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The Meaning of Mother Goose

The mental world of the unenlightened during the Enlightenment seems to be irretrievably lost. It is so difficult, if not impossible, to locate the common man in the eighteenth century that it seems foolish to search for his cosmology. But before abandoning the attempt, one might find it useful to suspend disbelief and to consider a story—a story everyone knows, though not in the following version, which is the tale more or less as it was told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France.

Once a little girl was told by her mother to bring some bread and milk to her grandmother. As the girl was walking through the forest, a wolf came up to her and asked where she was going.

To grandmother’s house,” she replied.

Which path are you taking, the path of the pins or the path of the needles?”

The path of you needles.”

So the wolf took the path of the pins and arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed.

Knock, knock.

Come in, my dear.”

Hello, grandmother. I’ve brought you some bread and milk.”

Have something yourself, my dear. There is meat and wine in the pantry.”

So the little girl ate what was offered, and as she did, a little cat said, “Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!”

Then the wolf said, “Undress and get into bed with me.”

Where shall I put my apron?”

Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.”

For each garment—bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings—the girl asked the same question; and each time the wolf answered, “Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.”

When the girl got in bed, she said, “Oh grandmother! How hairy you are!”

It’s to keep me warmer, my dear.”

Oh, grandmother! What big shoulders you have!”

It’s for better carrying firewood, my dear.”

Oh grandmother! What long nails you have!”

It’s for scratching myself better, my dear.”

Oh grandmother! What big teeth you have!”

It’s for eating you better, my dear.”

And he ate her.

What is the moral of this story? For little girls, clearly: Stay away from wolves. For historians, it seems to be saying something about the mental world of the early modern peasantry. But what? How can one begin to interpret such a text? One way leads through psychoanalysis. The analysts have given folk tales a thorough going-over, picking out hidden symbols, unconscious motifs, and psychic mechanisms. Consider, for example, the exegesis of “Little Red Riding Hood” by two of the best-known psychoanalysts, Erich Fromm and Bruno Bettelheim.

Fromm interpreted the tale as a riddle about the collective unconscious in primitive society, and he solved it “without difficulty” by decoding its “symbolic language.” The story concerns an adolescent’s confrontation with adult sexuality, he explained. Its hidden meaning shows through its symbolism—but the symbols he saw in his version of the text were based on details that did not exist in the versions known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus he makes a great deal of the (nonexistent) red riding hood as a symbol of menstruation and of the (nonexistent) bottle carried by the girl as a symbol of virginity: hence the mother’s (nonexistent) admonition not to stray from the path into wild terrain where she might break it. The wolf is the ravishing male. And the two (nonexistent) stones that are placed in the wolf’s belly after the (nonexistent) hunter extricates the girl and her grandmother stand for sterility, the punishment for breaking a sexual taboo. So, with an uncanny sensitivity to detail that did not occur in the original folk tale, the psychoanalyst takes us into a mental universe that never existed, at least not before the advent of psychoanalysis.

How could anyone get a text so wrong? The difficulty does not derive from professional dogmatism—for psychoanalysts need not be more rigid than poets in manipulating symbols—but rather from blindness to the historical dimension of folk tales. Fromm did not bother to mention his source, but he apparently took his text from the brothers Grimm. The Grimms got it, along with “Puss ‘n Boots,” “Bluebeard,” and a few other stories, from Jeannette Hassenpflug, a neighbor and close friend of theirs in Cassel; and she learned it from her mother, who came from a French Huguenot family. The Huguenots brought their own repertory of tales into Germany when they fled from the persecution of Louis XIV. But they did not draw them directly from popular oral tradition. They read them in books written by Charles Perrault, Marie Cathérine d’Aulnoy, and others during the vogue for fairy tales in fashionable Parisian circles at the end of the seventeenth century.

Perrault, the master of the genre, did indeed take his material from the oral tradition of the common people (his principal source probably was his son’s nurse). But he touched it up so that it would suit the taste of the salon sophisticates, précieuses, and courtiers to whom he directed the first printed version of Mother Goose, his Contes de mamère l’oye of 1697. Thus the tales that reached the Grimms through the Hassenpflugs were neither very German nor very representative of folk tradition. Indeed, the Grimms recognized their literary and Frenchified character and therefore eliminated them from the second edition of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen—all but “Little Red Riding Hood.” It remained in the collection, evidently, because Jeannette Hassenpflug had grafted on to it a happy ending derived from “The Wolf and the Kids,” which was one of the most popular in Germany (tale type 123, according to the standard classification scheme in The Types of the Folk-Tale by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson).*

So Little Red Riding Hood slipped into the German and later the English literary tradition with her French origins undetected. She changed character considerably as she passed from the French peasantry to Perrault’s nursery, into print, across the Rhine, back into an oral tradition but this time as part of the Huguenot diaspora, and back into book form but now as a product of the Teutonic forest rather than the village hearths of the Old Regime in France.

