“Bluebeard” is a classic fairytale — the O.G. tale of domestic violence. Any story in which a fearsome husband murders his young wife is probably a “Bluebeard” descendent. The husband in this tale is monstrous, and related to the archetype of the ogre.
I never encountered the story of “Bluebeard” growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.
There are versions of Bluebeard all over the world:
There is always a forbidden chamber with hidden contents. This is a take on the ancient Pandora story, in which a young woman looks where she should not. (See also: Eve, Lot’s wife and Psyche.) The contents of this forbidden chamber differ from region to region:
The ending also differs: Various characters help the young woman to escape. Occasionally she escapes on her own.
French folklorist Charles Perrault included a “Bluebeard” story in his well-known Stories. Folklorists don’t know where he got his inspiration from, exactly, but there are theories, based on the fact that Perrault was a hagiographer as well as a fairytale enthusiast:
Ballads of maiden kidnappers which went around Europe in the 1500s
The “Mr Fox” tale from England
the St Gilda legend about the 6th C saint who revived Tryphine, who had been beheaded by her husband (Comorre or Cunmar) when he learned she was pregnant.
The historical figure Gilles de Rais (1404-40). This psychopath sexually abused and murdered more than 140 children. He is also remembered as a comrade of Joan of Arc.
As a mental mouthwash, I suggest you read Angela Carter’s feminist version of “Bluebeard” after reading this much earlier one by the misogynist Perrault. Carter’s story is called The Bloody Chamber (1979). Bluebeard re-visionings are deemed feminist when the storyteller removes blame from the young woman (for disobeying her husband) and places blame with the violent murderer himself. Another feminist re-visioning is Bluebeard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood (1983). In some Bluebeard-type stories, the bloodstain is found on an egg rather than on a key.
The French title of Perrault’s retelling is La Barbe bleue. In the 1500s, ‘barbe bleu’ actually referred to a man with a raven black beard. Men with such beards were thought to be seducer types.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a famous psychological horror short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman; July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935) was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” which she wrote after a severe bout of postpartum psychosis.
According to Asti Hustvedt in Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, “Hysteria was at least partly an illness of being a woman in an era that strictly limited female roles. It must be understood as a response to stifling social demands and expectations aptly expressed in paralysis, deafness, muteness, and a sense of being strangled.” The psychological trauma of being a Victorian woman could well lead to the symptoms described. Contemporary invalidity in many cases was psychosomatic, owing partly to the Victorian aesthetic ideal of the beautiful, thin, pitiable object of affection that is exemplified in figure of the sick, dying or dead woman (see Poe, Tennyson, Dickens, Soker, etc. etc. etc.) and partly to being sick being one of the few ways to evoke sympathy and attention outside of stifling domestic life.
I hardly have to mention that being an invalid was also an escape from the crushing burden of domestic work and the immense pressure of conforming to the expectations placed on a Victorian woman. Victorian texts are full of long convalescences of women complaining of vague paints, as well as the doubts of those around them of how legitimate these complaints may be. This is not to say that these women were “making it up,” but rather that suggestion, stress, and trauma all had a role in the “culture of invalidity.”
Also important to know: Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a pioneer in the study of nervous conditions, urged Charlotte Perkins Gilman to treat her ‘hysteria’ by abstaining from her work as a writer, and to “never touch a pen, brush or pencil,” as long as she lived.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER AND FRANKENSTEIN
What has Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1888) got to do with “The Yellow Wallpaper”? Both are examples of feminine gothic texts. Mary Shelley ‘s tentpole novel explored themes such as transgression of gender roles and postpartum depression. Written later the same century, “The Yellow Wallpaper” intertextualises Frankenstein in similar ways.
Are about complete isolation
Present a typical feminist gothic reversal
Create a picture of monsterfied male control (rather than an actual madwoman)
In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator creates another woman in the wallpaper. This woman is both her double and her Other. Gothic texts feature a lot of mirrors and reflections. This wallpaper is basically a gothic mirror. Anyway, this gothic mirror, ahem, wallpaper, reflects the monstrous state of the female main character.
This figure multiplies into the image of the creeping women of the ambiguous ending. Likewise, the narrator herself creeps over her husband’s body.
Frankenstein was the first Gothic text to let the Othered have a voice. Likewise, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is told through the viewpoint of what some commentators have called “the monstrous-feminine”, describing a woman who doesn’t conform to expectations of femininity. (Neo-gothic work explores that a lot more deeply and widely.)
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE YELLOW WALLPAPER?
Else and John rent a colonial mansion — ‘ancestral halls’ for the summer partly because there are repairs going on at home, partly because John figures it will be a good place for his wife to get better.
Else can’t fathom how this huge house with its extensive grounds is being let so cheaply — she figures it must be haunted or something. She doesn’t mention this to her logical husband who has no time for such fancies.
John won’t let them take the room on the ground floor so she is forced to spend her days in the sunlight-filled top floor.
Else spends her days upstairs in this airy attic, or strolling around the gardens trying to get better.
All the while, a nanny takes care of her baby and the husband’s sister takes care of the housekeeping.
She is not allowed to write, even though she wants to, because her husband thinks it will tip her over the edge. So she writes this diary in secret.
Her own side of the family visits briefly.
All this time, the yellow wallpaper is driving her balmy. It seems to be an alive thing, half alive, half dead. The husband considers her issues with it part of her psychosis and refuses to change it.
After a while she consoles herself by thinking at least the baby doesn’t have this room, with the terrible wallpaper. She wouldn’t inflict this on any child ‘for worlds’.
She starts to see the shape of an old woman ‘stooping down and creeping about’.
Then she starts creeping about herself at night, ostensibly creeped out by the moonlight coming in. The moon is just as bright as the sun.
John makes Else take more and more naps, which she is actually awake during. She doesn’t tell him this.
Else starts to become scared of John. She puts this down to the creepy wallpaper.
One night she and this imagined spooky woman pull off lengths and lengths of wallpaper.
The night-time creepings get worse and worse and she even starts gnawing at the bed. She locks the door so no one can get in.
But then when he does come in, he faints. We assume he’s lying there for quite a long time, and he may have seen something more than what has been described to us, the readers, but what is it? That is left to us.
The reader might rread this story as a owman’s escape into madness, or as suicide, suggested by the first encounter with a strangled woman in the wallpaper. However you read it, the author refuses to tidy it up nicely for us, restoring the female main character to the symbolic order.
Though Else describes herself as an ordinary person — usually unable to afford to rent such a grand house for three months — this couple are still upper-middle class. The husband is a respected physician who is able to take three months off over summer and with the means to hire a nanny and possibly send his wife to Weir Mitchell, who was a real-life American physician and writer, known for his discovery of causalgia and erythromelalgia
Else and John are presented as opposites: Irrational versus highly rational. It is up to the reader to determine what is truly going on between this couple. I do wonder if a contemporary audience would have necessarily understood the dynamic of control and gaslighting, because in the author’s lifetime, there was a whole lot of sexism concerning mental illness in women.
the first person narrator, suffering from postpartum depression
the physician husband who is loved by Else but the reader can see his domination over her.
the nanny, we assume. We know only her name, but the name Mary gives us the idea of the Virgin Mary. (The same effect is achieved in Downton Abbey.)
Jennie’s main loyalties lie with the husband, since she is his sister, not Else’s. Else is on her own in this state. Her family visit briefly, but it is Jennie who takes over control of the housekeeping. ‘Jennie sees to everything now.’ She is also under the dominance of John, which we can see when she confides to Else that she wouldn’t have minded ripping off all of that wallpaper herself.
SETTING OF THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
I find it interesting to look at food rituals in stories from an earlier time. In 1892 people were eating the diet now recommended we go back to by the Weston A. Price foundation:
John says I mustn’t lose my strength, and has me take cod liver oil and lots of tonics and things, to say nothing of ale and wine and rare meat.
What else was happening in the world at that time? Well, a couple of Australian states were just starting to give women the vote. It wasn’t until 1893 that New Zealand became the first country in which women achieved sufferage. America came a long time after, but Gilman would have been well-aware of these advances, and keenly aware of the fact that she herself had no right to choose who ran her own country and how it was ran. Women were still very much chattels.
Humanity was about to enter into the first real technological phase. Until this point in history you could go to a big mansion in the countryside and live pretty much like a medieval person for a while. The zipper (for clothing) had only just been patented, allowing women (and men) to finally spend less time mucking around with clothing. But they weren’t widespread as of yet. It was all buttons and buckles.
‘Sky-scrapers’ were becoming a thing in America, with buildings as high as ten storeys high in Boston!
Clement Ader’s flying machine had managed to clear four feet and fly for a full 180 feet. Humans were starting to really consider taking to the air.
The first self-service restaurant opened in America in 1892.
The General Electric Company was formed.
And it wasn’t until 1893 that The American Bell Telephone Company made the first long-distance phone call.
Around the Western world, the Industrial era had given rise to huge disparities in incomes. In England and in America there were hundreds of thousands living in slums, sending their children out to work, all of that Dickensian stuff. The reason this narrator doesn’t consider herself wealthy is because she’s obviously been exposed to the super rich, for example the Vanderbilt family of Rhode Island, whose guests are handed silver trowels and told they may dig for rubies and sapphires, and whose dogs wear diamond studded collars.
Out in the Wild West, the buffalo population has been reduced to just 1000 (whereas just 100 years prior it had been 20 million).
In the medical world, it wasn’t until a couple of years after this story was published that the Pasteur and Jenner versions of vaccinations were a thing.
Some people actually thought there would be people living on Mars — an idea made popular by Percival Lowell, a wealthy astronomer.
Other classic works produced around this time: A Picture of Dorian Grey (Oscar Wilde was going through a productive period), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tess of the d’Urbevilles,
Meanwhile, in Japan, it’s hard to believe it was so recent, but after the fairly recent Meiji Restoration, the samurai class were trying to claw back control of the country and there was a massive bloody riot at the 1892 general election, where citizens were tortured by a ruthless home minister. (They didn’t manage to take the country back over, obviously.)
Else describes a snail under the leaf setting, but the broken glasshouses give us the idea that all is not well.
The most beautiful place! It is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.
There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden – large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.
There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.
The husband decides that they will sleep in the nursery at the top of the house. It is an example of a light-filled room, which you don’t often find in straight-written haunted houses — remember this is an apparent idyll. We have an example of dramatic irony when Else naively assumes that the bars on the windows are for safety rather than imprisonment, and that the rings on the walls are some sort of plaything — as readers we’ve seen enough Bluebeard tales to realise these are probably used in scenes of torture or something. She even thinks of innocent hi-jinks when concocting the reason for the state of the wallpaper. We see dramatic irony again later when we know that it is Else gnawing at her bed, not those hypothetical children.
The description of this room almost personifies the room, but not quite. The phrase ‘with windows looking all ways’ makes use of the fact that in English we mostly make no distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs, and we can ‘look’ at something or a window itself can ‘look out’ over something. (Many other languages don’t have this kind of flexibility/ambiguity.) The wallpaper itself is turned into something with its own moral code when Else says it ‘commits every artistic sin’. We’ve got the Christian symbolism creeping in there, too, which pervades the Western horror tradition.
The writer really makes the most of this wallpaper personification: The wallpaper is basically alive (or rather, half alive, half dead, with its broken, lolling neck). Hard angles, too, are often used in visual imagery when it comes to the horror genre. (See The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen for a picturebook example.)
It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.
The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off – the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One a those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.
I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere There is one place where two breaths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.
I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store.
When Else describes a view from this big, airy room we get more of a traditionally gothic impression:
Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deepshaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.
This stands in juxtaposition with her view out the other side:
Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house.
And at this point we are encouraged to wonder which part of this story is psychosis and which part is a haunting:
I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous shortcoming like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Haunted House Trope
The trope of the suspiciously cheap lodgings which end up being haunted is fairly common in the horror genre. The Scariest Night, an Apple classic from the early 1990s by Betty Ren Wright is an example from children’s book world. TV Tropes call this trope Haunted Headquarters, which covers any kind of haunted primary setting, not just big fancy houses.
There are other horror symbols utilised in this story, such as the moon:
The moon shines in all around just as the sun does. I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another.
The dark is important, as all of the worst things happen during the night. The moon is as bright as the sun in this case, though, because of all the forced rests during the day, which inevitably lead to a disrupted sleep pattern and night-time insomnia.
The reader is constantly reminded that this is a retelling of a story, and the narrator isn’t meant to be all that good at writing, despite being ‘a writer’ in the story. We’re supposed to believe she’s down-to-earth and therefore incapable of fabricating events. After going off topic to write a little about some legal trouble she says:
That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but don’t care – there is something strange about the house – I can feel it.
Another short story writer, Katherine Mansfield, used many hyphens in her personal writings. I suspect hyphens to join grammatically disconnected clauses were in fashion for a while.
Making Use Of The Senses
Describing how things look is something writers find easy; we have to dig a little deeper when engaging the sense of smell:
It gets into my hair.
Even when I go to ride, if I turn my head suddenly and surprise it – there is that smell!
Such a peculiar odor, too! I have spent hours in trying to analyze it, to find what it smelled like.
It is not bad – at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met.
In this damp weather it is awful, I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me.
It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house – to reach the smell.
But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.
This is obviously a feminist short story — an ‘hysterical woman’ who has what we today recognise as post-partum depression, not taken seriously by the learned men in her life: ‘He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.’ It’s possible Else is not bonding particularly well with the baby, which is not mentioned until second five. The baby is cared for by someone called Mary.
A desire to work but being told she is too feeble of mind
Writing in secret, which itself causes stress because of having to keep it hidden: ‘There comes John, and I must put this away – he hates to have me write a word.’
A husband who won’t let his wife make any decisions — he even controls which bedroom they sleep in. This is a classic case of a controlling partner dominating their spouse by exerting control in the name of love: ‘He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.’ He infantalises her by callling her his ‘dear little goose’.
