Kay E. Vandergrift

INTRODUCTION

The house of fiction, wrote Henry James, is one of many dissimilar windows through which many pairs of eyes watch the same show but see many different things. Perhaps the most obvious evidence in children's literature of these many pairs of eyes is seen by examining multiple picture book versions of a single traditional tale. The dramatic differences among Snow White versions have resulted in fascinating comparisons. This site should help in the continuance of this comparison. When one includes historical renderings of Snow White with alternative contemporary visions, the varieties of interpretation of a single text are powerfully demonstrated. This would be equally true for virtually any traditional tale as evidenced in the continuing flow of new editions of folk and fairy tales each year. The various interpretations of folk and fairy tales are not dependent upon illustration alone for their impact. What has kept these stories alive over time and through many cultures is the ability of different peoples to recognize themselves and what is important in their lives within these very simple texts. Literary critics, as well as other readers, bring their differing perspectives to bear on these works and interpret them in light of a number of personal, critical, and theoretical perspectives.

Those who become lost in what Geoffrey Hartman and others have called the "wilderness" of contemporary literary theory, will find it useful to keep in mind that all theories are themselves products of the imagination. All theories are fictions, if you will, and they are much more tentative and more imprecise than the fictions of story. A theory is a metaphor imposed on discrete phenomena in order to explain those phenomena, identify commonalties, and show relationships among individual and unique objects. Literary theory, therefore, is a metaphor about metaphors. Theories are fictions without the full strength of "make believe" engendered by a fictional work of art, but, nonetheless, they are fictions which may lead to insight and discovery. We try to confirm our beliefs in theories by experience and experiment, but are, at the same time, fully aware that they are refutable and ever susceptible to modification or disproof.

Theories are judged by their applicability and their usefulness. As new phenomena are created or discovered or existing ones perceived in new ways, theory is revised to assimilate this new information. Thus, all theories are in a process of continuous revision, and when a particular theory can no longer encompass new ideas or new works of art, new theories are developed. Each theory opens our eyes to new perceptions and new perspectives, but it conceals as well as reveals certain aspects of the literary work and the literary experience. Each offers a system of useful, but incomplete, organizing constructs which continually lead to new solutions, new problems, and new theories. Like all fiction, literary theory requires a willing suspension of disbelief, that condition of mind philosophers refer to as the world of "as if."

Thus, the excerpts from various scholars and critics that follow offer a wide range of views on both the fairy tale and specifically on Snow White. In several instances the standpoints are in opposition while, in other instances, the views are confirming. Rather than comment on each view, I have chosen to simply place them before the reader who, in turn, may make whatever judgments seem warranted.

Maria Tatar, in Off With Their Heads!, writes:

