Fein on Cinderella

Robert Wexelblatt

I was eight years old when Walt Disney released his Cinderella. That was in 1950. Along with my cousins Ruthie and Hannah, I was taken to see it by Aunt Rachel who claimed to be as enchanted as her daughters. They couldn’t stop chattering about this scene or that all the way home. The girls even tried to sing the songs, especially the exasperating “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” As for me, I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for a fantasy I judged to be fashioned exclusively for girls. All the energy belonged to the stepmother, the stepsisters and fairy godmother; even the passive Cinderella is at least in nearly every scene. Men? Cinderella’s father struck me as a contemptible, henpecked non-entity while the prince was no more than a prop. At eight you either identify with a protagonist or you don’t. At eight you also don’t think about anything behind the camera.

Last month I took my daughter Maya to see a re-release of what is now touted as Disney’s “masterpiece.” Maya is almost ten years old and, of course, already knew the story. Among the birthday gifts from her mother a few years back was a deluxe edition of Perrault’s fairy tale with Edmund Dulac’s illustrations. I wondered if my former wife, who keeps her motives close to her vest, meant something by choosing this particular book. There are themes that might have appealed to her: the absent, sainted mother, an unambiguous warning about second marriages, the fecklessness of fathers. I doubt it would have crossed her mind that our daughter might see her in the wicked stepmother.

Maya liked the movie well enough. The fantasy is, after all, satisfying in lots of ways. As for me, I was surprised by how well I remembered the imagery. Still, I didn’t give the film much thought. When you take your little girl to a movie you tend to watch it through her eyes.

A few days later Maya paged through my old copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and happened on “Aschenputtel,” the brothers’ version of Perrault’s story. If I had ever read this I didn’t recall it; but when Maya told me that she liked “Aschenputtel” more than both “Cendrillon” and the Disney movie, I studied it with some care.

The Grimm brothers weren’t collectors of fairy tales at all. The term “fairy tale,” like Perrault’s “Cendrillon, ou la petite pantouffle de vair,” is a product of aristocratic seventeenth-century France—Versailles, the Sun King, etc. In the early nineteenth century, what the Grimms sought out were Volksmärchen, folk tales—gritty, violent, poverty-haunted stories embodying the culture of what subsequent German Romantic nationalists and racists would solemnly christen Das Deutsche Volk. Consequently, when Wilhelm and Jacob rewrote some of Perrault’s stories, they maintained that they weren’t rewriting them at all but drawing on sources older, deeper, and, above all, more Teutonic and therefore more authentic.

According to what I’ve been able to find out, the key elements of “Cinderella”—the rise of a persecuted heroine, supernatural intervention, the slipper, the grand marriage—go back a long way, long before there was either a Germany or even a France. So it’s not easy to be certain whether the Grimms were just recasting Perrault in their own style or not; nevertheless, this is what I am convinced they did. That Maya should prefer their version, which is more sanctimonious and more sadistic than Perrault’s, let alone Disney’s, a story in which a cruel vindictiveness mars the happy ending and where the father isn’t just a wife-dominated non-presence but actively complicit in his daughter’s misery, is bound to make me wonder and worry.

“Aschenputtel” begins with a deathbed scene, the mother’s parting admonition and promise to Cinderella: remain good and kind and God will protect you. Then comes the second marriage and the horrid step-females. In this version the sisters are pretty on the outside, ugly on the inside. They promptly appropriate Cindy’s clothes and jewelry, dress her in rags, consign her to the kitchen and call her “Ash-fool,” which is not just the German equivalent of “Cendrillon” but a traditional insult for a low-status female. Because Cinderella is degraded socially and sartorially, the happy ending and the fancy clothes represent a sort of restoration. In Perrault’s version, Cindy gets her name from being forced to sleep in a cold, bare room where she curls up close to the fire for warmth and wakes smeared with ashes. Unlike Perrault, the Grimms have Cindy piously visiting her mother’s grave and praying to God to improve her wretched condition.

