The Cinderella story has existed since the age of antiquity and has been told in many different cultures in as many different fashions. Yet, in America, one version stands out above the rest. Charles Perrault's version, popularized by Disney in 1950, became the standard, sentimental (Disneyfied) "some day my Prince will come" spawning fairy tale that became the classic progenitor of other animated features like Sleeping Beauty. While Walt Disney's animated feature helped cement Perrault's "Cinderella" in the minds of generations of Americans, the Cinderella fantasy had actually been produced in film around the world several times since the beginning of the twentieth century. Each was unique, yet, it is Perrault's that continues to perpetuate the kind of idealized dream-come-true fantasy that fits so well in the idealized world of Americana. This paper will show how of all the various Cinderella stories that have been published around the world, Charles Perrault's stands out as one of the most popular among Americans. By examining its language and context, the storyline and its relation to the "American Dream," and comparing it to other popular versions, this paper will detail why Perrault's "Cinderella" has proven so popular.
The Story, Language, and Context
Charles Perrault's "Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper" is actually of French origin. Its story is quite similar to the Italian and German versions, yet the language and context of the English translation has made it particularly endearing to Americans.
The story itself is divorced from the gruesome twists of the standard European (Grimm) tale. The grotesque is replaced by "sweetness" and moralizing -- a popular ploy of American literature. Rather than an ending that sees the stepsisters hack off their toes to make their feet fit in the shoe, Perrault gives a much cleaner version -- even making the shoe a slipper made of glass: it is dainty, sophisticated, and relatively painless (and free of violence). The two morals at the end of the tale reinforce the overall idea that good always triumphs over evil, is always sweet and pretty, and never suffers the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" for very long -- but is rewarded with glory and riches.
Likewise, the language is sharp, simplistic, and panders to a kind of simplistic, Puritanical worldview popular in America, where the line that separates good and evil is clearly defined, and Cinderella is defined by superlatives:
Once there was a gentleman who married, for his second wife, the proudest and most haughty woman that was ever seen. She had, by a former husband, two daughters of her own, who were, indeed, exactly like her in all things. He had likewise, by another wife, a young daughter, but of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper, which she took from her mother, who was the best creature in the world.
Cinderella not only proves to be the most beautiful girl at the ball, but also proves her moral character by returning good for evil. She embraces her wicked stepsisters, pardons their faults and sins against her, and even matches them with "two great lords" that same day. There is in Perrault's "Cinderella" none of the horror that awaits the wicked.
The context of the story is also unique: says Jen Waters, "Because Perrault's book Tales of Mother Goose, which contains "Cinderella, or the Glass Slipper," was translated into English before other versions, this is the telling that was destined to be assimilated into American culture."
Perrault's version differs from the later Grimm telling: rather than a tree that grants Cinderella her wishes (as in the Grimm fairy tale), it is Cinderella's fairy godmother. The French Cinderella is also more enlightened, cultured, virtuous, gracious, comely, elegant, and all around praiseworthy than her other European counterparts. She is the product of French aristocracy -- a creature of seventeenth century good breeding (despite the fact that she must dwell in the ashes of the cellar, from which she gets her name). There is nothing rude, pompous, or uncivil about her -- and her enchantments are of a far more personal note. It is not the tree (or the tree of life, an ancient Christian/Germanic symbol like the Jesse tree -- from which the Gift of gifts, Christ, descended), but a fairy godmother that bestows on Cinderella the magic coach and gown and slippers that allows Cinderella to win the Prince. All of these distinguishing features make Perrault's "Cinderella" a singular work.
American Culture, the American Dream, and the Storyline of "Cinderella"
By the time Perrault had written his version of "Cinderella," the New World had already been colonized -- but its guiding ethos had not yet been determined. That would come after the French-Indian War, in which the English won command of the Ohio Valley and deterred French Catholicism from advancing any further into the continent. Likewise, the English took the Spanish territories, and America took its influence from Puritanism, Protestantism, and radical revolutionary Romantic/Enlightenment doctrine ala Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and the Founding Fathers. What all of these influences had in common was their idealistic nature -- their vision of a kind of utopian society, ordered by Man and achieved and merited through his own natural goodness: a kind of against-the-odds story, of which "Cinderella" is the prime example.
The American Dream, therefore, came to represent the underdog's yearning for fulfillment, and it embodied the Thoreau doctrine of self-reliance -- of lifting one up by one's bootstraps. Thus, in Perrault's "Cinderella," it is not the magical tree (a thing completely separate and distinct from Cinderella) but her own fairy godmother that comes to save the day. In a sense, the power for Cinderella to rise was there all along. Perrault's version plays right into the American ethos and its dream.
Nonetheless, that American Dream differs significantly from the American reality. American novelists such as Hawthorne, Melville and playwrights such as O'Neill and Albee have shown again and again that the American Dream is like the "pipe dream" of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- an illusion that keeps us all from recoiling at the thought of our own despair. "Cinderella" is the perfect illusion -- a representation of the American dream of finally besting one's lesser sisters (or neighbors), being recognized (admired as at the ball), courted (by a beauty), and elevated in class.
The storyline of "Cinderella" is essentially a play-by-play re-cap of just how the American Dream is supposed to work: born for greatness, society and one's environment tends to oppress; but through good fortune and one's own pluck, society finally recognizes one's worth and esteems one beyond one's wildest dreams. This is seen in "Cinderella," who is cast down to the cellar because of her wicked stepmother's jealousy, is chided by her wicked stepsister and called "Cinderwench," is neglected by her father (who is manipulated by his new wife), but receives the favor of her special fairy godmother and wins (deservedly) the favor of the Prince; captivating him with her grace, beauty and elegant footwear; proving her worth at the end by slipping her foot into the slipper she left behind for him to find; and pardoning all those who wronged her in the past.
Interestingly, the American-favored version of "Cinderella" lacks the spiritual depth (and gruesomeness) of the Grimm fairy tale. As Jen Waters points out, the Brothers Grimm
Wove spiritual principles into the plot…When the mother dies, for instance, the father forgets his dead wife almost immediately, whereas the daughter loyally goes to the mother's grave three times a day and cries. While at the grave, she plants a tree, which could be interpreted as a cross.
Moreover, as previously noted, that same tree becomes a source of grace for the girl -- a "source of her magical help when it is visited by a white dove, the Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit" (Waters). A variation on Cinderella's devotion to the tree is seen in yet another European version, edited by Joseph Jacobs: Cinderella, when seeking succor, cries out: "Tree o' mine, O tree o' me, / With my tears I've watered thee; / Make me a lady fair to see, / Dress me as splendid as can be."
Again, in the Grimm tale, the birds of the tree draw the Prince's attention to the falsehood of the stepsisters and sing out the truth of Cinderella. Says Waters,
While the father and the stepfamily overlook the beauty in the heroine, the prince, who serves as a Christ figure, sees beyond the surface of her external appearance. She is the only one with whom he wants to dance. Also, in an act of divine retribution, the stepsisters have their eyes pecked by birds from the tree at the dead mother's grave.
The Grimm fairy tale is a stark contrast to the happily-ever-after, sentimentally sweet Perrault version, beloved by Americana. Such, however, could help explain the darkness that American authors have often tried to describe at the heart of the American dream:…