Aschenputtel

About the Story

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    Here we have a prime example of a coming-of-age story. In this story, the original folk version of Cinderella, we follow a girl as she progresses from childhood to adulthood.

    The story begins with a precipitous change of a little girl's situation (her mother dies) and the appearance of hostile forces (Stepmother and the Stepsisters) to create the existential dilemma. Friendly forces (the hazel tree, the ants, etc.) help the girl to circumvent the hostile forces and find a satisfying path through life.

    Information given in the story would place it somewhere in Eastern France around AD 1700. That date would have the story occurring during the reign of Louis XIV (the Sun King), who, along with his court, acted as though they regarded Christian morality as a joke. That means that Aschenputtel, like other fairy tales, takes place in what we call an alternate universe, one in which the King of France, along with his son, exemplifies Christian virtue, as the king is properly meant to do.

    Bettelheim devotes forty pages to his discussion of Cinderella, of which Aschenputtel is the original story, which he describes as "the best-known fairy tale, and probably also the best-liked". He notes at the beginning that it is a very old tale and that the use of the shoe to find the Prince= s true love by the small size of her foot may indicate a Chinese origin (or at least an East Asian one) because of the tradition of foot-binding in China.

    The story, "as we know it, is experienced as a story about the agonies and hopes which form the essential content of sibling rivalry; and about the degraded heroine winning out over her siblings who abused her." Here Bettelheim repeats his main theme: "When a story corresponds to how a child feels deep down -- as no realistic narrative is likely to do -- it attains an emotional quality of 'truth' for the child." In the plight of the character the child sees a reflection of their own "overwhelming but nonetheless often vague and nondescript emotions". In identifying with Aschenputtel the child re-experiences the negative feelings of sibling rivalry -- the subconscious feelings of being hopelessly outclassed by siblings, of being pushed down and degraded, of seeing their interests sacrificed for the sake of the siblings, of being compelled to do hard work and being granted no credit for it beyond additional demands.

    Because of the extreme negativity of the emotions treated in the story, the antagonists must be step-relatives; that is, Stepmother and the Stepsisters, people not truly related to Aschenputtel. This ploy is necessitated by the fact that the sibling relation has positive aspects as well as negative ones (e.g. Hansel and Gretel). Thus, in the coy language of the fairy tale a true relative is good and step-relatives are bad.

    "The term 'sibling rivalry' refers to a most complex constellation of feelings and their causes," Bettelheim tells us. The basic complication, as with all emotional problems, is that it is based on a subjective view of the world, rather than on an objective view. But language in inherently objective, certainly on the level that the child has reached, so the child is left with no way to express their feelings in a way that acknowledges their emotional "truth". Objectively the child "knows" that he is not being mistreated, but subjectively he "knows" otherwise; that's why the story touches him in such a satisfying way. Only by speaking to the child in the appropriate subjective language can the story assuage the misery of sibling rivalry. Basically the child knows something about fairy tales that he cannot or will not tell (depending upon whether he understands the tale, responding to the inherent truth of the tale, unconsciously or (pre)consciously).

    "Telling a child who is devastated by sibling rivalry that he will grow up to do as well as his brothers and sisters offers little relief from his present feelings of dejection." Such objective assurances don't feel right, even though they sound right. Until the child develops confidence in himself, he must gain emotional support from fantasies of glory, of overcoming and dominating obstacles that represent the siblings. In that way the child can gain a feeling of being rescued from a lowly position and of surpassing those tormenting others who seemed superior to them. On the surface Aschenputtel seems to accomplish that task by telling "about the agonies of sibling rivalry, of wishes coming true, of the humble being elevated, of true merit being recognized even when hidden under rags, of virtue rewarded and evil punished". But there's more to the story than that surface structure: "under this overt content is concealed a welter of complex and largely unconscious material, which details of the story allude to just enough to set our unconscious associations going."

    Sibling rivalry is an adjunct to the oedipal dilemma. The rivalry, such as it is, is for the affections of the parents. "Fearing that in comparison to them [his siblings] he cannot win his parents= love and esteem is what inflames sibling rivalry."

    We are all born into a psychological state called "primary narcissism", a state of complete satisfaction with oneself. "During this period the child feels certain that he is the center of the universe,... that he is lovable, and loved, if all is well in his family relationships..., so there is no reason to be jealous of anybody." As the child grows he is cast out of that Eden: his parents make more demands, criticize and disappoint him more frequently, and cast a dark shadow over his sense of worthiness for their love. What the child experiences as rejection leads him to suspect that there is some flaw in him that accounts for it.

