The Stepmother or the Saint: How Fairy Tales Depict the Different Facets of Motherhood
In fairy tales, the only good mother is a dead one.
This isTales for Willful Readers,a monthly column by Cate Fricke on the lasting power of folk and fairy tales, how they have influenced us individually and collectively, and the lessons they offer for modern life.
“Oh, if only we had a child!” So many tales begin with this singularly human wish, uttered by poor couples and royal ones, whispered over blood-tinged snow by lonely queens or wept in garden patches by desperate husbands. It’s so common a beginning that it would seem to capture something universal: After a happily ever after, the next step is fervently desired parenthood.
I’ve never understood this longing. When I was younger, reading fairy tales in bed while my own parents watched late night news downstairs, I found this wish silly and incomprehensible. Babies were needy things that only became children, and other children were loud and cruel.
Even now, in my thirties and hearing the tick of my own internal clock, starting a family is an abstract concept to me, and my feelings on it change on an almost daily basis. I want to be able to write and work; I don’t want a child to have to watch the world succumb to climate change and overpopulation. But babies bring joy, and we don’t want to grow old without a family—what a lonely thought! Sometimes I can’t help but bristle at the announcements of newly expectant cousins, as though each new member of the extended family casts a shade of pity on my husband and me—a shade I wouldn’t mind shrugging off. None of us wants to be lonely. Many of us want children because we don’t want to be childless.
In fairy tales, once a couple wishes for a child, what follows is sometimes a miracle, sometimes a bargain. But what most inevitably comes to pass is that once the wish is granted, tragedy occurs, and the woman who so wished to be made a mother does not live long enough to see her child grow older than a day.
My favorite fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” begins much like “Snow White,” with a woman cutting her finger and, upon seeing the drops of blood on the snow, wishing for “a child as red as blood and as white as snow!” In this tale, that child is a little boy, and when the new mother sees her baby son for the first time, she is “so delighted” that she instantly dies. And so we arrive at what may be at the root of my own lack of full-fledged enthusiasm for parenthood: In fairy tales, the only good mother is a dead one. Almost immediately, the wicked stepmother takes her place.
Just like couples who long for offspring, wicked stepmothers in the world of fairy tales are legion, and they need no introduction here as the very figureheads of abuse, jealousy, and murderous rage. I’ve mentioned before that the Grimms collected many fairy tales in which it is the mother, not a stepmother, who is the villain. Consider “Snow White”: That same stately queen who desires a child as red as blood and as white as snow does not die at all in the version of the tale that the Grimms originally set down in 1812. Instead she lives, and in the course of raising her daughter is revealed to be vain and envious. It does not take more than a single page before the queen, once the most beautiful woman in the world and now surpassed by her own daughter, plots to kill the child she so desired.
Out of sensitivity, perhaps, or just a more comprehensible character arc, the Grimms altered the beginning of the story between their editions, and what we most commonly encounter now is the version they published in 1857, in which the innocent mother dies after giving birth, the king remarries, and neither Snow White nor the reader must contend with the disturbing notion that a mother would murder her own little girl simply because of her looks. In short, the wicked stepmother, one of the most notorious antagonists in the history of human stories, was the result of an edit.
When I first learned about this, the Grimms’ most consequential revision, I began to look at all women characters in fairy tales differently. If a woman can be both the saintly mother and the treacherous, often tormented villain, can’t it follow that all women in fairy tales are intrinsically connected versions of each other—versions that, taken together, show just how multi-faceted the women in these tales are given leave by their tellers to be? This idea is empowering in the sense that it shifts the fast-held idea of fairy tale characters as “flat,” and the women in particular as being given only short shrift.
Writers and scholars in the last fifty years have dived head-first into this concept; in her book Spinning Straw into Gold, Jean Gould writes of women that “we are born to be changed, the stories tell us; we are always on the move from one transformation to the next, whether we want to be transformed, or not.” A maiden who will end up a married matron by the close of a tale may meet and gain help from a crone; a jealous mother may become a crone in order to deceive her lovely daughter, who will conquer all by in turn becoming a wife. “Maybe this is why the witch builds a gingerbread house in the woods,” Gould writes, “to feed her flesh on the vigor of two hungry children so that she can start her cycle all over again.”
I take comfort in the fact that, in the fairy tale world, you will meet so many versions of your own self—like seeing the future. But it also makes me fear the versions of myself that I have met only briefly, on days when I’m not the person I would want my still-hypothetical children to recognize.
Bruno Bettleheim, in his beloved and troubling book The Uses of Enchantment, wrote at length about this idea of the “other mother,” and how an evil stepmother is a perfect character on whom to project a child’s anger and fear of a mother who may not always measure up to their whims. Poor Bruno was not without his own many-faceted persona; his book won him some of the most coveted accolades in publishing, and his legacy as a survivor of the Holocaust and as an educator of troubled children earned him decades of respect. But he killed himself in 1990 after a long struggle with depression, and valid accusations of child abuse, plagiarism, and false credentials followed closely on the heels of his death.
Still, I remember reading The Uses of Enchantment for the first time, and how it reached its fingers into the deepest cracks of my brain and dug out all the things I’d felt about my favorite childhood stories, but had not been able to articulate. Bettelheim was writing on behalf of children, and for him, the wicked stepmother was a useful tool: The “splitting up,” as he called it, of the mother into two persons “is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this bad ‘stepmother’ without endangering the goodwill of the true mother, who is viewed as a different person.”
This is all well and good for the child whose useful fantasy enables them to process complex emotions about their complicated parents, but now that I’m here, at the matron stage of my life, I find it terrible to think that my children would need to split me up like this—to take me and divide me right up the middle, spreading the parts of myself thinly around the house, hiding aspects of me that they don’t like away until they can return to them later and process as adults. What strange, disconnected darkness would I dwell in until then?
What kind of mother will I be?
Bullied and anti-social as a child, I was inadvertently conditioned to believe myself cold and dark-minded, and that impression has come back to haunt me time and time again over the years as I consider the hypotheticals: How many days out of each week will I be the saint? How many hours out of each day will I be the stepmother? When I take our dog, Trudy, for a walk and she dawdles, smelling flowers like the bull Ferdinand, I jerk on her leash and swear through my teeth, and I wonder whether our peeping neighbors think of me as a cruel woman who would surely pull and snap at a brood of kids just the same way. At work and at home, I battle with the sudden drops in mood that accompany a day or two of forgetting to take my anxiety medication, a medication that I might have to wean myself off of in order to carry and feed a child the way my body was designed to do.
I can’t know the answers for certain, and that is the fright of it—the same reason that so many of our most insidious and entertaining narratives, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Babadook, from Mommie Dearest to The Orphanage, pull at the anxious strings of maternity. Again, horror and fairy tales intertwine, and what it means to be a woman, a wife, and a mother is a beating heart caught in the branches. When a good mother becomes bad, she has become an unnatural terror. And if the tales tell us anything, it is that even the most saintly of mothers have it in them to become bad for little to no reason at all.
But sad, haunted Bettelheim has more to say about families in fairy tales; despite his own disturbing end, he assures his readers that in both fairy tales and in life, “with good will and effort things can be righted again.” His assurances, again, were intended for children, but as every matron was once a child herself, I think we adults can also take his words to heart. If we are indeed agents of our own transformation, then I would like to think that even on my most wicked days, with good will and effort, I can push through and become the saint again.
Cate's fiction, plays, and book reviews have been published by The Masters Review, Fairy Tale Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Sycamore Review, Bookslut, Slate, Stage Partners, and more. She lives in State College, Pennsylvania.