In the Grimms’ version, the father, clearly aware of his daughter’s mistreatment, goes off to a fair. The stepsisters ask him to bring back luxuries; Cindy asks for a twig. This she plants on her mother’s grave and waters with her tears. It grows into a tree under which she prays three times a day. On these occasions a white bird (her mother’s soul? the Paraclete?) flutters down to comfort her.

The King declares a three-day festival—no haute Versailles ball here, perhaps something more Brueghelian—to which all the local maidens are invited so his son can choose a bride. This is also an occasion to etch deeper the stepmother’s nastiness. When Cindy begs permission to attend the festival, it’s denied because the girl has neither dress nor shoes, a fine example of blaming the robbed for lacking what’s been stolen. When Cindy persists, the stepmother tosses a dish of lentils into the ashes, promising to grant her permission if the girl picks them all up fast enough. A brace of doves (sent by her mother in heaven—the godly mother, the good mother, but not a fairy godmother) lend a talon, so to speak, and Cindy completes the task in no time. The stepmother then throws even more lentils into the fireplace and Cindy collects these just as quickly, but to no avail The step-things take off for the festival, leaving her to weep.

Poor Cindy repairs to the graveyard to beg for help and this time she gets it. The white bird lays a white gown and silk shoes on her with a warning to leave the festivities by midnight.

The prince dances with her. She takes off.

The next night the dove dresses Cindy all in silver and the prince dances only with her, but again she escapes before midnight.

On the third night, she’s dressed in spun gold with matching footwear.

The prince has ordered the stairway smeared with pitch (something that could never happen in Perrault) and, as Cindy dashes off, one golden slipper gets stuck. The prince declares he’ll wed its owner.

There’s not much of a search. The next morning the prince shows up to try the shoe on the good-looking stepsisters. Here again we get the distinctive Grimm touch. The stepmother has the elder daughter cut off her toes so the little slipper will fit. The prince is taken in, but on the ride back to the castle the heavenly dove flits down and points out to him the blood dripping from the girl’s foot. Same business with the other stepsister, except that this time it’s her heel that’s been sliced off at her mother’s direction.

The prince returns, asking to see the third girl in the household. Now here’s a key detail: the father tells the prince that, yes, they do keep a kitchen maid, omitting to mention that she is his daughter. The prince insists. Cindy quickly cleans herself up and the shoe fits.

The finale is echt Grimm:

When the wedding with the king’s son was to be celebrated, the two false sisters came and wanted to get into favor with Cinderella and share her good fortune. When the betrothed couple went to church, the elder was at the right side and the younger at the left, and the doves pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards as they came back the elder was at the left, and the younger at the right, and then the doves pecked out the other eye from each. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness all their days.

Perrault’s dénouement is amicable, brief, and not sanguinary at all:

Cinderella, who was no less good than beautiful, gave her two sisters lodgings in the palace, and that very same day matched them with two great lords of the court.

I wonder if there might not be a little Hall-of-Mirrors gag here. Perrault certainly knew what jerks “great lords” can be and perhaps he meant to suggest that, in marrying these awful girls to two of them, they would get what they had coming. In his version, not only is the magic assigned to the secular (or pagan) fairy godmother rather than heavenly doves or a sainted mother, but Cindy conceals her abuse from her father, which tends to mitigate his responsibility so that he appears guilty of inattentiveness rather than cruelty. In the Grimms’ version, however, he refers to Cinderella brutally as “my first wife’s daughter.” Why would Maya prefer that?

“Cinderella” is universally popular and there are countless variants. What I’ve discovered is how ancient the story is. In the first century Strabo recorded the tale of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl or courtesan, who marries the King of Egypt. One scholar has traced the story back to the sixth century B.C. In addition to the marrying up, Strabo’s version also has the other constant motif of the Cinderella story, the slipper. In this case, an eagle snatches it while the girl is bathing, carries it to Memphis, and drops it literally in the pharaoh’s lap. The monarch then searches for the owner of the shoe, finds Rhodopis, bringing matters to their happy conclusion.

