Charles Perrault was responsible for collecting and adapting many of the fairy tales best known to contemporary audiences, and his collection of Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals, also known as Mother Goose Tales, offers a unique insight into both the evolution of fairy tales in general and the socio-political context of Perrault's own writing. In particular, Perrault's use of domesticated and wild animals in certain tales shed light on the gender and class conflicts that under-gird both the stories themselves and Perrault's own historical context. By performing a close reading of Perrault's "Little Red Riding Hood," "Puss in Boots," and "Donkeyskin," one can see how Perrault uses domestic and wild animals in order to reinforce notions of gender that idealized male autonomy and proactivity while condemning female exploration, in addition to simultaneously supporting the preexisting class structure that impoverished the majority while rewarding the nobility; furthermore, because Perrault's sexist treatment of male and female characters is so blatant, this essay will serve the secondary purpose of demonstrating the importance of considering class relations in fairy tales, because the reification of oppressive class distinctions is arguably more pervasive and pernicious than the almost laughably obvious reifications of sexist ideologies, which have already been criticized by a number of scholars.
Before discussing Perrault's tales in detail, it will be necessary to first discuss the methodology with which this analysis will progress, if only because fairy and folk tales have, for at least the last century, been considered a form of literature somehow apart from all others that demands a particular approach. There is something to be said for fairy tales' status as a distinct form of literature with their own internal logic and narrative rules, but they are not so different from other forms of literature that they necessarily demand an entirely different mode of analysis (Uther (1), 259). Furthermore, even as most readers would probably have little difficulty in deciding whether or not any given story is a fairy tale, "almost all endeavors by scholars to define the fairy tale as a genre have failed […] because the genre is so volatile and fluid" (Zipes 222). Thankfully, in the case of Perrault, the title of his collections clearly identifies the stories as fairy tales, and so questions of genre identification are tangential in the context of this study. While the goal of this essay is not to discount or criticize the way in which fairy tales have been previously studied, because this essay will employ a different methodology than has been most common, it is necessary to first discuss the history of fairy and folk tale criticism, if only to more comfortably and critically diverge from it.
In many ways the first serious examination of folk and fairy tales may be considered the work of Perrault and others, because although Perrault intended his stories for publication and entertainment, he was also performing a kind of anthropological study in that his Mother Goose Tales consisted of older tales which had previously only been passed down as part of the oral tradition. In fact, one may view Perrault, the Grimm Brothers, and Giovanni Straporola as the first theorists of the folk tale, because each recorded the tales of their respective countries (France, Germany, and Italy, respectively). However, it is important to note that not all researchers agree with the importance given to the oral tradition in studies of fairy and folk tales, and in fact, there are some who suggest that the apparent ubiquity of certain repeated tales has less to do with a widespread oral transmission and more to do with the success of published works like Perrault's (Bottigheimer 449; Zipes 223). Nevertheless, as a result of the inherently anthropological nature of these early collections, early fairy tale "authors" like Perrault inspired the theorists and critics of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, who went beyond the mere collection of tales and began comparing them to each other in an attempt to identify the earliest variations of each one.
The beginning of the twentieth century saw the publication of two books that transformed the way fairy and folk tales were considered by academia. The first was the tale type index of Antti Aarne, which sought to organize all extant folk tales according to certain textual and thematic features under the belief that the wide variety of folk tales could nevertheless be categorized according to a (relatively) few different types. The index was eventually expanded by Stith Thompson, such that it is now referred to as the Aarne-Thompson classification system (Uther (2), 1-2). Any given fairy or folk tale may be identified with an Aarne-Thompson number, which indicates that this story includes whatever narrative content referred to by that number. For example, "Little Red Riding Hood" has the Aarne-Thompson number 333, because it corresponds to the category of "supernatural opponents," while "Puss in Boots" has the number 545 in accordance with its titular characters' status as an "animal helper" (Kaplanoglou 57; Al-rawi 31).
At the same time that Stith Thompson was expanding Aarne's original index, Vladimir Propp was formulating his Morphology of the Folktale, which sought to organize Russian folktales in manner similar to Aarne's index. However, Propp went further than simple classification, and attempted to "make an examination of the forms of the tale which will be as exact as the morphology of organic formations" (Propp xxv). Instead of looking at the surface-level narrative content (which much of the Aarne-Thompson index relies on), Propp examined the underlying functional purpose of any given character as well as the narrative movements performed within any given tale. Thus, instead of focusing on whether a particular character was an animal, an imaginary creature, or a person, he tended to look at the function they performed within the story. As such, Puss in Boots' status as an animal would matter less than the assistance he performs for his master.
Although the end result of Propp's work was an index of his own, his attempt to formulate a more robust means of examining different fairy and folk tales independent of their surface-level content; obviously, there is some overlap between Propp's categories and the Aarne-Thompson index, but for the most part Propp's morphology represents a more intense exercise in literary theory than the Aarne-Thompson index. The main advantage of Propp's work over the Aarne-Thompson index is that Propp did not attempt to assign a single category to any given tale, but rather identified movements and meaningful narrative segments that might included in a tale; thus, where the Aarne-Thompson index sometimes arbitrarily distinguishes between tales simply because the indexer decided to favor one element over another such that, for example, "Little Red Riding Hood" counts as a tale of "supernatural opponents" rather than "wild animals and humans," a critic could use Propp's morphology to analyze each aspect of the tale without attempting to assign it to any single category.
Having said all this, the current study will use neither the Aarne-Thompson index nor Propp's morphology, because neither are particularly helpful when attempting to determine the ideological content of Perrault's stories. Again, this is not to suggest that this strain of investigation is not worthwhile in other contexts, but rather to acknowledge that one may study fairy and folk tales without necessarily having to address their relation to every other fairy and folk tale in existence, which is essentially the underlying point of both extant systems of categorization. That is to say, while it is interesting that "Puss in Boots" has correlaries in the folk tales of central Asia, this information will not provide much insight into how "Puss in Boots" reinforces notions of gender and class superiority (Kaplanoglou 57).
Furthermore, while the Aarne-Thompson index includes an entire section related to wild and domestic animals, these classifications actually provide little insight into how wild and domestic animals are actually used in fairy tales. Thus, for this examination of how Perrault uses wild and domestic animals in his tales, it is necessary to forgo an analysis based in the categorical systems of Aarne, Thompson, and Propp, and instead examine the texts directly via a close reading. However, it was necessary to provide this brief history of fairy tales and their treatment in academic study, if only to better contextualize this essay's analysis within the extant literature.
Perrault's first collection of tales was published in 1694, but it was not until 1697 that a second edition was published which included the most famous of his tales, including "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Puss in Boots." The other story to be examined here, "Donkeyskin," was included in the first edition. Although Perrault's collection has subsequently become the most famous, it is worth noting that the 1690s saw a relative explosion in the publication of fairy tales (Weinshenker 493). In fact, the French term for fairy tale, conte de fees, did not exist until Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy labeled her own collection of stories with the term (Zipes…