While most monsters and ghouls in horror stories are gendered male, if gendered at all, the monsters in the wallpaper comprise a group of women. She reasons these women are trying to climb through the patterns in the wallpaper but end up strangled. This, of course, is a comment on how many mentally ill women are cloistered as the crazy ‘woman upstairs’, also known as the Madwoman in the Attic. (The ur-Madwoman is Mr Rochester’s wife from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.)
Neo-gothic stories which centre the Othered woman are popular now, and a standout example is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a much earlier example of a story concerned with how the patriarchy feels the burden of subduing female procreation lies with men. (Pregnancy and unharnessed sexuality has long been conflated.)
House symbolism is an interesting way of looking at a story. Have you noticed that houses as depicted in Western picture books tend to look the same? Two storied, bedrooms upstairs, slightly untidy but still Pinterest-worthy? There’s a reason for this. Each part of a house is symbolically unique. Gaston Bachelard talks about this in his famous book on architecture and philosophy, The Poetics of Space.
Some commentators (e.g. Scherner) interpret houses in dreams as stand-ins for the human body. The windows, doors and entrances are the entrances into the body cavities. The facades are smooth or provided with balconies and projections to which to hold. In anatomy the body openings are sometimes called the body-portals.
There is a problematic trope in which the large house correlates to a large, overbearing woman. The trope intersects with fatphobia and misogyny. For an example of this trope see the children’s animated feature film Monster House. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is another example of the same trope.
I thought our minds are very much like a house. That’s the metaphor I used for this book.
Home As Metonym For Family
In the middle ages houses were simply places to seek refuge and sleep. There was no conception of children, and no concept of family in connection to this place of crude shelter. Today we think of home quite differently. We strive to make it comfortable (another newish concept) and we strive to fill it with the people closest to us.
Dwellings in fantasy don’t always look like the rectangular structure we know and love.
For example, Bilbo’s circular house feels particularly cosy, in stark contrast to the jagged mountains in the distance.
Do you have a dream house that exists only inside your head? Perhaps it’s somewhere you hope to build one day, or a mixture of great spaces you’ve been to in your lifetime. If you were asked questions about this dream house, I wonder how specific you could get?
How many bedrooms does it have?
How does one get from one bedroom to another?
Where do the inhabitants keep their clothes?
What would I find in the larder?
Which direction does it face?
If I flew into the air above your dream house, what does the surrounding area look like?
As Gaston Bachelard says, quoting Rilke in The Poetics of Space, those of us who keep dreamt-up houses in our heads haven’t worked out the details. Details such as: How does one get from one room to another without a connected corridor?
[The imagined dream house] is not a building, but is quite dissolved and distributed inside me: here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor which, however, does not connect the two rooms, but is conserved in me in fragmentary form. Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me, the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness, others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.
Rainer Maria Rilke, quoted in The Poetics Of Space
The house I had imagined inside my head wouldn’t necessarily work. And the architecture of the house is essential to the plot, which is certainly not true of many other picture books.
I wonder if it’s common for picturebook illustrators to draw a floor plan when illustrations are set largely inside a house. It really helped me out a lot, to spend half an hour visualising the entirety of Roya’s world within the story, down to the wallpaper.
Once I’d sketched a layout of the apartment, illustrations progressed at a faster pace*. I didn’t have to consider the interior decor, of her non-imaginary world, at least. I’ve heard art advice to the effect that you need to understand the entirety of a subject even if you’re only going to be depicting a single facet. I was imagining a banana when I heard that advice, but it certainly applies to houses and floorplans. Otherwise you’re liable to draw a house without any doors.
(By the way, I decided the toilet and bathroom are communal, downstairs.)
Header illustration is the classic picture book house, from The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion, 1959; illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham.
Of all the stories you loved in childhood, which of the houses would you most like to live in? Was it, by chance, a ‘bustling’ environment? Was it quirky or intriguing or very large?
The dark, terrifying house contrasts the warm, welcoming house important to children’s stories with a home-away-home structure. Without a home base, modern stories cannot have happy endings.
Interestingly, a Medieval audience wouldn’t have thought in this way. In Medieval Europe, the house did not equal the home, and shelters were just that — places to sleep. If there was furniture, it wasn’t made for comfort. The very concept of comfort is a modern one. Even until Jane Austen’s time, ‘comfort’ as a word was used quite differently and meant strengthening, support and consolation rather than the modern experience of sitting in a nice, padded chair. The concept of ‘child’ is also modern. In the Medieval era, offspring were sent out into the world as apprentices from about the age of seven. Most people lived in shacks but not houses; houses were not used as metonyms for family as they very much are today.
Scary houses are not always dark. White gothic exists, such as depicted in the cold house below — opulence without comfort. Modern films and TV shows achieve a similar effect by making use of large houses made largely of windows.
The dream cottage exists near woods, in that liminal space between forest and savannah.
The house suppresses Fanny’s dreams and tries to force her to settle in marriage. Once Fanny is in the house she finds out that her immediate family is dirty chaotic and classless. Fanny is left in conflict over whether she should rush to marry her suiter Henry or wait for her true love Edmond. The house represents Fanny’s past and future if she is to move forward Fanny must endure the uncomfortability of living in the house.
Which of the following cottages would you like to sleep in under moonlight and why all of them?
When you think of a cottage today, you’re probably thinking of a smaller than average house which charming, rustic decoration, perhaps honeysuckle grows outside. There’s probably enough land outside for a well-tended garden. But the word cottage hasn’t always referred to the size and mood of the house. First cottages were small, then they were quite large, now they are small again.
late 14c., “a cot, a humble habitation,” as of a farm-laborer, from Old French cote “hut, cottage” + Anglo-French suffix -age (according to OED the whole probably denotes “the entire property attached to a cote”).
The main thing about those really old cottages: cotters lived there. Cotters were farm labourers or tenants who occupied a small house on a larger property in return for labour.
The term ‘cottage industry’ later meant an industry run from home. In order to run a business from home, the house has to be pretty large, actually.
Later, in America, ‘cottage’ referred to how many servants were employed at the house. From there, the word ‘cottage’ once again became associated with ‘small’:
In 1870, fully 60 percent of all the gainfully employed women in the United States worked as servants. Andrew Jackson Downing differentiated between houses and cottages according to the number of servants that they contained–anything with less than three servants was a cottage. Nevertheless, as early as 1841, Catherine Beecher was arguing that more compact houses were necessary since “as the prosperity of this Nation increases, good domestics will decrease.” Indeed, this is what happened, and by 1900, there were less than half as many servants in the United States as in England; more than 90 percent of American families employed no domestics.
Home, Witold Rybczynski
Cottages traditionally have thick walls, well suited to cold climates but not to hot, humid ones as they’re inclined to trap the air inside. Unlike a cabin, which is made of wood (probably logs), cottages are made of a variety of different materials, depending on the region and economic situation.
People from far away, from Boston and Philadelphia, discovered the beautiful bay. They bought up land near the water and built large houses that they called cottages.
Barbara Cooney, Island Boy
Cooney demonstrates in the passage above that the cottage — the true cottage, not the grand house disguised as cottage — is the picture book ideal. Happiness is found in a cottage. Whereas the large house is often cold and lonely and scary, the cottage is never so.
In a cottage you can achieve the Christian ideal of making do with little. A cottage is unable to house superfluous possessions.
THE DREAM BUNGALOW
A bungalow is a low house having only one storey or, in some cases, upper rooms set in the roof, typically with dormer windows. However, the word came from South East Asia (Bengal, to be specific), where it actually means a detached house with more than one storey. Unlike a cottage, they don’t have those thick walls. You might say a bungalow is a subcategory of cottage but for tropical climates.
Within Britain, you’re more likely to find cottages inland but bungalows beside the sea.
Here in Australia, the California bungalow was popular after the first world war, when Australians started to watch Hollywood movies and obviously liked the look of this kind of house. Both California and much of Australia are well-suited to this design, with its verandah stretching most of the way around the building.It is raised above ground by a metre or more so that the dwelling does not easily flood. Steps lead up to the front door, and in most cases a large veranda surrounds the exterior of the home so you can sit on the porch to catch a tropical breeze. The interior only uses one level adorned with wide hallways and large windows to help distribute air throughout the home.
Some of them have attics, but they’re just as likely to have a dormer window, or just a vent designed to look like one. (That’s why they’re called one and a half storey houses.)
New Zealand has a lot of California bungalows, too, built around the same time.
But a luxurious house like the one below is also called a bungalow.
Cabins can be rustic and simple or they can be luxurious. The most luxurious are luxurious in a very specific kind of way: luxury reminiscent of turn of the (20th) century wealth, especially the decades between 1890 and 1930.
The log cabin setting…has the affected, cedar-stump rusticity that used to characterize rich men’s hunting lodges at the end of the [19th] century.
Home, Witold Rybczynski
Rybczynski noted that that the 1980s version of a luxurious cabin left out the mounted animal heads on the walls. More lately, the stuffed mounted head on the wall is a feature of horror and comedy settings — and best of all, horror comedies.
The devil’s daughter rows to Edinburgh in a coffin, to work as maid for the Minister of Culture, a man who lives a dual life. But the real reason she’s there is to bear him and his barren wife a child, the consequences of which curse the tenement building that is their home for a hundred years. As we travel through the nine floors of the building and the next eight decades, the resident’s lives entwine over the ages and in unpredictable ways. Along the way we encounter the city’s most infamous Madam, a seance, a civil rights lawyer, a bone mermaid, a famous Beat poet, a notorious Edinburgh gang, a spy, the literati, artists, thinkers, strippers, the spirit world – until a cosmic agent finally exposes the true horror of the building’s longest kept secret. No. 10 Luckenbooth Close hurtles the reader through personal and global history – eerily reflecting modern life today.
“Cinderella” is a classic rags-to-riches tale and can be found, written straight or subverted, throughout the history of literature. It’s worth pointing out that Cinderella wasn’t truly from ‘rags’. She was related to middle class people, so was at least middle class herself. No one wants to hear about actual starvation, rickets and whatnot at bedtime. This is a middle-class-to-rags-to-aristocrat tale.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CINDERELLA
Cinderella Is From China
Although we think of Cinderella as a quintessential European fairytale, it originates from China. If you’ve ever read the novel Chinese Cinderella, this renders the title a little moot!
The Chinese title is Ye Xian (English speakers can approximate the sound by saying ‘Ye Shen’). The plot originated in the 5th century, which makes it about 1500 years old. This is a tale from the end of the ancient world, and marks the very beginning of when stories began to be written down. (Known also as the early modern era.)
What happens in Ye Xian?
Cinderella has a golden fish in a pond.
She likes to go to the pond and talk to this fish, imagining it’s her dead mother.
Her tears mingle with the water in the pond.
She lives with a wicked stepmother who hates her, and as an act of cruelty the mother kills the beloved fish/spirit mother, cooks it and serves it up to Cinderella who is made to eat it.
An old travelling man happens by and says, “Do not fear, the bones of the fish have great power.” He tells her to take them and use them at a time of great need.
The rest of the story is as we know it today in the West: Cinderella ends up asking for help from the bones (rather than from a fairy godmother). The dress she wears to the ball is golden like fish scales.
It’s no real surprise to learn that Cinderella comes from China when you consider the degree to which (small) feet have traditionally been fetishised on the Chinese continent. The Chinese story does continue past Cinderella’s marriage to the handsome prince. Unlike European stories, Chinese fairytales have tended to continue past the happily ever after = marriage. In the Chinese Cinderella, there are problems in the marriage because the king is jealous of those magical fish bones. He ends up throwing the bones away so he can have his wife to himself. He is coercively controlling, in other words. Not a happy ending at all. (At least, not for women.)
How did Ye Xian make it to Europe?
The story which later became Cinderella makes its way from China across to Europe along the silk roads, together with the silks, spices and diseases. Marco Polo was famously one of the first Europeans to penetrate China. He returned to Venice in 1290. We can see the beginnings of the earliest Cinderella stories in Europe from the early 1300s.
The Neapolitan Cinderella
The tale was written down by Giambatissa Basile in Italy in the 1500s. There is now no mention of the golden slipper. Italians didn’t share the small-foot fetish with China so that part of the tale didn’t resonate and wasn’t retained. That’s not to say that footwear wasn’t associated with women’s sexuality. Basile’s heroine does wear very high heels to keep her skirts from being muddied. Basile wrote down his tales in Neapolitan, a very rare dialect. This is why his versions weren’t translated into other languages until the 19th century.
Because of the dialect thing, Charles Perrault’s French version of Cinderella is the more famous. No one knows exactly how French storytellers were able to get their hands on the Neapolitan tale. There must have been someone who could both read Neapolitan and speak French, but that storyteller has been lost in history. (Perhaps because she was a woman.)
Perrault’s tongue-in-cheek attitude makes it clear that he himself was sophisticated enough to find the story of Cinderella a little silly, but many popular versions of the story simply disregard Perrault’s tone and focus on the cheerful optimism of the events themselves.
In Romania there’s a version called Fairy White. The mistreated main character has only a cow. (The cow is called Fairy White). The stepmother serves the cow meat to the Cinderella character. Remembering the older Chinese tale, Romanians kept the part of the story in which the girl must cannibalise her fairy spirit.
In Italy the story becomes eroticised. Oftentimes the violence and cruelty in Cinderella tales was more akin to horror comedy such as we see coming mainly out of America today, notably in TV series like Dexter and Santa Clarita Diet.
Grimm Brothers’ Cinderella
The Grimm Brothers’ version was transcribed from an oral retelling delivered by a very old, very poor woman. It was written down October 1810. Theirs is a far more vivid, dark and wicked tale than the version by Perrault — is this because the woman who told it was herself living in dire circumstances? The Grimm title translates to “Ash Fool” (Aschenputtel). In this version the girl has golden slippers. The Grimms’ oral source was not the French tale but came from China, bypassing Europe altogether. This shows that there are different streams and tracks for the migration of fairytales — following the various silk roads.