In 1634, the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile published the story we know, “Centerentola,” in Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccrille or Il Penamerone. Basile’s got it all: wicked stepmother and stepsisters, persecuted demi-orphan, magic, prince, ball, search, and, of course, slipper. There is one charming touch unique to Basile: at the feast of the shoe-test (all maidens ordered to be present) the slipper comes to life and leaps from the prince’s hand on to Cinderella’s foot.

As a doting retiree, Perrault refined Basile’s tale, adding the pumpkin-coach, the fairy godmother, and the slipper of glass—that “petite pantouffle de vair” which evidently pleased him so much he made a subtitle of it. A little over a century later we get the Grimms’ Volkified version, the one Maya likes better than Walt Disney’s, though I’d have thought Mr. Disney had made his film expressly for her.

Last year the Freudian psychologist Bruno Bettelheim published a book called The Uses of Enchantment. It’s about the unconscious meanings of fairy tales. It has won a great deal of attention and universal praise. I picked up a copy. The subtitle of his chapter on “Cinderella” is candid about the author’s idée fixe: “A Story of Sibling Rivalry and Oedipal Conflicts.” I have to say that Dr. Bettelheim, like his master, can sometimes be Freudian to a fault. I mean that he occasionally allows theory to harden into ideology and then turns ideology into a Procrustean bed where toes and heels are sliced off to make the shoe fit.

So far as I can discover, Freud himself never wrote about “Cinderella,” but he might have been thinking of it in 1910—or accessing it from his own unconscious—when, with characteristic verve and assurance, he wrote the following in Three Contributions to Sexual Theory:

. . .the shoe or slipper is a symbol for the female genital. . . . selection of the fetish depends on a coprophilic smell-desire which has been lost by repression. Feet and hair are strong-smelling objects which are raised to fetishes after the renouncing of the now unpleasant sensation of smell. Accordingly, only the filthy and ill-smelling foot is the sexual object in the perversion which corresponds to foot fetishism. . .

Then he drops this little grenade, like a cherry atop a sundae:

The foot replaces the penis which is so much missed in the woman.

Missed by whom, one wonders? According to my sources, Freud didn’t get around to proclaiming his theory of penis envy until 1933. This was also the year in which the Nazis burned his books (the feminists would come later), notwithstanding that their Propaganda Minister owed so much to Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays who, in turn, admitted picking up lots of pointers from his uncle during their summer hikes. Told of the fate of his books in Germany, Freud made a famous joke, at once prescient and oblivious. He quipped that the book-burning showed how much civilization had progressed: “In medieval times, they’d have burned me.”

I can see how a slipper might be a stand-in for a vagina (the prince possesses the emblem and goes looking for the real thing, which is as delicate as crystal); but then shouldn’t it be his foot that goes inside the slipper? (I’m thinking of the way Terry Malloy absent-mindedly squeezes his hand inside Edie Doyle’s immaculate glove in On the Waterfront.) As to smells, I don’t know. I can certainly picture Cindy smeared with ashes, but it’s hard to imagine such a creature stinking. In the Grimms’ version maybe, certainly not Perrault’s.

Charles Perrault came from money, had connections, and was a big shot in his day, leader of the “Moderns” in their famous quarrel with the “Ancients.” He was in on the ground floor of the Academy of Sciences and the restoration of the Academy of Painting. He advised Louis XIV on the fountains at Versailles. The luxurious palaces of his stories aren’t imaginary. The white turreted Château Ussé is said to have inspired “Sleeping Beauty” and looks like it did, too. Perrault elevated the folk tale not just to the fairy tale, but to the world of high fashion—glass slippers and all. The Grimms, on the other hand, lost their father when they were ten and eleven and knew real poverty in their youth. Somehow they made it to the University of Marburg and dedicated themselves to linguistics, lexicography, and folklore. To them, the folk tale was the purest form of culture and the source of German national identity. A century later, Goebbels used their tales to the same end. I suspect the Grimms’ penchant for violence and cruelty is connected to their determination to demonstrate this cultural “purity”—crudely understood as having origins that were medieval in the worst sense. A stepmother dances in red hot iron shoes that kill her; a servant is shoved into a barrel studded with nails and rolled down the lane; a frog is thrown against a wall, not kissed. Is it possible to read of Hansel and Gretel ramming the old lady into that oven without feeling the biting wind of history?

