Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | The Goose Girl | Summary

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Summary

A widowed queen lives with her beautiful daughter, who's engaged to a prince in a different land. As the wedding date approaches, the queen puts together a magnificent dowry for the girl and appoints a chambermaid to travel with her on the journey to the prince's home.

Before bidding her daughter goodbye, the queen uses a little knife to cut her finger. She lets three drops of blood fall onto her handkerchief, and then presses it into her daughter's hands. "Dear child," she says, "take good care of this."

The princess and the chambermaid set off on horseback. Both princess and chambermaid will ride horses, but only the princess's horse, Falada, can talk. After an hour, the princess asks her maid to fetch her a cup of water. The chambermaid refuses—"I'm not going to wait on you." So the princess dismounts and drinks right out of the brook without being able to use the golden cup her mother packed for her dowry. The drops of blood on her mother's handkerchief speak aloud: "If your mother knew what was happening, it would break her heart."

Several miles later, the princess is thirsty again. She asks the maid to get her a drink, and again the maid refuses. Weeping, the princess bends over to drink from a stream without noticing it when her handkerchief falls into the water. But the chambermaid sees the handkerchief fall and rejoices: without it, she knows, the princess is powerless against her.

When the princess tries to remount Falada, the maid rudely insists that they trade horses. Then she forces the princess to change from her fine robes into the maid's plain clothes. Last, threatening to kill her, the maid makes the princess swear she won't tell anyone what the maid has done to her. Falada, the horse, watches all of this.

On the switched horses, the princess and chambermaid ride to the palace. The prince runs out to greet the maid, believing her to be his fiancée. He brings her inside and they marry immediately, leaving the real princess standing alone. Just then the old king catches sight of the real princess and marvels at her fine, delicate beauty. He asks the chambermaid, now a false bride, about her. She answers, "Oh, I met her on the way here ... Give her some work to keep her busy."

After some thought, the king sends the princess off to work with a boy named Conrad who tends geese.

Soon after the wedding, the false queen asks her new husband to cut Falada's head off. (She's afraid the horse will tell everyone about her.) The real princess, now a goose girl, learns about this and makes a secret deal with the knacker: she'll pay him to nail Falada's head to the gateway wall. Whenever the princess and Conrad pass through the gateway, she greets the head. The head always answers, "If your mother found this out, there's no doubt—her heart would break."

This irritates Conrad, and he's even more annoyed by the fact that the princess never lets him watch her taking down her golden hair. Eventually he tells the king he no longer wants to tend geese with the princess. When he explains why, the king decides to see for himself what's going on. He hides behind the gateway as the princess greets and is answered by the mare's head. Then he steals to the meadow, hides himself again, and watches as the princess asks the winds to send Conrad's hat "flying here and flying there, while I comb and braid my hair."

The king is naturally intrigued. That night he asks the princess why she behaves this way. When the princess, distressed, says she's forbidden to explain, the king suggests that she tell her tale to the old iron stove. The princess climbs inside and begins her sad story as the King listens through the stovepipe in another room.

When he learns the truth about the princess, the king has her dressed in royal garments and then summons his son. "The true bride, the former goose girl," he says, is standing in front of the young man who should be her husband. The girl the prince married is actually a chambermaid in disguise.

The king holds a great feast at which the real and false princesses sit on either side of the prince. (The chambermaid doesn't recognize her former mistress.) After the feast, the king asks the false princess how she would punish someone who betrayed a gentlewoman. The unsuspecting chambermaid answers, "She deserves to be stripped naked and put into a barrel studded on the inside with sharp nails." Then, she continues, two white horses should pull the barrel around until the betrayer is dead.

The king announces that this creative punishment will now be the chambermaid's own. While the chambermaid is being put to death, the prince and the true princess are married. From then on, they rule the kingdom in peace and joy.

Analysis

The first impression this story gives is one of loneliness and uncertainty. Imagine riding away from your home, your mother, and everything you know to marry a prince you've never seen, and then imagine that your only companion hates you. No dowry in the world can compensate for that, and a talking handkerchief with your mother's blood on it wouldn't help much.

The handkerchief the queen gives the princess is meant to remind her daughter of their blood connection. As a symbol, it may have seemed more effective when the story was first told. In fact, a French retelling of the story is titled "The Cloth with the Three Drops of Blood." But the princess can't glean much comfort from this cloth, which reminds her of something she already knows: "If your mother knew what was happening, it would break her heart."

A blood stain is a traditional sign of a lost virginity, and this part of the story could be a metaphor for a young bride's nervousness about her wedding. The princess is traveling from one role to another, and the passage is a frightening one. The chambermaid's refusal to serve her must make her feel as if she's not even a princess any more. Losing the blood-stained handkerchief is the final blow to her identity: it gives the maid total power over her. By the time the two young women arrive at the distant palace, every trace of her royal status has been taken from her. She's powerless in a foreign country. To top it off, her beloved horse is killed.

But if one reads this as a story about fear of marriage, the princess has just been given a new chance. Without support from either her mother or her new family, she has to create her own sense of security. To readers, it's fairly certain that she'll end up marrying the prince after all, so this interlude doesn't seem too threatening. It's something the princess needs in order to grow.

Falada's death is troublesome because doesn't advance the plot. If Falada could issue some kind of warning, something that would protect the princess, nailing her head to the gateway might make more sense. As it is, the horse mournfully repeats the same message as the talking handkerchief: "If your mother found this out, there's no doubt—her heart would break." Nothing's gained by the princess's secret deal with the knacker. Still, she's at least thinking for herself and taking a step toward solving a problem. A few weeks ago, she was crying as her maid excoriated her. Now she's showing a bit of agency.

Perhaps the routine of working as a goose girl is strengthening. As the days pass, Conrad becomes increasingly interested in the princess's golden hair. He wants to see it down and loose, but the princess is determined not to allow this: it would be giving Conrad too much license. (Traditionally, unbound hair was seen only in private. Women were expected to keep their hair pinned up in public.) As she becomes more independent, the princess attains a bit of magical talent: she can call the wind to blow Conrad's hat away. It's possible she's also gaining the ability to flirt with Conrad. There's no reason she must take down her hair in the field. She could wait until she was alone. Since she goes through this ritual every day, she must notice Conrad's interest. Perhaps she's gaining sexual self-confidence.

Whether or not the princess is flirting, Conrad becomes sick of the way she's treating him and complains to the king. At that point, it's clear that the king will fix things. Her innate nobility caught his attention when the princess arrived, and perhaps the nasty ways of the false princess are starting to grate on people in the court.

The false princess is exceptionally unpleasant, and the painful way she dies might seem too cruel if she hadn't been the one to suggest it.

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