol of sexual anxiety. All in all, “Little Red Cap” is a cautionary tale about the threat of rape. It teaches young women, as Susan Brownmiller suggests, that there are “frightening male figures abroad in the woods,” and that women, who are weak and vulnerable, “are helpless before them.”66 Not just vulnerable to sexual assault, however, the women of the tales are also governed by males in all directions: they are reliant on the woodsman to protect them from the male threat represented by the wolf.
But in the Grimms’ tales, the threat of violence not only controls and oppresses women while they are young, but continues to threaten them even into their marriages. In other words, where there is a marriage, so is there an implicit narrative of sexual relations—as well as more besides. In “Bluebeard,” “The Robber Bridegroom,” and “The Fitcher’s Bird,” for instance, the characters’ marriages, as well their sexual encounters, are always imbued with the underlying threat of murder. In Bettelheim’s analysis of “Bluebird,” the critic posits that Bluebeard’s murdered wives must have been killed because they were unfaithful; after [End page 77] all, as Bettelheim notes, the primary reason that a woman was sentenced to capital punishment was, at the time of “Bluebeard,” marital infidelity.67 Thus, even where the tales are concerned with the kidnapping, rape, and murder of women, guilt—in the form of both blame and punishment—is imputed to the woman. Thus, the moral system that underlies the tales—a system that exacts violence on women—operates implicitly to blame women for their misfortunes, enacting an archetypal form of victim blaming.68 Time and again, the tales suggest that disobedience, as an act of free will, puts girls at risk; and, by that fact alone, the tales typically exculpate these women’s rapists and abusers. As I have argued throughout this article, by characterising disobedience in this way, the tales routinely repress women’s sexuality, strip them of power and agency, and render them dependent for their safety on the very men who threaten them.
By creating a homogeneous female protagonist who is characterised by her waiting, suffering, helplessness, and obedience, the Grimms offer their readers a clear model of maidenhood, and caution women readers against departing from the model so provided. At the same time, the tales strip every heroine of her individuality, divest her of her power and agency, and thereby ensure her complicity in the patriarchal structure. In this way, each of the tales I have analysed deliver a succinct lesson to their women readers: If you are industrious, pure of heart, and remain obedient, you will be rewarded. He will find you and carry you off to the good kingdom—a place not threatened by the wiles and guiles of female duplicity.69
About the Author
Sabina Rahman graduated from the University of Sydney with a bachelor’s degree in Media and Communications, majoring in English and Film Studies. She has also completed an MA at the same institution, and holds an MPhil degree, for which she produced a thesis concerning the engagement of the early Robin Hood ballads with the three estates of medieval society. Rahman is currently a PhD candidate at Macquarie University, examining the representation of Robin Hood in film and television.