This tale is also sometimes known as The Little Glass Slipper.
The glass slipper in the French retelling makes the story so memorable. Glass was always extremely rare, fragile and expensive. It really came from Venice, just as the story did. Venice was the hub of the world’s trade and also of storytelling. Stories came from places like Persia via Venice and disseminated elsewhere. The glass makes the girl perfect and rare.
Glass slippers would break easily, so anyone wearing them is clearly of a class who cannot labour. For Cinderella, who labours all day, to wear such things is the ultimate makeover.
The shoes are status symbols but also have an element of cruelty/fetishism to them. This is especially true in the Grimm version, with emphasis on how tiny the shoe is. When the prince arrives at Cinderella’s house and tries to put the step sisters’ feet into it the feet won’t fit. The mother tells the first step sister to chop off her toes. Gruesomely, she does. The other follows suit. The doves that had helped Cinderella say at this crucial point, ‘Too wit too woo, there’s blood in the shoe!” thereby ruining the step-sisters’ attempts to pass as more naturally dainty and good.
Why glass? It’s an especially resonant image. Like the milk finger in a The Electric Grandmother, we remember this detail. As a storytelling hook it works beautifully, but it was probably accidental. Glass is widely thought to have been a mistranslation of ‘fur’ from French.
This is a story of justice being served. We have a large appetite for revenge plots. We also like underdog stories. Cinderella’s journey towards being loved and having a happy home of her own tunes into a universal longing, hitting on the base layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Cinderella paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should if possible be totally ignorant; such as envy, jealousy, a dislike to mothers-in-law and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc., etc. — a lady who wrote to Mrs Trimmer’s Guardian of Education in the 18th century
In the real world, underdogs don’t often win, for the simple reason that those who are powerful use their power to control things. But the magical elements in fairy tales allow events to take place that couldn’t easily happen in real life. […] the magic in fairy tales isn’t capricious. In fact, the laws of physics or logic are suspended only to get the ‘good’ characters into trouble or to help them get out of trouble, or both. Pumpkins become coaches only when underdogs like Cinderella are in enough trouble to need a suspension of reality; the magic allows her to triumph, and then it stops.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CINDERELLA
There is something immensely attractive in living through a character who does obtain revenge, who is proved to have value or — like the Danish detective — is finally proved right. The attraction of wish-fulfilment, benevolent or masochistic, can’t be underestimated — what else can explain the ubiquity of Cinderella or the current global dominance of the Marvel franchise? Isn’t there a Peter Parker in most of us longing to turn into Spider-Man? Our favourite characters are the ones who, at some silent level, embody what we all want for ourselves: the good, the bad and the ugly too.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
THE CHARACTERISATION OF CINDERELLA
The passivity and stupidity of fairytale heroes and heroines may be a wise ability to accept that which transcends the limitations of ordinary reason and logic. Cinderella is passive and stupid enough—or wise enough?—to accept the help of her fairy godmother without question. Following this reading, it would appear that European fairy tales express the paradoxes central to the Christian culture they emerged from; the fool in his folly is wise, and the meek do inherit the earth. This, indeed, is the conclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien, who understands the ‘joy’ of the happy ending in fairy tales, what he called the ‘eucatastrophe’, as permitting readers a taste of the ultimate joy of resurrection that Christians hope for.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
Is Cinderella really that good?
We might speculate that, if there were a sequel to ‘Cinderella’ that fulfilled the expectations of fairy tales, Cinderella herself would probably have to be the villain. Her marriage has given her the sort of status and power audiences knowledgeable about the world of the fairy tale expect to be a source of evil. Her marriage has given her the sort of status and power audiences knowledgeable about the world of the fairy tale expect to be a source of evil.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
Cinderella and her fairy godmother can also be coded as models for modern consumerism, exhibiting ideals which are rapidly losing tract as we head further into a climate crisis:
Now that Cinderella is dressed for the part, she can be the part. The recent film version of Cinderella, Ever After, made this even clearer by showing that court dress was actually a kind of disguise. And this modern Cinders isn’t ‘really an upstart; she deserves to get on because she is kind and good. The fairy godmother is a means of obtaining all this largesse without evil consumption; indeed, from Perrault onwards, Cinderella’s prudent housewifery is routinely contrasted with the doomed and fashion-conscious consumption of her stepmother and stepsisters. If the fairy godmother is simply replaced with an American Express Platinum Card, the fear that anyone might simply buy status is aroused. The story gets around this by delegating the bills to someone for whom they have no meaning.
Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories
The Screenprism video below depicts Cinderella as a trauma victim, focusing on the Disney version.
CINDERELLA AS UR-STORY
Some stories are overt retellings and re-visionings of the Cinderella fairy-tale; these are easy to spot because they often have Cinderella in their title or in their marketing blurb. There are many other stories which make use not of the Cinderella plot per so, but of the typical ‘Cinderella story structure’. Many other stories use a basic Cinderella story structure. They’re also known as ‘rags-to-riches’ stories. A few examples:
Pretty Woman — one of the only rom-coms which has gained wide popularity and attention outside rom-com circles
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is a blend of the Bluebeard/Cinderella traditional tales
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl — A genuinely poor boy finds wealth after proving his goodness, not with the aristocratic class but with the wealthy industrial class, of which Roald Dahl was himself a member.
Maid In Manhattan – has a fairytale title when you think about it
Slumdog Millionaire – a film set in India about a destitute man who wins a lot of money in a game show
Notting Hill — the Cinderella character is actually a man with floppy hair, or is it the Julia Roberts character, in a sort of inverse riches-to-rags settlement?
Piper by Emma Chichester Clark is a rags-to-riches tale starring a mistreated dog
Jane Eyre — “The most classic nineteenth-century Cinderella story is probably Jane Eyre. The beginning of the book especially conforms to the pattern: Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her three cousins are as awful as any stepmother and stepsisters. The theme is repeated when Jane goes away to school and is persecuted by teachers and students alike. The fairy godmother who helps her is also a teacher, Miss Temple, and her further adventures have fairytale parallels.” (Alison Lurie)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen also has a mad mother and some ditzy sisters. She is also disadvantaged, and finds her way out by finding Mr Darcy. So this makes use of the same basic template as Cinderella.
Boston Adventure by Jean Stafford — Alison Lurie marks this book the last true Cinderella story by a first rate modern writer. Published in 1944, this basically coincides with the end of the war. Interestingly, we haven’t seen a straight-up Western since the end of the second world war, either. The second world war marked a new era of genre subversions. Everything everyone thought they knew about the world must have been marked out as wrong. Stafford’s story contains an impressive fairy godmother character who turns out to be a kind of witch. Boston Adventure is a fairy tale because the heroine gets her wish. However, Sonia never gets to marry the prince. As you can see, this is the beginning of the subversion.
THE CINDERELLA STORY STRUCTURE
Cinderella has a typical initial situation in a fairy tale: the hero loses his/her identity and becomes a ‘nobody’. The motif is found in fairy tales all over the world, and also in the Bible story of Moses. The Cinderella-structure is a linear story in which the boy becomes a man/girl becomes a woman. There’s no going back to where the hero started from.
The hero is subject to a series of trials: The first trial is loss of home. Maybe the hero is sold or the parents die or the family doesn’t have enough money to survive. The hero may come back, but the home, as it was, is lost forever.
The hero often finds affinity with animals or similar.
The trials that follow are as a result of losing the home — sleeping rough, being tired/cold and otherwise physically uncomfortable. Eating basic food and not enough of it. The hero is thrown into utmost misery but each time ascends. (This is also the basic pattern of an initiation rite.)
Each temporary ascension anticipates the hero’s final reward, but each descent must remind the hero that they’re not yet a fully accepted member of the community. Each descent is a symbolic death. Each recovery is a resurrection.
The hero will probably be left alone, and feels lonely.
But help comes exactly when it is needed. In Cinderella it’s the fairy godmother. It might equally be a rich/kind benefactor or finding something magical within the setting.
There is often a false happy ending — at this point the plot won’t have been satisfactorily resolved.
A dramatic but quick complication will follow.
The hero will be re-established in his/her ‘true identity’ — in fairy tales this is with the help of some sort of token (a lock of hair, a ring, a dragon’s tongue… a shoe that fits or pretty much anything)
The true happy ending comes about when everyone knows how wonderful and special the hero really is (from circumstance of birth) and they are returned to their privileged position in society. ‘And they all lived happily ever after’.
The plot of Goody Two-Shoes seems to quite closely follow the bullet-points above. Though most of us know the term ‘Goody Two-Shoes’, the plot of the story is less well-known. As outlined by John Rowe Townsend in Written For Children:
Goody Two-Shoes’ parents are turned off their farm by a grasping landlord and soon afterward die: her father from a fever untreated by the vital powder and her mother from a broken heart.
She and her brother Tommy wander the hedgerows living on berries. Tommy goes to sea; Goody Two-Shoes (so nicknamed because of her delight on becoming the owner of a pair of shoes) manages to learn the alphabet from children who go to school, then sets up as a tutor, and eventually becomes principal of a dame-school.
There is a good deal about her work as a teacher and her efforts to stop cruelty to animals.
Eventually she marries a squire, and at the wedding a mysterious gentleman turns up. “This Gentleman, so richly dressed and bedizened with Lace, was that identical little Boy whom you before saw in the Sailor’s Habit.” In other words it is brother Tommy, who has of course made his fortune at sea.
And so Goody Two-Shoes, now rich, becomes a benefactor to the poor, helps those who have oppressed her, and at last dies, universally mourned.
A NOTE ON LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY
Little Lord Fauntleroy has been called “the best version of the Cinderella story in the modern idiom that exists.” (Laski.) It has also been discussed in the general terms of a fairy tale and as a Cinderella tale in particular. Much as the idea of the three sons, the first tow being good-for-nothing, and the youngest the most handsome, kind and worthy, is a fairy-tale pattern, Little Lord Fauntleroy […] is definitely not a Cinderella plot. Cedric has in fact not done anything to deserve his sudden happiness; he has not gone through any trials nor endured any hardships, he has not had any quest nor gained any experience. His tremendous goodness alone does not qualify him to be a Cinderella. The Cinderella (or Ugly Duckling) plot moves from ashes to diamonds, from nothing to everything, from humiliation to highest reward; Cedric at most exchanges spiritual wealth for material.
Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
When I began to look for a modern Cinderella, I had more difficulty. The story is still being written, but not for an intellectual audience. The women’s magazines and the contemporary gothic novel are full of it, and (if we are to judge from the newspapers) it occurs frequently in real life. But serious women writers apparently no longer believe in upwardly mobile marriage as a happy ending. Even Edith Wharton, seventy or eighty years ago, didn’t believe in it: The House of Mirth is a devastating account of a Cinderella who doesn’t catch the prince and finally can’t even marry a toad; and in The Custom of the Country the prince goes off with the ugly sister.
Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature, writing in the 1990s
He’s not nearly as attractive as he seemed the other night. / So I think I’ll just pretend that this glass slipper feels too tight.
The Paper Bag Princess By Robert Munsch, Illustrated by Michael Martchenko
In a discussion of feminist retellings of popular fairytales, Nodelman and Reimer point out that although adults like these tales for modern children, unless children have been exposed to the earlier tales as written down by Grimm and Perrault, feminist retellings fall flat:
Such stories often strike adult readers as both enjoyable and useful. They are funny, and they present worthwhile role models. What adults often forget to consider is the degree to which their pleasure in these stories depends on their knowledge of all those other stories in which the princes rescue the princesses. Without the outmoded, sexist schema of those stories to compare it with, The Paperbag Princess loses much of its humor and almost all of its point. If adults assume that such stories are good for children, then they must believe one of the following:
Children should first be taught the outmoded, traditional role models so that they can then be untaught them.
Children already know these role models:
It is natural for children to assume that women are weak and men strong; or
They learn the notion so early in life that it’s firmly established by the time they’re old enough to hear simple stories like The Paperbag Princess.
In fact, this last possibility seems the most likely one. In interviews with children about The Paperbag Princess, Bronwyn Davies discovered that they interpreted—we adults might say, misinterpreted—the story to make it fit into their already established ideas about appropriate behaviour for males and females. When Ronald thanks Elizabeth for rescuing him from the dragon by telling her she looks awful and that she should go away and come back only when she looks more like a princess, these children were convinced that he’s only doing what needs to be done. Elizabeth needs to be warned about the danger of behaving in such an unfeminine manner because her actions are a threat both to her and to Ronald. According to Davies, these children understood Ronald’s cruel words as what she calls ‘category maintenance work’: behaviour ‘aimed at maintaining the category as a meaningful category in the face of individual deviation which is threatening the category’. In this case, the category is gender roles, and the children Davies interviewed knew and believed traditional ideas about them thoroughly enough to reinvent the meaning of Munsch’s story. Not surprisingly, they had serious trouble making sense of Elizabeth’s apparent happiness at the end of it. Davies concludes, ‘Certainly the idea that children learn through stories what the world is about or that they use the characters in stories as ‘role models’ is not only too simplistic but it entirely misses the interactive dimension between the real and the imaginary’.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature
CINDERELMA AND ELLA ENCHANTED
In any case, all stories reflect the ideologies of their tellers. If those tellers aren’t yet as liberated as we might wish they were, then the stories they tell, despite their good intentions, won’t be any more liberated. In ‘Cinderelma’ from Dr. Gardner’s Fairy Tales for Today’s Children by Richard A. Gardner, MD, and in Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a liberated woman still achieves happiness by marrying the man of her dreams. Indeed, marriage is the happy ending.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature
Cinderella and the Hot Air Balloon by Ann Jungman and Russell Ayto
In this 2004 retelling, Cinderella is a ‘tomboy’ (my quote marks mean I really don’t like implied established gender roles) who insists that Prince Charming changes his name to something sensible like Bill. Instead of the whole slipper saga, they both take off in a hot air balloon. In other words, you still get the Happy Ever After. I don’t think this story is sufficiently different to warrant a retelling. (I thought the same after watching Tim Burton’s Alice.) There are so many fairytales out there — even if we just stick to those collected by the Grimm Brothers — that I doubt it’s possible to tire of them before the Fairytale Phase has been outgrown. If we’re going to rewrite any, I think that one, they need to be significantly different and two, they need to have an original spin (e.g. a modern setting which affects the characterisation).
