Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Clever Gretel | Summary

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Summary

A happy, self-assured cook named Gretel has a cheerful disposition and enjoys wearing shoes with red heels. She also has a very healthy appetite. "The cook has to know how the food tastes," she says as she eats and drinks with gusto. One day Gretel's master asks her to roast two chickens, one for him and one for the guest he's expecting. Gretel kills, scalds, and plucks the chickens, then begins spit-roasting them.

The chickens smell and look delicious as they cook. Gretel tells her master that if the guest doesn't arrive soon, the meat won't be as good. He agrees and leaves to look for his guest.

Now that she's alone, it occurs to Gretel that she's thirsty, so she runs down to the cellar and swigs down some wine. She tests the chickens, saying it's "a sin and a shame" they won't be eaten promptly. In fact, she thinks, one of the birds looks as if it's starting to burn. She'd better eat it before it's ruined.

When she's finished with the first chicken, Gretel's master still hasn't returned with his guest. "Where the one is, the other should follow," says Gretel, and eats the second chicken.

Just then her master calls out that he and the guest have arrived. As he's sharpening the carving knife, Gretel hurries to warn the guest. "He invited you for an evening meal," she says, "but all he really wants is to cut off both your ears. Listen, he's sharpening his knife." The guest runs away, terrified. Gretel then indignantly tells her master that the guest has stolen both chickens off the platter while her back was turned.

The master gives chase, calling "Just one! Just one!" to the guest. But the guest thinks he wants "just one" of his ears and runs faster.

Analysis

In fairy tales, the trickster trope refers to a low-status person getting the best of someone with higher status. "Thumbling" and "The Brave Little Tailor" are two examples. Female tricksters are harder to find in these stories, which makes them all the more welcome when they do turn up.

It's a pleasure to meet a female protagonist who revels in her appetite instead of concealing or apologizing for it. It's also nice to see a woman who has as much gusto as Gretel. Whoever inserted the shoes with red heels must have enjoyed doing it.

For modern readers, chicken is an ordinary food. That wasn't true in the Grimms' day. As this story shows, a lot of work goes into killing and preparing your own chicken, which is one reason chicken was a special dish until the 20th century. Another reason is that chickens were much more expensive than they are now—and since hens lay eggs, killing a hen to eat would cut off another protein supply. Often, people only ate tough old fowl who were too old to lay, but that doesn't seem the case here. These chickens are dinner-party fare. No wonder Gretel enjoys them so much.

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