In this essay I will be examining Liberal Humanism, Marxist and Feminist literary theory in relation to The Grimm’s Brothers version of Little Snow White (Grimm, 1812). This analysis will include biblical and religious references, as I find those to be unavoidable when doing a critical analysis on Little Snow White (Grimm, 1812).
“The most obvious… way to think of literature is as verbal representations of the real world” (What is Literary Theory, p.1). This interpretation of what literature is correlates well with the discussions had in our introduction to The Critical Appraisal of texts- which led to the natural conclusion that language exists solely in the metaphorical world as a means of conveying to others what we experience in our physical worlds.
Given this interpretation, it makes sense to think of literature as capturing the essence of human experience. Literature is an art that explores different times, lives, political climates, and social hierarchies.
This definition of literature brings me to my introduction of Literary Theory. Literary Theory is an important practice as it is the “interpretation of how literature makes sense of the (literal world) and, in turn, how critics make sense of such literary works” (What is Literary Theory, p.1).
So, what role do fairy tales play in literature and what is their relevance? What can fairy tales tell Literary Theorists of the world?
Keeping in mind the definitions I have given for what literature is, and what Literary Theory is, it makes sense to view fairy tales as a means of introducing and explaining the world to children. Fairy tales are tales of caution, tales depicting social hierarchies, tales that explore the role of men and women- and the values of both. And, as written by Jack Zipes, tales that “confront the injustices and contradictions of (the) so-called real world”. Zipes goes on to write that fairy tales “can be equated to the wish fulfilment and utopian projections of the people”.
As Literary Theory is the analysis of what Literature is saying of humanity and the world in general, fairy tales are immensely relevant to Literary Theorists even to this day. Fairy tales, myths and legends are at the beginning of the story telling culture- and the beginning of what Literature has evolved to. Fairy tales are also still a huge part of contemporary literature today.
In applying Literary Theory to fairy tales both ancient and modern, theorists may see how the world has evolved over time, particularly how society’s attitude towards children, women and religion has changed. More significantly, the comparison of ancient and modern fairy tales can show what has not changed, and what is implicit and reoccurring in human nature- something Liberal Humanism explores.
Feminist Literary Theory is primarily concerned with the representation of women in literature and the conditioning that entails. These representations in fairy tales tell boys and girls what are acceptable feminine attributes, and what are not.
The deconstruction of any text using a feminist approach involves focussing on what the text is showing about women. For example, what is their purpose in life? How must they act, and what characteristics of a woman’s are of value?
No work of literature could be more appropriate to revision by Feminist Literary Theory than fairy tales. Cinderella, The Little Goose Girl, Snow White and Rose Red, Rapunzel and Little Snow White- all these tales from The Grimm Brothers collection (1812)- are very telling to what was expected of, and acceptable behaviour for, women, especially given that these tales focus on female characters and were told to children. This was most likely to teach boys and girls of a young age what a woman’s value and place in life was.
Why did such fairy tales focus on females? As the cautionary tales that they are, does it suggest women required more guiding? And more warnings for caution? I feel confident in answering yes to that, as even today people urge women to be more cautious than men. However, in considering that the villains in these stories are also women and, generally speaking, queens and witches, does it suggest that knowledge and power in the hands of women is not only unacceptable, but dangerous?
Such stories could be viewed as advocating that women require to be kept obedient, sweet, domestic and innocent for their own good, and to ensure their own safety. I will now attempt to satisfactorily answer these questions and more in a feminist reading of Little Snow White.
There are two aspects to Little Snow White that are immediately obvious. The first is the double standard toward female beauty. Throughout the text beauty is portrayed as a most precious commodity in a woman, and is the central point to the story.
It is repeatedly stressed within the text how very beautiful both Snow White and the Queen are. For example, the Queen is renowned throughout the land for her beauty and daily addresses a magic mirror to ensure there is none more beautiful than she.
Beauty, ensures the tale of Little Snow White, will get you far. We see this when the hunter ordered to kill Snow White takes pity on her and kills an animal to present its organs to the Queen in place of Snow Whites. Why does the Hunter take pity on her? It is not, as you might think, because she was ordered to be murdered by her mother or because she cried, pleading for her life, and offered to run away instead. No, instead “The huntsman took pity on her because she was so beautiful, and he thought “The wild animals will soon devour her anyway” (Little Snow White, p. 1).
Then, when Snow White is found asleep in one of the Dwarfs beds they take pity on her because, on seeing her, “good heaven!” They cried. “She is so beautiful!” and they liked her very much” (Little Snow White, p.2) And finally there is the prince who becomes besotted with the beauty of Snow White’s corpse and carries it around with him until she is awoken, and then they marry.
The double standard arises when comparing Snow White with the Queen. In the case of Snow White beauty is portrayed as the most feminine attribute, and the most valuable thing a woman has to offer. However, a woman must not be vain. She must not be aware of or glorify in her own beauty, as the Queen does.