Jerry Lewis starred in a movie called Cinderfella, about a male character in the same situation. He needs to be rescued.
Cinderella Dressed In Yella
See also: Cinderella Dressed In Yella by Ian Turner (Australian — Monash University). Turner taught Australian History and talked about football all the time. This second year lecture was so popular that people needed to be booked in advance. He gave a sexual interpretation to the egg shaped ball being passed around a field, passed around pies etc. He also talked about the tradition of folklore.
Included in the definition of ‘home’ is the idea of a stable, secure structure… which doesn’t get up and move! The concept of home is especially important in children’s stories, which explains the popularity of the home-away-home structure: Child leaves home, has a little adventure, then returns to security. The young reader falls into slumber, undisturbed by nightmares.
Speaking of nightmares, loss of home base is an enduring theme. We can’t find our home; we return home to find it changed; people we love abandon us. Another creepy take: The home itself gets up and moves. This is the walking house.
Baba Yaga’s Walking House
This must be a very old nightmare because we see it in fairytales such as Baba Yaga, who lives in a house on chicken legs. A constant across fairytales: weird feet.
Why chicken legs? Well, why not. Humans have long lived with chickens and we’ve had ample time to notice their creepy-ass feet, more similar to human hands than, say, puppy dog paws, yet birds are more distantly removed in the evolutionary tree. Chicken feet are enough like human hands to lead us into uncanny valley.
Howl’s Moving Castle
A standout example of a modern walking house is Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, published 1986. Later, in 2004, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki released a film adaptation.
Here is an excellent breakdown of main differences between the YA novel and Hayao Miyazaki’s film adaptation, from a feminist point of view. Though both Miyazaki and Wynne Jones are known to be feminist storytellers, the feminism of the Japanese man is quite different from that of the Welsh novelist.
One thing the film did do though, was to broaden the audience for the novel, which had until then remained relatively obscure.
Magic and whimsy meet in this Howl’s Moving Castle for a new generation from the critically adored Sophie Anderson, author of The House with Chicken Legs.
Twelve-year-old Olia knows a thing or two about secrets. Her parents are the caretakers of Castle Mila, a soaring palace with golden domes, lush gardens, and countless room. Literally countless rooms. There are rooms that appear and disappear, and rooms that have been hiding themselves for centuries. The only person who can access them is Olia. She has a special bond with the castle, and it seems to trust her with its secrets.
But then a violent storm rolls in . . . a storm that skips over the village and surrounds the castle, threatening to tear it apart. While taking cover in a rarely-used room, Olia stumbles down a secret passage that leads to a part of Castle Mila she’s never seen before. A strange network of rooms that hide the secret to the castle’s past . . . and the truth about who’s trying to destroy it.
Go back to the 1960s and I wonder if Diana Wynne Jones might’ve been influenced by an architectural-art movement known as Archigram.
Archigram was an avant-garde architectural group formed in the 1960s that was neofuturistic, anti-heroic and pro-consumerist, drawing inspiration from technology in order to create a new reality that was solely expressed through hypothetical projects.
In the 1960s they mounted an exhibition called Living City. Archigram wasn’t a green movement — these futuristic thinkers let their imaginations run completely wild, and imagined a future without material or carbon constraints.
The Walking City is constituted by intelligent buildings or robots that are in the form of giant, self-contained living pods that could roam the cities. The form derived from a combination of insect and machine and was a literal interpretation of le-Corbusier’s aphorism of a house as a machine for living in. The pods were independent, yet parasitic as they could ‘plug into’ way stations to exchange occupants or replenish resources. The citizen is therefore a serviced nomad not totally dissimilar from today’s executive cars. The context was perceived as a future ruined world in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
De Wondere Reis Van Een Kerstboom (1942)
Buildings with legs continue to fascinate.
For the last 27 years, Theo Jansen – a Dutch kinetic sculptor – has been creating new forms of life out of plastic pipes. His beach creatures, called ‘Strandbeest,’ get their energy from the wind.
Vladimir Propp counted 31 functions of a fairytale. Propp defines ‘function’ as an act of a character, understood from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.
He used the word ‘narrateme’ to describe these plot points. We started ending words in ’eme’ in the late 1800s, starting with ‘phoneme’ (the smallest unit of sound). Linguistics also gives us ‘morpheme’ (the smallest unit of meaning). Fast forward to the 1950s and there are so many abstract concepts ending in ’eme’ that a guy called Kenneth Lee Pike starts us talking about ’emic units’. Anyway, the ‘narrateme’ is part of that whole family of concepts. A narrateme meaning, basically, in my own words: A small unit of story which has been broken down from a larger unit of story. People familiar with story intuitively understand these bits of story in the same way a native speaker has an intuitive understanding of the morphemes and phonemes of their own language.
Propp’s way of describing how humans break story down into smaller bits of story and putthem back together like jigsaw puzzles certainly has its critics but is currently the most widely known way of conceptualising the constituent elements of fairy tales.
Is it useful in your own writing? I suggest it could very well be useful in the revision process if you’ve created a story and it doesn’t quite work. It’s possibly more useful in the analysis of popular story, as one explanation as to why some stories really ‘stick’ in our culture, and others simply fade way, forgotten.
See: Propp, Vladimir . (1928) 1968. Morphology of the Folktale, translated by Laurence Scott . Austin: U Texas P.
Morphology will in all probability be regarded by future generations as one of the major theoretical breakthroughs in the field of folklore in the twentieth century.
— Alan Dundes.
Propp’s work is seminal…[and], now that it is available in a new edition, should be even more valuable to folklorists who are directing their attention to the form of the folktale, especially to those structural characteristics which are common to many entries coming from even different cultures.
Importantly, Propp clarified that not every fairytale includes every single plot point as listed below, but when they do, they tend to appear in the following order.
In the fairy tales as recorded by Grimm, there’s a fairytale culture in which young men go wandering in the world. They leave home for no other reason than to go wandering. The Three Little Pigs leave home because they’ve come of age and they need to (turfed out by their mother).
Commonly, young chararcters in fairytales leave to ride or walk to visit someone as a guest (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood, who visits her grandmother), to go fishing, to gather berries, or maybe they’re simply going out for a stroll.
The person who leaves home might be a parent. In Beauty and the Beast, the father is a merchant and goes away on business.
In fairy and folk tales, parents commonly take off to work, to the forest, depart in order to trade (see above), leave for war, or for some other unspecified business.
The very absence of parents prepares the audience for inevitable misfortune.
The interdiction may be presented as direct dialogue, or it may be described in the narrative summary:
Often did the prince try to persuade her and order her not to leave the high tower.
Speaking of towers, these structures are often used in fairytale in place of an interdiction. (If you lock your kid in a tower, you don’t really need to give them warnings; it’s not like you expect them to go anywhere.)
Little Red Riding Hood is warned not to talk to strangers. This part of the fairytale contributes to the ideology that as long as we do as we’re told we’ll be fine. This is a conservative, reassuring message (though wrong).
But an interdiction isn’t always quite so forceful and obvious. It may simply be a request, or even just a bit of advice.
You’re still a youngster.
Take your brother with you to the woods.
There may even be a bit of trickery involved.
Children, go out into the forest.
Bring breakfast out into the field.
In storytelling terms, this (wrong advice) serves the same function of the interdiction, only it has been served by a trickster false-ally. (If you’re stuck inside a fairytale and someone tells you go to into the woods, DON’T GO.)
Rule of fairytale: Interdictions are always broken.
Goldilocks was never explicitly told to avoid breaking and entering, but she knows and we know that this is a violation. Likewise, if someone is late in returning home, the interdiction “Don’t be late home” has simply been omitted.
In a fairytale, this plot point corresponds to the emergence of the opponent. This villain will disturb the peace and will cause misfortune or harm. Typical fairytale villains:
Well, umm… umm… Just before I left the house this afternoon I said to myself that the last thing you must do is forget your speech. And so sure enough, when…when I left the house… [Rowan idly pulls something from his pocket. It’s a pair of ladies’ knickers. He quickly replaces it. He says Woo in relief, thinking nobody noticed the incriminating evidence.] Um.. ah…. the last thing I did, yes you guessed it, was to forget my speech. So it’s all ad-libbed I’m afraid. Umm.. Umm.. ah….
The villain attempts to contact the main character and obtains information about them.
Where do the children live?
The location of precious objects
“Who will tell me what has become of the king’s children?” (A bear)
“Where do you get these precious stones?” (An employee )
“How were you able to make such a quick recovery?” (A priest)
“Tell me, Ivan, the merchant’s son, wherein does your wisdom lie?” (A princess)
The opponent has a plan even if the main character does not. (In melodramas, main characters don’t have plans. They react to extreme circumstance.)
In some versions of Rumpelstiltskin, the Queen who sends out her messenger to find the dwarf in the woods, giving the female character more agency by turning her into a trickster who is a worthy opponent for the villain.
Sometimes the villain asks the intended victim a question which has a menacing vibe to it:
“What a swift steed you have! Might you not get another somewhere that could outrun yours?”
Occasionally the reconnaisance part of a fairytale doesn’t involve the villain.
This is the part where the villain receives information about the intended victim. This information may come from an unexpected source, e.g. from a normally inanimate object that busts out talking.
“Take me out into the courtyard and throw me down upon the ground; there where I stick into the ground will you also find the hive.” (A chisel to a bear)
In Snow White, the Evil Stepmother has a dialogue with a mirror. The stepmother doesn’t question Snow White directly but doesn’t need to; she has a magic mirror which will give her the information she needs. (The mirror tells her that Snow White is living in the forest and more beautiful than she is.)
There’s often carelessness involved at this part of a fairytale.
A mother calls her won home in a loud voice and betrays his presence to a witch.
An old man receives a marvellous bag and gives the godmother a treat from it. This gives away the secret of his talisman to her.
The victim fools the victim. This deception allows the villain to take possession of the victim and their belongings.
A priest dresses in a goat’s hide. (Goat skins are a good one — goats are associated with Satan.)
A witch pretends to be a sweet old lady and imitates the voice of the victim’s mother.
A bad man might appear to be a handsome youth.
A thief pretends to be a beggar.
In fairytales, villains might try charm and persuasion, or they might go straight for magical means of deception.
A stepmother gives a sleeping potion to her stepchild, or poisons an apple.
A villain sticks a magic pin into the victim’s clothing.
Villains might use other means of coercion and deception.
Place knives and spikes around a window so no one can fly through it
Rearrange wood shavings which are supposed to show a girl the way to her brothers.
The victim is successfully deceived and unwittingly helps the villain.
They might simply agree to go along with whatever the villain suggests.
They take the ring.
They go for a nice steam bath.
Rule of fairytale: Deceitful proposals are always accepted and fulfilled.
Main characters might become mechanical at this point, succumbing to the magic, e.g. falling asleep via the magic potion.
Bear in mind that the mechanical behaviour of the main character may not even require a villain e.g. a character might fall asleep of their own accord.
On the other hand, there’s often a good reason why a victim succumbs to villainy, to do with life circumstances. A victim might give in to money because their family is very poor.
There may be no way out of acquiescing because they’ve been given a contradictory or impossible task.
“Give away that which you do not know you have in your house.”
At this point the villain causes harm or injury to a member of the family. Everything that has happened previously has been building up to this moment. The first seven functions of a fairytale lead to this eighth one.
There is much variation in how villains cause harm to their victims including:
abduction and kidnapping (a step-mother lulls her stepson to sleep and his bride disappears forever, a wife flies away from her husband on a magical carpet)
incarceration (a princess imprisons Ivan in a dungeon etc.)
theft of a magical item (the fire bird steals the golden apples
maiming (a servant girl cuts out the eyes of her mistress, a princess chops off someone’s legs, someone steals the heart out of another person’s breast)
murder (a stepmother orders a killing, an employee orders the slaying of a magic duck or chicken)
the plundering or spoiling of crops (a mare eats up a haystack, a bear steals oats, a crane steals peas)
Though the crimes are varied and numerous, most of them relate to some kind of theft.
In a few categories of fairytale, the hero effects the disappearace themself. Or a king might demand a son leave his house. A stepmother might drive her daughter out. A priest might expel his grandson.
Turning the victim into an animal first is pretty common e.g. a stepmother turns her stepdaughter into a lynx before casting her out of the home. In fact, substitution is another common form of fairytale villainy. For instance, a nursemaid might change a bride into a duckling and replaces the bride with her own daughter. Or a maid might blind the king’s bride and then pretend to be the bride herself.
Ordering someone is thrown into the sea is also a pretty common one.
An intensified form of explusion: the villain orders the murder of their victim e.g. a stepmother orders a servant to kill her stepdaughter while she’s out walking. It is common that the heart or liver be requested as evidence that the victim is dead.
Villains often cause multiple harms at once. (Two or three.) So for example, a princess might steal her husband’s magic shirt (theft) and then murders him. Older brothers might kill a younger brother (murder) and then steal his bride (theft).
One family member of a family lacks something or desires something. In this way, lack and need are inextricably linked.
Modern storytellers use various terms to describe ‘lack’. You’ll hear ‘psychic wound’ and ‘ghost‘.
However, in fairytales, the lack or insufficiency is an external thing. For example, the main character lacks/needs a magical sabre or steed or something like that. In any case, this lack will provoke the quest.
In fairytales as in any good contemporary story, a lack is created externally but realised internally. The lack of an object in the outside world maps onto the internal need/deficiency in the character’s psychology.
In fairytales as in contemporary stories more generally, the lack/shortcoming/need isn’t necessarily on the page, but left for the audience to understand via empathy.
