There was once a rich man whose wife lay sick, and when she felt her end drawing near she called to her only daughter to come near her bed, and said, “Dear child, be pious and good, and God will always take care of you, and I will look down upon you from heaven, and will be with you.” And then she closed her eyes and expired. The maiden went every day to her mother’s grave and wept, and was always pious and good. When the winter came the snow covered the grave with a white covering, and when the sun came in the early spring and melted it away, the man took to himself another wife.
Cinderella is one of the oldest and most popular fairy tales out there. I remember reading somewhere that there are over 700 Cinderella stories have been documented and the story is believed to be over a thousand years old. Cat Cinderella by Giambattista Basile is the earliest written version though and it debuted in 1634. Basile began his tale by proclaiming, “Envy is ever a sea of malignancy” which sets the tone for the whole story.
Cinderella is often looked at the princess who just sits there waiting for her prince, but I have to say I don’t see it that way at all (mostly).
Basile’s Cinderella, along with Grimm’s, is a much different version than the one we’re used to and I think they have a much stronger point than the Perrault version that Disney used. These are the two I’m going to focus on the most, but you can read Perrault’s version here.
In all three of these versions of Cinderella, Cinderella’s mother is either dead already or in the process of dying in the beginning of the story. Then, as expected, Cinderella’s father re-marries and all hell breaks loose because of the new stepmother’s jealousy about Cinderella’s role in the household.
The new wife brought two daughters home with her, and they were beautiful and fair in appearance, but at heart were, black and ugly. And then began very evil times for the poor step-daughter. “Is the stupid creature to sit in the same room with us?” said they; “those who eat food must earn it. Out upon her for a kitchen-maid!” They took away her pretty dresses, and put on her an old grey kirtle, and gave her wooden shoes to wear. “Just look now at the proud princess, how she is decked out!” cried they laughing, and then they sent her into the kitchen. There she was obliged to do heavy work from morning to night, get up early in the morning, draw water, make the fires, cook, and wash. Besides that, the sisters did their utmost to torment her, mocking her, and strewing peas and lentils among the ashes, and setting her to pick them up. In the evenings, when she was quite tired out with her hard day’s work, she had no bed to lie on, but was obliged to rest on the hearth among the cinders. And as she always looked dusty and dirty, they named her Cinderella.
What I’ve always found interesting about the Cinderella story is why Cinderella decided to stay and be treated like a maid. This is the only blood kin daughter of a wealthy merchant and yet she’s forced to clean and cook all day. I mean, if Snow White can survive in the forest than surely Cinderella can as well. An interesting idea I’ve read is that Cinderella suffers because she knows she has to for her own transformation from an adolescent to a maiden. I think this has theory some validity to it and would explain why so many heroines either suffer or fall asleep during the time they’re transforming from young girls into sexual beings.
Through Cinderella’s suffering she learns strength of character that her step sisters don’t have. Cinderella is no longer reliant on her family, but her step sisters are stuck in a perpetual state of child-ness. Instead of clinging to her stepmother, as her stepsisters do, Cinderella sees the new mother figure as oppressive. It’s important to see that Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters are also a force for growth though.
It happened one day that the father went to the fair, and he asked his two step-daughters what he should bring back for them. “Fine clothes!” said one. “Pearls and jewels!” said the other. “But what will you have, Cinderella?” said he. “The first twig, father, that strikes against your hat on the way home; that is what I should like you to bring me.” So he bought for the two step-daughters fine clothes, pearls, and jewels, and on his way back, as he rode through a green lane, a hazel-twig struck against his hat; and he broke it off and carried it home with him. And when he reached home he gave to the step-daughters what they had wished for, and to Cinderella he gave the hazel-twig. She thanked him, and went to her mother’s grave, and planted this twig there, weeping so bitterly that the tears fell upon it and watered it, and it flourished and became a fine tree. Cinderella went to see it three times a day, and wept and prayed, and each time a white bird rose up from the tree, and if she uttered any wish the bird brought her whatever she had wished for.
