Cinderella Tales and their Significance
Variations of Cinderella tales make use of the device of changes in standing and status to suit different purposes ranging from criticism, teaching, preservation of culture, and many other aims. Cinderella tales are cyclical tales in which heroines are introduced as living in a middle to upper class with a loving father proper to their character, birth, and other traits but which they leave or are forced out of. The heroines must prove themselves and engage in work or adventure to find their way back into the class and environment in which they belong. These tales generally reward the good, clever, and fair and punish the wicked while revealing significant ideas about the gender and class relations prevalent within the societies and time periods the tales come from. These tales have become staples in not only Western but global culture with traditional tales being preserved and repeated while new variations and renditions of the tales are continuously produced and spread.
Cinderella tales are one of the most popular types of fairy tales known today. The popularity of Cinderella tales is not new but rather has existed for centuries. Cinderella tales are found throughout many different regions of the world as well as in different time periods. The passing on of Cinderella tales has served many different purposes for different people throughout time. Story tellers, writers, and collectors have used the tale as a social criticism, as a tool to teach lessons or morals, as a tale to entertain in which audiences create sympathetic bonds with characters, as a method of preserving culture, as a medium to express intellect, and for many other purposes and devices. Studying the history of the tale as well as the differences between versions of the tale as they are connected to different authors and time periods allows for trends and themes dealing with gender and class relations as well as other important issues to come to light.
The origin of fairy tales and folk tales is a much debated and discussed topic, with differences for each explained in many scholarly works. Zipes states, “There are numerous theories about the origins of the fairy tale, but none have provided conclusive proof about the original development of the literary fairy tale. This is because it is next to impossible to pinpoint such proof.”1 Scholars emphasize different periods and developments as being the most important to the development of the literary fairy tale ranging from the popularity of telling tales in the court of Mme d’Aulnoy to the invention of the printing press to the collection and publication of many tales by the Brothers Grimm. In fact, all of these factors are important to the history of literary fairy tales. Zipes posits, “In fact, the literary fairy tale has evolved from the stories of the oral tradition, piece by piece… in the different cultures of the people who cross-fertilized the oral tales and disseminated them.”2 When examining fairy tales one must take into account the rich tradition behind each tale as well as its relation to the many other probably existent slightly different versions of the same tale. Fairy tales are often considered to be magic tales, a specific type of folk tale rather than as their own genre apart from folk tales even though not all fairy tales directly involve magic. This school of thought explains folk tales as being collective and having been maintained through oral tradition, with the introduction of the printing press allowing printed tales to further strengthen the tales.
Another theory maintains that literary fairy tales gained their strength and popularity as a sort of salon game for aristocratic French women, and that tales were intended for adults rather than children, who appear to be the audience modern Western societies associate with fairy tales. Seifert confirms adults being the prevalent audience with,
In fact, literary fairy tales were intended for adult readers in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. More significant, their classification as children’s literature
is at least in part a mimetic transposition of content onto intended readership since
they depict, by and large, the conflicts of childhood or adolescence and its
resolution into adulthood. As such, fairy tales specify with extraordinary
precision and economy a culture’s prototypical quest for identity; they are par
excellence narratives of initiation, becoming, and maturity; they are themselves
susceptible to becoming (and have become) powerful instruments of socialization
The way in which the major audience for fairy tales has shifted in age is interesting to note when examining changes in fairy tales over time, an example of which would be how many fairy tales were edited to be more suitable for children in later times as they were viewed as too graphically violent and traumatizing for youngsters to hear. Modern audiences’ associations of children and fairy tales have been strengthened as a result of movies such as Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Children’s editions of such books are now also a much more commonplace find than adult versions, most likely due to the themes within Seifert’s explanation of the tales’ association with acculturation, teaching, and socialization.
