Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for February 20, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

One thing that should nuance our reading of a feminist analysis or any other politically informed one: the image of fairy tales as kids’ lit raises the stakes: it acknowledges their teaching potential, but it also encourages censorship (especially of frightening things, but also of “inappropriate” ones). The function of fairy tales as children's literature more or less meshes with the image of fairy tales as property of the folk, reflections of national ideals or what have you, and this too makes it only too tempting to adapt tales tendentiously but present as them something The People generated, so 'yes it's sexist but you can't argue with it...' (And of course the People does generate all kinds of unacceptable content: for Russian fairy tales, you’ve already seen an anti-German bias; there's strong anti-Semitism in some; an anti-Gypsy bias sometimes, etc., along with pervasive sexism). Discussions around “Politically Correct Fairy Tales” (viz. the Free to Be, You and Me re-version of Atalanta) presume that the sexist versions weren’t also edited (though how can we know? We weren’t in the village when they were collected, didn’t watch the interplay between the collector and the teller).

Also, obviously, look to see how much Bottighheimer's arguments (based on the Grimms and Andrew Lang) apply to Afanas'ev, who actually edited less than the Grimms did.

Bottigheimer and “silenced” woman: these Grimm versions are partly perhaps in reaction against the French-oriented neo-Classical polite society culture (in which Perrault belongs) that included rational “improved” women, so the Grimms brought in a “rediscovery” of the “traditional” role of women as non-participants in that verbal culture (compare medieval tales like the dreadful “Patient Griselda”); “natural” male dominance rather than “cultivated” equality. Bottigheimer traces some of the history of this attitude, plus the way female eloquence (in spells especially) in fairy tales recalls the fragmentary record of old German folk beliefs, “powers realizable through speech” – in some tales, the statement by a female character is so integral to the plot that the tale would fall apart without the girl speaking the spell. P. 119: “Without subplots and a large cast of characters who can explore gradations of meaning and nuances of social practices, fairy tales and their plots achieve validity in their own cultures by alluding to generally held beliefs, even if these beliefs themselves are an illusion, an illusion which provides for its own survival by functioning as a paradigm for subsequent generations.” Further: note the link of punishment for speaking too much (- even if a girl’s been enjoined to stay mute and she does so!) with burning witches at the stake. P. 130: “…one must conclude that fairy tales offered an apparently innocent and peculiarly suitable medium for both transmitting and enforcing the norm of the silent woman.”

Lieberman: Important point that once a fairy tale moves into popular culture, especially in a hugely influential version like the Disney Animated Classics, it doesn’t matter what other versions or competing narratives there may be back in some village that no one will ever hear of. (So: Grimms, or Andrew Lang, have exerted huge control over what messages kids hear, because their collections have been so successful and often reprinted.)

(p. 194 – do you know who Jenny Cavilleri is? Heroine of Love Story – who dies VERY tragically!)

My criticism of Lieberman would be that she’s lumping actual folklore in with the edited versions (here, Lang’s Blue Fairy Book); she makes lots of good points but comes from all sorts of intellectual angles, not tied together by a single concern except her objection to Alison Lurie’s argument that the tales are full of good female role models. On the other hand, how many children actually encounter folk tales in their folk form? Criticizing Lang or Disney will have a bigger effect on kids’ experience.

(p. 186: “Perhaps literature is suggestive in direct proportion to its ability to divert.”) (p. 187: “Millions of women must surely have formed their psycho-sexual self-concepts, and their ideas of what they could or could not accomplish, what sort of behavior would be rewarded, and of the nature of reward itself, in part from their favorite fairy tales.”) (p. 188 – females are rewarded for passive beauty, males for being “bold, active, and lucky”) (p. 189: and marriage is the outcome – the reward, or sometimes the punishment, of the heroine) (p. 192: “the helpless, imprisoned maiden is the quintessential heroine of the fairy tale”) (p. 193: internalizing masochism and value of being “interesting” and “in trouble” – personality rendered “susceptible to melodramatic self-conceptions and expectations”) And – I add – by diverting female dissatisfaction or suffering into masochism, you avoid changing anything; plus as Lieberman says it teaches passivity and a kind of naïve faith. 194: “Submissive, meek, passive female behavior is suggested and rewarded by the action of these stories.” (p. 197: “Powerful good women are nearly always fairies, and they are remote: they come only when desperately needed.”) (Power itself makes a woman ugly, threatening, and scary?) (and more p. 197: “What is praiseworthy in males, however, is rejected in females; the counterpart of the energetic, aspiring boy is the scheming, ambitious woman.”)

(pp. 199-200: “In effect, these stories focus upon courtship, which is magnified into the most important and exciting part of a girl’s life, brief though courtship is, because it is the part of her life in which she most counts as a person herself. After marriage she ceases to be wooed, her consent is no longer sought, she derives her status from her husband, and her personal identity is thus snuffed out. When fairy tales show courtship as exciting, and c onclude with marriage, and the vague statement that ‘they lived happily ever after,’ children may develop a deep-seated desire always to be courted, since marriage is literally the end of the story.”

What insights does this give you into the Russian tales we’ve been reading? (In a traditional society, neither a man nor a woman was truly adult before marriage – so the focus of so many fairy tales on marriage, again, reflects that moment of transition, for men as well as for women. A difference I see right off: the exceptional young man leaves home to quest as a natural part of character development (mother complains “you won’t be my support”); young woman perhaps asks her father to bring her something or perhaps is thrown out by an evil stepmother, but rarely leaves on her own (compare “The Feather of Finist the Bright Falcon” – or tales where the girl flees a father or brother who wants to marry her, like Prince Danila Govorila). Suggesting: from that angle the tale is NOT reflecting real life (in which the woman typically left her home to enter the man’s, or else it handles that experience by describing it as being thrown out. Or, re psychoanalytic interpretations, is it more that boys have to differentiate from a powerful mother??

Does Bottigheimer’s argument impact your interpretation of those tales where a woman does not tell what is really going on until very late in the story – where her speech would have adverted all kinds of unpleasantness, if she had spoken sooner? (But therefore would have deprived us of most of the story?) What is the function of male silence (the Beast can’t reveal the charm he’s under to Beauty, or the whole thing won’t work)?

Now that you’ve read these two feminist studies, what sort of norms of masculinity do you see in the tales, and to what extent might they be imposed on a male listener (or, later, reader)? Folk tales can work as part of finding a usable past at moments when national identity needs to be renegotiated – as, for example, the end of the Soviet Union or of imposed socialism in Eastern Europe.

Why do parents buy those Disney movies for their kids? (…They want their kids to fit in, to be happy with this society, to marry and dutifully produce grandchildren!?) And why does Fiona, who kicked ass in the woods when Robin Hood tried to rescue her from Shrek, turn helpless in her ogre form in the scene we watched? (She’s rescued there by a female dragon, but only because the dragon is in love with the donkey…)


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Friday, February 22, 2008.