Snow White, part 3


OK, Snow White . . . Trust me as I digress a bit. I’ll get back to Snow White.

One of the most profound differences between Newtonian physics and modern physics–Quantum Mechanics and Relativity and such–is the recognition that the observer makes a difference. In General Relativity, the accelerated observer carries with him a metaphoric clock and measuring stick, and Ernst Schroedinger’s cat has the observer opening it’s case to thank (or to blame) for the collapse of its wave function into a single state.

The observer is the mother reading the fairy tale to the child. So let’s continue our digression and talk about how fairy tales come to exist.

image origin unknown

Snow White in the coffin

A fairy tale (most of the time) starts as a made-up story that a mother or nurse-maid tells to her child; that is, a story that comes from the needs and perceptions, conscious and unconscious, of the the parent. The parent/story-teller reaches out with the story to the listening child. This reaching out is a gift, really. It’s an attempt to show something–often something unconscious on the part of the story-teller–to the listening child. And, of course, the stories that survive are the stories that can involve both generations of story tellers and generations of children.

With that in mind, let’s wake Snow White. We’ll dance the wicked mother to death in her hot iron boots and wrap up next time.

Snow White’s in the dwarfs’ cottage in her crystal casket, surrounded by candles, and she sleeps. Here we recall that she was seven when she left the castle and not much time has passed: she’s a prepubescent child, a latency-aged child in the dwarfs’ cottage, and it was her interest in the Queen’s wares that led to her death. What was the Queen selling? Puberty. . .  Corset-laces, combs and sexuality.

Snow White, or at any rate, Snow White’s interest in adult sexuality, is now dead (temporarily) and in a glass or crystal coffin. Other associations here: a caterpillar in a cocoon, eventually emerging as a butterfly, or the coffin as a womb and Snow White reborn from girl to adult woman. And the quality of the coffin is that Snow White is visible as she sleeps and grows . . .  and matures.

A king’s son travels through the forest and comes to the cottage. He sees the sleeping (beauty) Snow White and falls in love. The idea of falling in love with someone at first sight with no clue as to sense of humor, character or intellect is one that shouldn’t go unexamined, but I’m going to leave it be for now to get on with issues more specific to Snow White.

public domain

Sleeping Beauty by Edward Burne-Jones

The prince tries to bargain with the dwarfs for Snow White, but they turn him down flat. It isn’t until he professes his love for her and talks about his need and how sad he would be without her that the dwarfs decide to let her go. This, on the surface at least, is creepy and smacks a little of necrophilia . . . but remember that this is a magical death in which Snow White doesn’t breathe but doesn’t decay. She stays life-like with color in her cheeks and if the prince is now attracted to her she must also have grown, gone through puberty and matured. In fact, there is an Italian Snow White tale of Basile’s called The Young Slave which states this, and says that the seven caskets (in that story) grew with her.

If you look at the dwarfs, as we did earlier, as a representation of Snow White’s development . . . the school aged, prepubescent child who is industrious, reliable and decidedly asexual, the dwarfs’ dealings with the prince make a little more sense; to leave that protected state and give yourself over to someone as a mature adult, you wish for a relationship that involves love. It isn’t until the prince offers this that Snow White can leave the cottage.

Theodore Hoseman 1852--from Wikipedia

What about waking up? Once the casket with Snow White has left the dwarf’s cottage it is either a negligent or a hostile servant who dislodges the apple from her throat and allows her to wake. It isn’t the prince. In other versions of the Snow White story an enchanted ring is slipped from her finger by a would-be thief, a gown is damaged by a clumsy servant and when it’s taken off to be replaced Snow White awakens. It isn’t the girl’s would-be lover (as it is in many Sleeping Beauty tales). Why the distinction?

Bruno Bettelheim, whose discussion of Snow White in The Uses of Enchantment is highly recommended, in fact gives the prince the credit for carrying the coffin and dislodging the apple Though he doesn’t address why the prince-future husband isn’t the person who dislodges the apple, I think his comment points us in the right direction. Bettelheim says “Snow White’s spitting out of the suffocating apple–the bad object she had incorporated–marks her final freedom from primitive orality . . .” In other words, her mother had tried to sexualize her while she was still a latency-aged child (think of a 9 or 10 or so year-old trying to imitate the clothing and attitude of any of a multitude of  23 year old pop stars). Giving up that inappropriately sexualized childhood is certainly a step Snow White would have had to take to become an adult and embrace the prince . . . but could the prince really have helped her do that?

Snow White awakens, and what do they do? “They sat down together at the table and ate with joy.” Snow White, now a free, awake and adult woman sits and eats as an equal with her beloved. She incorporates the joy.

Next time, the wedding, the death of the Queen and some effort to integrate this into our picture of a mother retelling the story to her daughter.


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