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 …

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Letters

An Exchange on Mother Goose May 10, 1984