Grimm's Fairy Tales (Selected)

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimm's Fairy Tales (Selected) | Themes


Class Matters

Society in the Grimm stories is highly stratified. This isn't to say that the stories portray characters with low social status as being inferior to their "betters." For the most part, the Grimms' protagonists are likable whether they're rich or poor. Still, the brothers devote substantial creative energy to maintaining the notion of a class system. For example, only princesses get to be beautiful. Peasant women's looks are never described because they don't matter. Clothing was also a sign of social status as medieval sumptuary laws were meant to restrain extravagance and ensure that food, clothing, and furniture reinforced social hierarchies.

When the king in "The Twelve Brothers" decides to kill his sons, his heartbroken wife accepts his decision. When the king in "The Brave Little Tailor" reneges on his promise to let the tailor marry his daughter, no one objects. Note, too, that it's the king who decides whom his daughter will marry. The princess has no say in the matter, nor does any other Grimm princess whose father marries her off as part of a bargain.

Characters occasionally vault or sink from one social class to another, but none of the tales criticizes or even questions the need for a hierarchical society. Indeed, characters who consciously try to improve their status (the power-mad fisherman's wife, for instance) are usually punished. Commoners do manage to marry royals in some of these tales, although sometimes those commoners turn out to be royalty in disguise. The stories present it as a given that "marrying up" is a privilege. A shepherd who marries a princess may become a king; a goose girl may end up married to a king. But note that the lower-status spouse always takes on the status of the higher. When the brave little tailor marries the princess, he doesn't suggest that she take up tailoring with him.

"Marrying up" may bring riches and power, but it's not all good news. Being assigned a new identity cuts one off from one's own past. Worse, a royal spouse may resent being married to a commoner. The brave little tailor's wife never accepts him and plots to have him lost at sea. When the tailor discovers her plan, he foils it easily, but the adventure doesn't bode well for their marriage. Perhaps he would have been happier married to someone of his own station.

Many families in the collection are strictly hierarchical as well. The parents may disagree over the fate of their children, but those children—especially the daughters—are expected to be hardworking, obedient, and uncomplaining. Cinderella is a perfect example. Nowhere does she resist her fate, and it never seems to occur to her that her father could end her abuse if she asked him. Hansel and Gretel also display what might be called "undue obedience." Not once do the siblings protest their stepmother's treatment. After their father has twice allowed his wife to abandon the children, after all that Hansel and Gretel have suffered at the hands of the old woman, they run home as soon as they get the chance. True, it was their stepmother who wanted to be rid of them, but their father did agree with her!

Evil Stepmother

If a child acquires a stepmother in the Grimm universe, it's safe to assume she'll turn out to be cruel. Cinderella's stepmother forces her to be a servant; Snow White's orders a huntsman to kill the 7-year-old child, then tries to poison her.

Casting characters as stepmothers, rather than biological ones, puts a welcome distance between the reader and the action. If biological mothers were to crave their children's lungs and livers, it would be almost unbearable for young readers who identify with the children in the story. A stepmother has less emotional pull. Using a stepmother allows the Grimms to add drama to the story—they can ratchet up her evil deeds—and softens the story's cruelty somewhat. At least the stepmother dislikes her stepchild for a reason, even if it's a vicious reason! Perhaps she's jealous of a king's lovely daughter because her own daughter is unattractive. Perhaps she wants the family's scanty supply of food for herself. Perhaps she's afraid her husband will leave his estate to his biological child without providing for his wife's child. Perhaps she's simply possessed by the devil. In any case, even an evil motive is better than none. A cruel stepmother gives the reader a shiver of pleasurable horror. A cruel mother is not fun to read about.

It's lucky for readers that the Grimms tend to make the fathers in their stories less interesting than the stepmothers. Many Grimm fathers are shadowy nonentities. If they'd been given stronger personalities, readers might wonder why they rarely step in to help their suffering daughters.

World of Justice

There are few moral ambiguities in the Grimm universe. Evil queens don't have a couple of redeeming features—they're evil all the way through. Innocent stepdaughters who are forced to sleep in the ashes are 100% virtuous. They never snap at their stepsisters or refuse to do a chore. Tricksters may be mischievous, but they only trick evil or dangerous characters. The wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood" doesn't pause to wonder if he's done enough damage.

In this black-and-white universe, bad deeds are punished and good deeds rewarded. Sometimes the punishment fits the crime. In "The Fisherman and His Wife," the wife who asks to become as powerful as God instead finds herself as poor as she was at the story's beginning. Sometimes the punishment is linked to the wrongdoer's job or actions. In "The Golden Goose," two wood-cutting brothers who refuse to share their food with a beggar soon find themselves wounded by their own axes. The greedy witch in "Hansel and Gretel" ends up being cooked in her own oven, and the hungry wolves in "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats" have their stomachs filled with stones.

The most memorable punishments in the stories are the most barbaric ones and are reserved for the cruelest characters. Cinderella's stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves (a scene allotted far more words than the Grimms use to describe her wedding). The Grimms make sure to underscore the message: "And so they were punished for their wickedness and malice with blindness for the rest of their lives." When the evil queen sneaks into Snow White's wedding, she's forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes. The maid in "The Goose Girl" dies inside a barrel studded with nails. The bizarre nature of these scenes may help make them more bearable for timid readers, while readers who like to see people get what they deserve will be solidly satisfied.

Meanwhile, virtue and bravery—in the case of females, humility and unearthly patience—are gloriously rewarded. Generally, the rewards are less noteworthy than the punishments. The protagonists marry or a treasure horde is found.

Often, the death of the evil stepmother is thrown in as an additional prize. This speaks to another aspect of the reward/punishment model: retaliation. Suffering victims get to watch their enemies suffer. Forgiveness, it seems, doesn't count for much in a black-and-white world. What really matters is justice.

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