Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Rapunzel | Summary

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Summary

A man and his wife have longed for a child, and finally the wife becomes pregnant. There's a beautiful walled garden behind their house, full of flowers and vegetables. One day the wife spots a patch of lettuce—rapunzel—and instantly develops a craving for it. She tells her husband she'll die unless he brings her some of the rapunzel. That night he climbs stealthily over the wall, picks a handful of rapunzel, and hurries home. His wife loves the taste so much that her craving strengthens, and the husband vows to steal some more rapunzel.

Unfortunately, the walled garden is owned by an enchantress who catches him on his second visit. The husband explains why he's there, and the witch agrees that he can pick as much rapunzel as he wants—if he promises to turn the baby over to her as soon as it's born.

Time passes until finally the child is born. Instantly the witch makes off with the baby, whom she names Rapunzel. When Rapunzel is 12, the witch imprisons her in a stone tower that has neither stairs nor a door. The witch herself can't visit Rapunzel unless the girl lets down her long braids to make a ladder. They continue in this way for several years.

One day, a passing prince hears Rapunzel singing in the tower and becomes desperate to meet her. He watches from behind a tree as the enchantress calls out "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let your hair down." The girl obeys, and the witch climbs up to the window. That night the prince goes to the bottom of the tower and uses the same words to call to Rapunzel. Down tumble her braids, and the prince quickly climbs up the tower to Rapunzel's room.

The prince and Rapunzel soon fall in love and together hatch a plot to free her. The witch discovers the plot, chops off Rapunzel's hair, and banishes her to the woods. She then uses the shorn braids to lure the prince up the tower. When he arrives at the window, the witch cackles that "your darling little wife" is lost to him and he will never see her again.

In despair, the prince throws himself from the top of the tower. He lands in a bramble patch, and thorns scratch out his eyes. Blind and forlorn, he wanders alone for many years until he stumbles across the wilderness where Rapunzel—and their twins, a boy and girl—have taken refuge. Hearing Rapunzel's sweet voice, he follows the song. When Rapunzel sees him, she bursts into tears and throws her arms around him. Her tears magically erase the prince's blindness. He takes her and the children to his kingdom, where they live happily for many years.

Analysis

Although Rapunzel gets the story's title, she's presented almost as a prop. The story's most powerful theme is not "Love wins in the end" but "Raising children is hard."

The first thing readers learn about Rapunzel's parents is that they yearn for a child. But as soon as the wife becomes pregnant, she puts her husband at risk with her demand for some rapunzel from the garden of the enchantress. Cravings during pregnancy can be strong, but no one dies from them! The wife's wish for increasing quantities of rapunzel is selfish. She doesn't know what the results of her craving will be, but endangering her husband, the baby's father, is not the act of a responsible mother.

Once Rapunzel is born, her father is forced to hand her over to the enchantress. This is a steep penalty for stealing some salad, but clearly the enchantress has also been longing for a child. After all, she does promise the husband, "I will take care of [the baby] like a mother, and [she] will not want for anything." Like Rapunzel's mother, the enchantress is putting her own needs before those of the baby. Taking Rapunzel from her biological parents is cruel to the child, regardless of how strongly the enchantress wants a baby of her down.

When Rapunzel turns 12—and is therefore about to reach puberty—the enchantress locks her up in a tower. This is a dysfunctional way to show love, since truly loving parents understand that at some point their children will need their independence. The enchantress is so devastated to learn about the prince that she banishes Rapunzel to a wilderness. Then she makes sure Rapunzel's new husband is blinded before he, too, wanders off.

Rapunzel's twins come as a complete surprise to the reader as well as the prince. When the prince finds his wife, he also learns he's the father of a boy and girl. Now the meaning of his visiting Rapunzel in the tower "every evening" is clear. It's not clear the enchantress realizes Rapunzel is pregnant, but her response is typical of all too many parents in melodramas: she kicks the girl out of the house and makes sure to punish the baby's father as well. Note that the Grimms are careful to have the enchantress call Rapunzel a "darling little wife." Because the prince and the enchantress are the only people who can get into the tower, there's no way Rapunzel and the prince could have been married. But the Grimms added the elements about marriage because they did not want to corrupt the sensibilities of young readers.

Parenting is a source of ambivalence for every adult in this tale. Rapunzel's parents desire a child fiercely, but not fiercely enough to challenge the enchantress. The enchantress also wants a child, but she is unprepared to grant the girl the normal range of independence that would be expected for adolescents. Raising twins alone in the wilderness must be hard: Rapunzel is "barely managing to survive" when her prince finds her.

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