Snø Hvit

(Snow White)

Analysis of the Story

Back to Contents

Norse glossary:

Note that in Nordic languages the letter jay is pronounced as we pronounce the wye in year.

    Jarl = earl, a chieftain of rank just below the king.

    Jaso = really, as an interjection.

    Seithkona = sorceress, witch, one skilled in the black art of seithr (Seiðr = spell, charm, enchantment, incantation).

    Husfreyja = woman of the house, though actually a bit more formal.

Analysis

    As in most European fairy tales, Snow White incorporates, directly or indirectly, Christian imagery: we can conceive Snow White as Eve, the witch as the serpent offering the apple, and the Prince as Christ. In this analysis we see how the great themes of a civilization get pulled into its stories and especially into the most important ones.

    In his book Bettelheim says, "Fairy tales teach by indirection. By camouflaging the oedipal predicaments, or by only subtly intimating the entanglements, fairy stories permit us to draw our own conclusions when the time it propitious for our gaining a better understanding of these problems. Fairy tales usually begin when the child’s life in some manner has reached an impasse." The child becomes a burden (Hansel and Gretel) or a threat to the parents’ comfort (Snow White).

    Narcissism creates the tension in the story. The sin of envy is the axle on which this story turns. Vanity is nearly Snow White’s downfall; it is definitely Freythis’s. The stepmother’s narcissism, expressed in her consultation with the magic mirror, makes Snow White appear a menace to her. And Snow White’s narcissism makes her an easy target for the witch. Snow White must learn to transcend this dangerous form of self-involvement: the stepmother fails to do so. Of course, the narcissism that’s being addressed in the fairy tale is that of the child who is identifying with Snow White.

    We are all, as Bettelheim notes, born narcissists. We crave the attention of our families in particular and become intensely jealous of anyone who takes any of that attention away from us, even if it is another member of the family. However, we quickly learn that angry expressions of jealousy evoke negative responses and reduce the amount of positive attention that we receive. Bettelheim claims that we cannot permit ourselves to feel jealousy toward a parent, upon whom we are dependent, but his projection mechanism seems to me to be equally threatening to the child’s sense of security. What happens is that we cannot, at a young age, understand that our narcissistic demands are excessive and must be diminished: rather, we blame the parent, especially the same-sex parent, of being jealous of us, of our relationship with our opposite-sex parent. We wish to be rid of the same-sex parent (or at least of that aspect that we conceive as being jealous of us), but, as Bettelheim suggests, we turn the wish around (in the process of projection) and attribute it to the parent: the parent, in our view, wishes to be rid of us. Thus we avoid feeling any guilt over our own wish.

    The main exacerbating factor in this drama is the ineffectual father, a common figure in fairy tales with female protagonists (e.g. Aschenputtel/Cinderella). After a brief appearance in the story, Snow White’s father effectively disappears. Though he rules an earldom, he does not intervene in the conflict between his wife and his daughter. His role as protector and his ineffectuality are echoed in the hunter. In fairy tales hunters are presented as protectors of people from ferocious animals and, indeed, the concept of kingship and its associated nobility originated with the hunters who protected the first farmers from wild animals in Mesopotamia and other cradles of civilization. The hunter is thus subconsciously a concept of protection from those things that we conceive as being like vicious animals, including our own violent emotions. The hunter’s vacillation between the demands of the Countess and the dictates of morality makes him as ineffective as Snow White’s father is in this drama.

    (It also lets us know that we should not rely on authority figures for help with our problems.)

    With the major inhibiting characters neutralized, the pubertal Snow White’s oedipal struggle is not repressed, but is freed to be acted out with the mother surrogate as antagonist. The chief consequence of the father’s ambivalence is a lasting hatred and jealousy, which is projected onto Snow White’s mother surrogate. As long as Snow White is subject to those feelings, that long must the evil Countess reappear in her life. "Only loving care combined with responsible behavior on the part of both parents permits the child to integrate his oedipal conflicts. If he is deprived of either by one or both parents, the child will not be able to identify with them. If a girl cannot form a positive identification with her mother, not only does she get stuck in oedipal conflicts, but regression sets in, as it always does when the child fails to attain the next higher stage of development for which she is chronologically ready."

    Such identification is needed to mitigate the jealousy that comes from misapprehension. In this story the magic mirror seems to speak for Snow White, expressing the thought that a girl would fear to tell. "As the small girl thinks her mother is the most beautiful person in the world, this is what the mirror initially tells the queen. But as the older girl thinks she is much more beautiful than her mother, this is what the mirror says later." The mirror even makes the kind of exaggeration that adolescents make in order to enlarge their advantages and to silence their inner voices of doubt. The mirror does what the girl fears to do and the result is as she fears.

