Tales From Event City: A Philosophical Fairy Tale

In a rather lengthy introduction to his 1976 analytical book The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim describes a child’s need to create meaning in life in order to obtain happiness in adulthood. In order to do so, the child must make sense of himself in order to eventually comprehend the world around him. As Bettelheim continues: “With this he becomes more able to understand others, and eventually can relate to them in ways which are mutually satisfying and meaningful” (Bettelheim 3). However, as is natural with any kind of development, the child must be able to find meaning in life gradually; the world must be presented to him in a manner that suits how the still-developing brain perceives its environment. The natural way to do this, Bettelheim argues, is through fairy tales.

“…These tales, in a much deeper sense than any other reading material, start where the child really is in his psychological and emotional being. They speak about his severe inner pressures in a way that the child subconsciously understands, and — without belittling the most serious inner struggles growing up entails — offer examples of both temporary and permanent solutions to pressing difficulties” (Bettelheim 6).

It is made clear that Bettelheim finds fairy tales important because they are written and presented in such a way that a child fundamentally understands without even realizing, leading to a natural fascination to the existential issues fairy tales address in either obvious or subtle ways. The child often does not realize that they are able to ponder such universal questions such as death, independence or self-worth, but are able to identify these ideas through the reading of fairy tales.

Bettelheim continues to state how fairy tales naturally address complex ideas: “It is the characteristic of fairy tales to state an existential dilemma briefly and pointedly. This permits the child to come to grips with the problem in its most existential form, where a more complex plot would confuse matters for him. The fairy tale simplifies all situations. Its figures are clearly drawn; and detail, unless very important, are eliminated. All characters are typical rather than unique” (Bettelheim 6).

It is with this knowledge in mind that we are able to recognize and analyze the significance of Snow White as written by The Brothers Grimm, and begin to compare and contrast it’s messages and presentation to 1937’s feature length Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This will lead one to understand how Disney’s impact on the youth is either similar or entirely different to the impact Bettelheim often refers to.

The tale of Snow White is one of the most widely recognized stories in human history, as it has been told throughout all of Europe for countless centuries. To many experts, the story of Snow White is defined by the oedipal conflict between the young Snow White and her wicked stepmother, often referred to as simply The Queen. In almost every variation of the story, The Queen develops an unrelenting hatred for Snow White when the child begins to come of age and threatens her sexuality and beauty in competition.

“The stepmother begins to to feel threatened by Snow White and becomes jealous. The stepmother’s narcissism is demonstrated by her seeking reassurance about her beauty from the magic mirror long before Snow White’s beauty eclipses hers” (Bettelheim 202).

The message behind The Queen’s villainy is seen by many as rather straightforward: “It is the narcissistic parent who feels most threatened by his child’s growing up because that means the parent must be aging. When the child matures and reaches for independence, then he is experienced as a menace by such parent” (Bettelheim 203).

This is the widely recognized conflict in both the Grimm telling of Snow White and the Disney portrayal — the conflict is completely driven by The Queen’s jealousy of Snow White’s beauty and her concocting of ways to get rid of the child so she is again seen as the “fairest of them all” (Grimm 86). It is interesting to point out, however, that while both variations of the story share the same conflict, the differences in how it is presented to audiences is quite revealing in a variety of fascinating ways.

The Brothers Grimm story features The Queen torn with rage upon hearing the news of Snow White’s beauty. She summons the Huntsman and demands: “You must kill her and bring me her lungs and liver in proof of your deed” (Grimm 84). When the Huntsman is unable to murder young Snow White because of her innocence and beauty, he leaves her stranded alone in the woods, kills a boar and gives The Queen its lungs and liver, which she consumes after boiled in brine. The Queen in the Grimm story not only wants to best Snow White, but inherit her beautiful traits as well.

