Thursday, November 19, 2009

Snow White and Vanity

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.

Soon after that she had a little daughter, who was as white as snow, and as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony, and she was therefore called little snow-white. And when the child was born, the queen died.
And here we begin the story of Snow White and obsessive vanity. As with most, Snow White’s mother died at the beginning of the story (of the Grimm version) and trouble ensures when her father remarries.

After a year had passed the king took to himself another wife. She was a beautiful woman, but proud and haughty, and she could not bear that anyone else could surpass her in beauty. She had a wonderful looking-glass, and when she stood in front of it and looked at herself in it, and said, looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, who in this land is the fairest of all.

The looking-glass answered, thou, o queen, art the fairest of all.

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth.

But snow-white was growing up, and grew more and more beautiful, and when she was seven years old she was as beautiful as the day, and more beautiful than the queen herself. And once when the queen asked her looking-glass, looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, who in this land is the fairest of all.

It answered, thou art fairer than all who are here, lady queen. But more beautiful still is snow-white, as I ween.

Then the queen was shocked, and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour, whenever she looked at snow-white, her heart heaved in her breast, she hated the girl so much. And envy and pride grew higher and higher in her heart like a weed, so that she had no peace day or night. She called a huntsman, and said, take the child away into the forest. I will no longer have her in my sight. Kill her, and bring me back her lung and liver as a token. The huntsman obeyed, and took her away but when he had drawn his knife, and was about to pierce snow-white's innocent heart, she began to weep, and said, ah dear huntsman, leave me my life. I will run away into the wild forest, and never come home again.

And as she was so beautiful the huntsman had pity on her and said, run away, then, you poor child..
What makes Snow White such an interesting story for me is the way vanity is played out in many different ways. Obviously the step mother’s vanity draws the most attention, but I also think it’s interesting how Snow White’s looks are what inspire the woodsman to show compassion. The stepmother would have Snow White killed because of her looks, but the woodsman spared her because of them.

Then when Snow White escapes into the woods and comes to live with the seven dwarfs, it is her own vanity that causes her to almost die on three different occasions.

It’s important to point out that the details in fairy tales are almost always important. The stepmother tells the huntsman to bring back the lungs and the liver instead of the heart and we must wonder why that is. It turns out that the liver used to be considered the carrier of our souls and was considered to hold the messages of the gods in some ancient prophecy rites. The lungs were also seen as holding the substance of our souls since they carry breath and the gift of life in each breath.

We can also think of the Queen’s cannibalism as an attempt to absorb Snow White’s youthfulness.

But the queen, believing that she had eaten snow-white's lung and liver, could not but think that she was again the first and most beautiful of all, and she went to her looking-glass and said, looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, who in this land is the fairest of all.

And the glass answered, oh, queen, thou art fairest of all I see, but over the hills, where the seven dwarfs dwell, snow-white is still alive and well, and none is so fair as she.

Then she was astounded, for she knew that the looking-glass never spoke falsely, and she knew that the huntsman had betrayed her, and that little snow-white was still alive.

And so she thought and thought again how she might kill her, for so long as she was not the fairest in the whole land, envy let her have no rest. And when she had at last thought of something to do, she painted her face, and dressed herself like an old pedlar-woman, and no one could have known her. In this disguise she went over the seven mountains to the seven dwarfs, and knocked at the door and cried, pretty things to sell, very cheap, very cheap. Little snow-white looked out of the window and called out, good-day my good woman, what have you to sell. Good things, pretty things, she answered, stay-laces of all colors, and she pulled out one which was woven of bright-colored silk. I may let the worthy old woman in, thought snow-white, and she unbolted the door and bought the pretty laces. Child, said the old woman, what a fright you look, come, I will lace you properly for once. Snow-white had no suspicion, but stood before her, and let herself be laced with the new laces. But the old woman laced so quickly and so tightly that snow-white lost her breath and fell down as if dead. Now I am the most beautiful, said the queen to herself, and ran away.

Not long afterwards, in the evening, the seven dwarfs came home, but how shocked they were when they saw their dear little snow-white lying on the ground, and that she neither stirred nor moved, and seemed to be dead. They lifted her up, and, as they saw that she was laced too tightly, they cut the laces, then she began to breathe a little, and after a while came to life again. When the dwarfs heard what had happened they said, the old pedlar-woman was no one else than the wicked queen, take care and let no one come in when we are not with you.