A popular sort of fairy tale that has been popular throughout several continents and vast time periods of history has been that of the Cinderella sort of story, which can even be found in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Chinese mythologies. The tale has not traditionally been found in Australia, Africa, or the Americas but has since spread to these regions.4 The story typically deals with a daughter who is mistreated by her stepmother and her stepsisters, and must then prove herself as the rightful bride of royalty through passing the slipper or shoe test following her losing one after ensnaring a prince or other royal figure with her charms.5 William R.S. Ralston describes the tale particularly well with,
That is to say, she is reduced to a state of degradation and squalor, and is forced to
occupy a servile position, frequently connected in some way with the hearth and
its ashes. From this, however, she emerges on certain festive occasions as a
temporarily brilliant being, always returning to her obscure position, until at last
she is recognised; after which she remains permanently brilliant, her apparently
destined period of eclipse having been brought to a close by her recognition,
which is accomplished by the aid of her lost shoe or slipper.6
This tale is a particularly attractive one to audiences, and has been tailored to suit even Americans though it is amusing this tale is so attractive to Americans. Americans have idealized stories such as those of Horatio Alger and the self made man making it ironic that Cinderella stories have gained such popularity as Cinderella deals with a noble, middle class, or upper class female who has lost her riches and must reclaim her proper standing in the world. Jane Yolen states,
Yet how ironic that this formula should be the terms on which “Cinderella” is
acceptable to most Americans. “Cinderella” is not a story of rags to riches, but
rather riches recovered; not poor girl into princess but rather rich girl (or princess)
rescued from improper or wicked enslavement; not suffering Griselda enduring
but shrewd and practical girl persevering and winning a share of the power.7
She also explains that, “Cinderella first came to America in the nursery tale the settlers remembered from their own homes and told their children.”8 This demonstrates the way in which Cinderella made its way to America. She also seems to despair at the way the Cinderella tale has changed in recent times. She writes,
Hardy, helpful, inventive, that was the Cinderella of the old tales but not of the
mass-market in the nineteenth century. Today’s mass market books are worse….
For the sake of Happy Ever After, the mass-market books have brought forward a
good, malleable, forgiving little girl and put her in Cinderella’s slippers.
However, in most of the Cinderella tales there is no forgiveness in the heroine’s
heart. No mercy. Just justice…. Missing, too, from the mass-market books is the
shrewd, even witty Cinderella…. Even Perrault’s heroine bantered with her
stepsisters, asking them leading questions about the ball while secretly and
deliciously knowing the answers.9
Numerous issues are dealt with in Cinderella tales. Issues of class, gender, and expected behaviors are dealt with as well as those of the family. Philip states,
The stories that make up what has been called the Cinderella cycle, like many of
the most frequently told and recorded folktales, explore from various angles the
knot or cluster of tensions inherent in the nuclear family. There are numerous
ways of categorizing the Cinderella variants, depending on the nature and the
order of the incidents. Many areas have distinctive traditions.10
Philip presents the complexity of the Cinderella tradition in this statement. He also tries to pinpoint the earliest versions of Cinderella in the world as well as in Europe by stating,
The earliest recognizable Cinderella story known to us is the Chinese story of
Yeh-hsien, dating in this text from the ninth century A.D. The earliest European
Cinderella is the ‘Cat Cinderella’ (‘La Gatta Cenerentola’) of Basile’s Il
Pentamerone (Lo Cunto de li Cunti) published posthumously between 1634 and
1636…. The vast majority of recorded Cinderella tales date from the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries.”11
In the modern Cinderella tradition it appears that most people are familiar with the characteristics of Perrault’s Cinderella rather than that of the earliest, Yeh-hsien.