The story first establishes beauty is important to men but women must not use this to their advantage or be vain for that is evil and will lead to punishment. Punishment such as a being forced to wear iron shoes and dance to death. One might argue that the tale warns women to be each other’s heroes. Don’t be jealous. Don’t begrudge others; you may think it is saying. However, given beauty is stressed to be of the utmost importance, put yourself in the Queens shoes. Beauty is all that she is known for throughout the land. When that begins to fade, or be replaced, so must the peoples regard. Although we don’t read of The Queens background it is safe to assume her obsession with beauty arises only because it is so obsessed over by men, as proven throughout the text.
Instead of trying to hang onto her status as beautiful the Queen should give over to the other things women are valued for; raising children, being motherly, keeping house, sewing, cooking and cleaning- things that Snow White does readily.
Graf says “Fairy tales promote unhealthy sex stereotypes… They glorify passivity, dependency, and self-sacrifice. They promote a theme that is the inferior position of women and teach girls win the prize if they are the fairest of them all” (‘Reading Female Bodies in Little Snow White: Independence and autonomy versus subjugation and invisibility’, 2008, p.81).
Graf also writes that, in Little Snow White, “It seems the only role available to women, other than the submissive, abused, young protagonist, is one that defines women as devious, manipulative and therefor subversive” (‘Reading Female Bodies in Little Snow White: Independence and autonomy versus subjugation and invisibility’, 2008, p.81).
The messages in Little Snow White are not by chance- as stated previously these are tales told to children specifically to teach them about the world and their role in it. As Maria Lieberman writes “Fairy tales have only one function and that is to shape girls perceptions to conform to a gendered identity through stereotypical characters like the wicked mother and beautiful, helpless daughter” (‘Someday My Prince Will Come’, 1972.)
The tale of Little Snow White’s (Grimm, 1812) purpose is to teach girls, and boys, that women must be attractive to men, but not vain. Women must ensure they are demure and submissive, perform household duties and listen to men. This is backed by the scene in which Snow White is finally killed by the Queen- by ignoring the warning of the seven dwarfs with whom she lived and letting a stranger in. Little Snow White strongly presses the point that beauty and obedience are the only two things of value in a woman. A woman with knowledge and power is dangerous and woman who refuses to step aside for her more youthful counterpart is positively evil.
I now come to the second thing within the text that is immediately apparent; whatever critical theory you are applying within your review. Firstly, Snow White eats an apple and dies. This has a strong comparison to Eve eating the apple from the tree of knowledge and being the downfall of women for eternity, and causing Adam and herself to be banished from the Garden of Eden. As is the message in Christianity so is the message in Little Snow White; Curiosity, knowledge and power in a woman is wrongful and fearful. This is also reflected by the wicked mothers and female villains in fairy tales such as Little Snow White being portrayed as witches. The Church feared and persecuted wise women and even midwives, accusing them of witchcraft.
To support this analysis of Little Snow White (Grimm, 1812) holding strong biblical references there is repetitive use of a biblically significant number; the number seven. Within the text there are seven dwarfs; Snow White is seven years old when she surpasses her mother in looks and the dwarfs live in the seven mountains. Most telling of all, are the dwarfs seven beds. As described in this passage “(Snow White) wanted to lie down and go to sleep. She tried each of the seven little beds, one after the other, but none felt right until she came to the seventh one, and she lay down in it and fell asleep” (Little Snow White, 1812, p.2).
This passage directly relates to the making of the world and the working week with the seventh day being a day of rest. Prior to resting in the seventh bed Snow White also eats some simple brown bread and drinks some wine- practices also repeatedly referenced in the bible. However, there are other aspects to the tale of Little Snow White (Grimm, 1812) more aptly covered by a Marxist analysis.
Marxist Literary Theory, as written by Peter Barry in ‘The Beginning Theory’, dictates that good art “always has a degree of freedom…from economic circumstances” although, it is acknowledged, such economic and social climates are the work of arts “ultimate determinant”.
Marxist literary criticism naturally drew a line between propaganda and art. However the prevailing thought behind Marxist literary criticism is to look at the context in which the text was written. What political and social implications are within the text? In what way has it been written?
In Little Snow White I will focus on a Leninist critical reading. Leninist criticism, writes Barry, “insists on the need for art to be explicitly committed to the political cause” (‘Beginning Theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory’, 1995, p.154).
The obvious place to begin with Little Snow White (Grimm, 1812) is defining the class of the characters. The Queen, in this tale, represents a dictatorship. She has power over everyone, even Snow White who, along with The Prince, are capitalists. Their demands are met and they get whatever they wish from the lower classes. The Seven Dwarfs a prime example of the petite bourgeois. They work for themselves and have the ability to buy the labour of others however they are not as upper class as Snow White or The Prince. Following this cast is The Huntsman and The Servants of The Prince who are representative of the proletariat and the lower class struggle.