    "The pubertal child is ambivalent in his wish to be much better than his parent of the same sex because the child fears that if this were actually so, the parent, still much more powerful, would take terrible revenge. It is the child who fears destruction because of his imagined or real superiority, not the parent who wishes to destroy. The parent may suffer pangs of jealousy if he, in his turn, has not succeeded in identifying with his child in a very positive way, because only then can he take vicarious pleasure in his child’s accomplishments. It is essential that the parent identify strongly with his child of the same sex for the child’s identification with him to prove successful."

    The intensely ambivalent feelings aroused when the oedipal conflict emerges in the pubertal child makes family life difficult to bear. The child seeks escape, usually into a fantasy realm where the conflict does not exist. But, as Hansel and Gretel and Snow White discover, running away from the conflict is no solution. One can only resolve the tension by facing the hard work of integration, of shaping the ego to mediate between the id’s cravings and the superego’s demands.

    Snow White shows that she can control her oral cravings (the sin of Gluttony) when she first enters the dwarves’ house, taking only a little food and drink. She also shows us that she can control her laziness (the sin of Sloth) by working for the dwarves. But she is still weak in regard to her vanity (the sin of Pride), being easily tempted by the various guises of her stepmother. It is that weakness that speaks to the child, who suffers the same flaw.

    But before that weakness is brought out, Snow White enjoys a period of pre-pubertal bliss with the dwarves that enables her to begin building the strength to move into adolescent development. In essence she attempts a return to the latency period of sexual dormancy, but such a return can be only temporary. Sooner or later she must resume her development and in the story she does so before she has developed the full strength to cope with the demands of her blossoming womanhood.

    That latter fact is manifested in the story by the return of the Countess, who tempts Snow White with objects that appeal to her vanity. Her desire to appear especially attractive overcomes Snow White’s caution, even in spite of the dwarves’ warnings, and she is rendered inert until the dwarves can rescue her. Once rescued, she returns to her latency period until the next temptation comes along, inspired by the Countess’ own vanity in asking her mirror the fatal question. In this way the story tells us of a parent acting to maintain dominance over a child by arresting her development. In psychoanalytic terms, the Countess is acting to dominate and suppress Snow White’s id by interfering with the growth of her ego, thereby giving Snow White’s superego, which represents the parents’s demands, full control of her psyche. Meanwhile, Snow White, with the help of the dwarves and the jarl (or Prince in the traditional version), brings her ego up to a strength needed to cope with the conflict between her id and superego.

    The first two times the witch "kills" Snow White she appeals to Snow White’s vanity, but the third time she must appeal to her compassion and desire to help others. That indicates Snow White’s growing maturity.

    There is, of course, another aspect to the story. The vanity of the Countess, given free rein, is a projection of the child’s own inner passion. That vanity is the wild horse that Snow White must tame before she can ride him safely (the failure to tame the horse is exemplified by the fate of the Countess). But wild horses cannot be tamed instantly, as much as we wish otherwise, but must be given time to absorb and to incorporate into their habits the lessons of the taming process. Thus it is that Snow White’s vanity injures her the first three times she tries to ride it. The first two times, after she has allowed the disguised Countess to comb her hair and to lace her into a corset, the dwarves rescue her, returning her to her latency period, in which she relates to the dwarves as "one of the guys" with no sexual awareness in the relation at all. It’s the third incident, in which Snow White eats the apple and goes into a coma from which the dwarves cannot rescue her, that marks the irreversible transition into full adulthood, the final taming of the wild horse of sexual passion.

    The use of a poisoned apple to cast Snow White into her final transition out of childhood plays upon an old association that European culture makes between eating an apple and acquiring the awareness of and desire for sexual intimacy. The traditional interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve identifies the forbidden fruit that they ate as an apple, though the original Hebrew text of Genesis gives no hint as to what fruit was actually involved (beyond saying only that it was the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Now Snow White’s vanity, her desire to be beautiful and attractive, finds its driving force, its biological foundation. This awakening to the desire to be desired sexually, however subconscious, gives Snow White the key piece to the puzzle that she must solve. Having eaten the apple, she can no longer go back to her latency period. There is nothing more, it seems, that the dwarves can do for her.

    In addition, there is nothing more for Snow White to do. She goes into a period of total passivity, lying inert in the crystal coffin that the dwarves have made for her. This is in accordance with European culture (at least until relatively recently) and, indeed, with cultures around the world: though she may feel the sexual passions every bit as intensely as her male counterpart does, the woman is obliged to remain passive and allow the man to take all of the initiative in courtship. Thus, after her awakening, Snow White must go into a deeper kind of sleep to await the man who will awaken her passion fully. All that she can do in her own favor is to put herself into the best position to attract the attention of the kind of man she wants and she has done that by getting herself stored in the dwarves’ treasure room.