    We all entertain secret thoughts and commit clandestine acts that we are certain that others will disdain. We are also certain that others are free of such evil, so that we stand alone in deserving to be demeaned and rejected. The child wants to be thought innocent and thus identifies with Aschenputtel, who has "deserved" her degradation by trying to usurp her mother's position as lady of the house. The story nourishes hope that the child will eventually be forgiven his "sins". This is especially so because of the contrast between Aschenputtel's sin and the sheer nastiness of Stepmother and the Stepsisters: they are so much worse than Aschenputtel that Aschenputtel is innocent by comparison. We see a reflection of this kind of feeling in the popular desire for malicious gossip, especially about celebrities, but also in our tendency to forgive such things (no celebrity has lost status because of any sin less than a major violent felony).

    Bettelheim emphasizes this point. The child is no longer certain that he is preferred to his siblings and suspects that they are free of any bad thoughts or wrongdoing such as his. This comes about largely because the child is being demanded to behave in ways that run counter to his natural desires, especially in regard to hygiene. The child resents these demands and wishes that the demanders would cease to exist, but that adds guilt to his anger. "The feeling of being unworthy to be loved by his parents at a time when his desire for their love is very strong leads to the fear of rejection.... This rejection fear compounds the anxiety that others are preferred and also may be preferable -- the root of sibling rivalry."

    "For the child to deal with his feelings of dejection and worthlessness aroused during this time, he desperately needs to gain some grasp on what these feelings of guilt and anxiety are all about. Further, he needs assurance on a conscious and an unconscious level that he will be able to extricate himself from these predicaments. One of the greatest merits of 'Cinderella' is 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 state, despite what appears as insurmountable obstacles. It gives the child confidence that the same will be true for him, because the story relates so well to what has caused both his conscious and his unconscious guilt.

    "Overtly 'Cinderella' tells about sibling rivalry in its most extreme form: the jealousy and enmity of the stepsisters, and Cinderella's suffering because of it. The many other psychological issues touched upon in the story are so covertly alluded to that the child does not become consciously aware of them. In his unconscious, however, the child responds to these significant details which refer to matters and experiences from which he consciously has separated himself, but which nevertheless continue to create vast problems for him."

    In the Aschenputtel/Cinderella stories the oedipal drama begins with the death of the girl's mother. The girl thus has her father to herself with no cause for guilt over her desire that her mother be absent, a state of perfect oedipal bliss. This innocent sin (and there's an interesting concept) is soon punished by the entrance of Stepmother and the Stepsisters. The period of torment is only ended when the girl gets her prince and the Stepsisters are punished for their role in her torment. Note that Stepmother is not punished in most of these tales, as though her role in the girl's degradation were proper. "The child's hope of being able to disentangle herself from her oedipal predicament by finding a love object to whom she can give herself without guilt or anxiety is turned into confidence, because the story assures that entering the lower depths of existence is but a necessary step toward becoming able to realize one's highest potentials."

    Having thus presented the existential problem, how does the story solve it? Largely by instigating a process of reconciliation with the good aspects of the girl's mother and with her father. The process begins with Aschenputtel's request for the branch of a tree.

    Bettelheim notes that Aschenputtel's request is the first step in reconciling with her father after her disappointment that he married Stepmother. He also notes that the incident symbolizes a diminution of the father's authority, something that is necessary to Aschenputtel's becoming mistress of her own fate. In the original version the branch simply knocks Father's hat off. I intensified the effect by having the branch knock Father himself off his horse. That Father accepts this is the clearest sign of the reconciliation with his daughter in a relation that transcends the oedipal attachment, which attachment will be severed completely when Aschenputtel marries the Prince.

    There is one other feature of the incident, one that Bettelheim passes over, that I think is important. Aschenputtel's request for an easily obtained branch stands in sharp contrast to the expensive gifts demanded by the Stepsisters. By thus showing restraint in her desires for what she demands of others she demonstrates that she is more worthy than the Stepsisters of her parents' love. This is one of the didactic features of the story: the child understands subconsciously that the Stepsisters' greed makes them less worthy of acceptance, so Aschenputtel's restraint must make her more worthy of accepance; thus, restraint comes to feel right (though "Aschenputtelish" would be a better term) while greed comes to feel wrong (or Stepsisterish).

    In that regard I point out one of the features that I inserted into the story, the dancing lesson, in which Aschenputtel mimics Stepmother's grace easily while the Stepsisters are as clumsy as crippled oxen. Consciously the hazel tree and Stepmother are two entirely separate entities, but subconsciously we know them to be different aspects of the same person. Aschenputtel's easy mastery of the minuet, which Stepmother regards as a mark of refinement, plays on that connection, marking Aschenputtel as a true daughter of the house (Stepmother being merely the bad side of the girl's true mother) and showing her to be more worthy of love and affection than are the Stepsisters (again playing the sibling rivalry tune that all children love to hear, if only subconsciously). Again there is a didactic aspect to the scene: Aschenputtel demonstrates her worthiness, not by demanding it, but by taking action, by developing a skill admired by adults. And again the teaching, such as it is, occurs subconsciously: the story doesn't tell the child, "You must do this!" , but rather presents the action as something that Aschenputtel does in contrast to what the Stepsisters do (or fail to do in this instance).

