Professor Anne Duggan explores the history of classical fairy tales and their double-sided relationship with class, whereby they both 'evade and compensate for a dire social reality', and outlines some reconceptions of fairy tales which can work as 'builders of communism'.
Beginning in the 1980s with the seminal studies of Jack Zipes, fairy tale scholars have worked long and hard to foreground the ideological underpinnings of a genre often viewed as innocent, child-like, and transparent. Generally speaking, the idea that fairy tales engage with complex class issues is not the first one that comes to mind when reflecting upon the genre.
However, from sixteenth-century Italy to twentieth-century France and beyond, the fairy tale has always expressed class ambitions and aspirations in ways that both uphold and challenge sociopolitical norms. Moreover, writers of fairy tales approach the genre from their particular position within the sociopolitical field, which both shapes their conceptions of class within a particular tale and marks their engagement with specific class issues. Writers deploy the genre to express hopes of social mobility or of regaining lost status as well as to challenge social hierarchies by providing alternative models for finding happily ever after.
In what follows, I trace some of the general parameters that foreground the dynamic ways the fairy tale has been used to engage with class issues in different periods and sociopolitical contexts. Because my area of expertise lies in the French tale tradition, this will be my main focus; however I will look at intersections with other national traditions as well.
What has come to be known as the classical fairy tales—i.e., “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Puss-in-Boots,” among others—have their roots in the Italian and French fairy tale traditions. Later they find a home in the works of the Germans Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and perhaps their most popular iteration in Disney Studios’ animated films. Whether we consider classical or lesser known types of fairy tales, new historical and cultural contexts reshape the tales for new audiences, defined in part by class identities. The corpus of each of these tale traditions bears the mark of their sociopolitical context and the ideological positions of their writers and editors.
The fantasy of upward social mobility
Giovanni Francesca Straparola (ca. 1480-1557) and Giambattista Basile (ca. 1575-1632), for instance, penned their fairy tales within the context of proto-capitalist, urban centers (Venice and Naples, respectively) in which characters often succeed in their quest for social mobility. In Fairy Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile (2008), Suzanne Magnanini affirms Sue Bottigheimer’s argument “that the fantasy of upward mobility contained in the rags-magic-marriage-riches plot invented by Straparola greatly appealed to the growing class of literate Venetian artisans who in reality were barred by Venice’s marital laws from forging such advantageous bonds with the ruling class” (93-94).
Basile's version of Donkey Skin in which the heroine turns into a bear
In her introduction to her translation of Basile, entitled The Tales of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones (2007), Nancy Canepa provides a similar context for Basile’s tales: “Why the choice of the fairy tale to fill the void left behind by bourgeois realism [of the novella]? One explanation sees the attraction to the enchanted realms of the fairy tale as an attempt to both evade and compensate for a dire social reality in which mobility was evermore restricted and active virtue seemed to count for less and less; a reality where magic became one of the only viable means to achieve social betterment and a privileged life” (13). Both Straparola and Basile wrote from within the context of a society in which social mobility was possible but limited by the law, or had been recently possible but new economic developments foreclosed upon openings in class structures.
When Straparola and Basile’s tales crossed into France by the late seventeenth century, they also found themselves in a very different sociopolitical context. Rather than the urban city-states of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, French fairy tales of the 1690s were generated from within the context of the aristocratic salon at the time of the political absolutism of Louis XIV.
Several of the women writers of this period, including Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy (1650/51-1705) and Henriette-Julie de Murat (1670-1716), issued from the declining feudal nobility, which, with the rise of absolutism, was losing its traditional function as protectors of the realm and as local rulers. By the 1690s, the monarchies of Louis XIII and Louis XIV had succeeded in prohibiting private (feudal) armies, thus centralizing military force under the absolute monarchy. Governmental matters were also increasingly being centralized—taking local power away from the nobility—and Louis XIV was particularly known for promoting members of the upper bourgeoisie, rather than the feudal nobility, to top positions. D’Aulnoy in particular penned tales that involved the recovery of a lost noble identity, reshaping tales by Straparola and Basile to serve a completely different social class: the declining feudal nobility.
