When the Grimm brothers resurrected the genre in the mid-1800s, fairy tales and folktales had been mostly ignored by the literary establishment for the previous century. But, as we learned in our discussion of “The White Cat,” the Grimms were not the first ones in history to recognize both the literary merit and the potential power of these culturally significant forms of storytelling.
Travel back a little further, and you’ll find an even earlier period where fairy tales experienced a flurry of attention among the literary and intellectual elite in Europe. In the mid-sixteenth century, the Italian poet Gianfrancesco Straparola published a collection of 75 subversive and salacious fairy tales. This collection, which is believed to be the first written volume of fairy tales published in Europe, was eventually banned.
But Straparola’s work was rediscovered almost a century later, inspiring another Italian author, Giambattista Basile. Basile put together his own collection of 50 fairy tales, The Pentamerone. This time, the Italian fairy tale collector sparked a fad, kicking off nearly a century of obsession with fairy tales. This period saw the proliferation of published volumes of fables and fairy tales, but also the transformation of the genre. This included the tales published by the conteuses – the group of women authors who took the fairy tale industry by storm – as well as Jean de la Fontaine, Charles Perrault, and others.
As we’ve seen in “The White Cat,” authors of fairy tales in the seventeenth century wanted to play with the didactic nature of the fairy tale and fable. Stories that were intended to hide a real-world lesson under the veneer of a fantastical tale seemed to be the perfect vehicles for satire, and one of the reasons fairy tales gained so much traction in this time period is because they weren’t just for kids anymore. Like a good Pixar film, many of the fairy tales written during this time featured fun stories that children would love, but in the background carried messages of social and political critique that were meant for adults.
There was also a distinct effort to shed the folksy roots of these stories, and transform them into “high literature.” Most of the people who promoted the fairy tale craze during this period were social elites. (One reason the fairy tales we know today, many of which were first popularized during this time, so often feature royal or noble characters, may be due to the fact that their early influential authors were writing about–and critiquing–their own social world, aristocratic society.) Most of these stories were not, or at least not completely, the product of the author’s artistic imagination, but were based on ancient myths or folktales; yet, the authors of the time believed that fairy tales needed to be legitimized with elevated language and sophisticated themes.
Case in point: Charles Perrault served in the ministry of finance in the court of King Louis XIV of France. Influenced by the work of Basile, after he retired at the age of 69 he decided to rewrite a number of earlier folktales and fairy tales for an aristocratic audience. His new adaptations of these tales were tremendously popular during his life, and hugely influential afterwards. In a sense, Perrault created the modern concept of the fairy tale, along with inventing its personification: in 1697, Perrault published Stories from long ago, or, Tales of Mother Goose (Histoires ou contes du temps passé, ou, Les Contes de ma mère l’oye), introducing to the world the feathered fabulist who would adorn the covers of children’s books for the next 300+ years.
Perrault’s works include the best-known versions of many popular fairy tales, including Sleeping Beauty, Puss-in-Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella.
So, in our study of Cinderella, we will start with Perrault’s version of the tale, which introduced the iconic motif of the glass slipper, and adaptations of which have appeared over and over in print and in film.
Then, we’ll look at 2 other versions: Basile’s earlier variant from The Pentamerone, and the Grimm brothers’ version, which was influenced by both Perrault and Basile.
???? Read Perrault’s “Cinderella: or, The Glass Slipper” (France, 1697). (see file on main page; the story begins on p. 449).
Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically:
- What do we learn about Cinderella’s family and background? What is the significance of these details, i.e. what might they symbolize?
- What virtues are associated with Cinderella (her character and behavior)? Which characters in the story are used to embody vices (bad behavior, bad character) and other undesirable qualities, and what are these qualities?
- How do the different characters in the story react to the news of the Prince’s ball? What does this demonstrate about their characters and the world they live in?
- How do the different characters in the story react to Cinderella’s appearance at the ball? What is it about her that the different characters respond to, and why?
- What values are communicated in the story about marriage and love relationships? Remember that there are two marriages represented – Cinderella’s and her father’s. How do these two examples work together to communicate something about the nature of marriage, or how marriage should work? What about the nature of romantic relationships?
- What’s the deal with the shoe? Why do you think Perrault chose a glass slipper to serve as the story’s most prominent symbol?
???? Read Basile’s “The Cat Cinderella” (Italy, 1634), and the Grimm Brothers’ “Cinderella” (Germany, 1857).
Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically:
- How does the beginning of “The Cat Cinderella” compare with that of the classic Cinderella story? Does this influence the way you view the heroine of the story?
- “The Cat Cinderella” and Perrault’s version both include an explicitly stated moral at the end. Do you agree that these morals are what the stories seem to teach? Why do the morals differ when the plot of the stories is largely the same? What would you say the moral of the Grimm version is? Is it the same as the others, or do the details of the story unique to the Grimm version change what the story communicates?
- These two alternative versions of the Cinderella story are both much more violent than the classic version by Perrault. Why include violence and blood in the tale? How does that impact what we get out of the story?
- What important symbols are present in each version of the story? Which symbols get introduced in the different versions and why are they significant?
???? Write a paragraph (100-300 words) on the following topic:
We’ve learned about motifs, or tropes, as a key feature of fables and tales (and really, of storytelling more generally). One of the reasons motifs are reused over and over, and are often featured so prominently and play such an important role in defining the story, is because these motifs carry symbolism that contributes to the meaning of the story.
Consider that magic mirror again: mirrors are often associated with an awareness of what we look like, so they’re linked to beauty and vanity, with the way others see us, and the way we see ourselves. Because we see ourselves in them, they can be symbols of one’s identity or sense of self. Since they seem to reflect reality, but actually reverse, even sometimes distort, an image, they can symbolize misunderstanding, or a skewed perspective on reality. (Think about how Alice steps through the looking glass to a topsy-turvy world in Alice in Wonderland).
Anything in a story can have a symbolic meaning, but motifs are frequently very potent symbols, and their symbolic meaning travels with them from story to story, wherever they reappear (though this meaning can still be influenced by how the motif is embedded in a particular plot).
What motifs define the Cinderella story? Which motifs do you see that show up across variants of the story? Does the tale of Cinderella share any motifs with other fairy tales you know? Why are these motifs present in the story – that is, what symbolic value do they have that contributes to the overall meaning of the story?
Choose one of the motifs that defines the Cinderella story, and discuss what it may symbolize, supporting your point with details from at least two different texts.