    The hazel tree "...symbolizes that the memory of the idealized mother of infancy, when kept alive as an important part of one's internal experience, can and does support us even in the worst adversity." The good aspect of the mother is thus sublimated into the inner experience of basic trust. Psychologist Erik Erikson described basic trust as "an attitude toward oneself and the world derived from the experiences of the first year of life." "Basic trust is instilled in the child by the good mothering he experiences during the earliest period of his life. If all goes well then, the child will have confidence in himself and in the world. ... It is the heritage which a good mother confers on her child which will stay with him, and preserve and sustain him in direst distress." The hazel tree embodies that basic trust, which has gone dormant due to the shock of Stepmother's arrival in Aschenputtel's life. The magical help that the tree provides to Aschenputtel is the reassertion of that basic trust, brought out of its slumber by Aschenputtel's devotions, once the shock of adversity has faded. That trust "restores in us the hope that eventually things will again go well for us, as they have in our past," Bettelheim says.

    At the end of the story the tree is gone; indeed, there is a sign that it never truly existed. "This is psychologically correct,@ Bettelheim says, A because for one= s inner security and feeling of self-worth, no externals are necessary once one has developed basic trust...."

    Another feature that I added to the story deserves mention, because it illustrates how each teller of the story modifies it to accord with their own feelings. At the end, when the Prince identifies her as the woman he met at the Harvest Ball, Aschenputtel regains her proper name. No version of the story with which I am familiar has that feature, so whence did it come? It is a common feature of our culture that children are usually referred to by diminutive forms of their names (Jonathan becomes Johnny, Susan becomes Susie, William becomes Billy, Hildred becomes Hillie, Richard becomes Rick or Dick, etc.) or by nicknames (Sparky, Spike, etc.). I am currently over half a century old and most members of my family still call me by the diminutive form of my name. What I have noticed is that I seem to be closer to one of my aunts, her husband, and his family: the reason for that extra closeness, as I have discerned it, is that those people have, for as long as I have known them, always called me by the proper adult form of my name. Is that important? Objectively I would say no, but I am compelled to confess that subjectively it seems to be the case. Why else, then, would I write of a character regaining her proper name as if it were important to the story?

    To most Americans Aschenputtel seems strange, unfamiliar and yet familiar. The reason for that fact is that the version of the Aschenputtel/Cinderella stories that is most familiar in this country is the one that was made into an animated movie in 1950 by Walt Disney, who used the version created by Charles Perrault in 1697 for the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King (reigned over France 1643 -- 1715). What makes that choice especially unfortunate for us is that Perrault, like others before and since, modified the story to suit his audience. That audience, the aristocratic crowd that hung around Versailles, can charitably be described as morally bankrupt. As a consequence the familiar version of Cinderella lacks the psychological value that Bettelheim attributes to Aschenputtel.

    Consider some of the changes that Perrault made in the story:

    1) In Cinderella the stepsisters are physically ugly, while in Aschenputtel the Stepsisters are described as being as pretty as Ashenputtel, which only emphasizes their moral ugliness, something that Perrault knew that he could not present at Versailles, where appearance counted for everything, substance (especially moral substance) for nothing.

    2) Perrault's Cinderella is a doormat who chooses to sleep among the cinders (which are the black, greasy remnants of incomplete combustion, in contrast to ashes, the remnants of complete combustion, which are gray, powdery, and relatively clean). Aschenputtel is compelled against her will to sleep in the kitchen, her bedroom having been occupied by the Stepsisters.

    3) Aschenputtel prepares her own salvation by obtaining the hazel branch and tending the tree into which it grows, thereby earning the magical help that her mother's spirit grants her through the tree. Cinderella, on the other hand, is rescued by the perfectly gratuitous appearance of a fairy godmother. That feature matches the practice at Versailles, where people did not earn their way into the court (that is, they were not recognized for any meritorious activities) but, rather, had to be noticed by suitable "godparents", who would then make the necessary introductions into the corrupt little clique of snobbish twits.

    4) Aschenputtel leaves the Harvest Ball for a compelling moral reason. Cinderella leaves the Royal Ball merely because the fairy godmother has given her a perfectly gratuitous curfew. Further, Perrault has a servant take the shoe on its quest for its rightful owner and only when Cinderella has been re-arrayed in her ballroom finery does the prince see her. In contrast, Aschenputtel's Prince takes the shoe on its quest himself; thus, he sees Aschenputtel in her ragged, ashy clothes, recognizes her when no one else does, and accepts her for the moral qualities that he discerns underlying her exterior appearance, a feature that certainly would not have gone over well at Versailles.