For instance, in Straparola’s “The Pig King,” an antecedent to “Beauty and the Beast,” three sisters destined to marry a monstrous groom are the daughters of a poor woman, the youngest eventually restoring the pig to his handsome form and becoming queen. To contrast, in d’Aulnoy’s “Prince Marcassin,” which closely draws from Straparola’s tale, the three sisters are from a noble family that has lost its wealth due to the death of the father. In Straparola, the marriage with the beast and eventual happily-ever-after raise the heroine from rags to riches, whereas in d’Aulnoy, the financial position of the noble heroine is restored through marriage to the beast-turned-prince. Both rely on magical transformations and fairy interventions to reward their characters, but from different ideological positions.
D’Aulnoy’s class choices are also evident in what she excludes from her sources. Her adaptation of Basile’s frame narrative from the Tale of Tales to pen “The Blue Bird” is a case in point. Basile’s frame narrative concerns Princess Zoza, who tries to fill a pitcher with her tears in order to break the spell that cast Prince Tadeo into a death-like sleep. The prince is destined to marry the woman who frees him, and Zoza nearly fills the pitcher but falls asleep. At that moment the Moorish slave woman Lucia passes by, steals the pitcher, and finishes the job, leading the prince to awaken and marry the slave. In order to take her rightful place beside the prince, Zoza schemes to have ten storytellers, “lame Zeza, twisted Cecca, goitered Meneca, big-nosed Tolla, hunchback Popa, drooling Antonella, snout-faced Ciulla, cross-eyed Paola, mangy Ciommetella, and shitty Iacova” (Tale of Tales 42), entertain the false bride until Zoza recounts her own story.
Through her tale, Zoza exposes the false bride, who is executed, and the heroine is united with the prince. In d’Aulnoy’s version, the heroine Florine’s rival is not a slave or poor, but rather an ugly member of court who happens to be Florine’s stepsister, Truitonne (the name associates her with trout or truite in French). Not only does d’Aulnoy replace the slave with a character of higher social status. She also strips the tale of the unseemly, lowerclass female storytellers by streamlining this part of Basile’s narrative to include only Florine’s narrative relating to the deception of Truitonne, the false bride, after which Florine obtains the king’s hand. D’Aulnoy also elevates the linguistic register of the text, purging it of language that would have been inappropriate within a salon or court setting.
In her tales d’Aulnoy clings to a feudal past—albeit a reformed one in which women play fundamental roles as rulers and fighters. In d’Aulnoy’s “The Good Little Mouse,” a fairy, a queen, and a princess lead a coup d’état to take back their kingdom from a neighboring king; the heroine of “Belle-Belle, or the Knight Fortuné” saves the kingdom from the evil emperor Matapa; and the Amazonian Aimée rescues her cousin from ogres.
Warwick Goble's illustration of Giambattista Basile's Cenerentola, or Cinderella tale
Charles Perrault (1628-1703), on the other hand, promoted a more bourgeois ideology, evident in his versions of tales such as “Cinderella” and “Puss-in-Boots.” In Perrault’s “Cinderella,” although the father is described as a “gentleman,” the family clearly is from among the lower echelons of court society, for Cinderella and her sisters are approached by the prince’s men to try on the glass slipper only after they seek out princesses, duchesses, and “all of the court.” However, in d’Aulnoy’s twist on Perrault’s tale, “Finette Cendron,” the heroine is the daughter of a king.
Puss in Bourgeois Boots
Perrault’s “Puss in Boots,” which draws from similar tales found in Straparola and Basile, is even more exemplary of his bourgeois outlook. In this tale, a male cat assists the hero, the son of a miller, to steal away the lands from an ogre—a character that could be read as a figure for the traditional nobility—and at the tale’s conclusion, the miller’s son marries the daughter of a king. Blending aspects of cat tales by Straparola, Basile, and Perrault with the theme of the animal bride, in “The White Cat” d’Aulnoy makes her hero the youngest son of a king who finds the beautiful white cat, who turns out to be a princess. The princess not only possesses six kingdoms; she also offers them up to her future father-in-law when she asks for his son’s hand in marriage. Social climbing in Perrault translates into social stability or restoration in d’Aulnoy.
d'Aulnoy's aristocratic Puss, who will recover her human state at the end of the tale
Perrault exemplified those members of the French upper bourgeoisie who attained significant positions within the bureaucracy of Louis XIV, and his tales tend to reflect, much like those by Straparola and Basile, the ideal of social mobility. It is perhaps for this very reason that by the late nineteenth century d’Aulnoy’s tales, which emerged from within aristocratic salon society, begin to wane just as that social class from which they issued was disappearing, whereas French children continue to read Perrault’s tales today. Infused with bourgeois ideology, Perrault’s tales conform better to the ideals of contemporary capitalist society than tales by the women writers, more deeply embedded within early modern aristocratic culture.
