CINDERELLA: Selected variants from different historical periods and the way in which stories reflect the culture out of which they arise.
Although hundreds of variants exist of the fairy tale, CINDERELLA, I have chosen, for expediency and as representative of four historical periods, the following versions (course hand-outs): THE CHINESE CINDERELLA, 850 AD; Charles Perrault’s CENDRILLON and d’Aulnoy’s FINETTE CENDRON, contrasting pair, late C17th; Grimm Bros.’ CINDERELLA, C19th; and Disney’s CINDERELLA, C20th. The pairing of the seventeenth century stories will provide a clearer picture of the culture of their era.
There were variants of THE CHINESE CINDERELLA story, but although the heroine’s name may change from Shih Chieh to Yeh-Shen, the components of the fish, magic bones, and slipper remained a constant. There were many elements within the story which disclosed historical cultural information to the reader, who was informed in the opening paragraph that the story was set in pre-dynastical times, among cave-dwelling country and island folk. These were ruled by a chieftain, Shih Chieh’s father, while the more military and powerful of them are ruled directly by a king.
Culturally the reader learns that the status of women was very low in China at that time. The women were under the control of the patriarch/father, or when he was no longer there – as in Shih Chieh’s case – the matriarch/step-mother, unquestioningly carrying out designated tasks. The women were bound together in their subordination to the patriarchy, just as their feet were bound.
Thus in China, where the “lotus foot,” or tiny foot was such a sign of a woman’s worth that the custom of foot-binding developed, the Cinderella tale lays emphasis on an impossibly small slipper as a clue to the heroine’s identity. (Yolen, 1977, p. 298)
The beauty of tiny feet was only in the eye of the male beholder. And when a king decided to marry a woman – in this case, Shih Chieh – it was as good as done. Chinese women were passive, and compliant: “when he [the king] demanded to see her, she appeared ….” and “the king bore her away to his kingdom to be his wife.” (Hume, 1962, p. 2) There was no suggestion of choice for Shih Chieh concerning her future.
Shih Chieh was depicted as “not only beautiful … [but] clever, as well, and always happy” (Hume, 1962, p. 1) – when her father was alive. She showed herself to be obedient to her step-mother’s demands, no matter how unreasonable or dangerous. Yet she was secretive – she hid the fish in her room, then in the pond. Later, when the bones had also been secretly buried, she decked herself in azure gown and gold slippers and, disobediently, followed her stepmother and stepsister to the festival.
Thus the reader sees that she was not completely passive, though obviously subordinate, economically, to her stepmother and step-sister. However, her degree of self-help is founded on the aid rendered to her by the ‘magic’ fish and the ‘angelic’ male stranger who advised her.
Finally, Shih Chieh was incidental to the ending of the story, which was primarily about the fish and the slipper. But her beauty, passivity and luck was rewarded by marriage to the king, who, due to greed, lost the magic bones.
In late seventeenth century France, Charles Perrault and Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy wrote their versions of the Cinderella story – Perrault’s being the most well-known. At that time it was fashionable to take oral folk tales, previously and traditionally told by older women to young girls to prepare them for and assist them over the turbulent initiation into adulthood, and transcribe them to written tales for the entertainment and formal socialization of the aristocracy, and Bourgeoisie, both adults and children.
Perrault’s CENDRILLON/ CINDERELLA OR THE LITTLE GLASS SLIPPER was written tongue-in-cheek, not to be taken seriously,
primarily intended for adult reading, as [he] had made obvious; they were a reflection of the artificial world of court life, though each story was dutifully provided with a moral. (Whalley, 1980, p.141)
He introduced into the tale a godmother, an extra stepsister, animals, a magicked pumpkin, and a time limit set on Cinderella’s ball-attendance. While the fish was omitted from the tale, he made much of the slipper motif.
Cinderella was shown as obedient, compliant, passive and beautiful, only able to get her prince with the assistance of her god-mother, and her magic. Her beauty of face and nature were rewarded, including her forgiveness of her stepsisters’ unkindness and ill-treatment of her.
Cinderella was as good as she was beautiful and she brought her two sisters to live in the palace, and they were married on the self-same day to two great lords at the court. (Perrault, 1697, p. 100 – Hand/Out)
The characteristics of “gentility, grace, and selflessness” Perrault considered socially acceptable for “the well-bred seventeenth century female” (Yolen , 1977,p. 296), and he promoted these in his tales. With the right attributes a woman could attain her highest reward – that of marriage, and financial security – essential for women in that insecure period.
