The Didactic Intentions of Storytelling: Gender-Role Reinforcement in Hansel and Gretel By Samantha Wallace

Class: Women and Fairytales                                                                            Major: Writing ’13

    Stories, particularly those stories we are told as children, are our first exposures to the expectations and realities of the adult world. Although these tales are often riddled with fantastical elements — talkative and helpful wild animals, powerful witches, enchanted forests — they are, at their core, social contracts meant to be internalized and heeded, maps of the cultural landscape we are subject to. For child psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim, the fairy tales we hear when we are young are the most accessible way for us to learn how to read the proverbial roadmap, and though the true aim of these stories may not always be explicit, it is no less legitimate. In his essay The Struggle for Meaning, Bettelheim states that these didactic tales fulfill a child’s need for a “moral education which subtly, and by implication only, conveys… the advantages of moral behavior, not through abstract ethical concepts but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful.”1 In other words, what would have been made boring and inaccessible to children by formal education is made engaging and within reach by fairy tales. The messages in these tales grow out of and because of the culture in which the story is told, and while themes may vary depending on place, the overall intention does not: these stories are meant to shape a child’s belief and behavioral system. In compiling and editing their collection of French-German fairy tales, the Grimm brothers were not exceptions to this rule. The tales they told, and the way in which they told them, reflected the moral code and values system of 19th century Germany. The voice of patriarchy was speaking quite forcefully through Grimm’s fairy tales, instilling in its young listeners the ideals of the dutiful and subservient female and those of the hardworking and practical male.The world in which the brothers Grimm lived at the start of the 19th century was ripe with social and political transformation. The German nation, which had been divided in the past, was now starting to unite under a sense of increased nationalism. Though resistance to Napoleon’s war machine had aroused some patriotism from the Germanic peoples a few years earlier, in 1813, just after the Grimm’s published their first volume of Children’s and Household Fairy Tales, this resistance morphed into a new, more aggressive wave of nationalism. This emerging German identity was based around the ideas of pragmatism and sacrifice for the country, and called for people of all classes and industries to do their part in the effort to craft this new German character. Patriarchy was also an important part of the German sensibility; it was another logical layer of institutions that kept each person in his or her proper place, women sacrificing their bodies and minds for child bearing and house keeping, men sacrificing their bodies and mind for the creation of industrial and intellectual capital.2 The Grimm brothers saw their collection of fairy tales as an important cultural contribution to the German identity. In a place where “literary revolutions [had] always been more common than real political ones”, the Grimm brothers were simply following tradition.3 These stories not only catalogued and consecrated the lives of the German volk, but also perpetuated them through the passing of these stories to younger generations. Though many of the Grimm stories were actually French in origin (as opposed to German), they became, through their inevitable modifications, so entrenched in the German lexicon that any details that would have been recognized as certainly “French” were either erased or became certainly German. If the Grimm’s intentions in assembling this collection of tales was to further the German nationalist cause, then surely it is right to deduce that the tales they chose, and the editions of these tales, were all in some way or another intrinsically German, and that their German-ness existed for children to glean and mimic. One of the tales that came to be most clearly identified with the German character was Hansel and Gretel. In this story, a woodcutter, his wife, and his two small children, Hansel and Gretel, live together in a house at the edge of the wood. They are very poor, and during a famine the woodcutter realizes he cannot provide enough food for his family. As he lies in bed one night, he tells his wife of his worry. She quickly devises a plan to “take the children out into the darkest part of the wood…make a fire for them and give them each a piece of bread…go about work and leave them alone”.4 After much resistance, her husband finally agrees to the plan. Hansel and Gretel had been awake and heard what their stepmother intended for them, and so Hansel devises a plan to gather white stones from the yard and leave a trail for his sister and him to get back home by. The next morning, the woodcutter, his wife, and Hansel and Gretel all go into the wood to do a day’s work. Hansel keeps looking back at the house (which his stepmother reprimands him for) so as to make an accurate path of pebbles back toward it, and, after they are left in the woods alone, Hansel and Gretel are able to find their way back to safety by following the white pebbles that shine in the moonlight. Upon their return, Hansel and Gretel’s father is overjoyed and their stepmother considerably less so. A few weeks go by, but the famine has become much worse, and again, the woodcutter fears he will not be able to feed his entire family. Again the woodcutter’s wife convinces him to lead the children out into the woods, and again the children overhear the plan of their demise, but this time the stepmother has locked the front door so that Hansel can’t gather up the white pebbles he needs in order to save his sister and himself. The next morning as the family is walking into the woods, Hansel decides to break up his piece of bread into crumbs and sprinkles those along his path. Unfortunately, when he and Gretel try to find their way home, they realize their crumbs have been eaten up by birds and become lost as a result. After walking much deeper into the woods, they come upon a house made of gingerbread. The children are relieved to have found a source of food, and begin to eat away at the house. The house is owned by a blind witch who catches them in the act of destroying her home and who throws Hansel into a shed to be fattened while Gretel remains in the kitchen as the witch’s helper – cooking Hansel’s sumptuous meals. Hansel manages to keep himself alive by presenting the witch with a chicken bone whenever she asks to feel his finger to see if he’s put on weight. One day the witch tells Gretel she’s going to cook up her brother, and so Gretel tricks the witch into climbing into the oven and shuts the door behind her. Hansel is freed, and the children fill their pockets with the witch’s jewels before finding their way home. Their father, newly widowed, welcomes them home and they live richly for the rest of their days.

