Hansel and Gretel

Analysis of the Story

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    On first impression we see that the story tells us about two children of a poor woodcutter and their encounter, after becoming lost in the forest, with an evil witch. It seems an adventure yarn pure and simple. But Bettelheim claimed that it went much deeper than any frivolous entertainment.

    Bettelheim’s analysis breaks readily into twelve parts:

I

    On the surface the story incorporates an important truth, that deprivation makes people more selfish, less concerned with others’ feelings, and prone to do evil. The poverty of the parents and their concern over feeding their children sets this truth on the stage.

    That feature of the story speaks directly to the child’s anxiety of rejection and desertion, which he experiences as a fear of starvation and abandonment. That fear comes horrifyingly real for the listener when Hansel and Gretel find themselves alone and lost in the forest. It presents the child’s unconscious mind with the existential problem that the lost children must solve.

II

    Mother represents the source of all nourishment to a child; that is, she is the source of all oral gratification. The mother’s indulgence of the child’s demands seems normal to the child, so when the mother begins to demand some self-restraint by the child upon his demands for gratification, the child conceives the mother as unloving and rejecting.

III

    After being lost in the forest several times, the children return home but they gain nothing by it, even though they seem to have solved their problem. Change can only come about when the child faces the world, rather than in regressing to an infantile dependence upon parent figures.

    "The story of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and hence destructive desires," Bettelheim tells us.

IV

    Fully frustrated in their effort to regress, the children give free rein to their id-driven urges when they begin to attack the witch’s house. In the unconscious mind the gingerbread house with the rock-candy windows stands as a connotational rhyme with the all-giving mother, the image that evokes oral greediness. So overwhelmed are the children by their intense greed that they fail to heed the warning implicit in the voice asking who is nibbling at the house.

V

    Unrestrained gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins, threatens one’s individuation and independence, even one’s existence (which is the symbol of the individual). The house and the inviting mother (grandmother?) figure are bait to a trap. As if to parody the children’s own gluttony the witch wants to eat them. In order to save themselves the children must sacrifice the Pleasure Principle (the id) to the Reality Principle (the ego), thereby transcending their orality and mitigating its accompanying anxiety. In burning the witch they destroy Gluttony itself.

VI

    The jewels that the children find after they defeat the witch represent the transformation of desire from immediate gratification (something that can be eaten now) to deferred gratification (something that can be used to obtain something to be eaten later). By freeing themselves from a reliance upon immediate oral gratification for security, the children abolish the threatening mother image and recover the good mother, albeit in a more mature relationship. No longer does the mother’s refusal to offer instant and full gratification evoke fear. The jewels can represent the wisdom to be gained from one’s elders.

VII

    The conspiracy of the birds. The birds seem to know that the children must be led away from their home and into the forest to encounter the witch. The white dove that Hansel thinks that he sees atop the family home, the white bird that guides them to the witch, and the white duck that ferries them across the water (or leads them to the witch’s canoe in my version) seem to rhyme connotationally with the white dove that represents the Holy Spirit. Thus the story is also reminiscent of the expulsion from Eden. The white dove has since early Christian times been seen as representing a superior benevolent power.

VIII

    The ambivalent feelings, frustrations, and anxieties of the oral stage of development torment the child as he identifies with Hansel or Gretel. The child is willing to comprehend the world of oral bliss that mother created before she set him aside as a deceit similar to the one the witch employed. The purging of oral fixation at the witch’s house allows the child to re-conceive his mother in a more benevolent light.

IX

    The crossing of the water (which they had not crossed before) symbolizes the commitment to growth, the idea of not returning to things as they were in the beginning. But the children must, nonetheless, return home. They are not yet ready to be fully independent. However, they have learned that they can accomplish a good deal if they work together. They learn to rely more on their age-mates for mutual help and understanding. They have become ready to explore new paths to the satisfaction of their desires.

X

    The chief antagonists in the story are female. Gretel is thus important in the story as evidence that a female is not inherently inimical to the male.

XI

    "Having overcome his oedipal difficulties, mastered his oral anxieties, sublimated those of his cravings which cannot be satisfied realistically, and learned that wishful thinking has to be replaced by intelligent action, the child is ready to live happily again with his parents." For "only through good relations with his parents can a child successfully mature into adolescence."

XII

    "The child views existential dangers not objectively, but fantastically exaggerated in line with his immature dread – for example, personified as a child-devouring witch. ... A witch as created by the child’s anxious fantasies will haunt him, but a witch he can push into her own oven and burn to death is a witch the child can believe himself rid of. As long as children continue to believe in witches – they always have and always will, up to the age when they no longer are compelled to give their formless apprehensions humanlike appearance – they need to be told stories in which children, by being ingenious, rid themselves of these persecuting figures of their imagination. By succeeding in doing so, they gain immensely from the experience, as did Hansel and Gretel."