Typical lacks in fairytales:
a bride (romantic love and companionship)
a friend (loneliness)
This part of the fairytale may happen right at the start, and in contemporary stories, that’s where you’ll typically find it. Over the years, this part of a plot has shifted up.
In fairytales, the main character is either approached with a request and is now aware of the lack, or goes out to remedy the lack of their own accord.
Misfortune or lack is made known to the main character (who is either a Seeker or a Victim-hero).
This is the first stage of storytelling unmasking. The main character is approached with a request or command; he is allowed to go or he is dispatched. Joseph Campbell would call this the Call To Adventure. Something beckons to the main character and off they go on an escapade. In fairytale, a call often comes from the King and comes with promises. (You can marry my beautiful youngest daughter etc.) There might be threats as well as (or instead of) promises.
These guys (mostly masculo-coded) are called Seekers. Parents give their blessing to sons who go out into the world. Sometimes the story doesn’t explain to its audience why this guy has left the house. Or sometimes he says he’s going out for a walk and ends up in this life-changing fight (meaning to find a fight all along).
Sometimes the son sets out because he feels the need to set something right in the world. Contemporary middle grade books showcase a number of similar children, who know something’s wrong with their family (perhaps a family member is ill) so they set out on a journey in the hope of making everything better. (Two Weeks With The Queen is a good middle grade Australian example.)
The folktale hero may be one of two types. I’ve been talking about Seekers; the other type of character who leaves the house is the Victim-hero.
Whereas a Seeker goes off to rescue someone else who is passive within the story (e.g. a damsel in distress), a Victim-hero is the star of their own fairytale.
There is no seeker in a story which centers the Victim-hero. (The two types of hero are mutually exclusive, though modern fairytales may subvert this expectation, possibly because they’re subverting gender roles.)
The main character might be banished from home for some reason. An interesting group of fairytales are those in which a parent leads their child into the forest e.g. in Hansel and Gretel. Why don’t these children take themselves into the forest? (There are many ways of sending children out into the world; this one seems unreasonably callous.) These parents who take their children into the wilderness and leave them there are known as Parent-senders.
Sometimes a main (Victim-hero) character has been condemned to death and is secretly freed, perhaps by a low-status character such as a cook, or by the person (archer, huntsman) whose job it was to do the actual killing.
In any case, the main character has to leave home for some reason, whether the reason is on-the-page or not.
At this part of the fairytale there may be a lament sung for the departed main character. A lament is sung if the family thinks the main character has been murdered, bewitched or banished, or replaced by a different person.
In a fairytale starring a Seeker, this Seeker-hero decides upon counteraction. In other words, villainous plans require counterplans in order for there to be story-worthy conflict.
You see this all the time in pretty much every Hollywood movie. The main character makes a plan, their opponent makes a counterplan. This happens three or however many times until one of them triumphs.
12. Donor Tests The Main Character
Who is the ‘donor’? Vladamir Propp means the ‘provider’.
The main character has been tested, and now receives a magical helper. Joseph Campbell talks about mentors. The difference is, donors can be fake allies as well as genuine helpers.
This person is often a fairy godmother, or a talking animal/object who the main character has helped.
If you’re after a donor, you’re most likely to find them wandering through the forest, but you won’t actually find one by looking: You’ll happen upon your donor by accident. The donor might teach you some magic or give you a magical item or teach you some magic words. Notice this doesn’t happen too early in the story. The hero has to have been tested first, without the aid of magic.
But now the main character is tested again. Donors don’t just give out tips and tricks to any old character they meet in the forest! First the hero has to prove they are worthy of such benefits.
A witch gives a girl a whole lot of household tasks
Forest knights tell a hero to serve them for three years as a merchant or ferryman, without pay
The hero must listen to the playing of the gusla (a stringed musical instrument of the Balkans) without nodding off to sleep
A witch asks the hero to guard a herd of mares
Heroes are rewarded for answering politely and punished for answering rudely.
Sometimes the donor is in their death throes and wants one last wish carried out.
Or the donor might be a prisoner requesting freedom and asks the hero to set them free.
A donor may be begging the hero for mercy e.g. they’re an animal with their paw caught in a trap. Perhaps the hero has caught the animal themself and now the animal starts talking and begs to be let go in return for a big favour.
Sometimes the donor hasn’t so much as asked; the hero suggests some sort of deal themself. Or perhaps the hero simply sees an opportunity to offer assistance to someone in need. This can be considered a test.
The test may not actually involve a donor. In Hansel and Gretel the witch has fattened the children up, sure, and saved their lives in time of famine, but she can hardly be said to be a donor as such. She only meant to eat the children herself. She does function as a (twisted) donor in the story, however.
Sometimes the ‘donor’ is an out-and-out baddie and no exchange has been attempted.
A host tries to feed his guests rats at night
A magician tries to exhaust the hero by leaving him alone on a mountain
In some stories this hostile creature (not a donor, per se) joins in combat with the hero. In a sense they’re acting for the hero’s benefit. There are many fairytales involving combat (mostly brawls) in a forest hut involving various members of the forest.
The donor might be a villain who offers a tool of the trade in exchange for something else. A robber might try to trade his cudgel. An old man might try to trade his sword.
13. Main Character reacts
The main character either passes or fails the test.
The main character is mostly very black and white in their response: They’re either very clearly not okay with the turn of events or very clearly fine with it. This section of fairytales features binaries:
The main character either sustains or does not sustain an order.
The main character either answers or does not answer a greeting.
The main character either performs a favour or does not perform a favour for a dead person.
The hero vanquishes or does not vanquish the opponent.
Rules of fairytale: Heroes free captives, show mercy to supplicants and settle disputes.
14. Provision of Magical Aid
The hero has a magical agent, typically such as the following:
animals (horses, eagles etc.)
objects which can contain helpers (containers but also rings or anything, really)
weapons such as cudgels and swords
musical instruments such as gusla and horns
In Cinderella, a pumpkin is turned into a carriage and horses.
And what are the various ways the hero gets their hands on these magical agents? We’ve already seen that a donor may have given it to them.
An old man might present a horse as a gift.
Animals of the forest offer up their offspring.
Another common way to get yourself a magical animal: Obtain the power of an animal by turning yourself into that animal.
But some folktales end with a reward of innate value and is not magical.
Does the main character of the folktale want the magical aid? If they don’t, they’d better watch out — they will generally be heavily punished for failing to accept help when help is given. Types of punishment include:
Thrown under a stone
At this point the magical agent may become known to the main character.
An old woman shows the main character an oak tree which has a flying ship lying under it.
An old man directs the main character’s attention to a peasant who will sell a magical steed.
Next, the magical agent is prepared. This will be a paragraph such as:
The magician went out on the shore, drew a boat in the sand and said, “Well, brohters, do you see this boat?” “We do see it.” “Then get into it.”
There mjght be a transaction (buying/selling) in which the main character gets their hands on the magic hen/dog/cat etc. Or the main character might order something in advance e.g. orders a blacksmith to make a chain.
Or else the main character happens upon the magical agent by chance. They might come across a tree bearing magical apples, for instance, or see a magic steed and happen to mount it.
Sometimes the main character doesn’t even have to be observant. The magical aid simply shows up and cannot be ignored e.g. a magical staircase appears before them. Magical bushes, branches, dogs and horses regularly seem to sprout out of the ground. Dwarves also tend to appear out of nowhere to make themselves available.
Sometimes the main character steals the item, often from a witch.
15. Transference to another kingdom
The transference might be from one real-life setting to another, for instance from a poor house to a ball in a lavish castle. It might be to a vault underground or perhaps they are spirited away into the forest, which is basically a symbol for the unconscious, where all your deepest fears are realised.
Main character and villain join in direct combat. In modern stories there is always a battle but it this battle takes all forms, including metaphorical. (I call it the big struggle.) The main character will come close to death, either actually or spiritually (possibly both).
Main character is marked. In a fairy tale, this is a visible marker that the main character has changed. (Or, the mark is made in lieu of real change.)
Main character defeats villain. In a fairytale, heroes are not defeated. Fairytales are not tragedies. Even when fairytales seem to end in tragedies, this is probably us putting our modern spin on it. For instance, The Little Match Girl dies but in Hans Christian Andersen’s day, the passage into Heaven to be reunited with a beloved grandmother was considered a genuinely happy outcome.
When the main character is female, the patriarchal Grimm brothers — and the equally patriarchal Charles Perrault — insert a big, strong man to save her. In “Bluebeard” — originally a tale told for women by women, the young bride’s army brothers come to her aid. The Grimm brothers preferred the version of Little Red Riding Hood in which Riding Hood is saved by the woodcutter, though other versions exist in which she saves herself.
23. Unrecognized return of main character
(either to original home or to another kingdom). In the medieval period people were commonly required totake refuge by going into exile. Documentation tells us this was known as ‘Abjuring the realm‘.
The false hero is a stock character in fairy tales, and sometimes also in ballads. The character appears near the end of a story in order to claim to be the hero or heroine and is, therefore, usually of the same sex as the hero or heroine. The false hero presents some claim to the position. By testing, it is revealed that the claims are false, and the hero’s true. The false hero is usually punished, and the true hero put in his place. The false heroes in Cinderella are the ugly stepsisters. In modern romantic comedies there is often a guy who seems like he might be a good match for the heroine but it is later revealed he doesn’t match up. In Pride and Prejudice he is Wickham.
25. Difficult task is proposed to the main character
task is resolved.
27. Recognition of main character
It was Aristotle who noticed all stories feature first a ‘reversal’ in the main character’s fortune, and that this will be followed by a moment in which that character realises what has happened. (The character might be horrified or delighted at this change.)
It is on this function that the theories of Aristotle and Propp line up.
Modern storytellers use a number of different words to describe this part of a story. See: Anagnorisis.
In many modern stories, for both adults and for children, there is a fairytale scene near the end where the main character receives recognition. Not just the personal validation that a job was well done, but public recognition.
When writers do this for their main character that’s because they are part of a specific ideology prevailing at the moment — that if it doesn’t happen in public it doesn’t happen.
In ancient times, work in the home, largely carried out by women and slaves, was devalued not because it didn’t attract a salary but because it happened in the private sphere. It was considered worthless because it lacked the recognition and permanence that was afforded to practices that happened in public. The whole point of the built world of public spaces and public institutions is that it creates a place where actions can outlast the mere lifetime of the individuals who enact them. Worth — a kind of immortality — is only able to be realised in full view of one’s peers, which is in public, not in private. This creation of worth is precisely why some try and define what they do as valuable in ways outside any remuneration offered. Shelley’s description of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ or Ezra Pound’s suggestion that they are the ‘antennae of the nation’ – the whole evolution of the Romantic idea of genius – arises from such non-market, public understands of worth. Now, to some large extent, of course, there values still pertain, but the point is, labour, as it has moved out of the private sphere and into the public, has become the measure of the ‘man’ and prestige has flowed as much to the high salary as to any other value inherent in the world done. Donald Trump’s success as a candidate in the 2016 US presidential race, for instance, was predicated on the fact that he was rich, very rich, and this wealth was seen in and of itself as a qualification for office, beyond any particular formal qualification or experience he had.
Why The Future Is Workless by Tim Dunlop (2016)
The public recognition is especially popular in TV, where it is harder to show that a character feels good about their own achievements.
28. Exposure of false hero/villain
The villain is unmasked. This is a part of the anagnorisis phase of story, and ties up the plot. Stories often include a Self-revelation on the part of the main character and then another part which tidies up the plot (which was the vehicle leading the main character to their Self-revelation.) For more on that distinction see Short Story Endings.
The main character marries and ascends the horse. This is one traditional option for the new situation, and pretty much the only reward for a female main character. The male main character gets back on his horse (literally and psychologically).
The above is Propp’s fairy-tale “ur-plot” with my own notes added.
Marina Warner has a great way of thinking about fairytale archetypes: Imagine them as pieces on a chessboard. We know all we need to know about them just from their appearance. Moreover, their position on the board limits the number of possible moves they’re able to make.
If you’ve ever seen Tarot cards, the archetypes on those may also put you in mind of characters from fairytales.
Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory; nothing can come from nothing.
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Even modern stories make use of the stock characterisation of fairy tales, or what I’m calling ‘fairytale archetypes’. There is no need to shy away from using these in your own stories. Audiences love them. The trick is to expand upon them, or, according to your purposes, to subvert expectations and challenge the reader’s prejudices.
Archetypes arrive in statu nascendi (without backstory). This is a huge storytelling advantage, saving time. The reason they have no (on-the-page) backstory: their lives until this point have been predictable.
In fairy tales, famously, character is destiny. Who the personages are, and what happens to them, are completely inseparable. You can predict what will happen to a good princess, just from the fact that she is a good princess. Her identity in the story maps out her future. Conversely, her goodness has no other aspects except those that are revealed by her marrying a handsome prince. That’s all her goodness really means; though we will of course have seen it in action in acts of kindness or victimhood at the beginning of the story, so we know that it is there. In true fairy tales, as opposed to literary hybrids smuggling in the techniques of the novel, there are no individual characters, only types.
Good princess; bad princess. Witches. Fairy godmothers. Genies. Kings who set tasks for suitors. Ogres and giants. Mentors
These beings do not exist in the environment of the child who, at the same time as hearing about Snow White, is also thrilled by stories of door-opening. But the vocabulary of types is actually easier to acquire, in some ways, than knowledge about the child’s own world, because the fairy-tale world is so perfectly self-explanatory. Every appearance by a witch is a complete, sufficient demonstration of what a witch is. In life, knowledge of other people’s natures is both important and relatively hard to come by; it depends on a long loop of inferences moving gradually from the things people do and say, to conclusions about what they’re like. Children can afford to be much less cautious about the information in stories — much quicker to decide. Arthur Applebee asked a group of pre-school children to tell him the characters of a list of animals. They were more certain of the stereotypical personalities of animals they could only have met in stories, such as brave lions or sly foxes, than of the characters of dogs or cats, where experience of specific dogs and cats came in to complicate the picture. Story characteristics are prepared for reception, so to speak; they’re consistent, they don’t contradict themselves, and they’re dispensed at the pace that understanding demands.
