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

Lecture notes for March 3, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Cashdan on Envy

Cashdan looks at three versions of the Cinderella tale type: Perrault, Grimm, and Basile. Several vectors of envy in the tales: stepmother (and her daughters) envy Cinderella’s beauty and goodness (tho’ Basile’s cat-Cinderella is a bit less good!); Cinderella must envy the stepsisters’ privilege and greater access to the father (Warner asks, and Cashdan too on p. 94, where is the father all this time!?); when she shows up at the ball, they regard her with envy (she has to be kept by the hearth because their self-regard is so fragile?) but of course don’t recognize her in her finery (blinded by own spite?). What does envy do to people?

p. 91: “The use of a banquet or some other grand event to conduct a competition excites the imagination because it conjures up some of the most primitive feelings about being chosen. Only one maiden will get the prize, only one lucky person will reap the benefits associated with being number one. Though the competition is basically a glorified beauty contest, it taps into complex feelings that children harbor about parental preference, about what it means to be the golden child, the son or daughter valued above all other children in the family.”

Why would the prince be immune to the flaws in vision the stepmother and stepsisters have? The role of the slipper in finding the true bride: fancy clothes (or rags and ashes) can dazzle or obscure, but the shape and size of a body stays the same? Foot as partly-hidden, eroticized but everyday – what connects you to the earth (expressions like stand on own feet; sure-footed)?

Grimms’ father asks what C. wants – she asks for a twig, which he brings. She plants it on her mother’s grave and it grows – so the father is after all able to provide this link with her dead mother? He brings the rudiment, she raises it with her prayers and tears (prolonged mourning for the deceased – refusing to give up the connection). Pp. 94-95: “Fairy tales like Cinderella use concrete images to advance the notion that a psychological continuity exists with those we cherish even after they are no longer around.”

Cashdan feels it’s important that the Grimm version “portrays Cinderella as embittered and jealous” (p. 95). She tries to play by the stepmother’s capricious rules, but of course that just cheats her – aspects of the psyche that one can never satisfy, that one should simply choose to circumvent?

p. 97: “In the Grimm version, envy emerges as a conspicuous dynamic, surfacing both in the stepmother’s envy of Cinderella’s initial position in the family and in Cinderella’s envy of the privileges usurped by her sisters. If the child’s predicament is to be successfully resolved – if the story is to have a happy ending – envy must be addressed and destroyed or, at the very least, condemned. If allowed to go on unchecked, envy can have serious consequences.”

Punishment: the stepsisters’ eyes are pecked out by Cinderella’s doves (pigeons) – pay a price “consistent with the sin in the story” (p. 101). Then: goes briefly into “The Frog Princess”! – sisters-in-law envy frog princess’s success, but Ivan envies his brothers because of their “better” wives? Cashdan doesn’t follow Ivan on his quest to retrieve his bride (not citing a Russian version, but a translation – too bad he's not specific here as he was with the Cinderella tales!).

Afanas’ev stories. Touch briefly on the sociological and historical background of tales like these, as Marina Warner does in From the Beast to the Blonde: how many women died in childbirth, husbands remarried quickly because you couldn’t run a peasant household without a woman; suggestion that the children in Grimm fairy tales who are sent into the woods show relics of what parents would reluctantly do during famines – think of the wandering/begging Tian-Shanskaya describes when a peasant family loses the father or otherwise slips into need.

“Jack Frost” (Morózko), pp. 366-69 – Why is the stepmother so evil and hostile? Just looking out for her own daughter’s interests – or is she envious of the stepdaughter’s being good as gold (and, we presume, beautiful and skilled to boot)? Lovely imagery – “her mouth was so full of venom that her teeth itched” – she’s depthless, all her spite is right on the surface. Why does the father obey the command to take his daughter out and leave her in the cold? Jack Frost (Moroz krasnyj nos) appears, embodiment of the winter cold – she’s wise (“God must have sent you to save my sinful soul” – how can he save her soul? Killing her before she has a chance to despair or blaspheme? This point is clearly a Christian insertion into an earlier version.

Pancakes are traditional for a funeral dinner, and here for celebration rather than for mourning. (Why pancakes on Fat Tuesday as well – farewell to meat, which is what carnival means.) Role of the little dog under the table, who gives us a new fact re envy in this tale: the suitors don’t want the old woman’s daughter. She tries to bribe it with a pancake, but (perhaps typically for a talking animal?) it takes the pancake but won’t flatter her. Why does she need/want it to tell her what she needs to hear – so much that she both beats it and tries to bribe it with pancakes?

Stepmother really seems to believe that her own daughter is better: sends her out at once to get the same bunch of gifts (without giving her any advice). Jack Frost doesn’t hear any kind words – what has the (presumably, ugly and evil) daughter learned from her own mother about talking to other creatures? Jack Frost like Baba Yaga is a kind of elemental force – he kills the bad girl, but he’s just an embodiment of the winter cold (a very serious thing even not in Russia), or of natural selection. Truncated telling of the bad daughter’s death and return as a cold corpse. Do we feel pity for the bad stepmother – or for the dead daughter? How does that mesh with Cashdan’s comments on how the stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella aren’t killed, only punished?

“The Golden Slipper,” pp. 44-46 – here it’s NOT the stepmother, but the “real” mother who prefers one child over the other, even though the younger daughter is clearly wise (and merciful – speaks to the fish with respect, while older sister only sees it as food, selfishly subordinates it to her appetites while younger is willing to defer pleasure, take advice?). Apparently absent or uninvolved father, once he’s bought the two of them their fishes (though it suggests that he’s even-handed with his love and support). Getting to go to church dressed up in best clothes: so potential grooms might see you (as we go on to observe here), as well as suggestion that she’s kept from salvation or enlightenment (left to the pagan offices of the fish? – who actually enables her to go to church by doing her unfair chores); younger sister’s left home to do the kind of chore Baba Yaga might set for a maiden, a difficult task.

Why does the mother not recognize her at mass? – we see no sign that her first outfit is anything unusual – the Cinderella tale type seems to blend here with the impossible-task tale type (for female characters, it’s typically an impossible task based on traditional female tasks: husking rye (hard!), picking millet out of ashes, spinning straw into gold), and the fish takes care of the impossible task part of the girl’s troubles. But then suddenly she has a golden slipper which the king’s son snags with pitch he throws under her shoes. Simplified-seeming narrative of how the prince travels around trying the slipper, and it fits our heroine – the mother and older sister drop out of the story at this point (no cutting of toes or heels to fit, and no punishment for either of them, except that they don't get the prince).

The formula ending about drinking beer at the wedding, etc. – definitely moves from the world of fairy tale into buffoonery, verbal play and another talking beast (the raven cawing); von Franz says that this kind of ending ritual frees listeners from the enchantments of the tale, lets them return to their ordinary lives – it’s as effectively liminal as “Zhili-byli.”

The Waltz from Prokofiev’s Cinderella (Zolushka) in Rou's video.

Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, March 5, 2008.