As it is in Marxist and the Bolsheviks ideology a communist revolution may not be possible without the rising up of the proletariat and we do indeed see this in Little Snow White. When the servants, tired of carting the corpse of Snow White around, pound her dead body and send the poisoned bite of apple flying from her mouth, Snow White is resurrected and thus able to marry a powerful prince and overthrow the dictatorship of The Queen.
The Huntsman represents the struggle of lower class between two warring ideologies. The Queen orders him to kill Snow White and he must obey. Snow White begs for her life and he is compelled to obey also. This importance on social standing is also reflected when The Prince only admires Snow White’s beauty and wishes to have her after he notes her coffin states that she is a princess, therefor upper class like himself.
The Seven Dwarfs are forced to let Snow White live with them, although they do require manual labour in return. This reinforces their position as depicting the petite bourgeois. Their social standing as below that of the Capitalists is reinforced when The Prince desires to have Snow White’s body for his own. The Dwarfs, of course, must accept.
Finally, at the end of the tale The Queen is forced to wear iron shoes and dance to death- iron being representative of the middle and lower classes labour and such, and dancing a leisure activity of the capitalists. The dictatorship of The Queen is thus overthrown however the tale can be viewed as commenting on the failings of the communist revolutionary attempts for in place of The Queen is a new dictator- Snow White and her Prince.
Liberal Humanism, on the other hand strips back all these prejudices and interpretations. Liberal Humanist Literary Theory ideally looks at what is at the essence of the text, and what it says about humanity.
It can do this as Liberal Humanist literary Theory views literature as timeless; as well it might in the case of fairy tales as they have survived the test of time, numerous retellings and adaptations. In applying the first tenant of liberal humanism to Little Snow White we must look at what within the text displays as being constant in human nature. This is easy to spot in the story; the things that have remained throughout constant changes to the story are natural jealousy and fear of ageing. It displays the human instinct for survival, not wanting to step aside, be over taken and to hang on to life.
The second tenant is that the text contains its own implicit meaning; it does not need to be read from a socio-political context or a literary-historical one in order for its meaning to be grasped. The inherent meaning of Little Snow White, as a fairy tale of caution or pure entertainment, would be that all too obvious warning; don’t talk to strangers, although I think in this case the real message is to listen to your superiors (In this case the seven dwarfs).
It is also important to note that Snow White sends a religious message- or to apply it to any time- a warning to not do bad deeds. One must not be vain, greedy, gluttonous or envious there will be punishment. The queen is guilty of these sins when she wants to be the fairest of them all- displaying greed and vanity. She is envious in her jealousy of Snow White and gluttonous when she devours what she believes are Snow White’s lungs and liver.
I believe to view the tale of Little Snow White in a manner of “seeing the object as in itself it really is” (‘Beginning Theory’, 1995, p.17), is very difficult given in reading the text it is impossible to put aside the strong and constant biblical references.
When it comes down to it; do you believe in transcendent qualities? Does each individual have an unchanging essence that makes them so? Are some things in human nature entirely unchanging?
Some things, certainly. Our basic instincts, for example, are unchanging. However, today they are often over ridden by rationalisations and conscious thought. All our subconscious instincts and thoughts however probably remain shockingly unchanged throughout time.
The idolisation of beauty is one such thing. As Iris Murdoch says, “beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct”.
People all over the world and throughout time have always admired and valued beauty- and it is this instinctive appreciation that is timeless in Snow White.
Little Snow White (Grimm, 1812) also tells us, along with beauty, society values hard work, kindness and social ranking, fitting well with point six of Liberal Humanism that “the purpose of literature is essentially the enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values” (‘Beginning Theory’, 1995, p.17).
In conclusion, any form of Literary Theory can be applied to any text satisfactorily. It is important to take a step back from theory and to enjoy the experience that text is depicting and to remember language and literature in a Liberal humanist manner- as something abolishing the distance between words and things, as something that expresses our humanity and experiences in a way which will remain timeless and relevant.
Barry, P 2002, Beginning Theory: An introduction to Literary and cultural theory, 2nd ed. New York: Manchester University Press.
Graf, D 2008, Reading Female Bodies in Little Snow White: Independence and autonomy versus subjugation and invisibility, 1st ed. Oshkosh: University of Wisconsin .
Grimm, G, Grimm W 2011, Brothers Grimm: Little Snow White, 2nd ed. United States: Books LLC.
Zipes, J 2012, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The cultural and social history of a genre, 1st ed. United States: Princeton University Press.
Zipes, J 2002, Breaking the Magic Spell, 2nd ed. Kentucky : University Press of Kentucky.