The psychologists aren’t wrong about the depths yawning beneath these children’s tales; I’m sure they’re right in principle. The stories matter, resonate, persist. They may even do more to form consciousness than to enact what lies underneath it. But this is only another reason to fret about Maya and “Aschenputtel.”

While Bettelheim has plenty to say about “Cinderella,” it is mostly the same thing, and not always in the most admirable prose: “‘Cinderella,’ as we know it, is experienced as a story about the agonies and hopes which form the essential content of sibling rivalry. . .” The passive voice here (“is experienced”) puts me on the alert. Problems with his thesis Bettelheim disposes of with something like cavalier gaiety. For instance, if the point of the story is sibling rivalry, why stepsisters? The Doctor explains: “. . . perhaps a device to explain and make acceptable an animosity which one wishes would not exist among siblings.” Well, “perhaps” and then again, perhaps not. Also, who is that wishful “one”? A parent? A psychologist? It couldn’t be the same little being who “experiences the story” because this person seems to be an adult who deplores sibling rivalry, not a child enmeshed in it.

To Bettelheim, children respond to “Cinderella” because the story’s about being “hopelessly outclassed by [one’s] brothers and sisters.” Yet everybody can see how superior Cindy is to her stepsisters; moreover, children without siblings of any sort take the story to their hearts no less warmly than those afflicted with brothers and sisters. Bettelheim has an answer ready for this too, and a rather astonishing one: “. . . this miserable passion”—sibling rivalry, of course—“has only incidentally to do with a child’s actual brothers and sisters. The real source of it is the child’s feelings about his parents.” This seems to me a far more persuasive and fertile thesis and, for a moment, I thought it might displace sibling rivalry. But it’s as if, after writing this sentence, Bettelheim realized he had undercut himself and so he adds: “Even an only child [can] feel that other children have some great advantage over him and this makes him intensely jealous.” That is, it’s about other kids and jealousy, not parents and neglect. That an only child is likely to feel things quite different from sibling rivalry is a possibility on which Bettelheim does not choose to meditate. He also ignores the fact that Cindy simply isn’t the jealous type. In fact, it’s her stepsisters who are envious. Nothing daunted, Bettelheim pursues his idea: “Further, he may suffer from the anxious thought that if he did have a sibling, his parents would prefer this other child to him.” I have to say that this argument seems to me pretty slack. Notice how “may” is deployed this time as “perhaps” was previously. The sentence feels as misleading as its male pronouns. Bettelheim always writes about “children,” as if they were all the same irrespective of age or gender, an abstract class like the “proletariat.” He seems not to want to see the story as about female feelings, and he is quick to refute the suspicion that it might be: “‘Cinderella’ is a fairy tale which makes nearly as strong an appeal to boys as to girls”—that “nearly” is an admission not taken up—“since children of both sexes suffer equally from sibling rivalry. . .” And there we are again, back to the initial postulate. Bettelheim’s line of thinking seems to me not only circular but limited. Certainly, sibling rivalry is a theme of the story, but why insist it is the only or even the chief one and that it is for all children or that the one who feels the rivalry most is Cindy for that matter? I don’t think Maya sees it that way.

The way Bettelheim tosses around “children” reminds me of how undergraduates deploy “society.” I’ve never been sure that there is such a thing as “society”; and, unlike Bettelheim, I’m not interested in “children” as an abstraction either. I’m interested in children one at a time, and one child in particular.