Yeh-hsien is the earliest Cinderella tale that there is recorded evidence for. The record of the tale comes from China. Philips states of the tale, “It was written down in this form by a Chinese official with an interest in out-of-the-way information, Tuan Ch’eng-shih, who lived from about AD 800 to 863.”12 The tale begins by explaining that after the death of her mother the smart and industrious Yeh-hsien is mistreated by her stepmother who forces her to collect wood and water. Upon one of these trips she finds a fish that she then takes care of and feeds. The fish answers only to her, but is tricked when the stepmother dons Yeh-hsien’s old clothing and calls to it. The stepmother kills the fish and buries the bones in the dung heap. A man from the sky, who may be compared to the supernatural fairy godmother figure of Perrault’s tale, consoles Yeh-hsien as she cries by telling her to fetch the bones and to pray to them for anything she desires. This resembles other Cinderella tales because oftentimes an animal, such as the fish, is the embodiment of the Cinderella’s true mother or another helpful spirit. As in other tales a social gathering, in this case a cave-festival, approaches and the stepmother and stepdaughter attend while Yeh-hsien is relegated to watching over the fruit trees. She wears clothing and golden shoes that are provided to her by the fish bones to attend the festival and is recognized by her relatives but they lose their suspicions upon finding her home, asleep by a tree. Yeh-hsien realizes her relatives recognized her and hurries home but loses a shoe on the way in her haste to return to the trees. The shoe is found by a cave-man and sold, making its way to a ruler who then searches for the maiden whose foot fits the shoe. Eventually, Yeh-hsien is found and marries the ruler who then overuses her fish bones, which eventually get washed into the sea similarly to how they originally came from the water. Her stepmother and stepsister die by being hit by flying stones and their burial ground becomes known as the Tomb of the Distressed Women.13 It has been suggested that although this is the earliest recorded evidence we have of the tale that this version is not the oldest in existence. R.D. Jameson points to numerous characteristics of the story that do not quite add up when considering the overall whole of the tale. He points out that these characteristics may be relics from an older version of the tale or from alternative versions with,
Internal evidence gives reason to conclude, at least tentatively, that this is not the
case, that the people from whom Li Shih Yuan got the story were not the authors
of it and that the version before us shows signs of some wear and of considerable
age…. If the considerations here adduced are sound they indicate that this story is
a popular version taken from oral tradition, and that it is influenced by other
versions and other stories which were in the consciousness of the narrators.14
He cites evidence of the way Yeh-hsien sleeps with the arm around the tree, the seemingly pointless attendance at the festival as she does not meet her husband there, and the deaths of her stepmother and stepsister. He finds the way these events are described to be inconsistent with the tale as a whole and takes them to be remnants from an earlier tale or from other versions that circulated at the same time. This helps to demonstrate the age and the longevity of the Cinderella tale as well as both its malleability and resistance to change as although details may change, relics of important themes remain in the tale.
The emergence and spread of literary fairy tales is puzzling on its own. Scholars disagree on the origin of literary fairy tales, and what was most important to their survival and spread. Ruth B. Bottigheimer staunchly argues that literary fairy tales emerged and spread most importantly through the use of printed literature. She argues that the invention of the printing press made reading material much more accessible to people and that increases in literacy allowed fairy tales to spread through the printed page. She argues that it is unlikely that illiterate people are the origin of the well known literary fairy tales, though they may have been introduced to the tales through oral repetition which furthered the spread of the tales. She also makes the point that important to the spread of fairy tales through printed works was the urban environment of literate people living more closely together than the people of the countryside.15 She states,
Above all, a book-based history of fairy tales shows that fairy tales emerged when cities, literate city people, and city possibilities intersected and became a reality in urban people’s lives. Venice was the first place where large-scale commerce, manufacturing, wide-spread literacy, and cheap print existed in the same place at the same time.16
She clearly opposes arguments for rural origins of literary fairy tales as well as for the traditions of aristocratic French women’s salon games leading to the popularity of the literary fairy tale.