If there’s anything I’ve learned reading fairy tales, it’s that fathers should be quite worried if their daughters ask for something alive like a branch or a rose.
Now if came to pass that the king ordained a festival that should last for three days, and to which all the beautiful young women of that country were bidden, so that the king’s son might choose a bride from among them. When the two stepdaughters heard that they too were bidden to appear, they felt very pleased, and they called Cinderella, and said, “Comb our hair, brush our shoes, and make our buckles fast, we are going to the wedding feast at the king’s castle.” Cinderella, when she heard this, could not help crying, for she too would have liked to go to the dance, and she begged her step-mother to allow her. “What, you Cinderella!” said she, “in all your dust and dirt, you want to go to the festival! you that have no dress and no shoes! you want to dance!”
When the stepsisters and the stepmother mock Cinderella about going to the ball, this is what emboldens her to find a way to go on her own. Whether or no we want to admit it, surfaces count. That is what the stepsisters show Cinderella and part of her is jealous of that. The problem though, is that the stepsisters are all surface. There is nothing going on underneath all that makeup and fancy clothes. Cinderella, on the other hand, is all soul and no surface. In defiance of her stepmother and stepsisters she finally gets that surface (i.e. the gown and slippers). Who knows what would have happened if Cinderella would have never burst into tears as the stepsister’s flounce out of the house on their way to the ball? Whether or not we like the stepsisters in this story, we have to give them credit for creating a discontent in Cinderella and propelling her transformation.
This is why I don’t think of Cinderella as a princess just waiting for her prince. Cinderella had the power to ask for a nice clothes and jewels all along, but she wasn’t ready yet. She wasn’t strong enough to ask for the things she wanted. And where did Cinderella get that power in the first place? From nourishing the tree herself. Cinderella’s power for transformation comes from herself in all but Perrault’s version. Unfortunately, as I said before, Perrault’s story is what Disney worked with and we have lost that message in the most known story today. In the Disney version, and its predecessor, transformation comes out of the blue. Cinderella has no part in it. Instead of her suffering being part of her growth and the catalyst for change (along with the stepsisters), Cinderella is shown to be happy and cheerful with her abuses. Then a fairy just appears out of nowhere and conjures up the goods (plus I like the mother element the tree adds to the story).
And as there was no one left in the house, Cinderella went to her mother’s grave, under the hazel bush, and cried,
“Little tree, little tree, shake over me,
That silver and gold may come down and cover me.”
Then the bird threw down a dress of gold and silver, and a pair of slippers embroidered with silk and silver. , And in all haste she put on the dress and went to the festival. But her step-mother and sisters did not know her, and thought she must be a foreign princess, she looked so beautiful in her golden dress. Of Cinderella they never thought at all, and supposed that she was sitting at home, arid picking the lentils out of the ashes. The King’s son came to meet her, and took her by the hand and danced with her, and he refused to stand up with any one else, so that he might not be obliged to let go her hand; and when any one came to claim it he answered, “She is my partner.”
Whether is be by fairy or a magic tree though, this is the point in the story where Cinderella transforms from and adolescent into a woman. This is the point where Cinderella can acknowledge that she is beautiful and worthy of love. (It’s also worth wondering why Cinderella would run away from the prince three times if she was just waiting to be rescued.)
Ultimately, the third time Cinderella leaves a slipper the last time she dashes away from the prince. Many people have explained how the shoe represents Cinderella’s sexuality and a glass shoe her virginity, but I’m not gonna get too much into that. The point is the prince, not knowing what else to do, decides that he will marry whoever the shoe belongs to.
And when it was evening Cinderella wanted to go home, and the prince was about to go with her, when she ran past him so quickly that he could not follow her. But he had laid a plan, and had caused all the steps to be spread with pitch, so that as she rushed down them the left shoe of the maiden remained sticking in it. The prince picked it up, and saw that it was of gold, and very small and slender. The next morning he went to the father and told him that none should be his bride save the one whose foot the golden shoe should fit. Then the two sisters were very glad, because they had pretty feet. The eldest went to her room to try on the shoe, and her mother stood by. But she could not get her great toe into it, for the shoe was too small; then her mother handed her a knife, and said, “Cut the toe off, for when you are queen you will never have to go on foot.” So the girl cut her toe off, squeezed her foot into the shoe, concealed the pain, and went down to the prince. Then he took her with him on his horse as his bride, and rode off. They had to pass by the grave, and there sat the two pigeons on the hazel bush, and cried,
“There they go, there they go!