    The reference to oedipal desires (in Item XI) raises the question of the sexual part of those desires and the implication that Hansel and Gretel addresses that aspect. It may seem a little precious to suggest that the encounter with the witch can represent an oedipal situation, but we need only give cursory examination to the symbols to see that we have probable cause for a further analysis. The witch’s demand to feel Hansel’s finger to test his fatness strikes us as ridiculous and silly: if she truly wanted to monitor the progress of his fattening, she would feel the parts of his body where fat accumulates. Instead, she feels a body part that resembles the boy’s penis, thereby giving the story a subtle hint of child molestation.

    The witch’s reference to "the fish" in her invitation to Satan is a clear reference to Christ. Before the cross became the emblem of Christianity, the fish was used by early Christians to identify themselves. The symbol was chosen because the Greek word for fish (ichthys) is an acronym made of the first letters of the words in the Greek version of the phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" (Iesuos Christos, Theou Yios, Soter) and because Jesus had chosen fishermen for his disciples and had called them to be "fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). If the story mimics the story of the expulsion from Eden, then it must also have a component of salvation as conceived by the Christian culture that created it.

    In the original version of the fairy tale a duck carries the children one at a time over the river after they escape from the witch. I was dissatisfied with that feature, though Bettelheim tells us that it is an important part of the story. I can’t see a duck carrying a human child; it simply does not have the necessary buoyancy. So I sought another way in which the children could cross the river one at a time and I conceived the little leather canoe hidden in the bushes. The bird is still necessary to the scene to reveal the canoe’s location and the canoe makes sense in the story, being the means by which the witch crosses the river without having to build a bridge. Such a canoe could reasonably be small enough to carry only one person, necessitating that the children use it one at a time.

    But then I had another problem: once one child crosses the river, how does the canoe get back to the other side for the other child? I couldn’t reasonably put a rope in or near the canoe (a deus ex machina works no more successfully with children than it does with adults) and I didn’t want to send the children back to the witch’s house to get one; after all, the story is supposed to go in only one direction in this part. I couldn’t have the children taking a rope with them from the witch’s house; they would have had no reason to think that they would need one. Then I conceived the idea of the golden twine. That’s something that the children would take along with the witch’s jewels. Then I made the idea even better by making the twine something that Gretel was compelled to make, thereby introducing into the story the pattern in which something that we make, however unpleasant the circumstances of the labor, helps us solve a problem later.

    One other feature of the story merits comment – its timelessness. The story seems stuck in the Late Middle Ages, a time when the Little Ice Age (ca. 1200 – ca. 1850) brought famine to Europe frequently, compelling too many people to abandon their children in the forest. Though nobody does that today, the story nonetheless resonates in a child’s innate fear of abandonment.

Appendix I:

The Forest Primeval

    In fairy tales the deep, dark forest acts as an analogue of the child’s unconscious mind, in which the child’s imagination can play freely. It is a place where anything can lurk and anything can happen. It is a place where magic can hide. Or a witch. The forest as a hidden source of magic. As are bodies of water (recall the source of Excalibur). Where we can’t see with our body’s eyes, we look with our mind’s eyes. In modern science fiction alien planets and hyperspace have taken on some of the functions of the older images.

Appendix II:

Witches

    In fairy tale witches we see only Christian parodies of the real thing, the priestesses and healers of Ancient Celtic Europe. Practitioners of the old Celtic religion, healers and seers, they possessed the knowledge of their people. They may have served as priests and shamans, herbalists, etc. Their abilities were still needed in Medieval Europe, though the Church opposed them, only carrying out a final pogrom when Christian physicians were able to take over their functions. Indeed, in many fairy tales they are taken for granted as members of the community; the witch in Rapunzel is the witch-next-door.

    The Christian context of the classic fairy tales ensured that they would appear as villains. As "The Enemy" they were presented, in parody, as consorts of Satan, conduits through whom evil entered the world. The gingerbread house was certain one little frothing blowhole of Hell.

    Beginning in the Seventeenth Century witches became, in the minds of Christians, servants of Satan, where before they been merely heretics. Exorcism promoted the idea: if God needs human agents to exorcise demons, then surely Satan needs human agents (i.e. witches and warlocks) to infiltrate demons into people. We may regard this as one side effect of the Protestant Reformation, a response to the evils of the religious warfare that swept over Europe in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

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