Within this tale, the cultural values and gender roles of the Grimm’s Germany make themselves known. The woodcutter, the ultimate patriarch, provides practical wood to his country so that it may prosper economically, and he provides food and shelter for his family so that they may go on surviving. When the woodcutter is unable to bring home sustenance for his family, he seems to lose his sense of morality and his power to make the decisions for the family. Utterly distraught at the idea of not being able to provide, he is vulnerable to acceptance of his wife’s evil desires, and eventually agrees to her plan of leaving the children to die. Here, the Grimm’s are telling their young readers that when a man can no longer support his family, he is no longer a whole man; he is no longer able to act as the power-holding patriarch. Further, he allows his wife to usurp some of this power from him, and in doing so allows her to make poor and possibly even sinful decisions. Hansel follows in his father’s footsteps as shining example of the ideal 19th century German male. He makes all the decisions for he and his sister. While she is “wailing” and “crying bitterly” throughout the story, her brother is forming plans to potentially save them.5 Hansel makes no attempt to calm his sister, but instead dismisses her altogether, telling her to “be quiet and stop worrying [while he figures] out something”.6

The only moment in which Gretel is actually allowed any authority or decision-making power is when she decides to push the witch into the oven. Though this may seem the most important decision that is made in the story, note its circumstances. Gretel is not defying her father as Hansel did by planting a trail home; it is only an old and evil witch that she plans to kill, a character which is so universally reviled that Gretel needs no permission from the men in her life to plan the witch’s demise. And Gretel pushes the witch into the oven. It seems that Gretel’s only power is in the kitchen, where the tasks of homemaking were typically left to the women.

Finally, the witch herself offers an interesting explanation as to what happens when a woman is left without a guiding male figure to govern over her. The woman will use the small powers she has (cooking, keeping a house, and raising children) in dangerous ways, allowing her unnatural and evil desires to come to the forefront as her main motivations. Here, the witch creates a house of gingerbread, executing a supernatural level of domestic talents, only to subsequently capture and consume children – the very opposite of what the nurturing and life-giving mother’s role in society is. And it is not too far of a stretch to read the stepmother as a kind of precursor to the witch. Though she essentially wants the same thing as the witch – to kill the children in order to have sustenance for herself – she is neither so gruesome nor as purely evil as the witch. After all, she is looking out for her husband (the only real contributor to society) as well as her own stomach. She still needs her husband’s permission to carry out her plan, while the witch can act of her volition, and the stepmother’s husband seems to keep her plan much more humane than what the lone witch has in mind for the children.

Each of the characters in the Grimm brothers’ Hansel and Gretel plays a different role in the “education establishment which indoctrinates children to learn fixed roles and functions within [the] bourgeois society” of 19th century Germany.7 This tale, as well as many others in their collection, teaches by example the proper gender roles and values of the time and place of the Grimms, and reinforces those ideals which were so important to unifying the Germanic peoples under one identity. These tales were part of the “socialization process which placed great emphasis on passivity, industry, and self-sacrifice for girls and activity, competition, and accumulation of wealth for boys”, and in their distribution among the youth of the German nation, the Grimms contributed to the effort to strengthen and perpetuate the new German character.8

Bibliography1 Bruno Bettelheim. “The Struggle for Meaning”. The Classic Fairy Tales (New York: Norton, 1999). Page 270
2 Valerie Paradiz. Clever Maids: the Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales (New York: Basic, 1999).
3 Jack Zipes. “Who’s Afraid of he Brothers Grimm? Socialization through Fairy Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn Vol. 3. (Baltimore: Project Muse, Winter 1979-1980). Page 2
4 Maria Tatar, ed. The Classic Fairy Tales (New York: Norton, 1999). Page 184.
5 Tatar, The Classic Fairy Tales, 188.
6 Ibid., 184.
7 Zipes, The Lion and the Unicorn, 2.
8 Ibid.

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