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Fairy Tales

Calderon's picture

What is genre? What is constitutes as a modern view onliterature? What is to explore? What is a fairy tale? Most importantly whatqualifies as good motifs in a fairy tale? These are questions I am interestedin, because up until two months ago I had seen fairy tales as fantasy that wasmeant to take me back to my childhood. I am sure that when I was young I sawthem as that part fantastic world I could be part of. I never saw fairy talesas a genre with common functions much less with motifs intended to have a moralmeaning or a lesson for children to learn.  Vladimir Propp outlines on “Fairy Tale Transformation”argues that the motifs of fairy tale doesn’t necessarily explains its form. Hebelieves that in order to understand how fairy tales are put together isimportant to understand the commonality of functions within the genre. Proppbelieves that all tales have a common structure; that there are severalrecognizable functions, which may be fulfilled by various character types ormotifs; and that these functions, when they are present, always occur in thesame sequence, although there may be some repetition of particular sequences,as may be seen, for instance, in the threefold repetition of journeys or testsin many tales.   Propp identified 31 distinct functions, which heargues dictated the structure of the fairy tales.

Ann Sexton, a feminist critic, unlike Propp, believes thatthe motif within the fairy tales is what is important to explore.  I, like Ann Sexton believe that it isimportant to understand the motif of the 31 functions that Propp proposes as acommonality in fairy tales. I believe that these functions cannot be outlinewithout asking what is the motif of each one of them, what is their purpose inthe fairy tale? This is where I find myself trying to learn something I haveyet to discover. For instance, Snow White is a fairy tale that talks about abeautiful young girl who gets spell from her wicked stepmother and a youngprince comes to break the spell. According to Propp, what would be important tolook at when reading this fairy tale is to see the functions that dictate thestructure of the fairy tale. Sexton, on the other hand makes an interesting suggestion about thisfairy tale. She chooses to change the end of the original story. Instead ofhaving a happy ever she writes a more realistic ending “Snow White held court,rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut and sometimes referring to hermirror as women do” (9). This ending changes the original story, thereforeshows the truth meaning behind the story according to Sexton. This ending tellschildren that all young girls will turn into wicked, old women wishing to bebeautiful their whole lives. That being vain is their destiny.  Sexton feminist belief is that bychanging the ending of the story she will then make clear the real messageintended in the fairy tale. However, if Snow White is read without Sextonfeminist perspective the fact that Snow White gets through the forest andovercomes with courage her adversities in her journey can teach children to bestrong and courageous.

This teaches young girls that the wicked stepmother wasunhappy because she wanted to have something forever. The message in tale is toplant the seed in children that nothing is forever, but one’s beautifulpersonality. The wicked mother was vain and selfish the entire story. Shealways wanted to be the most beautiful. Snow White never talks about her beautyand that’s why everybody likes her because she is humble. She shows her truebeauty by talking and trying to be nice to everybody around her. She lives withthe dwarfs in which time she matures and turns into a young women.  The dwarfs act as the parent figure inher life and like in Sleeping Beauty they have a better knowledge of how evilthe vanity of a women could be and advice her not to talk to strangers. Shedoes not listen and unfortunately gets a spell.  Her disobedience takes her to her misfortune just like inSleeping Beauty. How can this meaning be correct? I have trouble blaming SnowWhite for getting a spell. Her innocence could be the cause of her misfortune.If Propp believes that there are 31 functions and the motif is a result of thefunction, should we then change completely the 31 functions so we can havedifferent motifs? Or should we do what Sexton did with Snow White alter thestories already written and highlight to children what the meaning is? 


Calderon's picture

CalderonI think that




Anne Dalke's picture

From Motifs to Meanings

I share your frustration, Calderon, with the structuralist emphasis of Propp on the "functions" of the motifs of the fairy tales--like you, like Sexton, I'm interested in meaning!... I'm very glad to see you push beyond the cataloguing of functions that Propp engages in, to think about the purposes that the various motifs might be fulfilling in the fairy tales. Looking @ Sexton's version of "Snow White" is a good way to highlight the questions of meaning. And I'd like to talk with you a little more (or rather, I'd like to get you to talk a little more!) about your methods of arriving @ interpretations.

Why do you think that Sexton's revised ending "shows the true meaning behind the story," rather than (for instance) adding a new meaning to the original? Why do you claim that "Sexton's feminist belief is that by changing the ending of the story she will make the real message clear"? What is your source for saying what Sexton believes? What authority do you have to rely on, aside from the poem itself? And how does that work as proof for your argument?

You know, I start the CSem I co-teach each fall with a selection of Grimm's fairy tales, followed by Sexton's versions; along the way, we read Bruno Bettelheim's essay on "The Uses of Enchantment," which argues that the function of fairy tales is to comfort children, to let them know that their own murderous impulses are common, and allowable....

how might you incorporate that sort of psychoanalytic reading into your interpretation of what Sexton is up to? Perhaps her fractured feminist versions of the fairy tales are ways of offering grown-up versions of what are (wrongly?) thought to be children's stories? Ways of re-telling the tales as life-models for modern women? Go to Fairy Tales, if you'd like to see this year's students' comparisons of Grimm's and Sexton's tales, and go to Explaining Fairy Tales if you'd like to see what sense they made of Bettelheim.

You end your essay by asking if we should "change the functions to get different motifs," or alter the stories, instead, to "highlight what their meaning is." Do you have an answer, yourself (or several answers) to your own questions?