Written by Anahit Behrooz.
The recent scholarly resurgence of fairy tales and folklore, and the litany of rewrites, spin offs and adaptations, prompts a reexamination of many of the genre’s characteristics and tropes. The character of the wicked stepmother has gained notoriety as one of the most evil villains to be found in fairy tales, frequently set up as a foil to the innocent and virtuous step daughter whom she mistreats and who ultimately gains victory over her. Indeed, the evil stepmother was the first antagonist to be portrayed in a Disney feature-length film, and since then her terrifying presence remains one of the key features of many fairy tale adaptations. Yet why did this particular figure gain such popularity as a literary villain, and what role specifically did the fairy tales of the Brother Grimm have to play in this? By referencing four specific tales within the Kinder- und Hausmärchen collection – Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Hänsel und Grethel (Hansel and Gretel), Rapunzel and Sneewittchen (Snow White) – this essay sets out to explore these questions: Why did a stepmother provide such a suitable figure of evil? In what ways did the Brothers Grimm set out to emphasise her brutal and malevolent nature? And, finally, whether, despite these strategies of characterisation, the figure of the stepmother in fairy tales arouses any sympathy as a character who is more complex and multi-faceted than a simple, two-dimensional foe.
Firstly let us begin by examining the reasons behind why the stepmother was selected as an appropriate antagonist within the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The term ‘selected’ is apropos here as, through an examination of the editorial changes made by the brothers throughout their various editions, it becomes clear that the stepmother was not always the original villain of the story. This is not to say that the Brothers Grimm invented the stepmother as a fairy tale antagonist; if we examine earlier versions of the tales, such as Perrault’s Cendrillon, written in 1697 and equivalent to the Grimms’ Aschenputtel, we see that the stepmother is a key character who behaves in the malicious, cruel way that modern readers have come to expect of her. This is not the case for all the tales, however, and a comparison of the Grimms’ original edition and their later editions quickly reveals this: while all the later versions of Sneewittchen – that is, from 1819 onwards – begin by describing a queen who longs for a daughter and dies in childbirth, only to have the father remarry, the 1812 version depicts a queen who longs for a daughter and quickly becomes jealous of her when the child grows and is deemed fairer than her. Thus in the original version, the role famously played by the stepmother is played by Sneewittchen’s real, biological mother. Similarly, in Hänsel und Grethel, it is not until the 1840 edition that the mother who encourages the father to abandon the children in the woods becomes a stepmother. It is therefore evident that the decision to make the stepmother a villainous figure in the tales was a conscious one. What is less clear is why such a selection was made.
Critics have offered various explanations as to this deliberate change: Bruno Bettelheim takes a decidedly psychoanalytical approach in arguing that ‘the typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother serves the child well – the fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry wishes about her’. Thus the child is able to compartmentalise and justify their negative reactions to a maternal figure without becoming overwhelmed by what they consider at that stage to be unnatural feelings. Although it is unlikely that the Brothers Grimm would have had a similarly Freudian rationale for making the change, it could be argued that they did not wish to disturb young children with tales of murderous parents, or destroy the ideal of a close family unit: an outsider to the family would be far simpler to villainise. Yet it must be pointed out here that, particularly in the case of their first few editions, the Grimms’ intended audience was not small children, but rather scholars and academics, who would presumably be far less easily horrified by tales of a wicked mother. Perhaps then the key reason for this change was in order to reflect the social reality of the period. Given the high mortality rate for childbearing women, the presence of a stepmother in a family would have been far more common than it is today. Furthermore, older widowed men would often marry much younger women as their second wives, thus radically reducing the age difference between the daughter and the stepmother and creating a dynamic which is open to much of the jealousy and competition seen between the female characters within fairy tales.
