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Witches and Fairies: Fitzgerald to Updike

I have been thinking lately about the underground connections between fairy tales and modern fiction—between one of the oldest forms of literature and one of the most recent (or, between the first stories that were read or told to us and the novels we read now). What is striking is how often the stock situations and stock characters, especially the female characters, of the fairy tale keep reappearing. They do not appear only in novels, of course. They turn up in films, plays, poetry, comic strips, advertisements, and dreams—and also in real life, which as usual imitates art.

A friend whose parents were divorced when he was eight tells me that on his first paper route he would imagine himself the poor widow’s son going out into the world to seek his fortune; and I had a similar experience. I remember those old tales very well, especially the beginnings: “Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter who had two daughters. The older was ill-tempered, spiteful, and plain; but the younger one was gentle, kind, and pretty. Her name was….” I didn’t have to read what her name was; I knew already: it was Jennifer Lurie. My baby sister, who everybody said was as good as she was beautiful, would grow up to marry the prince, while I would be lucky if I didn’t end up being rolled downhill in a barrel full of nails.

Some women’s liberationists have attacked fairy tales as a male chauvinist form of literature: they feel that giving children stories like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” is a sort of brain-washing, intended to convince them that all little girls must be gentle, obedient, passive, and domestic while they wait for their prince to come.

It is true that some of the tales we know best, those that have been popularized by Disney, have this sort of heroine. But from the point of view of European folklore they are a very unrepresentative selection. They reflect the taste of the refined literary men who edited the first popular collections of fairy tales for children during the Victorian era. Andrew Lang, for instance, chose the tales in his Blue Fairy Book (first published in 1889) from among literally thousands known to him as a folklorist; and he chose them—as he explained in the preface to one of his later volumes—partly for their moral lesson. Folk tales recorded in the field by scholars are full of everything Lang leaves out: sex, death, low humor, and female initiative.

In other more recent collections of tales—as well as in Lang’s later collections—there are more active heroines. They travel to the world’s end, cross oceans on a wild goose’s back, climb mountains of glass, enter giants’ castles and steal magic objects, outwit false suitors, and defeat all kinds of super-natural enemies. They work for years to release their lovers or relatives from enchantments, and help them to escape from witches and ogres. They are in effect liberated women, who have courage, intelligence, resourcefulness, endurance, and kind hearts.

But even in the favorite fairy tales of the Victorians it is only young girls who are passive and helpless. In the older generation, women often have more power and are more active than men. Is this because folk tales represent survivals of the myths and customs of a matriarchal society, because they are metaphoric statements of the world of the very young child in which Mommy is more important than Daddy, or because they have been traditionally told mostly by women? If you look at fairy-tale themes and characters in modern fiction, you can make out a good case for any one of these explanations.

In the classic fairy tale there are four principal roles for women: the princess, the poor girl who marries the prince, the fairy godmother or wise woman, and the wicked stepmother or witch. Each of them has traditional attributes and traditional adventures.

If you are the heroine of a fairy tale there are two possibilities: either you are a princess or you are an underprivileged but basically worthy girl who is going to become a princess if she is brave and good and lucky. If you are already a princess when the story starts, you usually have a problem. Very likely you need rescuing from some danger or enchantment. Maybe you have been promised to a dragon, or promised yourself to a dragon; or you might have been kidnapped by a witch or enchanter, who asks impossible riddles or sets impossible tasks for your would-be rescuers. Possibly it is your father the king who has set these tasks. Or perhaps you are just very difficult to please, like the princess in “King Thrush-beard,” and set the tasks or riddles yourself, to drive away would-be suitors.

The disadvantage—or, if you prefer it that way, the advantage—of being a princess is that you are essentially passive. You just sit there on your throne, or on a nearby rock, while the suitors and the dragons fight it out. In an extreme form of this passivity you are literally asleep, or rather in a trance, like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. This particular archetype is one that has always appealed to men. It turns up again and again in fiction. The trance takes different forms: sometimes it is physical virginity, sometimes it is a sort of psychic virginity—the princess is frigid, or sexually unawakened like Lady Chatterly; sometimes she is intellectually or politically unawakened like Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda, or the Princess Casamassima in Henry James’s novel—which is in many ways, and not always successfully, very much like a fairy tale.