Fairy tale films like The Princess Bride (1987) subvert the implicit class prejudices present in many classical tales by validating the lowerclass or outlaw character who enjoys a happy ending with the princess. In the film, Buttercup (Robin Wright) is in love with her farmhand Westley (Cary Elwes), thought to have been killed by pirates after he leaves to seek his fortune. Believing Westley to be dead, some years later Buttercup reluctantly becomes engaged to the cowardly Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon), when Westley returns as a pirate himself. In the end, the prince is outwitted by the pirate, and the princess and former farmhand live happily ever after. In the film, the notion that the ideal hero should be noble and wealthy is undermined by the validation of the outlaw of peasant origins.
Already in post-Revolution France, whether out of survival or true belief, aristocratic women writers like Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis (1746-1830) and Félicité de Choiseul-Meuse (1767-1838) similarly questioned the traditional plotline that pairs the attainment of social mobility with that of true love. In her 1803 tale, “Pamrose, or the Palace and the Cottage,” the title character is a peasant infant who, when her mother dies, is raised at court by the kind princess Amélie. Over the course of the tale, it becomes clear that traditional aristocratic life is not satisfactory, and Pamrose, rejecting the proposal of a nobleman, ends up marrying her peasant cousin William.
In a similar manner, in her 1818 tale, “Rose and Black,” Choiseul-Meuse has her heroine marry the peasant clogmaker Mirto after her short and unhappy marriage to Prince Terrible. Both tales include explicit references to Perrault’s “Cinderella,” whose rags-to-riches, social climbing message is put into question with Genlis’s and Choiseul-Meuse’s not so charming princes and their idealization of peasant, pastoral life.
Radical approaches to class in the fairy tale
Perhaps one of the most radical examples of approaches to class in the fairy tale can be found in the work of filmmaker Jacques Demy (1931-1990). Demy produced explicitly fairy-tale films, including Donkey Skin (1970), an adaptation of a French canonical tale considered by folklorists to be a variant of “Cinderella”; and The Pied Piper (1972), which integrates a critique of the ways in which Hamelin’s sociopolitical elites, who fail to pay the Pied Piper for his work, exploit the labor of the lower classes for useless monuments and wars of glory.
But his interest in fairy tales is already present in his earlier films Lola (1961) and Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), both of which draw on motifs from “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” among other tales. In “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” the heroine is torn between two models for Prince Charming: the auto mechanic, whom she deeply loves but is away at war; and the businessman, of whom her mother approves and who is present in Cherbourg. In the end, the heroine renounces her (socially inferior) true love to marry the apparent prince charming (the wealthy man) whom she does not love but who is viewed as being the socially acceptable mate. In this film, Demy is implicitly critical of the socially acceptable prince charming who may not provide the heroine with a happily-ever-after, and suggests that an auto mechanic can indeed incarnate prince charming, albeit one of a different stripe. In several ways Demy’s films undermine the model of the classical hero, who is noble or wealthy, and validate heroes of lower social classes, anticipating films like The Princess Bride.
Demy also drew from the tradition of maiden warrior tales—think of Joan of Arc and Mulan—to produce his Lady Oscar (1979). The Chinese “Mulan” and French maiden warrior tales by writers like d’Aulnoy and Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier de Villandon (1664-1734) are firmly grounded in a hierarchical feudal or early modern society in which the heroine dons male garb, concealing her female identity, to protect her father’s honor and the king’s domain. In essence, she fights to uphold the patriarchal kingdom that rules over the lower social orders.
Belle-Belle ou Le Chevalier Fortuné: d'Aulnoy's aristocratic maiden warrior tale
In his twist on the maiden warrior tale, Demy situates his version within the context of the French Revolution. The heroine Lady Oscar gains consciousness about class oppression in part through her love of the stable boy Andre, whom she initially resists due to his lowerclass status. Instead of upholding the French monarchy, she ends up joining the people in dismantling it. Ironically, Demy’s maiden warrior takes part in the downfall of the political structure that gave rise to this type of tale. And unlike her predecessors, who engage in individualistic aristocratic forms of heroism, Demy’s Lady Oscar marches with the people and Andre to take down the Bastille, engaging instead in a form of collective action characteristic of a more working-class model of political action.