But the wicked woman when she had reached home went in front of the glass and asked, looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, who in this land is the fairest of all.

And it answered as before, oh, queen, thou art fairest of all I see, but over the hills, where the seven dwarfs dwell, snow-white is still alive and well, and none is so fair as she.

When she heard that, all her blood rushed to her heart with fear, for she saw plainly that little snow-white was again alive. But now, she said, I will think of something that shall really put an end to you. And by the help of witchcraft, which she understood, she made a poisonous comb. Then she disguised herself and took the shape of another old woman. So she went over the seven mountains to the seven dwarfs, knocked at the door, and cried, good things to sell, cheap, cheap. Little snow-white looked out and said, go away, I cannot let anyone come in. I suppose you can look, said the old woman, and pulled the poisonous comb out and held it up. It pleased the girl so well that she let herself be beguiled, and opened the door. When they had made a bargain the old woman said, now I will comb you properly for once. Poor little snow-white had no suspicion, and let the old woman do as she pleased, but hardly had she put the comb in her hair than the poison in it took effect, and the girl fell down senseless. You paragon of beauty, said the wicked woman, you are done for now, and she went away.

But fortunately it was almost evening, when the seven dwarfs came home. When they saw snow-white lying as if dead upon the ground they at once suspected the step-mother, and they looked and found the poisoned comb. Scarcely had they taken it out when snow-white came to herself, and told them what had happened. Then they warned her once more to be upon her guard and to open the door to no one.

The queen, at home, went in front of the glass and said, looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, who in this land is the fairest of all.

Then it answered as before, oh, queen, thou art fairest of all I see, but over the hills, where the seven dwarfs dwell, snow-white is still alive and well, and none is so fair as she.

When she heard the glass speak thus she trembled and shook with rage. Snow-white shall die, she cried, even if it costs me my life.

Thereupon she went into a quite secret, lonely room, where no one ever came, and there she made a very poisonous apple. Outside it looked pretty, white with a red cheek, so that everyone who saw it longed for it, but whoever ate a piece of it must surely die.
When the apple was ready she painted her face, and dressed herself up as a farmer's wife, and so she went over the seven mountains to the seven dwarfs. She knocked at the door. Snow-white put her head out of the window and said, I cannot let anyone in, the seven dwarfs have forbidden me. It is all the same to me, answered the woman, I shall soon get rid of my apples. There, I will give you one.

No, said snow-white, I dare not take anything. Are you afraid of poison, said the old woman, look, I will cut the apple in two pieces, you eat the red cheek, and I will eat the white. The apple was so cunningly made that only the red cheek was poisoned. Snow-white longed for the fine apple, and when she saw that the woman ate part of it she could resist no longer, and stretched out her hand and took the poisonous half. But hardly had she a bit of it in her mouth than she fell down dead. Then the queen looked at her with a dreadful look, and laughed aloud and said, white as snow, red as blood, black as ebony-wood, this time the dwarfs cannot wake you up again.

And when she asked of the looking-glass at home, looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, who in this land is the fairest of all.

And it answered at last, oh, queen, in this land thou art fairest of all. Then her envious heart had rest, so far as an envious heart can have rest.
The fact the stepmother described Snow White by the same expression as Snow White’s mother is actually pretty important. It shows that the stepmother is a part of Snow White just as much as Snow White’s mother.

This is echoed in the way it's Snow White’s vanity that allowed the witch to cause her harm on three different occasions. First with the stay laces, then the comb, and finally the apple (which counts as vanity because it was the beauty of the apple that made Snow White want it). Snow White wants the stay laces and comb not only because they are beautiful on their own, but because they will also make her more beautiful.

The fact Snow White is punished whenever she exhibits traits of the stepmother, strengthens the idea that the “wicked witch” figure in fairy tales is the manifestation of all the negative qualities of a person. Vanity is also a way of showing sexuality in the story of Snow White. The stepmother is seen as sexual and Snow White is punished whenever she shows signs of vanity and through extension her own sexuality.

And then, not so ironically, it is Snow White’s beauty that once again saves her. It is because of her beauty that the dwarfs put her in the glass coffin which is what makes her resuscitation possible. Her looks ensure that she be looked at as being valuable and worth cherishing. It's also Snow White’s beauty that made The Prince oddly obsessed with having a dead girl in a glass coffin which inadvertently saved her.

It happened, however, that a king's son came into the forest, and went to the dwarfs, house to spend the night. He saw the coffin on the mountain, and the beautiful snow-white within it, and read what was written upon it in golden letters. Then he said to the dwarfs, let me have the coffin, I will give you whatever you want for it. But the dwarfs answered, we will not part with it for all the gold in the world. Then he said, let me have it as a gift, for I cannot live without seeing snow-white. I will honor and prize her as my dearest possession. As he spoke in this way the good dwarfs took pity upon him, and gave him the coffin.

And now the king's son had it carried away by his servants on their shoulders. And it happened that they stumbled over a tree-stump, and with the shock the poisonous piece of apple which snow-white had bitten off came out of her throat. And before long she opened her eyes, lifted up the lid of the coffin, sat up, and was once more alive. Oh, heavens, where am I, she cried. The king's son, full of joy, said, you are with me. And told her what had happened, and said, I love you more than everything in the world, come with me to my father's palace, you shall be my wife.

And snow-white was willing, and went with him, and their wedding was held with great show and splendor. But snow-white's wicked step-mother was also bidden to the feast. When she had arrayed herself in beautiful clothes she went before the looking-glass, and said, looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, who in this land is the fairest of all.
The glass answered, oh, queen, of all here the fairest art thou, but the young queen is fairer by far as I trow.

Then the wicked woman uttered a curse, and was so wretched, so utterly wretched that she knew not what to do. At first she would not go to the wedding at all, but she had no peace, and had to go to see the young queen. And when she went in she recognized snow-white, and she stood still with rage and fear, and could not stir. But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead.
It's interesting to note that the dwarves represent safety and sanctuary while also reinforcing certain gender roles (since they give that security in return for Snow White’s willingness to cook and clean). Even though I don’t want to muck up the story with too much of a feminist interpretation, I think it’s interesting to think about how it seems Snow White is often shown as being naïve and incapable of taking care of herself.

On the other hand, that naiveté is what gives some the idea that the dwarves represent a maternal presence and essentially fill the role of the “good mother.” This is evident in their warnings to Snow White about strangers and their cleanliness (which Disney changed). The dwarves represent Snow White's comtinued need for nurturing. Snow White is still maturing and the dwarves are there to help protect her while she finishes growing.

I have to say I’m bothered by Disney’s changes to this story. As usual, Disney makes romance the most important aspect of Snow White’s story rather then transformation. I also think Disney’s decision to turn the dwarves into bumbling children wrong. Instead of the dwarves representing a protective nurturing parent, they are shown as being taken care of by Snow White. Snow White goes from a persecuted child to the perfect mother in the time it takes her to run to the cottage. For me this implies that motherhood is childishly easy and diminishes from Snow White’s story.

I also think Disney’s decision to cut out the part with Snow White being tempted by the stay laces and the comb was wrong since it hurts the overall theme of vanity in the story. We want children to see that Snow White was tempted by the same things as the stepmother. If Snow White was above vanity than she would be less relatable and Disney’s decision to cut those parts makes the lesson that much more difficult for children to catch (basically that too much concern on looks is a bad thing).

I think ultimately Snow White is much more enjoyable for adults because the multi-layers of the story is what really makes it interesting in my opinion. On one hand we want to teach children that too much vanity is a bad thing, but at the same time Snow White was ultimately saved (more than once) because of her looks. So though we may say it’s what’s on the inside that counts, it’s highly unlikely you’d be put into a clear coffin for having a nice personality.

Picture by Arthur Rackham and scanned from my Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Up Next: Another Lesser known fairy tale followed by a post on Hansel and Gretel and Gluttony. I also want to point out that I'm still planning on doing a post specific to Disney and women's roles in fairy tales at the end. I feel like they should be the culmination of everything I talk about.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for this post! You have made me see a lot of new elements in Snow White (and I have been analysing it for three or four days in row, for an essay on Anne Sexton's adaptation of it. If you haven't read it, Google it up, it is very interesting).
    I'm surprised that you haven't written anything about the gory ending...


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