Little Snow White by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Essay

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To be sure, the Brothers Grimm never intended the folk tale of Snow White to be either a feminist or an anti-feminist story since these terms did not yet exist in 1810 when they recorded it. Their basic assumptions about women in the story reflect the values of a feudal, authoritarian, patriarchal society. Hardly any other type of society existed in the world at that time, and certainly neither the Grimm brothers nor any of the characters in Snow White ever seem to question these ideas about the proper place of women. Snow White is not really the main character of the story, since she is so passive and submissive -- a sort of ideal good little girl type. She is the feminine ideal of a patriarchal society, given her beauty, passivity, dutifulness and submissiveness to authority, and the difference between Snow White and the evil Queen was typical of the may women were portrayed in the past, such as the distinction between the virgin and the prostitute or the saint and the witch. Indeed, the evil Queen is tortured and put to death at the end of the story in a way reminiscent of witchcraft trials.

Over the years, it has come down in a number of different versions in print, animation and films, often following quite different plots. Their original tale portrays Snow White as virginal and pure, and so perfectly beautiful in every way that she drives the stepmother and evil Queen to violent hatred and jealousy. She is extremely vain and narcissistic, and always asking her magic mirror "who is the fairest of all?" (Grimm 1865, p. 261). She orders a hunter to murder Snow White and bring back her heart and tongue so she can eat them, but the man takes pity on the innocent, fair maiden and lets her escape. Snow White seems to have this effect on most men in the story, such she is the ideal woman in an authoritarian, patriarchal society: weak, dull, submissive, frail and dutiful. She finds refuge with the Seven Dwarfs and immediately agrees to cook, clean, sew and keep house for them in return for their protection, and these domestic duties would have simply been the norm for most women in that time and place. Her wicked Step Mother finds out from the mirror that she is still alive, and finally succeeds in poisoning her with an apple, and just as if she were a Christ-like figure or a saint, the Dwarfs "wept and wept for three days without ceasing" (Grimm, p. 268). A Prince finds her body in the glass case they have made for her, perfectly preserved, and he vows that "I cannot live without Snow White. I will honor and protect her so long as I live" (Grimm, p. 269). Snow White is awakened when the piece of apple falls out of her mouth, and he then takes her to his father the King and they are married. This the dutiful and pure Snow White is rewarded by returning to the patriarchal family and society as a wife and mother, while the wicked stepmother is killed in a manner similar to the torture applied to witches, by being forced to dance in a pair of "red-hot iron shoes" until she dies (Grimm, p. 270).

Snow White is not really the main character of the story, since she is so passive and submissive, a sort of ideal good little girl type. Rather, the evil Queen is the "driving force" compared to Snow White, who is "too pathetically good, too much the domestic, to be of major interest in the story" (Zipes 2001, p. 115). Nor is the Queen an independent human being, but controlled by the mirror that symbolizes her vanity. In the Disney version of the story, as well as many of the 20th and 21st Century printed editions, she is not even tortured to death by wearing red-hot shoes, but "either dies by accident, is banished, or disappears" (Zipes, p. 116). In the original 1810 version of the story, Snow Whites was the Queen's daughter rather than her stepdaughter, and she was revived by her father rather than by the Prince. In other stories, she is shown as running away from her father rather than being threatened with death by her stepmother. This is why the most important character is the mirror itself, which is male and appears in every version of the story. It represents the patriarchal culture as it uses women, throws them away, and manipulates them into fighting each other. As Snow White ages and has children, she may well have a mirror of her own that causes her to be jealous of younger and more beautiful women. Like the evil stepmother, she may also become "trapped in the spectacle of male illusions" (Zipes, p. 116).

Snow White is the feminine ideal of a patriarchal society, given her beauty, passivity, dutifulness and submissiveness to authority. In her state of perfect, living death without decay, she symbolizes "the silence, the immobility, and beauty of the daughter-heroine displayed in a glass coffin" (Gilbert and Gubar, 1994, p. 360). Her stepmother, in contrast, is a woman of evil, cunning, treachery and witchcraft, who is actually tortured and put to death as a witch in the original version of the story, at least symbolically. Snow White was recorded long before the 20th Century "sexualization and commodification of the female body in both elite erotica and popular pornography" (Gilbert and Gubar, p 362). It does not take place in an urban, industrial capitalist world -- which hardly existed yet in Germany in 1810 -- but in a rural, feudal and authoritarian society. Most women had no part in the public sphere at all, but existed in the indoor, private and domestic sphere of cooking, cleaning, child care, and fulfilling the expected duties of wives, daughters and mothers. Snow White may have strayed from this patriarchal world, or been exiled from it, but she remains frigid, pure and virginal in a way that attracts both the Dwarfs and the Prince. In contrast, her stepmother is jealous and engaged by the attention she might receive from males, and the fear that the daughter might take her place in their affections. A more modern (or postmodern) retelling of the story might eliminate the King and Prince completely and "liberate Snow White and the Queen into a perfect Herland" (Gilbert and Gubar, p. 375). I would create women characters that combined the "selflessness" of Snow White with the "self-determination" of the Queen (Gilbert and Gubar, p. 378). There no longer has to be a clear distinction between the two as there was in the 19th Century, or even in the 'Cult of Domesticity' of the 1950s, since women now have more control over marriage, relationships and child-bearing that did not exist in the past.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba agreed that the difference between Snow White and the evil Queen was typical of the may women were portrayed in the past, like that between the Virgin Mary and Mary of Madgala. Snow White is "sweet and submissive," at until "she reenacts Eve's original sin and bites into a bad apple" (Alba 2005, p. 50). In this case, her wicked stepmother plays the role of Satan or the Devil, getting the innocent to eat the apple even though she has been repeatedly warned by her male superiors to be careful. Snow White, in fact, is not terribly bright or intelligent, since she cannot see through the disguise of the evil Queen, who after all has already tried to kill her twice. Symbolically, the Seven Dwarfs also represent the Seven Deadly Sins, such as lust, gluttony and greed, and therefore Snow White is literally living in a state of…[continue]

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