We can therefore begin to understand why the figure of the stepmother was vulnerable to appropriation and transformation into an evil character. But what narrative and characterisation strategies did the Brothers Grimm employ in order to emphasise her wicked nature within the tales themselves? One of their most striking strategies is to draw parallels between the character and actions of the stepmother, and other malevolent figures and creatures of folklore. One such example is the stepmothers’ tendency towards cannibalism, which draws direct links between her and the ogres of tales such as Blaubart (Bluebeard). In Sneewittchen, the stepmother demands that the huntsman bring back Sneewittchen’s lungs and liver: ‘Der Koch mußte sie in Salz kochen, und das boshafte Weib aß sie auf und meinte sie hätte Sneewittchen’s Leber und Lungen gegessen‘ (‘The cook was ordered to boil them with salt, and the wicked woman ate them and believed she had eaten Snow White’s liver and lungs’). The jarring simplicity with which this horrific deed is told, combined with the Grimms’ judgement of her as a ‘boshafter Weib‘ (‘wicked woman’) serve to underline the almost unnatural, evil nature of her act. In Hänsel und Grethel meanwhile, the witch in the gingerbread house – who I argue is strongly implied to be the stepmother, given her malevolent attitude towards the children, and the mysteriously convenient death of the stepmother at the end of the tale – cruelly plays on the starvation of the children in order to lure them into her house and eat them. Moreover, she forces Grethel to aid her in her attempts to eat Hänsel, and would have thus made her complicit in the crime if her attempts had succeeded.
There have been many different interpretations of the stepmothers’ urge to cannibalise her stepchildren: it could be argued that the stepmother in Sneewittchen believes that by consuming the girl’s body, she will somehow imbibe her beauty, while Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar defend that the act symbolises an attestation of power, pointing out that by ‘thinking she is devouring her ice-pure enemy, the Queen consumes instead the wild boar’s organs; that is, symbolically speaking, she devours her own beastly rage, and becomes (of course) even more enraged’. I would add that the act of cannibalism is specifically used in this context as it defies all the characteristics normally associated with a maternal figure: one who is nurturing, caring and protective. As Maria Tatar states, ‘cannibalistic female villains withhold food and threaten to turn children into their own source of nourishment, reincorporating them into the bodies that gave birth to them’. Thus by going against their intended maternal natures, these women transform into something monstrous and ogre-like.
Another way in which the Brothers Grimm emphasise the evil nature of the stepmother is through her association with witchcraft. Witches, as evidenced by the large-scale witch-hunts and trials which took place particularly throughout the Europe of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, were considered to be figures of great terror and misfortune. In the fairy tales, it is the power which the witches wield what sets them apart as characters to be feared. In the majority of the editions of Rapunzel (those from 1837 onwards), the first mention of the stepmother cum witch describes her as ‘[eine]…Zauberin…die große Macht hat, und von aller Welt gefürchetet wurde‘ (‘A witch with great power who was feared by all the world’). By immediately making the second clause follow the first, the Brothers Grimm imply causality. This is to say, the fear with which everyone reacts is a direct cause of her great power. This is also evident in the true parents’ reaction: the father is so frightened by the witch’s presence and her anger that he agrees to give up his own child to her immediately rather than risk her wrath. In Sneewittchen, meanwhile, the queen uses her witchcraft to kill Sneewittchen not only once, but three times, thereby highlighting her great power. Alfred David and Mary Elizabeth David also draw attention to the queen’s reaction to her supposedly successful murder as the glee with which she reacts is more pronounced in the Brothers’ last editions. So, while in the first ones, the reader is simply told, ‘sie freute sich‘ (‘she was pleased’), in editions of 1837, her pleasure has become sadistic: ‘[sie]…lachte überlaut, und sprach »weiß wie Schnee, roth wie Blut, schwarz wie Ebenholz! diesmal können dich die Zwerge nicht wieder erwecken’ (‘she laughed aloud and said: “white as snow, red as blood, black as ebony! This time the dwarfs cannot wake you.”’). By taking pleasure in the evilness of acts brought about by dark magic, the queen reveals herself to be irredeemably wicked.
Furthermore, the way in which this power manifests is noteworthy. The evil stepmothers are not the only beings who have magical abilities in the fairy tales, the virtuous characters can have them too. In Aschenputtel, the eponymous character calls to the birds to help her sort the lentils as her stepmother has ordered, and when her stepmother abandons her at home, she goes to the tree next to her mother’s grave for aid and says: “Bäumchen, rüttel dich und schüttel dich/ wirf Gold und Silber über mich” (‘Little trees, rustle and shake, throw gold and silver over me’). Written in this rhymed form, Aschenputtel’s words becomes almost incantation-like, and the results are certainly magical – they cannot be explained in any rational or scientific way. The profound difference between this type of magic and that of the evil stepmothers is that Aschenputtel’s magic is linked firmly to nature – to the work of the birds and animals and plants. This positive representation of the power of nature is perhaps a reflection of Romantic ideology, and provides a strong contrast to the magic of the stepmothers, which is unexplained, unnatural and dark. Thus, it is not only their link to witchcraft which paints the stepmothers as evil beings, but the way in which they harness and use this power.