One especially interesting version of the Sleeping Beauty story is Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. Fitzgerald, of course, was deeply attracted to the princess type of girl, and most of his heroines are American princesses—very beautiful, very popular, and usually very rich. He realized this quite well himself, and often used fairy-tale material deliberately, as in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” in which the hero discovers a twentieth-century version of the magic castle in the mountains of Nevada.

Fitzgerald’s early stories, like his early life, were almost literally fairy tales. The handsome prince—or if he was not quite a prince, he was at least a baronet—always won the beautiful princess, just as Fitzgerald had won Zelda Sayre, the most beautiful and popular girl in Montgomery, or possibly even Alabama. As time passed and things began to go wrong, his stories changed. The Beautiful and Damned begins where most fairy tales end, with the marriage of the handsome, charming prince and the beautiful, gay princess. But instead of living happily ever after, they begin to waste their youth and wealth: they give endless drunken parties and quarrel meaninglessly. Anthony’s uncle hears of this behavior and disinherits him, and Anthony spends the rest of his time and money in an attempt to break the will. In the end he succeeds, and he and Gloria inherit the kingdom; but it is too late. They are still just as good as they are beautiful, but by now that is not so very beautiful.

Nicole Warren, the golden-haired heroine of Tender Is the Night, is also an American princess, the daughter of what Fitzgerald describes as one of the “great feudal families” of the Middle West, and fabulously rich. But she is under a really bad spell—she is insane, and confined to a clinic in Switzerland, a sort of enchanted castle presided over by Swiss psychiatrist dwarves. Even the cause of her madness has a folk tale parallel, in the story known as “Cap O’Rushes,” one version of which was the source of King Lear. In this tale a widowed king falls violently in love with his own golden-haired daughter and declares that he intends to marry her. She hears of the plan and runs away into the forest disguised in a cloak made of a hundred different kinds of animal fur and skin—a sort of external split personality. Nicole Warren is not so lucky: her father seduces her before she can escape and she becomes schizophrenic.

Fitzgerald’s hero, Dick Diver, is a poor clergyman’s son from Buffalo who has already won several magic prizes, including a Rhodes Scholarship from Yale and an MD from Johns Hopkins. He has also had the best supernatural help: psychiatric training with Freud in Vienna. He goes to the sanitarium, breaks the enchantment, rescues Nicole, and marries her.

But the story does not end there. Dick begins to fall under a bad spell himself, the spell of Nicole’s wealth. He gives up his job at the clinic and moves with her to a grand house on the Riviera. He is supposed to be writing a great book, but he spends less and less time on it. Instead the Divers become what are now known as Beautiful People. They give fabulous parties, and Dick falls in love with a young movie actress. As his former partner’s wife says, he is no longer a serious person. Another hero carries Nicole off, and Dick Diver is banished to a provincial town in upstate New York—in Fitzgerald’s view a fate worse than death.

Tender Is the Night is also extremely interesting from a women’s liberation point of view. Nicole is not permanently cured by marrying Dick, but only when she stops being dependent on him and stands alone. She is able to achieve independence for rather old-fashioned reasons—with the help of another man and because she is so rich. The other heroine of the novel, Rosemary Hoyt, is independent in a more modern way: she is a successful actress. When Rosemary falls in love with Dick her mother encourages her to go as far as she likes, saying shrewdly: “Whatever happens it can’t spoil you, because economically you’re a boy, not a girl.” In other words, Rosemary does not have to keep herself chaste so that she will be worth more to some man. She can support herself, and have what experiences she likes.

In contrast to the financially independent woman is the economically dependent man. As Dick Diver gives up his profession, and ceases to be a “serious person,” his value comes to depend more and more on so-called “female” accomplishments: on his good looks, his skill as a host, his entertaining conversation, his ability to exert charm, and even his sexual fidelity. Like the nineteenth-century Victorian lady, once he loses these things he is finished.

In fiction, Fitzgerald seems to have recognized that men and women both are at their best when they are independent and have some serious work. But he could not put these principles into practice; he could not allow Zelda to become independent of him or to have her own career. She had to remain an idle princess—with disastrous results.

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