    This is not to say that nothing at all happens to Snow White while she is in this inert state. While she lies in her coffin she receives three visitors in the form of birds. The first is an owl, which has been associated with the quality of wisdom as far back in time as before the Classical Period in Ancient Greece, where an owl was companion to the goddess Athena. The second is a raven (actually a pair of ravens), a relative of the birds that whisper the world’s secrets into Odin’s ears: in Norse belief the raven thus represents special knowledge, of the kind that an adult might possess but that a child would not. The third visitor, a dove, represents true, unwavering love. In those visits the qualities associated with each bird "rubbed off" on Snow White, indicating that during this inert period she was, nonetheless, maturing into adulthood.

    At the end of that period she is rescued by the jarl/Prince and is reawakened in a way that makes her cough out the piece of apple that she had bitten. That reawakening is brought about in most versions of the story by some means of jostling her in a way that turns her face down. In one story her coffin is dropped and spills out and the apple falls from her mouth. These manipulations all seem unduly contrived to me and display a rather careless disregard for the character. It just seemed more natural to me to have the jarl note the aroma of the apple, which has presumably built up over time in the closed coffin, so that the dwarves could rescue Snow White one last time.

    When she takes her leave of the dwarves Snow White receives from them a collection of magic gifts. These represent the refining of one’s knowledge of the world that one gains from friends. More to the point in this case, they represent the knowledge that one gains from age-mates that enables one to resist the excessive demands of the parents. In Snow White’s case they protect her from the Countess’ last attempt to destroy Snow White as an independent being and lead ultimately to Snow White’s reconciliation with her mother.

    In the traditional version of the story that Bettelheim analyzes the evil queen meets her end at Snow White’s wedding by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. I rejected that ending not because it’s too gruesome for my taste, but because it’s just too silly. In its place I put an ending that exploits my use of a Norse setting to eliminate the evil stepmother and, in addition, to restore Hildigunn’s true mother to her. In terms of psychoanalysis, I have reconciled Hildigunn with her mother after the storms of adolescence have abated.

Regarding the Epilogue

    Gilligan's Island is an American television series created and produced by Sherwood Schwartz and originally produced by United Artists Television. The situation comedy series featured Bob Denver (Gilligan); Alan Hale, Jr. (The Skipper); Jim Backus (Mr. Howell); Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell); Tina Louise (Ginger); Russell Johnson (the Professor); and Dawn Wells (Mary Ann). It aired for three seasons on the CBS network from September 26, 1964, to September 4, 1967. Originally sponsored by Philip Morris & Company and Procter & Gamble, the show followed the comic adventures of seven castaways as they attempted to survive (and in a later movie escape from) the island on which they had been shipwrecked. Most episodes revolve around the dissimilar castaways' conflicts and their failed attempts to return home. The series’ basic premise had enough similarities to Shakespeare’s play "The Tempest" that many people believe that it was conceived as a parody of Shakespeare.

abefefefab

Appendix: Dwarves

    In Norse legends and fairy tales dwarves represent chthonic spirits, spirits of the earth in which they dig. That dwarves would be associated with mining likely originates from the time when mining was done by men with picks and shovels only. In those early mines, little more than animal burrows, smaller men would have had the advantage over larger men of having to excavate less material to reach the ore.

    Because they were miners I felt that it was appropriate to give them names based on the seven metals known to the ancients. Those metals with their periods of discovery are Gold (6000 BC), Copper (4200 BC), Silver (4000 BC), Lead (3500 BC), Tin (1750 BC), Iron (1500 BC), Mercury (750 BC).

    In myth and legend dwarves are hard-working and clever little men who care nothing for leisure or recreation; they are the original workaholics. They are burly little men who toil underground and, thus, are associated with gems, iron ore, precious metals, alchemy, and the blacksmith’s craft. Because of this they can’t appreciate Snow White’s beauty and therefore oblige her to work for her keep. They thus introduce her to the world of work that she must enter easily of she is to succeed in maturing.

    The dwarves themselves are immature men. Their habit of poking into dark holes might suggest phallic connotations, but their commitment to their work to the exclusion of love suggests a pre-oedipal existence. That an implied phallic existence can be associated with a period of childhood when all forms of sexuality are relatively dormant may seem strange, but in this state the dwarves are free of the inner conflicts of the oedipal stage and so long as they have no desire to move beyond their phallic existence to intimate relations they will not change. Their lack of change or any desire for change is what makes the dwarves a symbol of the child’s pre-pubertal existence. That lack explains the dwarves’ inability to understand or to sympathize with Snow White’s inner conflict, which weakens her ability to resist the stepmother’s temptations. Inner conflict is what makes us dissatisfied with our lives and gives us the motive to change and the dwarves do not experience that conflict at all. The fact that there are no female dwarves helps account for that fact.

efabef

Back to Contents