To be fair, Bettelheim does have more than a single arrow in his quiver of explanations for the appeal of “Cinderella.” For instance, he argues that all children believe they are bad and so fear deserved degradation. On this dogmatic ground, he reasons that they will be pleased that everybody accepts Cindy’s innocence and goodness, as if they themselves had pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Then there is his assertion that the vileness of the step-relatives makes the child feel better because they’re so much worse than she is and fully merit their come-uppance. Still, it seems odd to me that Bettelheim believes any child would identify, even negatively, with the horrid stepsisters. Instead of stating what seems obvious to me—that children enjoy seeing goodness ultimately triumphant and nastiness punished at last—he claims instead that the punishment of the bad relieves the child’s guilt for “angry thoughts” directed against his or her own relatives. This is where the second half of Bettelheim’s subtitle comes in, the “Oedipal conflicts,” de rigueur for the Freudian exegete.

Bettelheim believes children like “Cinderella” because, even if a child actually is treated badly by her family, Cindy’s got it worse. In other words, it offers the solace of comparing down, not up. But Bettelheim is far more concerned with what he calls the child’s “dirtiness.” He writes a good deal about the “primary narcissism” of the “pre-Oedipal stage” and the “Oedipal disappointments” that bring this placid period to an abrupt end, leaving the child feeling smutty. The formerly indulgent parents are now critical—particularly over toilet training, of course—so the child suspects she is not perfect after all but deeply flawed and becomes angry with her parents for their discipline and disapproval. This anger proceeds to what Bettelheim calls “dirty wishes,” presumably the inadmissible yet Freudianly inevitable desire to liquidate one or both of them and/or to marry one of them. “Cinderella,” he claims, rescues its little fans from the degradation of getting socialized and chided; indeed, it promises exaltation.

If there were more in the story itself to justify such a ferociously Freudian reading—if, for instance, Cinderella expressed more longing for her useless father and less for her sainted mother, or if she took an afternoon off from her chores to plot the murder of her stepmother—then what Bettelheim writes would be more persuasive. Given the text, though, his analysis feels willfully doctrinaire and decidedly overcooked.

In a strangely belated effort to recast the story as conventionally edifying, one that builds character, Bettelheim claims that “. . . irrespective of the magic help Cinderella receives, the child understands that essentially it is through her own efforts, and because of the person she is, that Cinderella is able to transcend magnificently her degraded life.” Here the understanding “child,” whom the seventy-three year-old psychologist perfectly understands, is as vague as “children” is elsewhere. Bettelheim still means any child and presumes to know what they make of the story not only with their conscious minds but their subconscious ones as well. This character-is-fate interpretation is uplifting, but ruling the magic out of account is pretty radical surgery on the fairy tale. I’d have thought it was precisely the sudden intervention of benevolent powers beyond Cinderella’s own that would impress a child, giving her hope while also breeding unrealistic expectations, especially among girls who can never rid themselves of the fantasy of marrying a prince and living in a white-turreted castle.

The court put Maya in my custody. She visits her mother irregularly. There is no stepmother and no stepsiblings, nor are any threatening on the horizon. Does she worry that there might be? Fairy tales suffer from an epidemic of bad stepmothers. Bettelheim never seems to imagine that they might represent actual women and ascribes their prevalence to purely psychological sources. I can think of a simpler explanation. The chances of young women dying in childbirth, or immediately thereafter, was high in the Middle Ages. The experiences of Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel might have been common—the new mother rejecting another woman’s child and, when she had her own, favoring them. It’s not exactly unheard-of even today.

This view suggests a psychological interpretation different from Bettelheim’s. The remarried father ignores the child who idolizes the absent mother yet feels abandoned by her. I can detect some of this ambivalence in my own daughter. Perhaps that is one reason why she prefers “Aschenputtel,” where the mother remains engaged with her child, to “Cendrillon,” where she is replaced by an implausible fairy god mother.   Since it’s not easy to know what’s in anybody’s unconscious, I see no reason why this should be less likely than what Bettelheim postulates.

It would be worse if Maya prefers the Grimms’ version because the father is complicit in Cinderella’s mistreatment. Worse, that is, for me. After all, I’m not only her care-giver but her disciplinarian. Still, when I finally asked my daughter to explain her preference I heard none of this. Maya’s reasons were straightforward and had to do not with family dynamics, let alone expulsion from a pre-Oedipal Eden, but with logic and ethics.

