Snow White–the end

28May11

Jan brings up that Snow White is one of the most passive of heroines. What does she do? She begs the huntsman to spare her, she cries and she runs. She enters the dwarfs’ house and steals a meal. When she wakes up she tells her tale to the dwarfs and agrees to cook and clean. She allows the witch to enter the cottage three times. When she finally awakens from her third (near-) death experience, she hears the tale and the prince’s profession of love, agrees to marry him, and dines with him. That’s pretty much it. She’s a little more of a character than Sleeping Beauty, but not by much.

Snow White by Jisuk Cho

The Queen/mother, in contrast, is all action. She seeks out competition and destroys it, over and over again. Even in the face of certain doom she chooses to go to her daughter’s wedding. Even her death is active. Yes, she’s tortured, but she dances to death in those red-hot boots.  My picture of her is that the boots are applied and she’s expected to scream and faint, but defiantly dances . . . OK, it’s not in the story that way, but I think it’s a better story that way.

There’s almost a yin and yang quality to the pair of them: the queen active, passionate, jealous and Snow White passive and . . . what? There isn’t a lot . . . She seems to reflect the latency industriousness of the dwarfs when they’re around, and when they’re not you can almost see her by the reflected light of her mother’s sexuality, trying on brightly colored silk laces for her bodice, looking at new combs for her hair. Even the love she feels for the prince almost seems a reflection of his for her. “I saw you laying there under glass and I fell in love with you (anyway, with what you look like and what I imagine you to be). I love you. Be my wife.” And you see her saying, “Um . . . OK.”

There’s a place-holding quality to the fairy tale hero: she’s never a full or rounded person as the story is told. The narrative of the story tells us that she is beautiful, and her actions say that she is not particularly courageous as she cries and begs the huntsman, not particularly honest as she’s taking the dwarfs’ dinner, not particularly smart letting the queen in three times . . . but sweet enough that the huntsman and the dwarfs are not put off by her. It all comes down to beauty—pleasant passivity as well, but mainly beauty.

No acquisitions editor today would ever buy this story. Readers, each of them would cheerfully and earnestly tell you, would never identify with such a passive main character; her actions and desires must drive the story. Snow White should trick the huntsman into freeing her and lead the dwarfs in a guerrilla war against the palace. As for falling in love with a creep who saw you sleeping and tried to buy you from some dwarfs . . .

And yet, since the fairy tale was written down 199 years ago by the Grimms it’s spawned more than a dozen movies as well as plays, an opera, and countless literary adaptations. Why does it survive?

Partly, perhaps, is that this is a told story.  You learn this story from someone you love so it becomes the shared experience and the shared affect. In the telling of the story by your mother, you learn that she, too, was a little girl just like you and that she grew up successfully.

Jan also points out that little girls love Snow White, the character: they take her as an ideal because everyone loves her. They imagine themselves as someone who is loved by all because their own wonderful qualities are visible to all. And most people do love young children on sight as children. Snow White is taken as a sexual competitor by her mother, and loved at first sight as an adult by the king’s son. She looks at the laces, the combs, the apple offered by her disguised mother and seems to want that same unconditional adult sexualized love as unconditionally as its childhood equivalent. This isn’t that unreasonable on the face of it. A child, girl or boy, does become a different person going through puberty, but this is hard for the person going through puberty to realize, at least to realize day in and day out, and often people around them react to them as their adult persona while internally they still feel like a child.

One of the lessons of Snow White is that we need time to make transitions, that it takes dying and being reborn to become an adult. (Life might be easier if we all had to sleep through middle school). Maybe Snow White, taking the apple and the other wares of the witch, was actively seeking a way to become an adult, to go through that transition, to die (temporarily).

I guess the answer to why Snow White can be such a wimp and get away with it is that the important thing about Snow White is not what she does but how the other characters in the story react to her, and the reason that is so is that the story is experienced by the daughter in her mother’s lap as events that happen to her and are shared by her mother. She’s not active, nor is Snow White.

Ideas, anyone?

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