Jack Zipes favors the argument for aristocratic French women being one of the main ways in which literary fairy tales spread and gained popularity. It is noted that the trend of fairy tales in the salons occurred beginning in the last decade of the seventeenth century, with much credit for this going to Mme Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy.17 Zipes states, “It was not Perrault but groups of writers, particularly aristocratic women, who gathered in salons during the seventeenth century and created the conditions for the rise of the fairy tale.”18 Zipes points to these women as being responsible for the popularity in their time period of literary fairy tales intended for adults and children. He explains,
All the early writers of fairy tales borrowed from other literary and oral tales, and
thus their narratives can be regarded as retellings that adapt the motifs, themes,
and characters to fit their tastes and the expectations of the audiences for which
they were writing.19
Zipes notes the importance of change within fairy tales to suit present societal ideals.20 He also explains the ways in which some authors criticize these ideals and standards. As is noted in the title of Fairy Tale as Myth: Myth as Fairy Tale Zipes also focuses on how fairy tales became widespread and part of collective knowledge, stories that references may be made to with the assumption that common folk will understand the reference. He pinpoints the origin of the literary fairy tale with,
It was within the aristocratic salons that women were able to demonstrate their intelligence and education through different types of conversational games. In fact, the linguistic games often served as models for literary genres such as the occasional lyric or the serial novel. Both women and men participated in these games and were constantly challenged to invent new ones or to refine the games. Such challenges led the women, in particular, to improve the quality of their dialogues, remarks, and ideas about morals, manners, and education and at times to oppose male standards that have been set to govern their lives.21
This bold statement introduces several important ideas regarding the history of the fairy tale. Zipes posits that literary fairy tales began gaining popularity as a sort of amusement or game particularly played by aristocratic French women. He later states that these games were not directly competitive but were competitive in a more unstated than stated nature. He elaborates that women would try to best one another by relating the best story in the most elegant manner while including elements relevant to the challenge at hand, such as addressing a particular topic or including particular descriptions within the story. Such verbal play demands educated players, and further stimulates intellectual activity making it seem likely that these women were more than capable of creating literary fairy tales as we know them. A number of these women went on to not only engage in such oratory but to write down their tales as well. Zipes states that women played these games to both confirm as well as ridicule particular morals and standards presently held within their society, with an example being the legal status of women. The status of women in general as well as legally compared to men has fluctuated over time due to changes in beliefs. A pervasive belief since ancient time is the connection between men and the mind or women with the body, as is explained by Hannon,
Women’s inferior position in the marriage hierarchy results from their
identification with the body as opposed to the mind, which, since Plato and
Aristotle, had been equated with men…. According to both foes and allies,
woman’s traditionally devalued position in the pervasive body/mind hierarchy
was at times reassessed and even displaced, but resistant to any genuine
This statement helps to demonstrate why women might be more motivated to share tales with one another. Sharing tales with lessons embedded helped to teach and make lives easier for the listeners as well as to entertain them while they were performing chores or simply for amusement and sparking intellectual activity. Whether the tales they told supported or mocked the common beliefs and standards of the time varied according to the time and occasion both such uses were taken advantage of and women learned to live with their inferior status or even to criticize it in more free thinking times.
Understanding whether a tale ridicules or confirms particular beliefs requires careful attention to the tale as an aim of the original authors of many of such tales was subtlety. Individual examination of tales may reveal whether the tale’s author approved or disapproved of a practice or widely held belief. Mme d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault allowed their criticisms of societal expectations and ideals to come through in their works. Such an examination also reveals numerous themes, motifs, and devices present within the tales such as the use of changes in the status of a protagonist in relation to their behavior as well as the purpose of using such a device.
Philip makes interesting note of changes throughout the Cinderella story throughout its passage through time and different regions. These changes carry significance as they lead to altered themes within the tale. He states,
This simple story developed into a more complex version in which there was a
single focus of attention, a motherless girl, and in which the tree growing from the
grave acted –as in Grimm –as a marriage test: only the girl could pick the fruit.