The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford
CHARACTERS ARE ‘NOT ACTUALLY CONSCIOUS’
“Conventional stock figures”: there is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad. Even when the princess in “The Three Snake Leaves” inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband, we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.
They seldom have names of their own. More often than not they’re known by their occupation or their social position, or by a quirk of their dress: the miller, the princess, the captain, Bearskin, Little Red Riding Hood. When they do have a name it’s usually Hans, just as Jack is the hero of every British fairy tale.
The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found not in any of the beautifully illustrated editions of Grimm that have been published over the years, but in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with a toy theatre. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience, but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.
Brothers in a fairy tale will often manifest a different aspect of personality. This provides a moralistic tale about which traits will get you far in life and which will lead to your downfall.
For example, the lazy brother, the haughty brother and the smart brother. The youngest is usually the best. This is because the youngest brother was the least privileged — in a culture of primogeniture it was the eldest son who inherited everything. These tales teach younger brothers that they can still do okay on merit — we’re still telling ourselves this today.
GIRLS AND SISTERS
When it comes to fairytale sisters, good and evil are connected to how they look. Pretty girls are good girls. This is an obvious case of physical discrimination but is in line with other fairytale archetypes in which What You See Is What You Get, and if that’s not the case, it’s because you’ve been deliberately deceived.
In the best-known folktales there are several possible roles for the adult male protagonist. He may be a prince, a poor but ambitious boy, a fortunate fool a traveling vagabond, or a clever trickster. But if you are the female protagonist of one of the fairy tales most popular today, there are only two possibilities: either you are a princess or you are an underprivileged but basically worthy girl who is going to become a princess if she is brave and good and lucky.
If you are already a princess when the story starts, you usually have a problem. Very likely you need rescuing from some danger or enchantment. Maybe you have been promised to a dragon or promised yourself to a dragon; or you might have been kidnapped by a witch or enchanter, who asks impossible riddles or sets impossible tasks for your would-be rescuers. Possibly it is your father, the king, who has set these tasks. Or perhaps you are just very difficult to please, like the princess in “King Thrushbeard,” and set the tasks or riddles yourself, to drive away possible suitors.
Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Before fairy tales were written down by men, the heroines of fairy tales were very often courageous young women who retained their wits during times of adversity. A look into the history of Little Red Riding Hood is a good example of a heroine who was deliberately stripped of power, in this story’s case, mostly by The Grimms.
There’s not much point separating the father from the king — they’re basically the same archetype. They’re either the head of their household or head of their kingdom.
Villains often have seductive powers, as in the witch who is an ugly old crone underneath, but can shapeshift and trick men into thinking she’s attractive to them.
The rise of the fairytale created a tectonic shift in children’s literature and revealed that something had long been off kilter. Fairytales—sometimes referred to as “wondertales” because they traffic in magic—opened the door to new theatres of action, with casts of characters very different from the scolding schoolmarm, the aggravated bailiff, or the disapproving cleric found in manuals for moral and spiritual improvement. Books were suddenly invaded by fabulous monsters—bloodthirsty giants, red eyed witches, savage blue beards, and sinister child snatchers— and they produced a giddy sense of disorientation that roused the curiosity of the child reader.
The wise women of modern fiction come from all classes of society. Some, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsy and E.M. Forster’s Mrs Wilcox, are upper-class or upper middle-class. Others, such as William Faulkner’s Dilsey and the cook Berenice Brown in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, are servants. Many of them are also in a sense nature goddesses whose power is related to a semi-magical connection with the earth, the seasons, and the processes of growth and creation. They can be recognized by their knowledge of plants, their instinctive sympathy with children and animals, and their intuition, which sometimes operations at the level of ESP.
Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature
The wise woman archetype can also be found in:
Of The Farm by John Updike
Wise Child by Monica Furlong
She couldn’t be a prince, and she’d never be a princess, and she didn’t want to be a woodcutter, so she’d be a witch and know things.
The skills of weaving, spinning and knitting were vital to clothe and keep warm members of every class, race, religion or social group from the poorest to the richest. And so, we find wool, yarn and thread and the working of those materials rooted very deeply in the folklore of countries around the globe.
In this episode, Folklore Podcast creator and host Mark Norman discusses the folklore associated with wool, thread, spinning and associated crafts, through folk and fairy tales, customs and more.
FOOLS AND JESTERS
Consider the jester an inverted king. Notice how one of the jesters in the image above is standing on his head.
The jester is also a sacrificial victim, associated with the abnormal. Because the jester is abnormal, he has supernatural/magical powers.
The archetypal fool figure extends back to Dionysus festivities, where ecstatic animalistic trance-like behaviours were encouraged. During the Middle Ages (from the Roman period into the Dark Ages), as Christianity took hold, all forms of theatre were suppressed in favour of didactic stories, and the fool wasn’t exactly considered a good role model. But you can’t get rid of the fool so easily, and he never really went away. He stayed on as:
These guys sang, danced, mimed, made music and performed acrobatics. Then they made a comeback big time, from about the 10th century CE. It was actually the churches who realised the best way to convert and retain was to make Bible stories fun, so this whole new genre popped up of Bible stories interspersed with comical interludes. These are known as Miracle Plays or Mystery Plays. Believe it or not, the funniest character in one of those church plays was Satan. He was the character who got the best lines and the biggest laughs. Fools aren’t part of the Christian cast of characters, but what’s a comedy without a decent fool? Fools came into it. These fools were ‘wanderers’, which includes minstrels and so on.
We can see depictions of the fool as early as the mid 1400s, on tarot cards. He’s wearing clothes made out of light-coloured rags and has feathers in his hair, probably not to make himself look pretty so much as to make him look like an animal like people did during Dionysus activities. (The word we need here is ‘zoomorphic’.) Devil horns also morph someone into an animal, releasing them from their restrictive human status. We’re talking about pre-Christian rituals here.
I’m also talking about Europe, but every culture has its own fool archetype.
From Tibet to Africa, and places in between, many cultures have set aside a special place for fools. We may be most familiar with this from Shakespeare’s plays where court jesters appear, like the wise one who has a role in King Lear. And to all appearances, court fools had an enviable job since they could say what they liked with impunity and be pranksters without fear of reprisal. Protected by their special status, given room to act up, making acute but silly comments from the side of the stage, not taken very seriously–the fool, in many ways, resembles the child. Hence, the appeal of this figure to children: the fool is their cousin. Hence, too, the childhood business of “playing the fool.”
A story all about the foolishness of a fool is sometimes called a ‘noodlehead tale’. Contemporary sit-com characters take elements from the classic fool or noodlehead tale, in which the audience takes delight at watching a character do one stupid thing after another, never learning from their mistakes.
But there’s a difference between the sort of fool an audience likes to watch and a real life fool. The fictional, comedic fool may be bumbling and stupid but they also have a certain wisdom.
George Kostanza of Seinfeld is a good example of this archetype. Though he never learns from his mistakes (at work, with women etc.) he also has a certain pragmatic wisdom about him. He knows that lying can get you a long way, and it often does. We like watching him get away with things, and we also like watching him fail. Succeed, fail, succeed fail; that’s the fool cycle.
These fools exist to show the audience that the world is a foolish place in general. Everyone is a fool in their own way. Win some, you lose some.
Sometimes called simpletone tales or fool tales, noodlehead tales are humorous stories about absurd situations in which the stupidity or foolishness of the characters plays a central part. The main character in a noodlehead tale usually makes the same mistake over and over until the resolution of the story. Although foolish and bumbling, the noodlehead is often wiser than the other characters, suggesting that the rest of the world is foolish and unable to recognise wisdom.
A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books by Denise I. Matulka
Picture book examples of noodlehead tales:
Soap! Soap! Don’t Forget The Soap! by Tom Birdseye and Andrew Glass. A forgetful boy gets himself into trouble. (1993)
Flossie and the Fox (1986) Lazy Jack by Russell Ayto (1995) Piggie Pie! (1995) by Howard Fine
The Fool Archetype In Picture Books
Soap! Soap! Don’t Forget The Soap! (1993), illustrated by Andrew Glass
Flossie and the Fox (1986) illustrated by Rachel Isadora
Lazy Jack (1995) illustrated by Russell Ayto
Piggie Pie! (1995) illustrated by Howard Fine
There’s a subcategory of the fool which is a very old archetype in folk tale, in which a character understands the world in an overly literal way. In contemporary stories, this character is often read as autistic, whether on or off the page.
When a hero (or saviour/chosen one) character embarks upon a mythic journey they will encounter a number of characters. Some of them will be opponents, some allies. The mentor is a type of ally who will hand the hero a secret, a weapon, a magic spell, something like that.
The mentor doesn’t get much credit.
Each of these [saviour] heroes had a guide to help them along the way. So are the actions of…Harry [Potter], Frodo and the like…the decisions of those around them, forcing their way into people’s lifves? Is it the mentorship tat makes them great? Are these [heroes] just fitting a predetermined mold of what greatness means? If so, what does that say of us, those without that support?
The mentor in a large number of stories has been ostracised from society because they don’t conform. Witches in the middle of the forest fall into this group.
In the children’s film Monster House, the kids find their mentor playing video games at the parlour. Likewise, this guy is slightly ostracised from mainstream (accceptable) society and it’s his madness that makes him useful. This is mad people are coded as mad because they see the truth, when everyone else still has the wool over their eyes.
It is impossible to read The Sorrows of Gin naively when you know that Cheever himself was plagued by the bottle. This is a short story about how a man’s drinking affects his only daughter. I feel there are enough clues in this story to foreshadow a future of alcohol addiction for the daughter.
This short story is an example of a character change that almost happens — there is every opportunity for it to happen — but the character is too inward looking to have any sort of epiphany, and we are left with the sombre feeling that, from here, things will only get worse. The final sentence is a rhetorical question, and the reader knows the answer to it: Stop drinking! But the main character (the father) doesn’t know it.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY?
A new cook tells the lonely nine-year-old daughter of a well-to-do couple about her own alcoholic sister, and how just having alcohol in the house proves too much of a temptation. Disquieted by the drunkenness of her own parents, Amy tips a bottle of gin down the drain. (Though she has possibly been doing this for some time, resulting in all sorts of dismissals.) This contributes to the cook’s getting fired. Amy does the same again, getting the next housekeeper fired. Though Amy doesn’t see any causation to her actions, her long-standing non-drinker baby-sitter ends up in an altercation with her father, who accuses her of stealing his gin.
Amy is upset at the altercation between her father and her baby-sitter, hearing the word ‘Police’ shouted from downstairs, so the following day when her parents are out she packs a few things, steals $20 from her mother’s desk and goes to the station where she plans to run away from home.
Mr Flanagan the station master sells her a ticket, but promptly calls her father. The father arrives at the station and is briefly filled with emotion for his daughter, but this feeling quickly fades and we are left feeling that he has missed his chance for character growth, and that things will continue as they have been at home.
SETTING OF THE SORROWS OF GIN
This is one of Cheever’s Shady Hill stories. Other notable stories set in this place are The Swimmer and of course The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.
[Cheever’s] Shady Hill is a fictional territory to consider alongside Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.
Cheever’s description of the Shady Hill train station creates in the reader an eerie locale, helped along by a reference to the well-known creepy French folktale of Bluebeard, in which a man takes a woman captive in his basement. Though Bluebeard is not a father-daughter story but a story of a husband and his wives, the theme of female captivity is nevertheless replicated in this suburban story.
The railroad station in Shady Hill resembled the railroad stations in old movies [Amy] had seen on television, where detectives and spies, bluebeards and their trusting victims, were met to be driven off to remote country estates.
This was an era before the perils of drunk driving were widely known, and the babysitter simply had to put up with drunk men driving her home after her baby-sitting jobs. Moreover, women couldn’t necessarily drive themselves and cars were expensive:
Mrs. Henlein, anxious to get into her own bed and back to sleep, prayed that he wasn’t going to pour himself another drink, as they so often did. She was driven home night after night by drunken gentlemen.
Rosemary brings Amy a present of ‘Japanese Water Flowers’. I believe these were a child’s toy — a flower which opened up when placed in water, but I’m not sure if they were real flowers or made of paper.
As Cheever often does, he provides a soundtrack to this story, which is evocative of the times.
CHARACTERS IN THE SORROWS OF GIN
The focalised viewpoint is on Amy, a girl in the fourth grade (so 9 or 10 years of age) who fits the trope of the Lonely Rich Kid. I am reminded of the character Sally Draper from Mad Men.
We quickly get the idea that Amy is separated from her parents, both emotionally and physically:
The living-room door was shut, but through it she could hear the noise of loud talk and laughter. They must have been gossiping or worse, because they all stopped talking when she entered the room.
She has to ask the same question twice before her parents notice she is there:
“Who’s going to take care of me?” Amy asked.
“You always have a good time at the Farquarsons’,” her mother said [to her father].
“Well, let’s leave early,” he said.
“Who’s going to take care of me?” Amy asked.
“Mrs. Henlein,” her mother said.
Even so, Amy is a close observer of her father’s moods:
Amy saw that his tense look had begun to soften. He did not seem so unhappy any more, and as she passed him on her way to the kitchen, he smiled at her tenderly and patted her on the top of the head.
Amy noticed that the transformation that had begun with a softening of his features was even more advanced. At last, he seemed happy. Amy wondered if he was drunk, although his walk was not unsteady…
Amy Lawton is a fairly common character in children’s literature, but in stories written for children, the lonely rich kids with borderline neglectful parents go off and have an adventure with the parents conveniently out of the way. If this were a children’s story, it would have focused on Amy’s packing and departure, and possibly on the things she planned to do in her imagination. But this is a story for adults, so the reader’s attention is turned towards Amy’s father. We stand in judgement of him. It is the father we are left with.
