Cinderella illustrations by Harry Clarke
Cinderella is one of the best-known tales in the world, but the Cinderella we know is a censored, sanitized, gutted, Disney-fied version of the original as recorded by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. We read the Grimms’ Cinderella in an English translation recently and were surprised at the differences between the story we were told and the story as they wrote it.
In the old tale, Cinderella’s mother dies and her father remarries. As kids we were told that Cinderella had a wicked stepmother and two ugly, wicked stepsisters. According to the Grimms:
The stepsisters were not ugly. Then why were we told that they were hideous? Was it to assure us that cruelty and meanness can be spotted immediately, the bad being ugly and the good pretty? Leaving us to discover as we get older that there is little correlation between looks and character. Evil can be good-looking or ugly.
In the old tale, Cinderella’s father is still alive. In the version we were told, Cinderella’s father died, probably killed by the stepmother. Why the disparity? Was it to gloss over the fact that the father did nothing at all to protect his daughter from his new wife, and allowed her to be maltreated by her stepsisters?
Cinderella doesn’t help her own case by being a doormat and a goody-goody. Instead of protesting her maltreatment and asserting her rights as the daughter of the house, she meekly does what she is told. They enslave her and and throw her peas and lentils into the ashes so she has to pick them out again.
One day her father is going to the fair, so he asks the stepdaughters what he can get them. Beautiful dresses, they say, and jewels. Then he asks Cinderella what she would like, and Cinderella asks for the first branch that knocks against his hat on his way home. What! Fine, she’s not greedy and she’s a better person than her stepsisters, but she didn’t have to fling her goodness in everyone’s face. That’s irritating.
The father brings home the requested branch, which Cinderella plants on her mother’s grave and waters with her tears. A tree grows on it, then birds settle on it and whenever Cinderella asks for something, they throw it down to her. (She did not ask for a spine or a lawyer.)
In short, there is no Fairy Godmother in the original tale. Who added the fairy godmother character? Was it so all these stories could be called “fairy tales”? Granted, someone also grants Cinderella’s wishes, but that would be Nature and the memory of her mother. Who told us that in times of crisis, some magical creature would appear and solve our problems with a wave of her magic wand? Let’s find them and slap them.
The festival is announced, and the wicked stepmother and stepdaughter make plans. Cinderella also wants to go, and they mock her because she has nothing to wear. However, she insists upon going, so
Her benefactors the birds pick the lentils out of the ashes, and then they produce a gold and silver ballgown for her to wear. She goes to the festival, makes a great impression on the Prince, then escapes from him. She couldn’t report that she was being oppressed at home and ask him to send the police? Anyway, in the original tale the Prince accompanies her home because he wants to find out where he lives. She manages to elude him by hiding in the pigeon-coop.
As in the version we were told, she goes to the festival three times and runs away three times. The Prince is not a dolt.
He sets out to find the owner of the slipper by having the women of the kingdom try it on.
Also, he announces that he will marry the woman connected to the foot that fits—clearly he did not know that some people have the exact same size. He turns up at Cinderella’s house, and of course the eldest stepsister gets first dibs.
What a wonderful turn of events! It tells us that some people are so desperate to get what they want, they will even mutilate themselves. But this is left out of the version we were told. Why? Too gory?
After this outing by the birds, the eldest stepdaughter is returned to her mother. The second stepdaughter then tries the shoe, and since it doesn’t fit she cuts off her heels in order to wedge them in. Finally Cinderella gets her chance. The shoe is tried on. It fits. They have the wedding.
The stepsisters have the gall to accompany Cinderella to her wedding, and as they are standing on either side of her, birds pluck out the right eye of one and the left eye of the other. On their way out of the church they exchange places and the birds pluck out their other eyes. Thus they are punished for their wickedness.
What does the original tale tell young readers? That there is cruelty within families and they cannot always rely on the protection of their elders.
What did the sanitized and censored version tell us as young readers? That if we are patient, obedient, and especially, pretty, our fairy godmother will find us a handsome prince to marry. Because that is the solution to everything.