    5) And both Perrault and I eliminated from the story the Stepsisters' mutilation of their feet and the birds' pecking out the Stepsisters' eyes. I suspect that when it comes to gory, bloody violence in stories I am about as squeamish as Perrault was, but I think that the details of our motives were somewhat different. Part of Perrault's motive for eliminating the Stepsisters' mutilation of their feet was his introduction of the transparent glass slipper in place of the more traditional golden or fur-lined shoe; part of my motive was that I did not want the Prince to be deceived to the extent that he is in the traditional tale, so it was sufficient to my version that the shoe, a magical object, simply not fit the Stepsisters' feet. Perrault eliminated the attack of the birds upon the stepsisters because in his version Cinderella forgives the stepsisters, takes them to the Royal Palace with her, and marries them off to Lords of the Court, becoming herself a kind of fairy godmother (which is absurd psychologically, but perfectly in keeping with the amoral character of the Sun King's Versailles). I eliminated the attack because I found that I could obtain a more satisfying result by importing another old feature of fairy tales, that of letting the villains name their own punishment; in this case, slopping hogs.

    In regard to this comparison, let me note that it makes a good point about fairy tales that one reading Bettelheim might miss. Bettelheim rightly points out that fairy tales do not make moral demands as myths and fables do. But this does not mean that fairy tales have no moral point to promote. Clearly Perrault's Cinderella and my Aschenputtel have clear moral implications. But unlike fables, fairy tales don't simply slam the moral into the child's face as a "gotcha!" Instead the child is led to feel that he has worked out the moral answer for himself, so that like anything earned, it has greater value for him.

    Bettelheim speaks of lessons in the story, but in fact the child learns nothing (beyond being able to retell the story itself) in the same sense in which that child learns the multiplication table or the states and their capitols. What the child gains subconsciously is a new way of feeling about things. Bettelheim tells us that the child learns "that surface appearances tell nothing about the inner worth of a person; that if one is true to oneself, one wins out over those who pretend to be what they are not; and that virtue will be rewarded, evil punished." That is correct if we analyze the story logically, but the child does not comprehend the story logically, certainly not on the unconscious level. The child gains, for example, a suite of feelings that trying to gain something by pretending to be what one is not (as the Stepsisters do) feels wrong while working to become what one is not (as Aschenputtel does) feels right. Thus the story nurtures emotional growth. Note that in our culture people are all too often derided for trying to be what they are not; but if we were to take the implied advice, we would never change. The fairy tale encourages us to change.

    In that respect the bad Stepmother is as necessary to Aschenputtel as Judas was to Christ. We are told that Aschenputtel succeeded in spite of Stepmother's demands upon her, but Bettelheim rightly points out that in the subconscious mind "in spite of" is confused with "because of" (using confused in its proper meaning; that is, fused together). We see the truth behind that statement in the Stepsisters, for whom Stepmother remains the undemanding, all-indulgent "good" mother. The Stepsisters do not change in the course of the story, but remain stuck in an infantile state of dependence. Thus we gain the feeling that a certain amount of adversity is necessary to instigate growth in our psyche.

    The story accomplishes, then, the transformation of the feelings associated with oedipal disillusionment and the child's consequent low opinion of himself because of the imagined low opinion of others into those of a positive identity.

    Finally I will point out that Aschenputtel is one of a class of fairy tales whose actions take place over a span of many years, during which years the protagonists undergo significant life changes. Aschenputtel, for example, goes from pre-pubescent girl to young woman in the course of her story. This feature reflects another important part of the human psyche, the ability to connect ourselves to a well-conceived future.

In "Wind, Sand, and Stars", his beautiful meditation upon the state of French aviation in the 1930's, Antoine de St. Exupery tells the story of a mail pilot who crashed his airplane in the Andes Mountains one winter and was obliged to walk many miles through the snow to reach rescue. It was a terrible ordeal, in which the man did not dare to pause long for rest, lest he fall asleep and freeze to death. When St. Exupery visited him in the hospital, the man made a statement that seems to sum up the essence of being human: he said, "What I did, no animal would do." And he did it by imagining futures in which he did not exist, in which his family had to live without him.

    Like animals, small children live in the present. The future, though they can say all the right words for it, remains for them a meaningless concept. It is, after all, like a place they have never been or seen. So how do we develop the ability to conceive that unknown place in a way that we will respond to it? What connects us to it in the only way that counts -- emotionally? Why, a story, of course. In particular, this class of fairy tales takes a child on a journey through time (and you thought that only science fiction does that), leading the child to feel the future.

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