“If Cinderella has this fairy godmother watching over her, and she can do stuff like turning pumpkins into coaches, why does she let Cinderella get treated so meanly and for so long? Why does she suddenly show up only because there’s this ball?”

Maya wasn’t finished. “And another thing. Why do her spells only last until the twelfth stroke of midnight? And if they only last until midnight, when everything turns back into what it was before, then what about the glass slipper? Why doesn’t it turn back or just disappear? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

She had a point, two in fact. I thought of how the Grimms had substituted heavenly intervention for magic but didn’t question Maya on the matter. I just asked if there was anything else.

“Yes,” she said emphatically. “The ending. Those wicked stepsisters marrying lords? It’s ridiculous, you ask me.   It’s much better that their eyes get pecked out by the doves. They deserve it. That’s fair.”

I asked if she had any problems with “Aschenputtel,” apart from the midnight deadline.

“Well,” she said, heaving a thoughtful sigh, “if Mommy was dead, I don’t think I’d visit her grave three times every day—I mean especially if I had all these endless chores to do.”

I asked if she thought the eye-pecking might be just a little cruel.

“Maybe,” she allowed thoughtfully, but I could see it was just to placate me. In fact, I suspect the blinding of the stepsisters might be her favorite part. “But I love ‘Cinderella’ anyway.” She paused and looked up at me with a face not altogether innocent. “Shouldn’t I?”

I told her that people had loved the story of Cinderella for a long time, and not just little girls either.




The personal motive behind Fein’s ruminations on “Cinderella” is paternal anxiety.

He and his wife separated in 1974 when their daughter Maya was seven years old. Divorce was granted early in 1976 with Fein as custodial parent.

When I showed her this essay, Maya, who has authorized me to edit and oversee the publication of her father’s posthumous papers, told me that she has always believed that she was the catalyst, if not the primary cause, of the break-up. She quoted her mother as confessing to her in later years that she did not want a child although she liked the idea of a sister. After Fein’s death in 1984, Maya and her mother did grow closer, perhaps even like sisters. But in 1977, the year in which he wrote this piece, Fein was trying to adjust to being the single parent of a nine-year-old daughter.

Less personal, of course, though hardly unrelated to Fein’s worries about his new responsibility, is his critique of the recently published and widely celebrated book by Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment. Fein was not hostile to psychoanalysis either as a form of therapy or as a tool of literary interpretation. As he says, he believes Bettelheim is correct “in principle.” But he was skeptical about the excesses of Freudians and wary of their dogmatism. His essay “On Systematic Error” uses Freud himself as its primary illustration. Nevertheless, even while upbraiding him in that piece, Fein expresses admiration for Freud and accords him deference. Evidently, he felt less of each was owing to Bettelheim. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Fein wrote about Freud as a disinterested reader but about Bettelheim as a father or what he called himself in a letter, “a sexless single parent.”

What interested Fein about the Cinderella story was his daughter’s response to it—especially to the alternative versions of Perrault and the Grimms. He writes in characteristic improvisational style, sometimes scholarly, more often impressionistic. He notes the peril in German Romanticism and traces the line from the Grimms to Goebbels. He takes Bettelheim to task for showing too much regard for psychoanalytic theory and too little for the narrative. Both concerns are typical of Fein, who mistrusted all theory, political and cultural, from Barthes (see his essay “Birth of the Author”) to de Man, from Freud to Bettelheim. In the same letter in which he calls himself “a sexless single parent” he reports gathering together all the books on child-rearing he and his wife had been given or bought on Maya’s birth then tossing them in the trash. He explains in this way: “Maya is entitled to the neurosis nature chose for her; besides, all these experts contradict each other.”

About the Work

Robert Wexelblatt

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, Life in the Temperate ZoneThe Decline of Our NeighborhoodThe Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg’s Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction.

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