Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Little Red Riding Hood | Summary



Everyone loves Little Red Riding Hood, so nicknamed because of the red velvet hood she wears. Fondest of all is her grandmother. One day, Little Red Riding Hood's mother tells her that her grandmother is ill and asks the girl to carry some cakes and wine to the old lady. As the girl leaves, her mother warns her not to stray from the path through the woods. "Look straight ahead like a good little girl," she cautions. Little Red Riding Hood promises to obey.

Grandmother's house is deep in the woods, about half an hour from the village. Little Red Riding Hood has no sooner stepped into the forest than a wolf approaches her and asks where she's headed. The girl describes her grandmother's house and the route she's taking there.

The hungry wolf realizes that if he's lucky, he can eat both the little girl and the old lady. He suggests that the child venture off the path to pick her grandmother a bouquet. There are flowers everywhere, and the girl—who has forgotten her mother's warning—has soon wandered deep into the woods.

Meanwhile, the wolf runs to Grandmother's house to gobble her up. He dons her clothes and nightcap and climbs into the old lady's bed to wait for the girl. When her arms are full of flowers, Little Red Riding Hood suddenly remembers her errand. She finds the path and soon reaches Grandmother's house, where she's surprised to see the door open.

As soon as she's in the house, Little Red Riding Hood senses that something is wrong. She approaches the bed, pulls back the bed-curtain, and stares at the figure lying there. "Oh, Grandmother, what big ears you have!" she exclaims. The disguised wolf answers, "The better to hear you with."

Little Red Riding Hood goes on, "Oh, Grandmother, what big eyes you have!"

"The better to see you with," says the wolf.

"Oh, Grandmother, what big hands you have!" says Little Red Riding Hood.

"The better to grab you with," replies the wolf.

"Oh, Grandmother, what a big, scary mouth you have!"

"The better to eat you with!" growls the wolf, and he devours the poor little girl.

Now that he's full, the wolf settles back for a nap. He begins snoring so loudly that a passing huntsman hears him and comes inside to check on the old woman. When he reaches the bed and realizes that the wolf is lying there, he grabs his musket. He's about to shoot when he realizes that Grandmother may be inside the wolf's stomach. He pulls out a pair of scissors and cuts open the wolf's belly instead.

In no time, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are standing in front of the huntsman. The girl finds some big stones and fills the wolf's belly with them. The wolf awakes and tries to flee, but the stones are too heavy. He falls down dead.

The huntsman takes home the wolf's pelt; Grandmother eats and drinks the provender her granddaughter has brought; and Little Red Riding Hood promises never again to stray from the path when her mother has forbidden it.


Like "The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats," this is a story about obeying one's mother by staying on the right path. To read some scholarly interpretations, it's also a tale about seasonal rituals, capitalistic oppression, breastfeeding, female sexuality, rape, and Holy Communion. The majority of these interpretations come from male scholars, which may be why a simpler interpretation is ignored. Male power is also an important theme in "Little Red Riding Hood." After all, this is a story in which a girl meets a dangerous male. First he tricks her into straying off the path through the woods—clearly a metaphor—and then he consumes her, after which she's rescued by another male and promises never to stray again.

Earlier versions of the story gave the protagonist much more power than the Grimms do, but they also portrayed her as a wily seductress—exactly the kind of subplot the Grimms liked to excise. By turning Red Riding Hood into a little girl and replacing a rapist with a hungry wolf, the brothers defang its erotic aspects and turn the story into a straightforward cautionary tale.

For example, the Grimms insert the line "When you're out in the woods, look straight ahead like a good little girl and don't stray from the path." They also provide Little Red Riding Hood's mother with a nonsexual reason the girl shouldn't wander. She doesn't say, "Stay on the path because otherwise a wolf might devour you," but rather "Otherwise you'll fall and break the bottle, and then there'll be nothing for Grandmother." For good measure, the mother adds a warning not to "go poking around in all the corners of the house"—as tame a warning as any mother could devise.

The reason Little Red Riding Hood does venture off the path is innocence itself. She notices "the beautiful flowers all around" and decides to pick some for her grandmother. In other words, she's thinking about Grandmother, not having fun. The wolf has already eaten Grandmother and dressed in her nightclothes by the time Little Red Riding Hood reaches the house. This detail sanitizes the story further: readers don't have to witness the gore.

But how on earth does the girl mistake the wolf for her grandmother? Even someone as young and innocent as she is should realize that it's not Grandmother lying in that bed. An earlier version of the story is more sophisticated: Little Red Riding Hood does recognize the wolf and tries to escape. Because the Grimms delete that detail, their rendition is left with an inconsistency that has troubled generations of children.

It's not surprising that a man must rescue such a helpless pair of females. Earlier versions didn't feature the huntsman; Little Red Riding Hood was able to save herself. In the Grimm version, the huntsman not only shows up at just the right moment; he also realizes "that the wolf might have eaten Grandmother and that he could still save her." When Little Red Riding Hood also pops out, she says she was terrified because "it was so dark in the belly of the wolf." Even the wolf's insides have been cleaned up so that the only thing the girl notices in there is the darkness.

But Little Red Riding Hood comes out a changed girl. As she watches Grandmother eat the cakes and drink the wine, she promises herself she'll never disobey her mother again. It seems like a rather tame takeaway after so much drama, but the Grimms wanted it that way.

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