Once The Queen discovers that the child is still alive and living with the seven dwarfs, she lays out three attempts to kill Snow White. First, she visits the dwarfs’ house while they are at work dressed as an old peddler woman. She offers Snow White a corset to try on, which Snow White is so excited by that she allows the woman inside immediately. The Queen cuts off the child’s air with the corset, but the dwarfs return and save her soon after, warning Snow White not to let any strangers into the house. The next day, the Queen returns again as a peddler, this time offering Snow White a poisoned comb. Upon seeing the comb, Snow White “liked it so much she was completely fooled and opened the door” (Grimm 87). Again, the dwarfs return to find Snow White near dead, save her life, and warn her against the Queen’s trickery. Finally, the Queen returns again the next day, offering Snow White a poisoned apple. Though Snow White denies the apple at first, she is again fooled when the Queen offers: “Here, I’ll cut the apple in two. You eat the red part, I’ll eat the white” (Grimm 88). Of course, the red part of the apple is poisoned while the white is not, causing Snow White to fall into a deathly sleep.

These trials are meant to represent the temptation to be sexually attractive, as Snow White cannot help but want as her body begins to mature. Each time she is tempted, she comes closer to death and farther from the dwarfs’ trust, until finally: “The third time Snow White gives into temptation… The dwarfs can no longer help her then, because regression from adolescence to a latency existence has ceased to be a solution for Snow White” (Bettelheim 212). In the Grimm fairy tale, the dwarfs represent a safety and innocence by providing Snow White an environment where sex is not prominent, as if Snow White is taking refuge in the comfort of childhood innocence… whereas the red of the apple is a common symbol for sex and temptation that can be identified back to the Bible. However, it is worth noting that the Queen and Snow White together share the apple, a metaphor Bettelheim believes to represent: “something mother and daughter have in common which runs deeper than their jealousy of each other — their mature sexual desires” (Bettelheim 213). Throughout the tale the audience is reminded of Snow White’s double identity — the red of blood and the white of snow. By biting into the red of the apple, she makes the decision to embrace a sexual maturity and leave behind the safety of adolescence.

These complex portrayals of womanhood are hardly apparent in the Disney version of Snow White — but the theme of the oedipal complex is what fuels the animated film in a near identical manner. The plot of the film is driven by the Queen and the Queen alone… the story begins with presenting the conflict that she has been surpassed by the child’s beauty — causing the story to truly begin. Of all the story beats and ideas derived of The Brothers Grimm, Walt Disney is without a doubt the most loyal to the conflict of a parent figure refusing to allow the child to surpass them. When looking at Disney’s childhood, does this really come as such a surprise?

As the PBS American Experience Documentary on Walt Disney’s life addresses: “Just as he was beginning to get some traction in the modern movie industry, Walt’s parents arrive from Chicago, they had moved in with their sons because they had nowhere else to turn. [Their] jelly factory had failed, the latest in a long long of Elias’s [Walt’s father] business disasters. His father took little joy in Walt’s minor celebrity… Walt began to worry he was going to end up once again in service to his father” (PBS).

Does this not resemble the same conflict of the narcissistic parent refusing to allow the child to overtake them out of envy? Just as Bettelheim suggests that the Queen and Snow White share the same sexual maturity, he also proposes the child often shares the same narcissism as the parent, referring to a common struggle upon their budding maturity.

If a child cannot permit himself to feel his jealousy of a parent… he projects his feelings onto the parent. Then ‘I am jealous of all the advantages and prerogatives of Mother’ turn into the wishful thought ‘Mother is jealous of me’” (Bettelheim 204).

Perhaps Disney’s absolute obsession with the story of Snow White was related to the fact that he either consciously or subconsciously related to the story’s central conflict, and embodied that inner turmoil in reality. Note that the events from the Grimm fairy tale involving the corset and comb are not included in the film, as those refer more directly to female maturity — something that neither Disney nor his male colleagues could very much relate to. Of all the themes suggested in Snow White, Disney and his team only seemed sure to stay faithful to the specific storyline of parent thwarting child. The studio took creative liberty in almost every other aspect of the film, not in the interest of passing on the lessons of fairy tales but instead to create familiar cinematic arcs and cartoon humor.