In fact, the scene depicting the taking of the Bastille was inspired by the script of Demy’s working-class operetta, A Room in Town, about the important 1955 workers strike in Nantes, which saw the silver screen some three years later. As I have argued in Queer Enchantments: Gender, Sexuality, and Class in the Fairy-Tale Cinema of Jacques Demy (2013), Demy proposes alternative ways of attaining happily-ever-after (which is at best ephemeral in Demy), in which mechanics can be prince charmings, and a cross-dressed Cinderella rejects the aristocrat for the stable boy.
Storming the Bastile: a still from Lady Oscar, by Jacques Demy
Builders of communism
Although initially resistant to the folk tale and fairy tale, the Soviet Union embraced the genre after a speech by Maxim Gorky in 1934 in which he lays claim to the proletarian origins of the genre and advocated ways in which it could be rehabilitated and used to socialist ends. Indeed, in Politicizing Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales (2005), Marina Balina clearly foregrounds “Soviet literature’s efforts in the 1930s to subordinate the fairy tale genre to ideological purposes” (105), mainly that of “builders of communism” (108).
These tales can include realistic features, such as references to the “bourgeouins” (or bourgeois), enemies of the Red Army in “Tale of the Military Secret” (1935) by Arkady Gaidar; or having a genie appear before the boy Volka in the very banal bathroom of his apartment in The Old Genie Hottabych (1938) by Lazar Lagin. Fairy tale films in both the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic marked another site within the genre where conceptions of class were challenged. In the GDR, the state studio DEFA (Deustche Film-Aktiengesellshaft) produced a significant corpus of socialist fairy tale films. In The Politics of Magic: DEFA Fairy Tale Films (2015), Qinna Shen characterizes the early period of DEFA fairy tale films in terms of “a working-class protagonist [who] uses his intelligence and perseverance to become victorious over the upper class or even to become king” (83).
Despite many challenges to the types of plotlines that valorize an elitist perspective on class, the association of social mobility and marrying a handsome prince has not disappeared from the twenty-first century landscape. One cannot underestimate the role of Disney in perpetuating this motif through their fairy tale films and other media. As Jennifer Pozer argues in Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV (2010), reality television shows in the U.S. like The Bachelor, America’s Top Model, and Joe Millionaire play on Cinderella tropes of finding wealth, stardom (think of the ball scene), and sometimes true love in ways that affirm normative (patriarchal, capitalist) constrictions of gender and social class. Pozer notes: “Today, dozens of reality shows aim to convince us that such [luxurious, fairy tale] lifestyles are not only desirable but reasonable—or worse, realistic” (146).
In ABC’s The Bachelor, for instance, women are dated and dined within a luxurious context until supposedly “true love” reveals itself and prevails. The construction and reception of the show makes indirect and direct fairy tale associations, which should not be surprising given that ABC is owned by Disney. One of the most explicit examples of relating the show to fairy tales concerns an episode in which the bachelor Chris takes Jade on a “Cinderella date.” We see clips of Disney’s 2015 live-animated Cinderella that Jade views as a model not only for her elaborate gown but also for her behavior with Chris. Although Chris is a farmer, the show focuses instead on a luxurious lifestyle available only to the 1%.
As is arguably the case with the classical tale tradition, the happiness afforded by fairy-tale endings as understood and propagated through such shows makes it practically impossible for the majority of people to attain. This devalues the lives of lower-class and middle-class people who do not have the financial means deemed necessary to acquire such happy endings. The moves on the part of Genlis, Choiseul-Meuse, and Demy, as well as work by Soviet and DEFA artists, challenge—in ways that can also at times be problematic when taking the form of state propaganda—the traditional class underpinnings of classical fairy tales.
Such reconceptions of the fairy tale open up alternative ways of attaining happiness, in which the heroine might reject the castle for a farm or gas station, forego the prince for a pirate or stableboy. This validates social classes and groups that typically are not privileged within classical tales by providing examples of heroines and heroes that do not issue solely from the social classes that control the means of production or hold the reigns of political power, and by locating happiness outside the attainment of wealth and privilege.
Anne E. Duggan is a Professor of French and Chair of Classical & Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Wayne State University, Michigan. She is also Co-Editor of Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies.