Fairy tales have existed for hundreds of years in multiple cultures. They serve as an insightful view into the customs and beliefs of the time and culture in which they were written. For instance, Charles Perrault’s version of the tale “Hansel and Gretel” offers readers insight into what it meant to be lower class during the seventeenth century in France. Though it is a fictional story about child abandonment, this situation was a possible reality for anyone who was reading it. In this way, the writers and tellers of fairy tales were able to touch on elements of interest that would hold their audience’s attention.
However, this is not the case in the twenty-first century. Although child abandonment still happens today, it is not nearly as widespread as it had been in the seventeenth century. The fairy tales seem to no longer offer this element of realism that may have initially captured its audience. Yet, they remain popular hundreds of years after they were written and in a culture they were not written for. In 1937, Walt Disney commenced his hugely successful movie collection by remaking the story of Snow White. This collection has continued being successful to this day with titles such as “Beauty and the Beast”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Peter Pan”, and “Cinderella”. All of these are re-tellings of classic fairy tales that were welcomed by American culture with open arms.
This continued success of fairy tales points towards some sort of element held within these tales that captures the American ethos. The mirroring of American ideals in these tales has contributed to their continued success. This point may be overlooked since the stories were written in different cultures. One may think that they can only reflect the customs and ideals of the culture in which they were written. However, the argument laid out here is meant to support the idea that the appeal of these tales lies in the ways in which they mirror American ideals, not necessarily that the ideals held within are inherently American. That being said, the fairy tale keys in to key elements of the American ethos such as both their notions of morality, family, and individualism.
Morality certainly plays a big role in the fairy tale and in American culture. America has some kind of obsession with morality. These strong feelings of right and wrong are apparent in war. America judges what is wrong and declares war on a country who is threatening to compromise what is right. Take America’s war on terrorism for instance. Terrorism (seen undeniably wrong in American culture) has been said to stand in opposition to American security (seen as undeniably right). Thus, the importance of morality in America is evident in their drive to impose their moral code on other countries. As Samuel Huntington says in his essay “American Ideals Versus American Institutions”, “Historically, Americans have generally believed in the universal validity of their values” (22). American feelings of morality are so ingrained they are thought of as universal.
American feelings of morality are particularly pertinent in raising children in America. Through religious instruction, law, and the structure of school and society, children are instructed how to conduct themselves in American culture all the way through their education. They are given a strong sense of morality in American terms. An example of this strong sense of morality is in the typical phrases that nearly all Americans are familiar with. Phrases such as “What goes around comes around” or “Do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you” are such an integral part of a child’s education in America that nearly every person who has come up in the public school system knows them and attempts to follow them as moral advice. Thus, fairy tales in America are used in most cases as providing children a cautionary tale, telling them what they should or should not do.
Indeed, some of the fairy tales that have been written seem to be intended as cautionary tales, providing great examples of morality for children. The idea of retribution, or a punishment for a wrong, is one theme that the American ethos and fairy tales have in common. As the authors of “Folktales Commonly Told American and Japanese Children” writes, “Stories… strongly emphasize justice and retribution” (Lanham and Shimura 40). Laws in America play this role in society, offering what are considered fair punishments for various transgressions. This common theme between America and fairy tales is one of the factors that has contributed to their continued success.
Thus, the typical American first encounters the fairy tale as a tale of moral instruction, a cautionary tale. This is, for a large part, an effort of editors who have filtered what is included in their anthologies so that they may be more accessible to students and children of America. Betty Lanham and Masao Shimura make this point when they say, “The narratives must be revised into morally acceptable versions which may serve to train the child the proper ethical precepts” (33). They add that publishers collaborate with educators and that they will only print what sells.
Even though this process deprives children of some of the more enriching tales, it turns out that most of the fairy tales in existence actually support this kind of moral code. The fairy tale motif tends to “inculcate general attitudes and principles, such as diligence and filial piety, and to ridicule laziness, rebelliousness, and snobbishness” (Bascom 345). They support the goods of hard work and faith and denounce the evils of inequality and failure to be ambitious. In America, it is not right to look down on people as inferior (snobbishness), a citizen can not live without putting something in to society (laziness), and it is impolite to disrespect one’s elders (rebelliousness). Whereas ambition (diligence) and strong faith (filial piety) are hailed as good qualities to have.
In many of these morally rich tales, the theme of retribution is included. This theme is also included in the American ethos. As Lanham and Shimura write, “”In the United States the admission that one is wrong causes a ‘loss of face'” (44). Rumpelstiltskin in the story that shares the same name written by the Grimms has an experience that is highly symbolic of this “loss of face”. He threatens to take the queen’s baby only to be foiled in the end by her exposing his name. When this happens, Rumpelstiltskin, “stamped so ferociously with his right foot that his leg went deep into the ground up to his waist. Then he grabbed the other foot angrily with both hands and ripped himself in two” (Zipes 628). The fact that the queen gains power over Rumpelstiltskin by naming him should not be overlooked. Rumpelstiltskin is not only the name of the antagonist in this story, but it is the name given to this horrible deed in the world of the story. Rumpelstiltskin is a baby-snatcher, threatening to take away the queen’s very future with his own hands. By naming this sin that Rumpelstiltskin is creating, she is gaining power over it. In the end, Rumpelstiltskin must disappear because his crime has been revealed before the world. He has been named and so has his transgression. The only way for Rumpelstiltskin to deal with this “loss of face” is to get rid of his face altogether.
Charles Perrault, a French author of fairy tales, is particularly concerned about morality. His tales always end with a moral intending to instruct children on where to look in the tale for moral instruction. His version of “Cinderella” entitled “Donkeyskin”, for instance, shows a father who is punished by the disappearance of his daughter as a repercussion for the sexual advances he makes towards her. The moral he includes at the end of his tale reads, “It is not difficult to see that the moral to this story teaches children that it is better to expose yourself to harsh adversity than to neglect your duty” (Tatar 116). This is in reference to the main character’s decision to hide in a disguise under donkey skin in order to win the prince’s heart. While the Cinderella figure is in the donkey skin, she is the epitome of servitude. She first looks for work wherever it is needed, attempting to be a diligent citizen as the moral code instructs her. When she is finally employed, she is ridiculed incessantly for her hideous disguise, but she takes it all without retaliating in any way, exemplifying temperance and restraint. Above all, she seems content with her servitude, enjoying the little pleasures she gets in life like getting to dress up on Sundays. This appeals to an American audience who believe that citizens should be content with their lot in life and that they should always treat others with respect (example being the adage “Do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you”).
In another version of “Cinderella” by Perrault entitled “Cinderella; or, The Glass Slipper”, the theme of forgiveness is more than apparent. When the sisters of the Cinderella figure find out that she is the one that fits the glass slipper, “They threw themselves at her feet begging her pardon for the harsh treatment they had made her endure” (Zipes 453). They do this in order to redeem themselves of their mistreatment of Cinderella earlier in the story. This appeals to an American audience that believes deeply in repentance for sins. When a citizen causes harm to another citizen, it is expected that they should try their hardest to make amends. For instance, when a person takes legal action against another person, they are seeking reparations for a wrong they believe the other person has done to them. Forgiveness or repentance happens in this situation when the person who committed the wrong gives up some kind of monetary or legal compensation. It is the proper thing to do and Cinderella’s sisters can not avoid groveling at Cinderella’s feet. They are, supposedly, ladies of propriety who follow the social code. However, they overlook their transgressions until the realization of their wrong.
Perrault’s version of “Sleeping Beauty” also seems to be a cautionary tale. Firstly, there is retribution in the tale when the ogress who tries to eat Sleeping Beauty’s children is ultimately “devoured by the horrible reptiles that she had commanded to be placed there” (Zipes 695). Here, also, we see an element that appeals to the American ethos of “othering” that will be discussed later. Most importantly, however, we see a message aimed at young girls about chastity and purity. Perrault’s conclusion of a moral at the end of this tale points towards this reading. He writes,
To wait so long
And want a man refined and strong
Is not at all uncommon.
And yet to wait one hundred years
Without a tear, without a care,
Makes for a very rare woman. (Zipes 695)
The inclusion of this moral points to the fact that Sleeping Beauty’s sleep is only a metaphorical representation of her abstinence until she finds her “true love. True love is the only way to wake her from this non-sexual state. Otherwise, she is forever stuck in a state of sleep or purity. While she is sleeping, she is a being that can commit no evils, thus preserving her purity. The prince knows that she is faithful to him because she has been in this pure state up until he has met her. This is something that American culture also values. One of the most respected women in American culture, the Virgin Mary,
was revered for her purity. She allegedly gave birth to the Son of God through the Immaculate Conception, conceiving without compromising her purity through sexual relations. In America, this kind of woman is the idyllic kind. In fairy tales, “Women are either paragons of virtue or, at the opposite extreme, witches and cruel stepmothers” (Lanham and Shimura 38). In a broad sense, the view of women in America works much the same way. There are desirable characteristics that make women more attractive to men and other characteristics that drive men away. In effect, there is the good woman and the bad woman. Purity would be one characteristic that the former would display.
Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” seems to offer even more instruction for young girls. The impression given in this version of the story is that Little Red Riding Hood’s disobedience to her mother leads her to have an encounter with the wolf that ultimately leads to her being eaten by the antagonist. Thus the tale seems to be about honoring the word and following the advice of one’s parents. In America, this value is also important. The fifth commandment in Christianity states “Honor thy father and mother”. Also, American children under the age of eighteen are subject to the will of their parents. The power that is given to the parents in this situation points towards the importance of honoring one’s parents in American culture. Another American ideal that can be found in this tale happens to be another adage that nearly all American citizens are aware of. “Don’t talk to strangers” resonates when Perrault writes for his moral,
From this story one learns that children,
Especially young girls,
Pretty, well-bred, and genteel,
Are wrong to listen to just anyone. (Tatar 13)
This insinuates that Little Red Riding Hood deserved her end because she talked to the shady figure of the wolf. This tale then serves as instruction for young girls not to talk to strangers. Indeed, the figure of the wolf in many versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” almost seems like a sexual predator, beckoning Little Red Riding Hood to remove her clothes before she lies down beside him in grandmother’s bed. Thus, instructing young girls to stay away from strangers is meant to prevent victimization of young women at the hand of a sexual predator.
Many tales are actually aimed specifically towards instructing young girls how to act properly. In Jack Zipes’s fairy tale anthology there is a whole section entitled “Rewards and Punishments for Good and Bad Girls”. In this section, there are five stories that all seem to relay the same basic message: an instruction on how proper girls are supposed to behave. In the introduction there is an explanation on the story’s origin. Zipes writes about the tale, “It was widespread in both the oral and the literary tradition throughout the world from the fifteenth century on, largely because of its simple moral statement” (Zipes 543). In each story, the “good” girl is rewarded with prizes such as jewels falling from her mouth when she speaks which, in turn, helps her find a husband. She is rewarded these gifts by fairy figures because when given a choice of gifts, she chooses the humblest gift. She is not greedy or selfish like her “evil” sister who is punished by such curses are spitting out vipers and toads when she speaks. When she is given the choice, her selfishness shows as she picks the most extravagant gift from the fairies. Thus, the tale instructs young girls to stay away from selfishness and vanity. This kind of instruction works well in America where benevolence and equality are valued. As the authors of “Folktales Commonly Told American and Japanese Children” write, “The people of… the United States emphasize benevolence, generosity, refraining from envy, and kindliness” (Lanham and Shimura 40). Thus, the kind of benevolence and selflessness that is displayed by the “good” girl is something that Americans attempt to teach young children in their society.
Another element of fairy tales that contributes to their continued success in America is the use of overt violence and deviant sexuality. These elements do not directly represent an element of the American ethos, but instead the element of American culture that requires its citizens to keep certain subjects hidden. An example of this would be America’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals in the military. There are certain subjects that are taboo to talk about in everyday culture,
but are okay to represent through the various media of art. The spectacle of overt violence or deviant sexuality sparks interest in the American reader. The curiosities they can not discuss with their friends and family, they can satiate through reading fairy tales. There is a level of intrigue, in violence particularly, that has been taken advantage of in the movie industry recently. Movies such as Saw or Hostel that have been released recently take advantage of making spectacle out of overtly grotesque violence. The gore of these films intrigued American audiences, much the same way that fairy tales do the same thing.
Even though this overt violence seems to contradict with the American ethos, realizing what is taboo and thus seeming to repel that audience, reading a fairy tale lets the reader escape from the social constraints placed on them. In the world of the tale, such material is not taboo and thus okay to bring to the reader’s attention. As William Bascom writes, “Some of the contradictions between folklore and culture are thus explained as wish fulfillment or escape from sexual taboos on a fantasy level by mechanisms comparable to those found in dreams or daydreams” (340). These portrayals of sex and violence play to an American’s sub conscience, allowing readers to see what they can only “dream” of. Bascom goes on to say, “Folklore reveals man’s frustrations and attempts to escape in fantasy from repressions imposed upon him by society” (343). He goes on to call fairy tales a “projective system”. Through fairy tales, Americans can read about sex and violence that would otherwise be hidden from them by societal constraints.
Fairy tales written by the Grimms are particularly gory. Maria Tatar writes, “More often, the Grimms made a point of adding or intensifying violent episodes” (Tatar 365). She mentions that readers will find it hard to deal with the bloody violence and incest held within the stories, yet the versions of fairy tales told by the Grimms remain popular in America today. In fact, a movie was released in 2005 entitled The Brothers Grimm starring popular actor Matt Damon as Wilhelm Grimm. Even though the themes of violence are blown out of proportion in these versions, Americans still find themselves somewhat intrigued in what they hold. Overt violence seemingly appears in fairy tales in one of two ways. The first is as a punishment for a transgression. This not only satiates the American desire for retribution, but also seems to be a manifestation of what the reader wants to happen to the antagonists of these stories. There is a level of satisfaction in the thought that unspeakably violent things will happen to those that transgress. For instance, in the version of “Cinderella” written by the Grimm Brothers, the step-sisters who mistreated Cinderella earlier in the story each have their eyes pecked out by doves in the end. The reader feels that they deserve such punishment for their transgressions. In a way, the reader gets a sick satisfaction out of this bloody act. A reader must grimace at the detail, but comes to understand that these things are meant to happen to “bad” people. The same kind of thing happens in their version of “Snow White”. The “evil” stepmother attends Sleeping Beauty’s wedding reception in the end of the story and is forced to wear hot iron shoes. She then is forced to dance in the iron shoes “until she dropped to the ground dead” (Tatar 89). For attempting to kill Sleeping Beauty, the stepmother is in a position to subject herself to the most awful of tortures. This feeds into the American adage “What goes around comes around”. In a variation of Hansel and Gretel written by the Brothers Grimm entitled “The Juniper Tree”, the stepmother eventually gets a millstone dropped on her head because she kills the little boy in the story. It is the little boy that drops this millstone, crushing the stepmother and exacting justice on his assailant. These stories do what the reader wants to do to the antagonists. In a way, this repulsive violence draws in its American readers, validating itself by committing these acts on terrible people. While the reader may want to look away, or skip over such violent behavior, the sense of justice associated with the act is enough to keep them reading intently.
The second way in which violence is used in fairy tales helps to make the first way work. Sometimes in fairy tales there seems to be an act of violence that is entirely unwarranted. One example is in “The Juniper Tree” when the stepmother slays her son, chops him up into bits, and serves him to
her husband in a stew because she hates him for the sole fact that he will inherit a part of her husband’s fortune when he dies. This act has no redeeming qualities. It repulses the reader without offering any kind of redeeming quality. Another example of this is in the various versions of “Bluebeard”. In this tale the antagonist, Bluebeard, threatens to kill the main character for her simple transgression of curiosity. Though she has done nothing to threaten Bluebeard’s well-being, he attempts to kill her because she has found his secret room hiding the corpses of his previous wives. In “The Maiden Without Hands” by Giambattista Basile, the main character’s hands are cut off because her father, a miller, makes a deal with the Devil. She is an innocent bystander made victim by the evil forces in the story. In “The Story of Grandmother”, a tale told in the oral tradition and discovered by French folklorist Paul Delarue, the wolf cuts the grandmother up into pieces and tricks the little girl into consuming the remains of her dead relative. The incorporation of ogres in some of these fairy tales is also interesting to point out. Ogres nearly always have the inherent need to eat children in these fairy tales. These children rarely do anything to deserve to be the target of such an act. Also, as children they tend to be seen as the most innocent characters in a story. Thus, the repulsion of this act is immense and makes the reader cringe.
The purpose of these seemingly senseless acts of violence is to vilify those that commit them. In this way, the second act of violence bringing about the antagonist’s demise seems all the more warranted. Violence begets violence. In America, this logic holds true. Those who commit acts of violence in American culture are always in trouble unless the act was carried out in self-defense. The violence committed by the main characters of these tales is justified in almost the same way in which killing someone in self-defense is acceptable in American culture.
This element of fairy tales also keys in to the American need to “other” certain people. As Huntington writes in his essay, “American political values in some measure embodied the wave of the future, that what America believed in would at some point be what the entire civilized world would believe in” (17). Americans have involved themselves in international affairs for a long time, intending to impress their ethos on other nations. There is a mentality in the United States that certain other countries do things “wrong” and that this is “bad. They “other” the people who behave this way. This ties in with the ogre theme in fairy tales. Ogres embody this “othering” quality of the American ethos. Virtually nothing is known about the origins of these creatures in fairy tales, yet one thing is always certain: They eat children. This flattens the ogre’s character so that all readers think about when they come across this character is that they are evil. Thus, a villain is created. Where there is evil, good can prevail. Without evil there is no conflict. In America’s war on terror, this type of logic makes sense. In order for America (good) to prevail there needs to be a Middle East (“evil”).
Themes of deviant sexuality also exist in some of the fairy tales in existence today. Usually, this takes the form of an incestuous act that drives the child away. This ties in with Freudian concepts in America. Though it is reversed, concepts of incestuous desires are apparent in American culture. In fairy tales this theme is more than apparent. In versions of “Cinderella” such as “Donkeyskin” and “Thousandfurs” the sexual advances of the father drive the main character to assume a disguise. In a way this disguise is worn to mask the shame that the main character feels. The act of incest has lead to a degeneration in the main character’s stature. She becomes a primitive being, one that embodies servitude and lacks any agency. In a way, this incestuous act has destroyed her very being. In “The Maiden Without Hands”, the main character, Penta, is both driven away and mutilated by her brother’s sexual advances. This is the same effect as “Donkeyskin” and “Thousandfurs” had. Penta is not truly whole after her brother’s inappropriate sexual advances. She is deformed in a way that makes her unable to function normally. In the various versions of “The Little Red Riding Hood”, the wolf often requires Little Red Riding Hood to remover her clothes and lie in the grandmother’s bed with him. Since the wolf is assuming the grandmother’s identity in a way by wearing her clothes and imitating her voice, this can also be seen as an incestuous act. The moment when the wolf asks her to jump into bed is the moment that things start to seem a bit funny to Little Red Riding Hood. Hence, her litany of questions commences (such as “But what big teeth you have, grandmother”). The unnatural act that the wolf asks of her leads Little Red Riding Hood to discover the unfamiliarity she has with the setting.
Themes of family are also prevalent in both the fairy tale and the American ethos. As Maria Tatar writes, “The nuclear family furnishes the fairy tale’s main cast of characters just as the family constitutes its most common subject” (Tatar 369). Familial bonds are strong in the fairy tale. The ultimate conclusion of many of the tales is marriage to a prince that can end financial woes and loneliness. Marriage is the “happily ever after”. Otherwise, happiness does not happen in fairy tales. There is no doubt that the familial unit is of great importance in American culture. Families are expected to act as a cohesive unit, with the parents being responsible for their children’s actions and families expected to live together under one roof. In addition, a lot of emphasis is put on children and the future in America. Families set aside college funds for their children and have the expectation that the children will surpass the parents in terms of success. This is a result of the social mobility in America.
This same emphasis is put on children in fairy tales. For instance, in the version of “Cinderella” by the brothers Grimm, Cinderella’s stepmother urges her own children to cut off the heels of their feet to trick the prince into marrying them. She says, “Cut off part of your heel. Once you’re queen, you won’t need to go on foot any more” (Tatar 121). The stepmother expects her children to go to great lengths to obtain success. This is a reflection of her expectations that her children will become more successful than her. The familial relationships in fairy tales extend even beyond death. One version of “Cinderella” entitled “The Story of the Black Cow” tells the tale of a little boy whose mother dies in the first line of the story. An evil stepmother takes her place and she is always unkind to the little boy. It seems as if the boy is doomed for a life of servitude and sorrow until he meets a black cow. The black cow speaks in such a way that it can only be seen as a second incarnation of the dead mother. The cow says to the boy, “Do not weep, my child, but get up on my back, and I will carry you to a place of safety where we can still be together” (Tatar 126). Thus, this story conveys the idea that there is safety and comfort in family. The intruding stepmother who refuses to become a part of this family threatens the boy’s sense of security. Americans find security in their homes and with their families.
Fairy tales key in to the American ethos. This is the reason that they have remained popular today even though they were written hundreds of years ago and in different cultures and languages. As William Bascom writes, “Folklore, like language, is a mirror of culture and incorporates descriptions of the details of ceremonies, institutions and technology, as well as the expression of beliefs and attitudes” (337). Within these tales from different cultures, American ideals are still apparent. This lends to the theory of the collective unconscious by Carl Jung. Even cultures across the world and hundreds of years before the establishment of the United States of America can capture some of the ideals that Americans hold dear in their culture. There is no skirting around the fact that fairy tales have taken the role of cautionary tales in American culture. They still play an integral part in the education of American youth. An argument could be made that the universalities held within fairy tales can extend even years after this essay is written. They have endured the test of time thus far because of the way they can appeal to any culture.
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