The Sleeping Beauty – according to Bettelheim

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According to Bruno Bettelheim, “Adolescence is a period of great and rapid change, characterized by periods of utter passivity and lethargy alternating with fantic activity, even dangerous behavior to ‘prove oneself’ or discharge inner tension. This back-and-forth adolescent behavior finds expression in some fairy tales by the hero’s rushing after adventures and then suddenly being turned to stone by some enchantment. More often, and psychologically more correct, the sequence is reversed….

While many fairy tales stress great deeds the heroes must perform to become themselves, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ emphasizes the long, quiet concentration on oneself that is also needed. During the months before the first menstruation, and often also for some time immediately following it, girls are passive, seem sleepy, and withdraw into themselves. While no equally noticeable state heralds the coming of sexual maturity in boys, many of them experience a period of lassitude and of turning inward during puberty which equals the female experience. It is thus understandable that a fairy story in which a long period of sleep begins at the start of puberty has been very popular for a long time among girls and boys.

In major life changes such as adolescence, for successful growth opportunities both active and quiescent periods are needed. The turning inward, which in outer appearance looks like passivity (or sleeping one’s life away), happens when internal mental processes of such importance go on within the person that he has no energy for outwardly directed action. Those fairy tales which, like ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, have the period of passivity for their central topic, permit the budding adolescent not to worry during his inactive period: he learns that things continue to evolve. The happy ending assures the child that he will not remain permanently stuck in seemingly doing nothing, even if at the moment it seems as if this period of quietude will last for a hundred years.” (225)

“After the period of inactivity,”Bettelheim continues, “which typically occurs during early [-p.226] puberty, adolescents become active and make up for the period of passivity; in real life and in fairy tales they try to prove their young manhood or womanhood, often through dangerous adventures. This is how the symbolic language of the fairy tale states that after having gathered strength in solitude they now have to become themselves. Actually, this development is fraught with dangers: an adolescent must leave the security of childhood, which is represented by getting lost in the dangerous forest; learn to face up to his violent tendencies and anxieties, symbolized by encounters with wild animals or dragons; get to know himself, which is implied in meeting strange figures and experiences. Through this process the adolescent loses a previous innocence suggested by their having been ‘Simpletons,’ considered dumb and lowly,, or merely somebody’s child. …Presently many of our young people – and their parents – are fearful of quiet growth, when nothing seems to happen, because of a common belief that only doing what can be seen achieves goals. ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ tells that a long period of quiescence, of contemplation, of concentration on the self, can and often does lead to highest achievement.” (p.226)

“Recently it has been claimed that the struggle against childhood dependency and for becoming oneself in fairy tales is frequently described differently for the girl than for the boy,, and that this is the result of sexual stereotyping. Fairy tales do not render such one-sided pictures. Even when a girl is depicted as turning inward in her struggle to become herself, and a boy as aggressively dealing with the external world, these two together symbolize the two ways in which one has to gain selfhood: through learning to understand and master the inner as well as the outer world. In this sense the male and female heroes are again projections onto two different figures of two (artificially) separated aspects of one and the same process which everybody has to undergo in growing up. While some literal-minded parents do not realize it, children know that, whatever the sex of the hero, the story pertains to their own problems.” (p.226)

“However great the variations in detail, the central theme of all versions of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is that, despite all attempts on the part of parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.” (p.230)

Ref: Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment Thames & Hudson: London, 1976

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