Contrary to Perrault’s version was that of d’Aulnoy, FINETTE CENDRON, which incorporated elements of other tales, such as the Cyclops and Minotaur Greek myths, Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk. A much longer, more complex story than Perrault’s, it involved the journey, both actual and symbolic, of the heroine towards maturity (a right-of-passage story) and marital security. As a female writer, d’Aulnoy presented a different picture of women at that time. Her heroine, Finette Cendron, was “the best-hearted girl in the world” (d’Aulnoy in Zipes, 1989, p. 404), obliging, considerate, mindful of customs, loyal, virtuous, practical, grateful, not greedy, accepting of advice (by her godmother), secretive, gullible, vulnerable, resourceful, courageous, ingenious, lucky, obedient, forgiving, polite with good manners, possessed of common sense, (these attributes are supported throughout the text) and, finally, was able to recognize and use her power to restore her family’s fortune.
And when she told them the names of her father and mother, they recognized them as sovereigns of dominions they had conquered. When they informed Finette of this fact, she immediately vowed that she would not consent to marry the prince until they had restored the estates of her father. (d’Aulnoy in Zipes, 1989,pp. 415 -416)
Finette was a multi-facetted, three-dimensional character, able to control not only her own destiny but that of her family, unlike Perrault’s Cendrillon who had few attributes/facets and was one-dimensional.
D’Aulnoy’s story was to be taken seriously, demonstrating to readers, paricularly girls, that they could control their own destinies, even if marriage and financial security was still the ultimate reward. Her version touched on issues of subordination – women to men, younger to older, lower class to upper class – and that of abandonment, a common economical occurrence at that time. She showed, through Finette, that women were actually far removed from the ideal that Perrault strove to enforce.
In the Grimm Bros.’ version of CINDERELLA the heroine was portrayed as passively submissive to the step-mother and step-sisters. The idea of mother-protection was introduced into the story, in the form of a magic tree planted on her mother’s grave, with a little white bird that “threw down to her what she wished for” (Grimm,1975, p.122). Cinderella was shown to be a little more human, weeping when sad, begging her step-mother to allow her to go to the festival, and endeavouring to complete the allotted tasks, no matter how impossible they seemed in order to do so. The Grimm brothers also introduced the complicity of the birds, without whose assistance Cinderella would have remained in her subjugated position.
Cinderella was rescued from her degradation by the intervention of the King’s son who did not give up his search until he had found the true wearer of the shoe. In this story the depiction of self-mutilation that the step-sisters undertook in order to get their prince, was a reflection, if perhaps an exaggeration, of the lengths a woman would, and should go to, to achieve married status. The tale ended with reward for the heroine for her goodness, beauty, and patience, and with punishment for the step-sisters of blindness meted out by the birds.
Writing in the nineteenth century, the Grimm brothers wanted to use their tales to educated and socialize children, who were to take as their role models the heroes and heroines of the tales. They were precursors for the perfect Aryan race, where all were blonde and blue-eyed, the women passive and domesticated, and the men strong, clever, and in control of society. Their message of reward and punishment was just as important as that of the desired character traits for male and female children.
Disney’s story, CINDERELLA, was a composite of Perrault’s and the Grimms’ stories, with some twentieth century bowdlerization and romanticism added. As Disney’s version was created visually simultaneously with the script, his illustrations depicted his notions of the perfect female character, as did the text. His Cinderella was shown as “the sweetest and most beautiful girl in the world.” (Disney, 1965, p. 193) She had blonde hair, and blue eyes, and a shapely figure under her tattered gown and apron. Disney utilised the animal element, not merely for magical effect with the pumpkin, but as companions for Cinderella in her lonely kitchen and attic, to show just how loveable she was – even all the animals and birds loved her. “She made little clothes for them, and gave them all names.” (Disney, 1965 p. 193)
In Disney’s version the stepsisters were portrayed as ugly, physically as well as in character – they were rude, sarcastic, lazy, and jealous of Cinderella’s beauty. The step-mother’s cruelty was shown by the way she treated Cinderella as a servant, the way she spoke to her and locked her in the attic. The only violence in Disney’s version was the scene where the sisters snatched the decorations from Cinderella’s first gown. Sympathy for his heroine had to be established in the reader/viewer, but not at the expense of frightening the children/audience.
Disney retained the godmother, but made her a fairy to help explain her magic to a twentieth century audience. He retained the slipper and its loss, and the search by the prince for the owner of the slipper. He borrowed from Grimm the idea of the tasks to be completed before his heroine could have permission to attend the ball, although he updated them to house-cleaning tasks rather than the picking out of grains from the ashes.