Fromm and a host of other psychoanalytical exegetes did not worry about the transformations of the text—indeed, they did not know about them—because they got the tale they wanted. It begins with pubertal sex (the red hood, which does not exist in the French oral tradition) and ends with the triumph of the ego (the rescued girl, who is usually eaten in the French tales) over the id (the wolf, who is never killed in the traditional versions). All’s well that ends well.

The ending is particularly important for Bruno Bettelheim, the latest in the line of psychoanalysts who have had a go at “Little Red Riding Hood.” For him, the key to the story, and to all such stories, is the affirmative message of its denouement. By ending happily, he maintains, folk tales permit children to confront their unconscious desires and fears and to emerge unscathed, id subdued and ego triumphant. The id is the villain of “Little Red Riding Hood” in Bettelheim’s version. It is the pleasure principle, which leads the girl astray when she is too old for oral fixation (the stage represented by “Hansel and Gretel”) and too young for adult sex. The id is also the wolf, who is also the father, who is also the hunter, who is also the ego and, somehow, the superego as well.

By directing the wolf to her grandmother, Little Red Riding Hood manages in Oedipal fashion to do away with her mother, because mothers can be grandmothers in the moral economy of the soul, and the houses on either side of the woods are actually the same house, as in “Hansel and Gretel,” where they are also the mother’s body. This adroit mixing of symbols gives Little Red Riding Hood an opportunity to get into bed with her father, the wolf, thereby giving vent to her Oedipal fantasies. She survives in the end, because she is reborn on a higher level of existence when her father reappears as ego-superego–hunter and cuts her out of the belly of her father as wolf-id, so that everyone lives happily ever after.

Bettelheim’s generous view of symbolism makes for a less mechanistic interpretation of the tale than does Fromm’s notion of a secret code, but it, too, proceeds from some unquestioned assumptions about the text. Although he cites enough commentators on Grimm and Perrault to indicate some awareness of folklore as an academic discipline, Bettelheim reads “Little Red Riding Hood” and the other tales as if they had no history. He treats them, so to speak, flattened out, like patients on a couch, in a timeless contemporaneity. He does not question their origins or worry over other meanings that they might have had in other contexts, because he knows how the soul works and how it has always worked.

In fact, however, folk tales are historical documents. They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions. Far from expressing the unchanging operations of man’s inner being, they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Perhaps, then, the moral of the story should be: Beware of psychoanalysts—and be careful in your use of sources. We seem to be back at historicism.

Not quite, however, for “Little Red Riding Hood” has a terrifying irrationality that seems out of place in the Age of Reason. In fact, the peasants’ version outdoes the psychoanalysts’ in violence and sex. (Following the Grimms and Perrault, Fromm and Bettelheim do not mention the cannibalizing of grandmother and the striptease prelude to the devouring of the girl.) Evidently the peasants did not need a secret code to talk about taboos.

The other stories in the French peasant Mother Goose have the same nightmare quality. In one early version of “Sleeping Beauty” (tale type 410), for example, Prince Charming, who is already married, ravishes the princess, and she bears him several children, without waking up. The infants finally break the spell by biting her while nursing, and the tale then takes up its second theme: the attempts of the prince’s mother-in-law, an ogress, to eat his illicit offspring.

In one early tale from the Cinderella cycle (tale type 510B), the heroine becomes a domestic servant in order to prevent her father from forcing her to marry him. In another, the wicked stepmother tries to push her in an oven but incinerates one of the mean stepsisters by mistake. In the French peasants’ “Hansel and Gretel” (tale type 327), the hero tricks an ogre into slitting the throats of his own children. A husband eats a succession of brides in their wedding bed in “La Belle et le monstre” (tale type 433), one of the hundreds of tales that never made it into the printed versions of Mother Goose. In a nastier tale, “Les Trois Chiens” (tale type 315), a sister kills her brother by hiding spikes in the mattress of his wedding bed. In the nastiest of all, “Ma Mère m’a tué, mon père m’a mangé” (tale type 720), a mother chops her son up into a Lyonnais-style casserole, which her daughter serves to the father. And so it goes, from rape and sodomy to incest and cannibalism. Far from veiling their message with symbols, the storytellers of eighteenth-century France portrayed a world of raw and naked brutality.

  1. *

    The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography (second revision, Helsinki: Akademia Scientarum Fennica, 1961; Suomalainen Tiedeakademia, 1964). The tales referred to here follow the Aarne-Thompson scheme and can be located in the following books: Paul Delarue and Marie-Louise Tenèze, Le Conte populaire français (Paris: Editions G.P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1976), Johannes Bolte and Georg Polivka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinderund und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1913–1932; Berlin: Hildesheim, 1963).

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