Parental Neglect happens when the parents are shown not to pay a lot, if any, attention or care to their children for some reason. Maybe they’re just busy with work. Maybe they and their children aren’t particularly emotionally close, or perhaps they’re just obsessed with their own attempts to save the world. Nevertheless, for some reason, their children are not the highest on their agenda.
Marcia Lawton is in the background, though we get the odd detail:
“My mother changes her mind all the time,” Amy said.
She is a distrusting woman, possibly through prior experience, but just as easily due to a lack of respect for the privacy of people she considers lower in station than herself:
Thursday morning, Marcia went into the cook’s room. It was a distasteful but a habitual precaution. The absence of anything personal in the room-a package of cigarettes, a fountain pen, an alarm clock, a radio, or anything else that could tie the old woman to the place-gave her the uneasy feeling that she was being deceived, as she had so often been deceived by cooks in the past.
Marcia is — typically for her time — inferior to her husband, who berates her as if a child, and she responds to appease him:
“You know,” her mother said, “there’s something terribly wrong with the guest-room shower.”
“Damn it, Marcia,” he said, “I wish you wouldn’t always greet me with bad news!”
“Oh, well, the shower isn’t important,” her mother said. She laughed weakly.
“Well,” her mother said when she came back into the room, “You know, she didn’t look drunk.”
“Please don’t argue with me, Marcia,” her father said.
Marcia tries to calm her husband down when he is upset:
“Everybody is drinking my liquor,” her father shouted, “and I am God-damned sick and tired of it!”
“There’s plenty of gin in the closet,” her mother said. “Open another bottle.”
Rosemary The Cook
“Come in,” a voice said, and when Amy entered, she found the cook, whose name was Rosemary, in her bathrobe, reading the Bible. Rosemary smiled at Amy. Her smile was sweet and her old eyes were blue. “Your parents have gone out again?” she asked. Amy said that they had, and the old woman invited her to sit down. “They do seem to enjoy themselves, don’t they? During the four days I’ve been here, they’ve been out every night, or had people in.” She put the Bible face down on her lap and smiled, but not at Amy.
The temporary cook plays the role of an Amy’s initiator into the adult world.
The directness with which Rosemary spoke had the effect on Amy of making her feel grown, and for once politeness came to her easily. “You must miss your sister a great deal,” she said.
We may also get a sense from Rosemary’s description of her alcoholic sister that Amy herself may turn out the same way if she is not careful. We’ve just seen Amy’s father tell her to put her bike away because it looks like rain, with Amy looking at the sky and deciding he’s wrong about the weather. Now we have another example of a disagreement about weather:
Drink made her contrary. If I’d say the weather was fine, she’d tell me I was wrong. If I’d say it was raining, she’d say it was clearing.
Added to that, we have already seen Amy metaphorically take her father’s place:
She fell into the chair he had left vacant
Like her father, Amy is not particularly attached to anyone else’s emotional state, feeling only ‘indifference’ for her babysitter of many years.
It is probably Rosemary the Cook who plants the idea in Amy’s head that having a bottle of liquor in the house is a bad thing. Amy herself doesn’t realise the connection; in fact, she doesn’t even recall tipping it out until after Rosemary has been fired.
If you have a bottle in your suitcase, it’s a terrible temptation in the beginning not to take a drink to raise your spirits. […] Oh, if I had had my way, they’d be a law against it! It’s not my business to advise you to take anything from your father, but I’d be proud of you if you’d empty his gin bottle into the sink now and then-the filthy stuff!
Rosemary’s more precarious and hard-working life circumstance, as well as her non-drinking piety, mark her as a contrasting character to Amy’s parents — the mother does little in the way of work, and the father is not at all pious when it comes to drink. Though as it turns out, Rosemary’s non-drinking habits are merely aspirational. Still, the aspirational non-drinker is an important non-character in this story.
Cheever paints a thorough and vivid character sketch of Mrs Henlein, leaving the reader in no doubt that she is just as pious as she professes to be:
It was in her nature to collect stray cats, pile the bathroom up to the ceiling with interesting and valuable newspapers, rouge, talk to herself, sleep in her underwear in case of fire, quarrel over the price of soup bones, and have it circulated around the neighborhood that when she finally died in her dusty junk heap, the mattress would be full of bankbooks and the pillow stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. She had resisted all these rich temptations in order to appear a lady, and she was repaid by being called a common thief.
Ideally, stories have a ‘big struggle scene’ to provide an emotional high within the narrative arc. Mrs Henlein provides that big struggle scene, which provokes the running away of Amy, with her rather cathartic (for the reader) and equally comical answering back. We wish the previous two cooks could have said the same to Mr Lawton, and now we have a character who dares to say exactly what’s on her mind.
“You take that back, Mr. Lawton! You take back every one of those words you just said! I never stole anything in my whole life, and nobody in my family ever stole anything, and I don’t have to stand here and be insulted by a drunk man. Why, as for drinking, I haven’t drunk enough to fill an eyeglass for twenty-five years. Mr. Henlein took me to a place of refreshment twenty-five years ago, and I drank two Manhattan cocktails that made me so sick and dizzy that I’ve never liked the stuff ever since. How dare you speak to me like this! Calling me a thief and a drunken woman! Oh, you disgust me-you disgust me in your ignorance of all the trouble I’ve had. Do you know what I had for Christmas dinner last year? I had a bacon sandwich. Son of a bitch!” She began to weep. “I’m glad I said it!” she screamed. “It’s the first time I’ve used a dirty word in my whole life and I’m glad I said it. Son of a bitch!”
THEME OF THE SORROWS OF GIN
Even in rich households, things aren’t necessarily as pleasant as they look from the outside.
Rosemary says to Amy, when describing previous domestic employment:
Sometimes you’re in a country place with nobody else in help. You’re tired, but not too tired to feel lonely. You go out onto the servants’ porch when the pots and pans are done, planning to enjoy God’s creation, and although the front of the house may have a fine view of the lake or the mountains, the view from the back is never much.
Like father, like daughter.
Amy is a keen observer of her father’s moods partly because she is like him. She understands him. They have similarities, such as misplacing things around the house:
Then he went out onto the terrace and looked there, and then he came back into the living room and looked on all the tables again. Then he went back onto the terrace, and then back over the living-room tables, looking three times in the same place, although he was always telling her to look intelligently when she lost her sneakers or her raincoat. “Look for it, Amy,” he was always saying.
She likes to read what her father reads:
Then she remembered that her father had brought her home from his trip West a book about horses, and she ran cheerfully up the back stairs to read her new book.
And most significantly, she wants to travel, like her father, and presumably her father was once also filled with the longing to travel.
Oh, why should she want to run away? Travel-and who knew better than a man who spent three days of every fortnight on the road-was a world of overheated plane cabins and repetitious magazines, where even the coffee, even the champagne, tasted of plastics.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN THE SORROWS OF GIN
Conveying Character Age
When introducing a character on the page, it’s necessary for the reader to quickly grasp an idea of their age. For children we need an even more specific age, because of the vast difference between, say, a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old. We know very quickly that Amy is a child because we are told she is reading Black Beauty. Next, we learn that she is not yet old enough to have learnt the ladylike manners she will no doubt have to absorb around the time of adolescence:
By standing outside the group for a minute, until they had resumed their conversation, and then by slipping past Mrs. Farquarson, she was able to swoop down on the nut dish and take a handful.
By now we will have already worked out Amy’s approximate age, but Cheever confirms our guess:
“What grade are you in?” Mr. Bearden asked.
“Fourth,” she said.
We know that Amy likes reading fiction, as she is reading Black Beauty when the story opens. We also know that she feels the station is a romantic place, and so we’re not all that surprised later when she decides to take her $20 and buy a ticket to somewhere far away:
Amy liked the station, particularly toward dark. She imagined that the people who traveled on the locals were engaged on errands that were more urgent and sinister than commuting. Except when there was a heavy fog or a snowstorm, the club car that her father traveled on seemed to have the gloss and the monotony of the rest of his life. The locals that ran at odd hours belonged to a world of deeper contrasts, where she would like to live.
The term ‘deeper contrasts’ to relieve her ‘monotony’ is another kind of foreshadowing mentioned above: There is actually plenty of contrast in her own home — that between her parents being sober and being drunk.
Now her father had that stiff, funny walk that was so different from the way he tramped up and down the station platform in the morning…
Will Amy seek the solace of gin in a few years’ time when her life grows even more monotonous, as adulthood often does?
Though mentioned in passing, Bluebeard is influential in several ways; instead of a succession of wives, the Bluebeard of this story goes through a succession of female house servants. Like Bluebeard, Mr Lawton has to leave for a while to go elsewhere on mysterious business. Like the final wife of Bluebeard, Amy wanders from room to room, getting into things she shouldn’t (i.e. her mother’s desk). Amy flees the house, and her father turns up unexpectedly at the station. Cheever’s story ends there, but we can’t assume there will be any brothers in shining armour coming to rescue Amy. She may rise above her isolation and take her father’s drinking problem as a negative example from which she learns, but she might just as easily remain captive.
Rule of Threes
The rule of threes can be seen everywhere in satisfying stories, and Cheever uses it here, with the three women who he thinks have been stealing his gin.
STORY SPECS OF THE SORROWS OF GIN
Published in The New Yorker December 1953. December is generally the time of year when Westerners are drinking most heavily, which makes this an interesting choice for a Christmas read.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Take a look at the folk tale Bluebeard and see if you agree with my theory that this is a 1953 revisioning of the tale.
Mad Men stars a male character who has every opportunity to change, seemed always on the verge of personal epiphanies, and then didn’t really change at all, which was the point Matthew Weiner was trying to make about people.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Do you know someone who has every opportunity to change but hasn’t done so? Can you think of a time when something so obvious to you was nonetheless invisible to that person?
“The Bloody Chamber” is a feminist-leftie re-visioning of Bluebeard, written in the gothic tradition, set in a French castle with clear-cut goodies and baddies.
The title story of The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979, was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbebleue” (Bluebeard) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love.
The tale of Bluebeard’s Wife—the story of a young woman who discovers that her mysterious blue-bearded husband has murdered his former spouses—no longer squares with what most parents consider good bedtime reading for their children. But the story has remained alive for adults, allowing it to lead a rich subterranean existence in novels ranging from Jane Eyre to Lolita and in films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Notorious and Jane Campion’s The Piano.
The descriptions of setting are evocative and eerie; the reader knows something terrible is about to happen — it’s almost given away in the title, after all — what we don’t know is how the girl is going to escape. This is a fairytale for adults, utilising the contrivances and coincidences of the fairytale tradition to tell a story which is otherwise modern in resolution: There is no white knight in shining armour. Who is really the most likely to save a girl from harm?
In the 1970s, Angela Carter was translating Charles Perrault from French, and she compiled two volumes of fairy tales from all over the world for Virago. So there you have it: French language, fairy tale and feminist expertise in one writer, which is all evident in this story…
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE BLOODY CHAMBER”?
In France somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century, a 17-year-old girl is chosen to marry a wealthy Marquis. Immensely lonely, the unnamed narrator one day goes exploring her new castle while her husband is away on business only to find a torture chamber, housing the recently dead body of the Marquis’ recently deceased former wife. The Marquis returns, knowing that his new wife has discovered the torture chamber. (He gave her the keys, after all.)
In many Gothic romances, an older man brings a young wife into his family mansion. The imposing house contains a terrible secret, but the wife must promise not to explore it. In finally giving in to curiosity, she, however, acts according to the husband’s covert script, for he never intended the requirement of obedience to be fulfilled. His goal, Anne Williams explains, is to make her realize the extent of his wealth and power and to see her (reflected) place in it. The dead women in Bluebeard’s forbidden chamber, she argues, represent, “patriarchy’s secret, founding ‘truth’ about the female: woman as mortal, expendable matter/mater” (43). We are dealing here with what I call Bluebeard Gothic, a specific variant of the Gothic romance that uses the “Bluebeard” fairy tale as its key intertext. Many women authors have used it in order to explore patriarchal power structures. Examples include Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, to name a few.
He leads her down to the Bloody Chamber and is about to kill her when the narrator’s mother turns up, having galloped on horseback to save her daughter. She has intuited something wrong during a brief phone call. The mother, with a valiant background of her own, shoots the Marquis dead. A few postscript-sort-of paragraphs explain that the musically talented narrator inherited the castle, gave most of the wealth away, married the kind and blind piano tuner and started up a school of music.
The narrator makes reference to Paul Poiret (20 April 1879, Paris, France – 30 April 1944, Paris), who was a leading French fashion designer during the first two decades of the 20th century. This is one detail that tells us when the story was set. This is an era when ancient customs have not been forgotten by the aristocracy — strange customs linger ominously: ‘‘The maid will have changed our sheets already,’ he said. ‘We do not hang the bloody sheets out of the window to prove to the whole of Brittany you are a virgin, not in these civilized times.’ These were times when French women were expected to abide by ‘rules for hair’, long and flowing while a virgin, pinned up after marriage (cut shorter in middle age, close cropped for the elderly): ‘he would not let me take off my ruby choker, although it was growing very uncomfortable, nor fasten up my descending hair, the sign of a virginity so recently ruptured that still remained a wounded presence between us.’
A young woman moving to an old house has been a staple of gothic literature ever since the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764. Today that trope has unmoored itself a bit from being strictly gothic, with modern authors employing it to lend an air of nostalgia, romance, or intrigue to their stories. These three books probably couldn’t be more different, aside from the fact that they thrust their heroines into strange old houses and see what happens when the dust shakes off. After 250-ish years, it’s hard to say this isn’t a useful plot device!
A stand-out feature of this short story is the portrait of an ominous castle where you just know something terrible is happening. It is cold, but the cold juxtaposes with the odd image of warmth. The landscape is lonely, as is the narrator. (Notice also, the narrator describes herself as a flower):
As soon as my husband handed me down from the high step of the train, I smelled the amniotic salinity of the ocean. It was November; the trees, stunted by the Atlantic gales, were bare and the lonely halt was deserted but for his leather-gaitered chauffeur waiting meekly beside the sleek black motor car. It was cold; I drew my furs about me, a wrap of white and black, broad stripes of ermine and sable, with a collar from which my head rose like the calyx of a wildflower.
With the extended metaphor of the lily, even the sky is ‘streaked’ with the colours of flowers:
And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist. The day broke around me like a cool dream.
The castle, in its misty blues, greens and purples, is the colour of the sea and as explained by the author, is almost of the sea itself. Although cut off from land by tide, it’s important that it be reachable by horse (for the plot to conclude successfully). Still, the half-day isolation exudes the feelings of solitude. Why does the narrator describe the castle as ‘amphibious’ (able to live/operate on both land and water)? At its most basic meaning ‘amphibious’ means ‘two-fold in nature’ or ‘duplicitous’, or ‘not what it seems’. A magnificent abode such as this nevertheless houses great sorrow.
And, ah! his castle. The faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing about its attics, the casements opening on to the green and purple, evanescent departures of the ocean, cut off by the tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves, with the melancholy of a mermaiden who perches on her rock and waits, endlessly, for a lover who had drowned far away, long ago. That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!
Later, the narrator finds the Bloody Chamber:
Not a narrow, dusty little passage at all; why had he lied to me? But an ill-lit one, certainly; the electricity, for some reason, did not extend here, so I retreated to the still-room and found a bundle of waxed tapers in a cupboard, stored there with matches to light the oak board at grand dinners. I put a match to my little taper and advanced with it in my hand, like a penitent, along the corridor hung with heavy, I think Venetian, tapestries. The flame picked out, here, the head of a man, there, the rich breast of a woman spilling through a rent in her dress—the Rape of the Sabines, perhaps? The naked swords and immolated horses suggested some grisly mythological subject. The corridor wound downwards; there was an almost imperceptible ramp to the thickly carpeted floor. The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing. For some reason, it grew very warm; the sweat sprang out in beads on my brow. I could no longer hear the sound of the sea.
Though set in modern(ish) times, this story is of the middle ages. So of course it is devoid of modern conveniences such as electricity. ‘Like a penitent’ puts the reader in mind of a religious ceremony, since religion cannot be disentangled from a time before separation of church and state. ‘Naked swords’ suggests vulnerability, though it is not the swords themselves that are vulnerable. The author points out that the objects ‘suggest some grisly mythological subject’. Notice the change in temperature; all around is cold, but here in the torture chamber there is only heat — the heat of hell, perhaps, but also to show the reader that this is another world, separate from the cold surrounding landscape. Things happen down here that would never happen up there.
As far as engaging all the senses, the above paragraph is a case-study in writing: We are given plenty of texture (the wall-hangings, the carpet) but rather than go through all of the five senses, including smell, as beginner writers are often told to do, a master writer such as Angela Carter is able to weave the senses in an almost synesthesic way: ‘The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing.’
The young chatelaine has grown up poor due to her mother marrying a poor soldier who then got killed in the war. But since the mother married down, she brings up her daughter with the middle to upper-class attitudes she herself harbours; this young woman is very knowledgeable about art and music, with a perfect musical ear. The mother spent everything she had on her daughter’s education. This explains how she was then able to marry up herself. Yet our narrator is not entirely naive — she is naive only in relation to her much older self. She knows that her husband’s business dealings in poppies are connected to dealings in opium. The marquis calls her ‘Saint Cecilia’ (the patroness of musicians) presumably because of her musical talents.
The Marquis ‘was rich as Croesus.’ He has a black beard and red lips — red and black symbolism of blood and death, drawing attention to the ‘snout’ area. He smells of leather — his cologne, his clothing, his books, his sofa. He has dead eyes. This creature is borderline supernatural. He is the werewolf/vampire of folklore.
His face was as still as ever I’d seen it, still as a pond iced thickly over, yet his lips, that always looked so strangely red and naked between the black fringes of his beard, now curved a little. He smiled; he welcomed his bride home.
The Marquis is surrounded by equally ominous characters. The chauffeur eyes the young bride ‘invidiously’ (invidious – tending to cause discontent, animosity, or envy). Even the housekeeper ‘had a bland, pale, impassive, dislikeable face beneath the impeccably starched white linen head-dress of the region. Her greeting, correct but lifeless, chilled me.‘ This feels like a house of ghosts, except for the blind piano-tuner, whose very blindness makes him innocent. He therefore is immune to corruption, unable to see the torture chamber, as other members of the household presumably can.
Less information is given about the mother, but at the end we realise we’ve been given more than enough. We know that this is a mother who will miss her daughter dearly:
[Mother] would linger over this torn ribbon and that faded photograph with all the half-joyous, half-sorrowful emotions of a woman on her daughter’s wedding day.
We also know that she has bravery and adventure in her past:
Are you sure you love him? There was a dress for her, too; black silk, with the dull, prismatic sheen of oil on water, finer than anything she’d worn since that adventurous girlhood in Indo-China, daughter of a rich tea planter. My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I?
We are given this information near the beginning of the story and are almost encouraged to forget about it as, like the new bride, we are forced to confront immediate and present danger; the ominous intentions of the monstrous Marquis. Yet when the mother saves the day we are both surprised and not surprised.
For me, a narrative is an argument stated in fictional terms.
Angela Carter writes with a left-wing feminist ideology (which is why I enjoy her stories), and anyone who is moderately well-read in feminism will recognise phrases such as ‘And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring’ from books such as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, in which Wolf explains that women are acculturated to view women’s bodies as sexual objects just as men are, and therefore derive pleasure from sex by imagining themselves from their male partner’s point of view. The entire story is about the young women as sexual object, with the narrator herself cognisant of the fact that was an item to be purchased then consumed as a dish.
The narrator’s left-leaning politics are made apparent in the ending, when she gives most of the wealth away to the poor. She is uncomfortable with wealth made from others’ poverty and addictions.
As Frances Spufford points out, the original intended message for the Bluebeard story was that women shouldn’t be curious.
Astonishingly, the moral traditionally tacked on to the story was that curiosity is dangerous — as if Bluebeard’s murderous rage were the wife’s fault for looking inside the chamber. Can anyone really have believed that if she hadn’t, they would have lived happily ever after, the plot flipping over into Beauty and the Beast despite the butchery in the basement? Even more astonishingly, Bruno Bettelheim, concentration-camp survivor, effectively concurred. Leaping past the issue of who did what to whom in the chamber, and taking it as a symbol of forbidden knowledge in a general, sexual sense, he interpreted Bluebeard as a story about a woman’s infidelity and — twisting time strangely — her husband’s anger over it. Bettelheim’s moral: ‘Women, don’t give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed.’
The Child That Books Built
The movement in the 1970s, of which Angela Carter was a big part, was in response to people like Bettelheim, still interpreting traditional tales in horribly sexist fashion. Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
Many of Carter’s figures and motifs appear in the Grimms’ collection of Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57). Carter was also a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe.
This first person narrator is retelling a story from a time when she was much younger: ‘My satin nightdress had just been shaken from its wrappings; it had slipped over my young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders.’ So we know from the outset that she has survived the tale. She has also gained the insight that only comes with hindsight, which is a good technique to use when writing in the first person because it allows certain advantages of the third-person narrator. The story is written as a kind of confession/setting the record straight. The reader feels as if we are being let in on a community secret.
There is plenty of foreshadowing about the ominous, animalistic nature of the husband:
I could see the dark, leonine shape of his head
though he was a big man, he moved as softly as if all his shoes had soles of velvet, as if his footfall turned the carpet into snow. (He creeps around silently, as a dog can, with the coldness of a ghost.)
there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane.
The Romanian countess who died in the boating accident is also described by the narrator in animalistic terms: ‘The sharp muzzle of a pretty, witty, naughty monkey; such potent and bizarre charm, of a dark, bright, wild yet worldly thing whose natural habitat must have been some luxurious interior decorator’s jungle filled with potted palms and tame, squawking parakeets.’ Use of the word muzzle is particularly apt, since a muzzle can also refer to a device placed over the nose area to stop an animal from eating/biting etc.
Other vocabulary choices and images foreshadow an ominous event with hints of the supernatural:
the ‘ribbon made up in rubies’ which ‘bites into‘ her neck (an animal metaphor so common you almost don’t notice it)
the way the narrator’s new husband regards her as if ‘eyeing up horseflesh‘
an eldritch half-light seeped into the railway carriage (eldritch – weird and sinister or ghostly)
There is an uncomfortable overlap of sex and violence: ‘He lay beside me, felled like an oak, breathing stertorously, as if he had been fighting with me (stertorous – [of breathing] noisy and laboured.) ‘I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm; I had bled.‘ Also: ‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer,’ opined my husband’s favourite poet.’
A truth about supernatural stories is that the reader must be sort of expecting it. No one likes to think they’re reading a realist story and suddenly have a ghost sprung on them. The genre has certain markers. For instance, the formal language. Rather than the equally correct ‘than me’ ending a sentence, the author chooses ‘than I’. Is this story truly supernatural? Was the phone call enough, or is there some telepathy involved? The way sparks seem to fly out of the opal ring at certain times makes this feel like a supernatural story to me. I get the feeling the castle is peopled mainly by ghosts.
In this way, Angela Carter makes use of fairytale techniques. When you read the Grimms’ version of fairytales you’ll find disturbing analogies about girls and women compared to food, and oftentimes eaten. Here too we have, ‘He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’. Carter underscores this by comparing food itself to a woman, using a word reserved for women ‘voluptuous’: ‘A Mexican dish of pheasant with hazelnuts and chocolate; salad; white, voluptuous cheese‘
The arum lily has wonderfully ominous uses in fiction because all parts of the plants are poisonous, containing significant amounts of calcium oxalate as raphides. Not only that, the arum lily is not closely related to the real lily (lilium), and has an aura of ‘imposter’ about it — a signal that not all is as it appears.
In another short story ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, Mansfield writes ‘People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.’ Again, the arum lily signifies something terrible is about to happen, despite the glorious setting of the party at the top of the hill. It’s handy that arum lilies are often used in funerals, too. Mansfield knew her flower symbolism. In her short story “Poison” she uses lilies of the valley — symbolically sweeter and more innocent, but also poisonous.
Angela Carter puts her own spin on the lily imagery however, as all original writers must: ‘…with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you….My husband. My husband, who, with so much love, filled my bedroom with lilies until it looked like an embalming parlour. Those somnolent lilies, that wave their heavy heads, distributing their lush, insolent incense reminiscent of pampered flesh….But the last thing I remembered, before I slept, was the tall jar of lilies beside the bed, how the thick glass distorted their fat stems so they looked like arms, dismembered arms, drifting drowned in greenish water.’ It eventually becomes clear that the lily is a metaphor for the young narrator herself, with her white skin, sometimes due to fear: ‘In spite of my fear of him, that made me whiter than my wrap, I felt there emanate from him, at that moment, a stench of absolute despair, rank and ghastly, as if the lilies that surrounded him had all at once begun to fester…The mass of lilies that surrounded me exhaled, now, the odour of their withering. They looked like the trumpets of the angels of death.‘
I gathered myself together, reached into the cloisonne cupboard beside the bed that concealed the telephone and addressed the mouthpiece. His agent in New York. Urgent.
Sentence fragments are used to convey information quickly, especially mundane information such as answering a telephone, but have the added effect of producing tension, especially when surrounded by longer sentences.
As in the TV series Six Feet Under and many other stories about death, the juxtapositions serve to highlight the difference between the living and the dead.
‘And this absence of the evidence of his real life began to impress me strangely; there must, I thought, be a great deal to conceal if he takes such pains to hide it.’
I looked at the precious little clock made from hypocritically innocent flowers long ago
Time was his servant, too; it would trap me, here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a hopeless morning.
And still the bloodstain mocked the fresh water that spilled from the mouth of the leering dolphin. (Dolphins are usually thought to be smiling.)
Unfamiliar myself with much gothic literature, I found myself looking up quite a few words:
wagon-lit — a sleeping car on a continental railway
reticule — A woman’s small handbag, originally netted and typically having a drawstring and decorated with embroidery or beading.
marrons glacés — a confection, originating in southern France and northern Italy consisting of a chestnut candied in sugar syrup and glazed. Marrons glacés are an ingredient in many desserts and are also eaten on their own.
vellum — Fine parchment made originally from the skin of a calf.
Catherine de’ Medici was an Italian noblewoman who was Queen of France from 1547 until 1559, as the wife of King Henry II.
pellucid — transparently clear
parure — a set of jewels intended to be worn together
immolated — killed or offered as a sacrifice, especially by burning
sacerdotal — related to priests; priestly
catafalque — a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying in state.
nacreous — relating to nacre, which is mother-of-pearl
gendarmerie — a body of soldiers, especially in France, serving in an army group acting as armed police with authority over civilians.
pentacle = pentagram, a five-pointed, star-shaped figure made by extending the sides of aregular pentagon until they meet, used as an occult symbol by the Pythagoreans and later philosophers, by magicians, etc.
Iron maiden — I know these guys as a heavy metal band but an iron maiden is a torture device, probably just fictional, consisting of an iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being. Earlier the narrator thinks of herself as a ‘mermaiden‘ — a Middle English term for ‘mermaid’.
to prefigure — to be an early indication or version of (something)
scullion — a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks
vassal — a person or country in a subordinate position to another
lustratory — lustral, purificatory (I think this may be a very unusual word, or made up by the author)
auto-da-fé — the burning of a heretic
widow’s weeds — clothes worn by a widow during a period of mourning for her spouse (from the Old English “Waed” meaning “garment”)
dolorous — feeling or expressing great sorrow or distress
lisle — a fine, smooth cotton thread used especially for stockings
centime — French for ‘cent’
Nice turns of phrase such as, ‘He raised the sword and cut bright segments from the air with it‘ tells the reader that the a