Bibliobitch: Fairy Tales Retold
Once upon a time, in an era that feminists called the "second wave," there was a group of women writers who thought that Western European fairy tales were pretty fucked up. Fascinated by this fucked-uppedness, the women decided to retell the stories in order to explore and combat the ancient -isms that lay deep, deep (actually not so deep) inside. Using fairy tales as their starting point, the women created awesome and super weird novels, poems, and short stories that would delight, perplex, and frustrate feminists forever after. In honor of the Make-Believe issue of Bitch (available now!), here are a few of my favorites.
Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber (1979)
Womb metaphor alert! The Bloody Chamber is a collection of ten short stories that take their inspiration from fairy tales, especially the really gory versions by Charles Perrault. The intro to my edition says that when the book was released in 1979, readers were upset to see “the bedtime stories of their childhood newly configured as tales of sex and violence.” To which Carter responded that, hello, the original fairy tales were already full of sex and violence. Carter has also said that these aren't just fairy tales retold with a feminist message, but brand new stories that take their inspiration from the themes and images of the originals.
It’s The Bloody Chamber’s images that are especially compelling—flowers and snow, puppets and phalluses, and plenty of bloody, bloody blood—but those images also date the book. The flower is really a vagina, you say? Haven’t heard that one before. Overall, very much worth reading, especially the eponymous story, which is a retelling of the Bluebeard tale. Sort of reminds me of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre for grown-ups, with a feminist bent that, though powerful, was perhaps more subversive for its time than it is now.
Anne Sexton: Transformations (1971)
I’d never read Anne Sexton until this book was on sale at Powell’s over the holidays and my mom bought it for me. My mom had also never read Anne Sexton, and probably grabbed it because it has that intense-looking portrait of Sexton on the cover and she knows that intense ladies are just my style.
Anyway, Sexton was a confessional poet and a contemporary of Sylvia Plath’s, and from what I’ve read, the dark but often funny Transformations is not exactly representative of her work. Still, I think it’s wonderful in its sarcasm and biting commentary on the damaging ideas that fairy tales plant in the listener’s head: In Sexton’s world, people, especially women, tend to have difficulty living happily ever after. Transformations retells some of the more famous of Grimm’s fairy tales, like "Cinderella" and "Rapunzel" and "Hansel and Gretel," as well as a few of the more obscure ones (ah yes, who can forget those old bedtime classics, “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes,” and “Godfather Death”). And as a bonus, each poem is paired with its own ever-so-creepy illustration by Barbara Swan.
Joy Williams: The Changeling (1978)
This novel isn’t a retelling of a particular fairy tale. It’s a play on the Western European folk belief in changelings: children who were stolen by fairies and replaced with a member of the fairy (or troll or elf) folk. The belief in changelings was often used to explain something that was “wrong” with a baby, like a disability or an inexplicable illness.
Williams takes the idea of the changeling and infuses it throughout the novel. Everything feels out of place—nothing is as it should be. Pearl, the protagonist, is “rescued” from her mediocre marriage by a mysterious man who takes her to live on his island. Pearl’s an alcoholic, so the reader constantly questions whether the subsequent odd happenings (little wooden sculptures turning into people, demonic puppet shows, and an island full of children that toe the line between adorable and terrifying) are drunken hallucinations or the island’s warped reality. Is Pearl’s baby really her own? Where did this pack of lost children come from? Is Pearl surrounded by humans or inhuman creatures? Is Pearl even human herself? Aaah!
When The Changeling was released in 1978, critics ripped it apart. Williams has said that her terrible reviews had something to do with feminism: Pearl is a “guilty young drunk,” and “feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Some critics today suggest that readers may not have been ready for the book when it was released, but that now it can be better appreciated. It’s true that although the language is stunning, the story can be hard to get through. The fact is, despite its fairy-tale elements, this is a stiflingly close look at woman whose world is falling apart. But I think Williams’ no-mercy examination of a damsel in distress is both fascinating and important.
So—thoughts? Have you read any feminist retellings of fairy tales that I didn't mention here (maybe some that weren't written in the '70s)? Is it feminist to do what Williams does, and take a close look at an old, painful pattern without changing the details of the story? Or should a true feminist fairy tale feature the princess galloping away from the prince to save her own damned self?
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