What is striking in the tales is how the power the stepmothers have reflects itself in the narrative. Unlike the pure, virtuous protagonists, these women provide much of the narrative drive of the tales and possess a considerable amount of agency in their actions. The main action of Sneewittchen only happens when the stepmother takes a violent dislike to Sneewittchen and acts on it; Aschenputtel lives an uneventful existence until her father remarries; it is the stepmother’s decision in Hänsel und Grethel, firstly to drive them out, and then to attempt to kill them and, it is the actions of the witch in Rapunzel which bring about almost all of the key points of the plot – the taking of the child, locking her in the tower, abandoning her in the wilderness. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the stepmother in Snow White is indeed driven by want of an ‘”unfeminine” life of stories and story-telling’; each of her three attempts on Sneewittchen’s life become three tales or plots which she invents, and through such subversive “story-telling”, she attempts to control the narrative of her own life. Therefore, through their overwhelming influence on the plot of the tales, these women demonstrate again their strength and power, and pit themselves against the fragile, passive heroines.
Although the stepmothers assert their superior power over the young girls they terrorise, they are ultimately vanquished, usually not by the girls themselves (although Hänsel und Grethel is an exception) but rather by men: by the princes who fall in love with and ultimately rescue the heroines. Although throughout the majority of the tale, these women are depicted as strong, dominating characters, they are rendered ultimately powerless in the face of these male figures. I would argue that these endings are in fact indicative of a pervasive trend from the very beginning of the tales: that of the power of the patriarchy in controlling these women’s lives and ultimately contributing to the development of their evil nature. Thus, these fairy tales become part of a patriarchal literary tradition which seeks to undermine powerful and dominant women by presenting them as malignant and associating them to witchcraft and cannibalism. The shift from mother to stepmother as seen through a patriarchal lens also becomes more profound: evil, destructive mothers presented a challenge to patriarchal family values, whereas stepmothers were outsiders and could therefore act as a warning to other women without completely defying patriarchal structures. These depictions of stepmothers were so powerful that even today, we have internalised the narrative of a powerful woman equating to an evil woman.
The ultimate powerlessness of the stepmothers at the hands of men is not only portrayed through their violent endings, it is also depicted in female dependence on male approval throughout the texts. In Sneewittchen, for example, the main conflict revolves around the jealousy between stepmother and daughter surrounding the daughter’s beauty when she begins to mature from a small child. The idea of beauty within the Grimms’ tales is highly gendered; Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz carried out a study by coding references to beauty and physical appearance within the tales, and cross-referencing this with mentions of gender and age. Their findings, rather unsurprisingly, revealed that references to beauty were highest among the female characters and especially amongst the youngest ones. This attitude towards the importance of physical attractiveness in females is presumably indicative of the general social attitude of the time, and goes some way towards explaining the stepmother’s bitterness and jealousy towards the character she naturally sees as a rival. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the voice in the mirror which haunts the stepmother can be seen as the voice of her husband or, I would argue, the voice of any dominant male which ‘rules the Queen’s (and every woman’s) self-evaluation…’. In Aschenputtel we see the darker side of this beauty ideal, where the stepmother encourages her daughters to mutilate their feet in order to fit into the slipper and trick the prince. Particularly for modern readers, this will be uncomfortably reminiscent of the present-day beauty industry, of the plastic-surgery, Photoshop and eating disorders which twist and conform women into the requisite beauty ideal. If this is the world the stepmother is forced into, where she must viciously compete with other women in order to attract and keep men, and therefore status, stability and significance, her resorting to evil in order to maintain her position becomes, if not justifiable, at least understandable. By seeing the stepmother as a victim of patriarchal values, much in the same way the heroines are a victim of her, her character becomes more than the trope of “Wicked Queen” or “Evil Stepmother”, but rather a complex character deserving of the reader’s consideration and sympathy.
In conclusion, the Brothers Grimm played a great part in contributing to the construction of the “evil stepmother” character in fairy tales. Through the editorial changes they made, and their emphasis on the monstrous, cruel and unnatural aspects of her character, they transformed the figure of the stepmother into the ultimate fairy tale villain whose legacy continues to this day. Yet, as feminist critics such as Tatar, Gilbert and Gubar have demonstrated, the stepmother has also become a scapegoat, a terrifying figure who goes against all of the expectations of women and motherhood, but who is nevertheless herself a victim of the situation and the society she finds herself in.
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