Up the stairway she carried breakfast trays for her stepmother and her two lazy stepsisters. And down she came with a basket of mending, some clothes to wash, and a long list of jobs to do for the day. (ibid, p. 195)
The ‘Happily ever after’ ending belonged entirely to Cinderella, and to any young girl who was as sweet of nature and beautiful of face and figure as she. The message was clear – if a girl is prepared to be these things, and be patient and wait, then one day her prince would also come and reward her with marriage and security. The message for boys was that
[t]he goal of every prince (every man) [was] fulfilled by a beautiful, long-haired young woman, with a fair complexion, especially if she is connected to a castle, money, and power. (Zipes, 1986, pp. 160 – 161)
Throughout the Cinderella versions the message has remained the same – except for d’Aulnoy’s version, which even so still ended in marriage and security.
In the early to mid-twentieth century women were still not in control of their own destinies. They were considered subordinate to men and to each other, both economically and generationally. A woman’s place was in the home, doing housework and taking care of the family – child-minding. She was to be protected by her male/father/husband/son, and be patient, hard-working, uncomplaining, virtuous, sweet, loveable, and if possible as beautiful as cosmetics would make her. Disney reflects and upholds these attributes with his version of Cinderella, although at the time he produced it he was merely reflecting the ‘normal’ society in which he lived.
All these versions have done just that, while retaining and modifying the original to suit the changes in their societies’ attitudes and their own particular views and biasses, regarding the behaviour of both sexes within these societies. The authors
retained (or inserted) [various elements into their tales] because … [as] narrators, [they] instinctively or unconsciously, felt their literary ‘significance’. Even where a prohibition in a fairy story is guessed to be derived from some taboo practised long ago, it has been preserved in the later stages of the tale’s history because of the great mythical significance of prohibition. (Tolkien, 1990,p. 142)
Despite its historical setting, the actual historical period and culture of the written tale is textually obvious.
(C) Jud House 19/08/2006 & 7/01/2013
Babbitt, N. (1970) “Happy Endings? Of Course, and Also Joy.’ in Haviland, V. Editor(1973) CHILDREN AND LITERATURE Views and Reviews. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.
Buchan, J. (1931) ‘The Novel and the Fairy Tale’. in Haviland, V. Editor (1973) AND LITERATURE Views and Reviews. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.
Butler, F. Editor. (1975) CHILDREN’S LITERATURE VOL 4. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Gilbert, R. (1990) ‘Endings’ in MEANJIN Vol. 49 (1990)
Haviland, V. Editor. (1973) ‘Folk Literature and Fantasy’ in CHILDREN AND LITERA -TURE Views and Reviews. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.
Le Guin, Ursula. (19 ) ‘This Fear of Dragons’ in THE THORNY PARADISE: Writers on Writing for Children. Blishen, E. Editor. Harmondsworth, UK: Kestrel Books
Lewis, C.S. (1952) ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children.’ in BOURNEMOUTH CONFERENCE PAPERS AND DISCUSSION. Library Association Proceedings.
Liberman, Anatoly. (1985) ‘Between Myth and the Wondertale.’ in MYTH IN LITERA-TURE. Kodjak, A., Pomorska, K., Rudy,S. Editors. Columbia, Ohio: Slavica Publishers Inc.
Kegan, Paul Editor. (1975) ‘The Six Swans.’ from THE COMPLETE GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES. London: Routledge. (H/O)
Perrault, Charles. ‘Cendrillon.’ from Zipes, J. Editor (1989) BEAUTIES, BEASTS AND ENCHANTMENT. Meridian: Penguin.
Philip, Neil. (1989) THE CINDERELLA STORY; The Origins and Variations of the Story known as Cinderella. Penguin Books Ltd.
Shavit, Z. (1986) ‘The Notion of Childhood and Texts for the Child.’ in POETICS OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE. Athens & London: University of Georgia Press.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1964) ON FAIRY-STORIES. in POEMS AND STORIES. Williamson F.R. & Tolkien C.R. Editors. London: Harper Collins Publishers (1992)
Yolen, Jane. Editor. (1986) FAVOURITE FOLKTALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD.Pantheon.
Zipes, Jack. Editor. (1993) DON’T BET ON THE PRINCE; Contemporary FeministFairy Tales in North America and England. U.K.: Scolar Press
Zipes, Jack. (1983) FAIRY TALES AND THE ART OF SUBVERSION. London: Heine-mann Educational Books Ltd.
Zipes, Jack. (19 ) ‘On the Use and Abuse of Folk and Fairy Tales with Children.’ in BREAKING THE MAGIC SPELL: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. H/O London: Heinemann.
Zipes, Jack. (1986) ‘Fairy Tale as Myth Myth as Fairy Tale.’ in THE BROTHERS GRIMM: FROM ENCHANTED FORESTS TO THE MODERN WORLD. New York & London: Routledge.
* * * * *