This story in turn assimilated the oriental motif of the object that is lost and found
by change, such as a shoe. To explain why the girl should possess a valuable or
beautiful object, the visit to the feast was added, as in ‘Yeh-hsien’. In oriental
tales the visit to the feast is not the occasion of the girl meeting the prince, which
is brought about by the chance of finding the lost object. It is a European
development that the feast, ball or church service should also serve as the meeting
place, with the consequent flight of the girl and pursuit by the prince. This crucial
change, emphasized by the three-fold visit which is also part of the European
tradition, created a new centre of interest in the story, paving the way for the
Perrault-type Cinderella story in which the motifs of the earlier story, such as the
helpful food-providing animal, the slaying of the animal, the burying of the bones
or entrails, and growth of the food-providing tree, are reduced in importance and
sometimes dispensed with altogether.23
Philip’s analysis of changes in the tale demonstrates important trends. Many of the characteristics modern audiences associate with the Cinderella tale are in fact European additions to an Oriental tale rather than part of the original tale itself. Although additions and changes being made to tales are part of the natural lifecycles of tales, it is interesting to note that many of the original characteristics of the tale have not survived in the most widely known versions of the tale. It is also important to note the particular changes that were made. In European tales the prince meets Cinderella prior to searching for her with the aid of her lost item though in earlier versions of the tale he did not meet her before this search. Although the social event helps to explain why Cinderella is in possession of a valuable object it also calls into question how she obtained this object. It is interesting to note the changes that took place in this explanation as well. The helpful deceased mother’s spirit in the form of a plant or animal slowly diminished over time while the presence of the fairy godmother was created, particularly by Perrault.24 This changes the behavior of Cinderella in several ways. Taking away the helpful animal or tree also takes away some of Cinderella’s cleverness and her ability to take part in helping herself. In the stories with a fairy godmother Cinderella is left with very little mental work to do other than to remember to meet the deadline imposed on how late she may be gone. In other tales, she faces more challenges to overcome such as how to sort legumes or how to be outfitted in the first place, which she manages with the help of the animal she has taken care of or the tree that she has also paid attention to. Cinderella does not always receive oral advice from the animals or trees and must use her own cleverness to not be caught by her stepmother and stepsisters. Tales that include the fairy godmother reduce Cinderella in some ways as she has little to do that requires her own initiative and in fact is instructed as to how to act and what she must do throughout the tale. This in part may be attributed to the impact male literary figures had on the tale as the imposed their own beliefs on it, pruning it into proper shape to be published or using the tale to criticize the standards set upon women during that time. This in turn reveals significant clues as to the nature of the role of women within society in that they chafed at the roles they were given and chose to confirm their intellect by sharing such tales and rebelling against males who constrained them. As usual, these tales are revealing in terms of the impact marriage had upon the life of women. The Cinderella tale demonstrates the importance of marriage to women and the significance in marrying a male who was able to be a provider or was even of a higher class. The European versions of the tale as well as some of the older versions demonstrate that a woman’s future depended upon her marriage and that having a suitable husband was crucial for survival.
Various literary sources of the Cinderella story make use of changes in status of the main character as well as societal expectations and norms considering behavior. These fairy tales perpetuate or criticize norms depending on the differing aims of the authors. The Grimms attempted to maintain what they thought were proper morals within their works, especially in their later collections which edited the tales more heavily. This served to perpetuate the norms of the time and to teach people the consequences of good or bad behavior as well as teach other lessons, such as the vileness of characters like those of the stepfamilies. Other authors such as d’Aulnoy and Perrault criticized the expectations for the behavior of women and the upper classes in their times, using their works as a sort of commentary. Interesting to note is the way in which the mother spirit is present in some Cinderella tales but not in others. In many of the older versions of the tale the mother’s spirit takes on the form of an animal, plant, or other helpful force that allows her daughter to eventually find a happy marriage and escape the tribulations she has faced. This characteristic disappears from other versions of the tale, such as Perrault’s where the fairy godmother is introduced instead. Ralston states, “Its earlier scenes appear to have been inspired by the idea that a loving mother may be able, even after her death, to bless and assist a dutiful child.”25 This idea appears to eventually have been lost, particularly in d’Aulnoy’s telling of the tale. Her tale seems to demonstrate that women can be intelligent and that being born of high class is not enough for one to be considered good or deserving, one must still be clever, independent, and kind. The sisters in Perrault’s tale as well as those in d’Aulnoy’s find husbands as a result of the good heart of the Cinderella character and are indebted to her. Although they are not blind or poor such as in other tales, the sisters must live with the actions of the good-hearted Cinderella. D’Aulnoy summarizes well at the end of her tale with,