In giving an introduction to the very concept of Snow White in her collection The Classic Fairy Tales, author Maria Tatar begins by addressing the immense popularity of Walt Disney’s adaptation.

“Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has so eclipsed other versions of the story that it is easy to forget that hundreds of variants have been collected over the past century… it has had the most significant impact on children today” (Tatar 77).

The movie’s influence is most likely due to Disney’s obsession with creating crowd-pleasing pieces of film through his reliance on cartoon humor that makes up most of his film’s second act.

As feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out: “Disney entitled [his film] “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” it should really be called Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother, for the central action of the tale — indeed, its only real action — arises from the relationship between these two women” (Gilbert & Gubar 291). The critics are indeed correct, as it has been pointed out several times in this essay alone. So why did Disney decide to include the dwarfs in the title instead of its only antagonist? Simply put: because the dwarfs were (and remain) easily marketable and likable.

In the Grimm fairy tale, the dwarfs are not given any individual identities. They are simply meant to represent a “peaceful, pre-adolescent period” (Bettelheim 210) and do not need any more individualism than what is collectively given. Disney provides each dwarf a personality to garner humor, sympathy and human emotion from the audiences, as creating characters with distinct traits creates more of a character dynamic audiences may latch onto.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs predecessor, the Silly Symphony animated series, is a collection of comedy shorts made up of slapstick animation and gags that invoked humor. In the wake of his first feature length project, Disney not only focused on humor, but sadness.

“Snow White would have to captivate its audience in a way that no cartoon had ever done before… Walt Disney asked another question: ‘Can you make people cry? Can you make people cry over a drawing?’” (PBS).

In order for Disney to achieve his goal of creating real human emotion, he knew that the audience would have to be invested in the characters. Though the Queen creates the conflict, the heart of the film is the touching dynamic between Snow White and the dwarfs. A large portion of the film is spent not in progressing the plot, but simply focusing on the princess having fun with her friends in their cottage. Disney relies heavily on musical numbers and similar slapstick gags that the studio had mastered through the Silly Symphony series in order to make the audience feel attached to the drawings they were watching. Once tragedy struck, it made the turn of events all the more heartbreaking. Snow White’s death in the film would be meaningless if not for the exaggerated reactions of the Dwarfs, specifically Grumpy — the least likely source of emotion other than anger throughout the entire story. Bettelheim has gone on record saying: “Giving each dwarf a separate name and a distinct personality as in the Walt Disney Film, seriously interferes with the unconscious understanding that they symbolize an immature pre-individual form form of existence which Snow White must transcend. Such ill-considered additions to fairy tales, which seemingly increase human interest, actually are apt to destroy it because they make it difficult to grasp the story’s deeper meaning correctly” (Bettelheim 210).

Disney was clearly not focused on the subconscious effect of the film, as almost every major decision is made strictly to create an exciting film spectacle, and not to express the original tale’s meaning. As Disney himself once said about Snow White: “We just try to make a good picture. And then the professors come along and tell us what we need to do” (Time 21). Examples are abound. In the fairy tale, the introduction to the story is focused on Snow White’s true mother pricking her finger before giving birth, alluding to menstrual bleeding that is required before a woman can produce life. Somehow Disney decided this would not make for appropriate modern entertainment. In the fairy tale, the Prince is not even introduced until the very end of the story, and does not kiss Snow White to wake her from her slumber. In the film, we meet the Prince early on and are introduced to Snow White as a woman who craves her one true love, so that the Prince’s arrival at the end does not seem as random.

In the fairy tale, the dwarfs are meant to be useless in protecting the princess. In the Disney version, they avenge Snow White by pursuing the wicked Queen. In the fairy tale, the Queen is punished for her evil ways by being forced to put on red hot shows and “dance until she drop dead” (Grimm 89). In the Disney version, the Queen is dramatically struck by lightning and falls to her death.

Source : https://medium.com/@renwald12/grimm-fairy-tales-their-successors-a-study-on-snow-white-4e11fb7d3c77

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