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

Lecture notes for March 5, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Warner and Disney on evil stepmothers

Points from Marina Warner (From the Beast to the Blonde) – a sort of “cultural criticism” book that ranges around a lot of issues of interest to fairytales, or else to the culture surrounding them in Europe, and in particular 17th- and 18th-century France, where you have a flourishing of literary fairy tales, with many written by women (Perrault was cousin and friend of some of them). Warner skips around a lot, but points out many of the historical and cultural factors that underlie the relationships we see in fairytales – though she concentrates on Western European (Italian, French, German, and some British). But do note p. 238, where she critiques Propp’s analysis of the functions of the wonder tale for leaving out the mothers – we’ll come to Propp soon.

The figure of the stepmother, Warner suggests, might stand in for the mother-in-law: the word “mother-in-law” was used for stepmother in English until 1800s, and “belle-mère” in French of both. (A child, probably, would call the woman “mother,” "maman," maybe "madame.") This is NOT the case in Russian, where kinship terminology used to be very specific and precise (different words for husband’s brother and sister’s husband – though sister’s husband and son-in-law have the same term) – machexa 'stepmother' and svekrov' 'mother-in-law, husband's mother' are quite distinct (test' 'wife's father' and tëshcha 'wife's mother,' svekor' 'husband's father' and svekrov' 'husband's mother' show the priority of the relationship vector – wife’s parents, husband’s parents – over the gender of the father- or mother-in-law: even if you don't know Russian you can see the relationship between the pairs of words). The stepmother as functionally a mother-in-law to a new daughter-in-law, entering a home where she’s a stranger and perhaps not welcome, inferior to the “real” daughters, etc. (Explains why the “father” wouldn’t protect her – she’s too far down on the pecking order for her father-in-law to get involved, unless some you’re dealing with the unsavory practice of snoxachestvo - where the senior man in an extended peasant family would exploit his position of authority to sleep with his daughter(s)-in-law.) A woman's relationship with her husband's mother can have a conservative function: yes, it sucks now, but in time she’ll die and then your husband will be the king and you can rule unimpeded in the household and lord it over your sons' wives!

Pp. 221-22, Warner relates the ways Basile, then Perrault, and then the Grimms tell versions of the same tale, shows that the coda about how things go once the heroine has married the prince/king has been removed in the Grimms’ version. (What are the implications for Lieberman’s critique of fairy tales – esp. the point that they’re entirely focused on marriage and leave a female reader likely to be unsatisfied with anything but the intensity of courtship?) P. 222 – Warner ties this shift from adult concerns (getting along with husband and mother-in-law) to the period of courtship to the presumption that fairy-tales are for children. Pp. 224-5: “the stories’ function, to tell the bride the worst, and shore her up in her marriage.”

How does Disney market its fairy-tales? Think of recent treatments of fairy-tales or quasi-fairy-tales – “Ella Enchanted,” “Ever After,” “Enchanted” – that try to address both children and adult viewers: how are they pitched? How do these advertisements suggest that we should (or do) think or feel about fairy tales?

Clip from Disney’s Cinderella – a graphically delightful evil stepmother, with her own evil cat familiar; there’s lots of great animal-helper stuff in this movie. Comments? Note the tune of the waltz Cinderella is humming, which is played all during her long dreamy dance with the prince at the ball. (Love as a sickness that makes us dopey?)

The Waltz from Prokofiev’s ballet Zolushka (from zola, 'ash') – how does it differ from the Disney film music?

Cinderella (Zolushka) [A ballet]. Music by Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev; chor. Rostislav Zakharov; lib. Nikolai Volkov. First performance was at the Bolshoi Theater, Moskow, Nov. 21, 1945. This production was a revival by the Finnish State Opera in Helsinki, Dec. 4, 1957. A movie was made of the production in 1960, dir. Alexander Rou and Rostislav Zakharov.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Friday, March 7, 2008.