Rewriting fairy tales


“The wicked stepmother is a staple of the popular fairy-tale tradition and arguably its most famous villain. While she wasn’t always wicked or always a stepmother in folklore tradition, the wicked stepmother can be found in a variety of well-known Western fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm feature some of the best-known stepmothers…[and]  the wicked stepmother has become a stock figure, a fairy-tale type that invokes a vivid image at the mention of her role—so much so that stepmothers in general have had to fight against their fairy-tale reflections. A quick Internet search for the term “wicked stepmother” will produce hundreds of websites dedicated to the plight of stepmothers fighting against the “wicked” moniker they have inherited from fairy tales.” (255)

So begins an article by Christy Williams which looks at Robert Coover’s 2004 novel, Stepmother, and its rewriting of the fairy tale. She’s quite right to point us to our ideas about stepmothers, as her analysis explores. Williams writes:

Writers of fairy tales today who are dissatisfied with the roles of women projected by the seemingly endless reproduction of a small canon of popular tales are struggling, like Stepmother, with the narrative patterns that came before them. How does one rewrite a fairy tale to remove and critique the ideological values associated with the genre and still be writing a fairy tale?

The future of postmodern feminist fairy tales lies in stories that can rewrite the genre without totally unmaking it. Jack Zipes, in Relentless Progress: The Reconfiguration of Children’s Literature, Fairy Tales, and Storytelling, explains that contemporary writing of fairy tales by women does not seek to construct a new, feminist fairy-tale canon: “Instead of focusing directly on gender issues and radicalizing the canon, women writers nowadays tend to depict baffled and distressed women and men caught in a maize [sic] of absurd situations. In doing this, they are endeavoring to unravel the causes of their predicaments and use narrative strategies that both reflect the degeneration of communication and are somewhat degenerative themselves”. This, I believe, is true of Coover’s work as well. Coover’s novel does not reveal liberated women and strong heroines in opposition to the popular tales that are the fodder for his novel; however, by using narrative strategies that show how carefully scripted gender roles are unsatisfying and detrimental in and beyond the world of narration, Coover’s novel does feminist work, even though his critique of misogyny is part of his larger critique of the authority of authors and genre.” (269)

Coover’s construction of Stepmother exhibits how similar the most popular fairy tales in Western culture are by how seemingly effortlessly they are collapsed into their roles. In making the characters aware of their ultimate fates, Coover gives his characters, well, character. The princes, for example, though repugnant, are more complex than their popular predecessors—they have motive for the rapes and murder they commit and are nevertheless clever in their manipulation. The stories never reach a level of realism, as Coover of course is not attempting realism, but they are more interesting as characters because they are provided with motivation and agency. The plots remain stable, but the details and distortions that Coover supplies enrich the fairy-tale genre he is parodying. The possibility of evolution here lies not with the characters in Coover’s novel, but with the reader. The characters are bound by their roles, and as they struggle to change their predicaments, they are only further embittered by the trappings of the fairy tale. The reader, however, is free to understand the characters in a [-p.270] new light—traditional heroes are rendered less gallant, victims are availed of agency, and villains are humanized.” (269-270)

“The characters are trapped by the plot, but the reader is shown how complex fairy tales can be and is led to question the authority of the popularized conventions. The reader is provided with a way to reimagine the genre. Though Stepmother is clearly a postmodern novel, it also is a fairy tale. It contains all the recognizable traits of the fairy-tale genre and then plays with them. The novel does not abandon fairy-tale patterns in remaking the genre, but instead shows possibilities for those patterns. Coover’s work reminds us that fairy tales are not static monoliths. Though the patterns may appear to be stable, there is room for play. Near the end of the novel, when confronted with Stepmother’s plot to save her daughter from execution by preventing the Reaper, a fixture at all executions, from attending the event, the Reaper says, “Not all legends are true” (89). When the Reaper tells this to Stepmother, he is explaining that though the pattern is for him to be at all executions, it is not a causal relationship nor does it hold some essential truth about how executions happen. Therein lies the future of the genre; fairy tales as they have been canonized are not “true.” Just because a narrative pattern is pervasive does not mean it is essential to the genre of fairy tales. Patterns can be broken, and the plot can continue. Writers can rewrite the popular fairy tale and still write fairy tales, and their heroines need not walk the same paths as their foremothers in order to reach the story’s happy ending.” (270)

Ref: Christy Williams (2010) Who’s Wicked Now? The Stepmother as Fairy-Tale Heroine Marvels & Tales, 24(2): 255-271


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