"Fairy tales are not written in granite. My own experience has shown that we continue to rewrite the tales as we reread them, even though the words on the page remain the same. But it is important to remember that what we produce in our retellings and rereadings discloses more about an adult agenda for children than about what children want to hear. Thus fairy tales may not offer much insight into the minds of children, but they often document our shifting attitudes toward the child and chart our notions about childrearing in a remarkable way. It is these discursive practices, as they are embedded in children's literature, that invite reflection as we read to a child or when we put a book into a child's hands."
"Maurice Sendak once stated that, as a former child, he felt fully entitled and empowered to write children's stories. In a sense, these same credentials allow all of us to retell fairy tales to our children, even if we may never be able to get the cultural script quite right." p. 19.
In Fairy Tales and After, Roger Sale interprets components of Snow White as follows:
"Let's start with the mirror, mirror on the wall, because that shows at every point that this is a story about the desire to be the fairest of them all. The term "narcissism" seems altogether too slippery to be the only one we want here. There is, for instance, no suggestion that the queen's absorption in her beauty ever gives her pleasure, or that the desire for power through sexual attractiveness is itself a sexual feeling. What is stressed is the anger and fear that attend the queen's realization that as she and Snow White both get older, she must lose. This is why the major feeling involved is not jealousy but envy: to make beauty that important is to reduce the world to one in which only two people count."
. . .
"The queen's desire to eat Snow White's lungs and liver implies only her desire to include Snow White's beauty and power within herself, and whatever sexual feeling is involved in that is included in the original passion to be fairest."
"Then we come to the three temptations, where Snow White is at last able to chose. . . . Whatever we might say the stepmother wants, it is clear that what Snow White wants is to be laced, to have her hair combed, and finally to eat the poisoned apple. Her attention is directed toward what will make her beautiful, what will make her sexual even, . . ." pp.41-42.
In Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye, Madonna Kolbenschlag writes:
"Moreover, the dialectic of narcissism between the queen and the magic mirror is the dominant motive of the action. The wicked stepmother assaults her own soul, demanding reassurance of her desirability. The mirror-so like herself, so like a daughter-answers truthfully, but from a gradually changing perspective. Snow White becomes the object of a virulent, sadistic and masochistic envy. "Snow White shall die, even if it costs me my own life." Snow White is representative of the positive, life-asserting qualities that threaten the insecure, narcissistic personality. When the wicked stepmother devours what she believes to be Snow White's liver and lungs (vital organs), she recaptures a primitive cannibalistic expression of envy: the belief that one acquires the power and characteristics of what one eats." p. 36.
In her new rendering of "Snow White" in Feminist Fairy Tales, Barbara Walker writes in the preface to "Snow Night":
"Snow White's stepmother seems to have been vilified because (a) she resented being less beautiful than Snow White, and (b) she practiced witchcraft.
"One might suspect that female beauty was really a larger issue for men than for women, because male sexual response depends to a considerable degree on visual clues. Placing each "fair lady" (or anything else) somewhere on an arbitrary hierarchical scale seems to be a male idea. Women may recognize a thousand different types of beauty without having to make them compete."
"As for witchcraft, the last bastion of female spiritual power fell when the church declared its all-out war on witches, the name they gave to rural mid-wives, healers, herbalists, counselors, and village wisewomen, inheritors of the unraveling cloak of the pre-Christian priestess. A queen who was also a witch would have been a formidable figure, adding political influence to spiritual mana. Snow White's stepmother therefore seems to me a projection of male jealousies. As re-envisioned in this story, she may seem more true to life." p. 20.
In The Snow White Syndrome, Betsy Cohen focuses our attention on envy in the telling of the tale.
"What is fascinating about the Snow White fairy tale is that every mother is like the wicked queen at certain moments in her life. . . . In Snow White's home there is no heart-to-heart talk-Mom just sets out to kill. . . . Snow White's real mother, her good mother, dies. It is the stepmother who embodies evil. Repeatedly, Snow White hopes to be cared for by a good mother, but instead she encounters the bad mother. Only after four life-threatening attacks is Snow White forced to accept the facts: "My stepmother has been out to get me."
"The Snow White syndrome has two parts: the envier-the queen, and the person envied-Snow White. The relationship between the two leads to the fear of being envied, the fear that if you're too successful, you won't be liked."
. . .
"The dwarfs, Snow White's rescuers, are the helpers who seem to come into our lives magically, just at the moment we need them. In the "real world," these helpers may be therapists, friends, relatives, mates, ministers, or just a stranger on a bus. In the story of Snow White, the dwarfs are humble, nonthreatening, empathic, understanding, nurturing men with qualities that present a true contrast to those of the wicked queen. The dwarfs are miners. They dig deep into the earth, seeking precious gems and metals. They help Snow White mine for what is precious in herself. The dwarfs bring Snow White down to earth. They watch over Snow White and try to guard her from her envious mother. They warn her, they support her, and give her a role, a purpose in life. They teach her how to have a "good relationship" with them. The dwarfs tell Snow White the truth: "Your mother does not love you, care about your needs, or put your interests first. She is out to get you. Be careful!" Snow White and the dwarfs actually mother each other. Snow White is learning about the world, about much that she had never known before."
"Since Snow White needed to separate from her envious mother to figure out thoughts and feelings that were hers and not her mother's, these dwarfs are essential in enabling Snow White to become an adult woman. They also provide an earthy environment in which Snow White's sexuality can develop. They don't try to steal the show, as her mother had done." pp. 8, 9, 10.
Maria Tatar, in "From Nags to Witches," comments on the stepmother as follows:
"In the vast majority of German tales in which stepmothers figure as prominent villains, it is the stepdaughter who takes on the role of innocent martyr and patient sufferer. If the stepmother of these tales is not literally a witch, she possesses qualities that place her firmly in the class of ogres and fiends. Like her Icelandic counterpart, she too is an alien intruder who disturbs the harmony among blood relatives. She may not always have the power to perform an actual metamorphosis, but she can turn even the most aristocratic and beguiling girl into the humblest of scullery maids. By contrast to the sorceresses who work behind the scenes, she remains a visible, palpable presence in fairy tales that chart the shifting fortunes of heroines who have lost their biological mothers and await rescue by dashing young princes or kings."
"In tales that end with the wedding of a royal couple, stepmothers are repeatedly implicated in the evil that befalls their stepchildren, just as they eternally attempt to obstruct their elevation to a higher social rank. These heartless creatures stand in sharp contrast to their relatively artless spouses, whose only serious defect appears to be a lack of discrimination in choosing a marriage partner. The fathers of fairy-tale heroines may appear to be passive to a fault, yet they never once take the lead in abandoning their children or in treating them like servants."
. . .
"And the father of Snow White (mentioned by the Grimms only in the context of his remarriage and even then solely to motivate the presence of a stepmother) never once interferes with the elaborate witchcraft to which his wife resorts in order to remain "the fairest of them all." pp.33-34.
Barbara Kiefer in The Potential of Picturebooks, analyzes the Snow White's of Hyman and Burkert as follows:
"On the other hand, Trina Schart Hyman brings psychological darkness to her version of Snow White by showing the young and voluptuous stepmother's descent into madness. The familiar tale becomes an entirely new story through Hyman's pictorial choices, which include the objects in the rooms and the faces around the magic mirror. Comparing Hyman's version of Snow White to Nancy Burkert's illustrations shows how pictorial content and point of view can yield very different meanings. For example, Hyman fully develops the character of the stepmother through the pictures, but Burkert never shows readers the stepmother's face. Moreover, Hyman's version immediately draws readers into the tale with dark flowing lines and shapes. In our first view of Snow White's mother, we are in the room with her as she pricks her finger, the red drops of blood visible on the snow on the window sill."
"Burkert's version begins much more formally. Regular, geometric shapes on the endpapers communicate stately objectivity, as does the rectangular shape of the mirror placed squarely in the middle of the title page. In this version, we see Snow White's mother from outside the castle, and although she may have pricked her finger, we have no visual evidence of blood. Thus we are safely distanced from the emotional intensity of the story. Unlike Hyman's version, which becomes a story of mother-daughter conflict resulting in the utter downfall of an evil person through her own failings, Burkert tells the story of an innocent child whose escape from evil is brought about by others. Both versions are powerful in their own ways, and both show how far beyond the verbal elements of text an artist can bring us." pp.135-136.
Perry Nodelman shares his insights into Snow White illustrations in "How Picture Books Work:"
"Burkert's pictures not only stop the action, as all pictures must; they also make us concentrate carefully in a way that retards action further. Paradoxically, the static quality of these pictures is what makes them exciting in relation to the fast moving story they accompany. On the other hand, Hyman's pictures so mirror and even amplify the energy of the story itself that they create a feeling of bright excess, operatic intensity."
"Burkert's pictures are closer to the spirit of the fairy tale as the Grimms told it. But one of the prime virtues of fairy tales is that they can be told in many different ways and still be good stories-and Hyman's way of telling the story is certainly a powerful and unusual one. It makes "Snow White" into a tragedy about a doomed but fascinating woman; and in focusing our attention on the character that the words define as a villain, it, too, creates an excitingly paradoxical tension." p. 12.
Bruno Bettelheim, in Uses of Enchantment, discusses the seven dwarfs in the following way:
"Dwarfs-those diminutive men-have different connotations in various fairy tales. Like the fairies themselves, they can be good or bad; in "Snow White" they are of the helpful variety. The first thing we learn about them is that they have returned home from working as miners in the mountains. Like all dwarfs, even the unpleasant ones, they are hard-working and clever at their trade. Work is the essence of their lives; they know nothing of leisure or recreation. Although the dwarfs are immediately impressed by Snow White's beauty and moved by her tale of misfortune, they make it clear right away that the price of living with them is engaging in conscientious work. The seven dwarfs suggest the seven days of the week-days filled with work. It is this working world Snow White has to make her own if she is to grow up well; this aspect of her sojourn with the dwarfs is easily understood."
"Other historical meanings of dwarfs may serve them further. European fairy tales and legends were often residuals of pre-Christian religious themes which became unacceptable because Christianity would not brook pagan tendencies in open form. In a fashion, Snow White's perfect beauty seems distinctly derived from the sun; her name suggests the whiteness and purity of strong light. According to the ancients, seven planets circle the sun, hence the seven dwarfs. Dwarfs or gnomes, in Teutonic lore, are workers of the earth, extracting metals, of which only seven were commonly known in past times-another reason why these miners are seven in number. And each of these seven metals was related to one of the planets in ancient natural philosophy (gold to the sun, silver to the moon, etc.)." p.209.
In discussing illustrations of Beauty and the Beast in Image & Maker Stephen Canham writes:
"The fact that these images and allusions speak to an educated adult reader as well as to a child does not diminish their value. The key phrase here is "as well as." To succeed, they should not be so academic that a child is bored or bewildered, nor should they be so allusive or allegorical that an adult is put off by their pedantry or pretension. What a child sees and what an adult perceives in such illustrations are distinct but vitally linked strata of visual meaning. Some hikers, for instance, walk a trail for the pleasure of the walk itself; others, trained in geology, will enjoy not only the trail and its vistas, but the formation of the landscape itself, the manner in which its past resonates in its present. So too with illustrations; one receives what one puts into them-although, to my mind, the desire to create an aesthetically harmonious composition should always precede an impulse to allude, to drop thematic "clues" into a picture. Allusion can play a fundamental part in such harmony, of course, but if it becomes the primary intention of the artist, the illustration wavers perilously close to admonition, even didacticism, and restricts the imaginative freedom which good illustration always releases." p.25.
In "Dwarfed by Snow White: Feminist Revisions of Fairy Tale Discourse in the Narrative of Maria Luisa Bombal and Dulce Maria Loynaz," Verity Smith writes:
"Elements from different fairy tales are introduced in a fragmentary way, as though it were part of the author's intention to destroy the power of fairy tale discourse by making it disjointed and incoherent. Thus the title refers to Patient Griselda; the presence of a frog that appears to have fallen in love with Maria Griselda recalls 'The Frog Prince', while other references relate the female characters to the story of Snow White.
"The last of these are the most important since the story is extended metaphor about the deadly effect, as much on the self as on others, of perfect beauty. This is the tale of Remedios la Bella in another register, since here too beauty condemns Maria Griselda to total isolation. Her beauty caused her to be rejected by her family and to view herself as a genetic aberration since 'nunca se pudo encontrar el rasgo comun, la expresion que la pudiera hacer reconocerse como el eslabon de una cadena humana.' Thus figuratively, like Snow White, she is parentless from an early age. Sharon Magnarelli considers the significance of the motherless female protagonist of classic fairy tales (Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Snow White) in her study The Lost Rib and reaches the following conclusion:
To have no 'real' mother during one's fairy tale childhood seems to generate two significant and related encumbrances: first, the child grows up without ever learning successfully how to interact with other people; and, secondly, and as a consequence of this, the adolescent is doomed to solitude, loneliness, and a lack of both human companionship and communicativeness.
Magnarelli's argument might have been written with this story by Luisa Bombal in mind. In addition, Maria Griselda's beauty, by challenging the prevailing canon of beauty, cuts her off from society. Like the nakedness of Remedios la Bella, her green world beauty has no proper place in society, and thus can express itself only as a malefic influence. It manifests itself only in Silvia's suicide or the destruction of Maria Griselda's doves by her husband in a fit of blind rage. pp. 145-146.
In Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction, John Stephens raises issues of intertextuality in Fiona French's Snow White in New York as follows:
"The verbal text here[in Snow White in New York] has been reduced to only 400 words, quite brief even for a picture book, and the pictures themselves are more central to the narrative. . .French begins with the conventional 'Once upon a time' opening, but he story is set in 1930 New York high society and major variations occur with both events and characters: for example, Snow White's period of banishment is spent as a singer with a seven-piece jazz group, and her marriage at the end is to a newspaper reporter, not a prince. The book's production is also distinctive: the colours of the pictures are luminous, and the visual intertexts range from a basis in art deco, as established especially by the title page, through Charles Keeping's drawing style (especially in the cross-hatching used in depicting city sky-lines), to pop art, to Picasso's blue period. The costumes and settings are appropriate for New York high society of the 1920s and 1930s.. . .French makes no mention of Snow White's appearance, and when she and her stepmother appear on adjacent pages (viii-ix) French uses instead a more conventional iconography: Snow White is blonde with big blue eyes, the stepmother dark with narrow green eyes. . . .French makes strange the story by narrating and illustrating it in the idioms of other discourses, and the comic discrepancies between the chosen and traditional discourses emphasize the strangeness. Such touches as the apparent move towards realism in the joke by which the stepmother's mirror is converted into a newspaper interact closely with the illustrations. In this particular example, the change is strongly enforced by the accompanying illustration of overlaid front-page stories." pp.95-97.
In "Is Snow White the Most Sexist of all?" Jenny Sharp writes about the Disney film and expresses her vehement concern about what she sees as a bad example for the 90s.
"Snow White may have an absent father, but she has seven father figures embodied in the seven dwarfs, whom she leaves to be with her prince."
"Snow White travels from one form of control to another, passing from the daughter role to the wife role."
"God forbid a woman is running about on her own; we simply couldn't have that."
"In fact, Snow White has to fall asleep after she bites into the apple, otherwise she would wreak sexual havoc on the kingdom, not too dissimilar from the evil Eve of biblical fame."

For the complete text of her paper click here.

Iona Opie and Peter Opie link "Snow White" to an earlier tale:
"Thus the theme of the glass coffin, in which lay Snow White's body, remaining ever as beautiful as the day it was laid to rest, was a feature of the story of Lisa in the Pentamerone (Day 2, tale 8) published in 1634. Lisa, like Snow White, was a lovely seven-year-old child, and she died, or appeared to have died, through having a comb stuck in her head. For years her body was kept secretly in a casket of crystal; and it remained lovely, so lovely that when her uncle's wife discovered it in a locked room, it aroused her most intense jealousy. Further, the story in Pentamerone printed more than three hundred years ago, throws light on an anomaly in the story of Snow White which-to the rational minded, if to no one else-has always seemed to need explanation: the fact that Snow White, who was seven years old when abandoned in the woods, and apparently not much older when murdered, should be thought mature enough for marriage when the Prince discovers her in her coffin. In the Pentmerone it is explained that Lisa, after her apparent death and incarceration, continued to grow like any other girl, and the crystal casket lengthened with her, "keeping pace as she grew". The tale in the Pentamerone is in fact more satisfactory than the present-day tale in that Lisa's casket, unlike Snow White's glass coffin, was kept hidden, so no one would have seen her growing." p. 175
Jack Zipes, in Fairy Tale As Myth, Myth As Fairy Tale, argues for the importance of the prince in Snow White, although, in this excerpt he is referring to the film.
"It is the prince Disney who made inanimate figures come to life through his animated films, and it is the prince who is to be glorified in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when he resuscitates the heroine with a magic kiss. Afterwards he holds Snow White in his arms, and in the final frame, he leads her off on a white horse to his golden castle on a hill. His golden castle-every woman's dream-supersedes the dark, sinister castle of the queen. The prince becomes her reward, and his power and wealth are glorified in the end."
"There are obviously mixed messages or multiple messages in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but the overriding sign, in my estimation, is the signature of Disney's self-glorification in the name of justice. Disney wants the world cleaned up, and the pastel colors with their sharply drawn ink lines create images of cleanliness, just as each sequence reflects a clearly conceived and preordained destiny for all the characters in the film. For Disney, the Grimms' tale is not a vehicle to explore the deeper implications of the narrative and its history. Rather, it is a vehicle to display what he can do as an animator with the latest technological and artistic developments in the industry. The story is secondary, and if there is a major change in the plot, it centers on the power of the prince, the only one who can save Snow White, and he becomes the focal point by the end of the story." pp.91-93.
In his essay "Discover, Explore, Enjoy," Michael Patrick Hearn writes:
"But surely the greatest worry for the complacent world of children's books was Hollywood. Many in the field were sure that Walt Disney was the devil incarnate. Ironically, Disney may have indirectly made an important contribution to the picture book. Many artists who worked for him were also children's book illustrators and learned how to tell a story in pictures during story conferences and while working on storyboards for him. Hardie Gramatky was head animator at the Disney Studios before he did Little Toot, and Kay Nielsen designed "The Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Fantasia (as well as an early unproduced version of The Little Mermaid), Martin Provensen learned his craft at Disney and Alice Provensen at Walter Lantz, the maker of "Woody Woodpecker." "Our work in the animation studios taught us the concept of flow, linking one picture to another," they admitted. [Footnote: Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech in Lee Kingman, Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1976-1985 (Boston: Horn Book, Inc., 1986), 256.] Gustaf Tenggren went from working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio to Little Golden Books and The Poky Little Puppy (1942). Popular culture was seeping into children's books as the industry had to adapt to the changing times and tastes." p. 37.
Maria Tatar, in Off With Their Heads provides some critical analysis of an alternative filmed version of "Snow White."
"The popular "Fairy Tale Theater" version of "Snow White," produced by Shelley Duvall, uses humor and imagination to defuse the formidable power of the wicked stepmother. That figure's narcissistic vanity is taken to such extremes that she becomes the buffoon of the story through her many expansive speeches celebrating her own beauty. Thus a figure who might, in other contexts, inspire terror becomes the laughingstock of the story.[footnote: While this version of "Snow White" inspired gales of laughter in the ten children that I observed watching it and seemed to have successfully attenuated the threat from the stepmother, it seemed also to go wrong in certain respects. At the very same time that vanity is parodied through the figure of the stepmother, the importance of physical appearances is repeatedly emphasized through the revulsion exhibited by each character who encounters the queen as an old hag and through the instant adoration directed at the lovely Snow White. The hate-at-first-sight and love-at-first-sight reactions send a clear message about the degree to which looks count and override any surface indictment of vanity. Story conferences for Disney's film reveal that the wicked queen was originally to be presented as "verging on the ridiculous"(22 October 1934) and as a "sort of vain-batty-self-satisfied, comedy type" (30 October 1934). pp. 270-71.] Shifting the narrative centers of power becomes an effective means for diminishing the threat of adult evil and strengthening children's confidence in their ability to conquer that threat." p.237.
Christopher Finch, in The Art of Walt Disney, writes:
"Snow White is distinguished by two seemingly opposed characteristics: economy of construction and extravagance of invention. As we have already observed, Disney's training in the field of cartoon shorts had taught him how to tell a story without wasting a single foot of film. There is nothing in "Snow White that does not contribute either to developing character or to moving plot. (Two scenes-the dwarfs eating soup and building a bed for Snow White-were deleted at the last moment.) Yet this does not lead to a feeling of spareness, because crammed into this framework is a profusion of detail that is almost overwhelming. The fruits of three years' work by hundreds of talents are compressed into eight-three minutes of action, imagery, music, and dialogue."
"The songs are memorable and, like everything else, contribute to the movement of the story. As for the animation, the character of each dwarf firmly established-each is a distinct individual. The development of the Queen is excellent, both before and after her transformation into the witchlike crone. The Huntsman is effective and the birds and animals function well as a kind of Greek chorus. Snow White occasionally seems a little too much like a twentieth-century co-ed, but she has great charm and easily wins our sympathy. The only real failure is the Prince, who seems wooden and lacks character (Snow White deserves a better consort). Above all, the entire movie manages to sustain the ambiance of timelessness which is so essential to the fairy-tale genre." pp. 197-198.
Kay Stone continues the argument in "Things Walt Disney Never Told Us."
"But Walt Disney is responsible not only for amplifying the stereotype of good versus bad women suggested by the children's books based on the Grimms, he must also be criticized for his portrayal of a cloying fantasy world filled with cute little beings existing among pretty flowers and singing animals. Though a recent magazine article["The World that Disney Built," Newsweek (October 15, 1973): 101-102.] calls him a "Master of Fantasy," in fact Disney has removed most of the powerful fantasy of the Maerchen and replaced it with false magic." p.44.

 

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Created January 6, 1997 and is continuously revised