There is blood on her shoe;
The shoe is too small,
Not the right bride at all!”
Then the prince looked at her shoe, and saw the blood flowing. And he turned his horse round and took the false bride home again, saying she was not the right one, and that the other sister must try on the shoe. So she went into her room to do so, and got her toes comfortably in, but her heel was too large. Then her mother handed her the knife, saying, “Cut a piece off your heel; when you are queen you will never have to go on foot.” So the girl cut a piece off her heel, and thrust her foot into the shoe, concealed the pain, and went down to the prince, who took his bride before him on his horse and rode off. When they passed by the hazel bush the two pigeons sat there and cried,
“There they go, there they go!
There is blood on her shoe;
The shoe is too small,
Not the right bride at all!”
Then the prince looked at her foot, and saw how the blood was flowing from the shoe, and staining the white stocking. And he turned his horse round and brought the false bride home again. “This is not the right one,” said he, “have you no other daughter?” - “No,” said the man, “only my dead wife left behind her a little stunted Cinderella; it is impossible that she can be the bride.” But the King’s son ordered her to be sent for, but the mother said, “Oh no! she is much too dirty, I could not let her be seen.” But he would have her fetched, and so Cinderella had to appear. First she washed her face and hands quite clean, and went in and curtseyed to the prince, who held out to her the golden shoe. Then she sat down on a stool, drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe, and slipped it into the golden one, which fitted it perfectly. And when she stood up, and the prince looked in her face, he knew again the beautiful maiden that had danced with him, and he cried, “This is the right bride!” The step-mother and the two sisters were thunderstruck, and grew pale with anger; but he put Cinderella before him on his horse and rode off.
So the prince passes the test and recognizes Cinderella even in her rags. This is also another example of the stepmother’s envy. The stepmother has no qualms about mutilating her daughters in order for them to ascend to the throne.
It’s interesting that even though people like the Cinderella story because it seems like a “rags to riches” story, during the time Perrault wrote the story social distinctions were seen as something immovable and intrinsic. Maids couldn’t become princesses. But girls from wealthy families disguised as maids could.
And finally, it wouldn’t be a Grimm story if it didn’t end on a bloody note.
And when her wedding with the prince was appointed to be held the false sisters came, hoping to curry favour, and to take part in the festivities. So as the bridal procession went to the church, the eldest walked on the right side and the younger on the left, and the pigeons picked out an eye of each of them. And as they returned the elder was on the left side and the younger on the right, and the pigeons picked out the other eye of each of them. And so they were condemned to go blind for the rest of their days because of their wickedness and falsehood.
I know I can’t be the only one who wonders why the sisters are punished instead of the mother. One theory is that it’s because the stepmother of this story has children of her own and therefore considered a true mother instead of just a wicked replacement. Another is that she didn’t actually try to kill Cinderella. Though the theme of envy isn’t so heavily handed in Cinderella as vanity is in Snow White, I think the story does do a good job of showing how jealousy can affect interpersonal relationships.
Either way, the stepsisters having their eyes pecked out is symbolic. Not only is jealousy the green eyed monster, but the stepsisters also refused to see the good that was inside Cinderella. It’s definitely fitting in a gruesome fairy tale sort of way.
Picture by Arthur Rackham and scanned from my Tales of the Brothers Grimm
Edit: I forgot to mention that Disney’s decision to turn Cinderella’s stepsisters into buffoons is another problem I have with his version. The idea that beautiful people can be ugly on the inside is a message children should be taught and I don’t understand why he decided to change it. Do we really find it so hard to dislike a pretty face?