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.

The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty—even Cinderella’s family must have been middle class or her sisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way under-privileged at the start of the book, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince. Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naïve and muddle-headed; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is (as Lionel Trilling has pointed out) poor in spirit. Charlotte Brontë, even more daring, made the heroine of Vilette plain.

The most classic nineteenth-century Cinderella story is probably Jane Eyre. The beginning of the book especially conforms to the pattern. Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her three cousins are as awful as any stepmother and stepsisters. The theme is repeated when she goes away to school and is persecuted by teachers and students alike. The fairy godmother who helps her is also a teacher, Miss Temple, and her further adventures have other fairy-tale parallels.

When I began to look for a modern Cinderella I had more difficulty. The story is still being written, but not for an intellectual audience. The women’s magazines and the contemporary gothic novel are full of it, and it occurs constantly in real life, to judge from the newspapers. But serious women writers apparently no longer believe in upwardly mobile marriage as a happy ending. Even Edith Wharton, sixty or seventy years ago, didn’t believe in it: The House of Mirth is a devastating account of a Cinderella who doesn’t catch the prince and finally has to marry a sort of toad; and in The Custom of the Country the prince goes off with the ugly sister.

For a Cinderella story by a first-rate modern writer I had to go back to Jean Stafford’s Boston Adventure, published in 1944. This book—which had a tremendous popular and critical success for a first novel—is also interesting because it contains an impressive fairy godmother character, who turns out to be a sort of witch.

Sonia Marburg, the heroine of Boston Adventure, is the daughter of a poor cobbler who lives in a seaside resort north of Boston. Her parents are so hard up that they can’t afford to buy a bed for her, so she sleeps on the floor. When Sonia is twelve her father deserts the family, and she goes to work as a housemaid for three dollars a week to support her mother and her horrible little baby brother, who is a sort of vicious fairy changeling. For years the person in the world Sonia has most admired has been a formidable aristocratic spinster lady named Miss Pride who comes to the hotel where Sonia works every summer. Her persistent fantasy is that Miss Pride will adopt her and take her to live on Beacon Hill.

One proof that Boston Adventure is a fairy tale is that Sonia gets her wish. Her awful little brother dies, and her mother goes mad; Sonia is about to quit school and take a job as cook to a vulgar and ill-natured dentist’s family (complete with mean overdressed stepsister), when she is rescued. Miss Pride appears in her magic Rolls-Royce and whisks her away to the house in Louisburg Square. There Miss Pride educates her, buys her new clothes, teaches her manners, and introduces her to Boston society—in its own way a world as strange as the enchanted kingdoms of fairy tales. But Sonia never gets to marry the prince. For one thing, the only really eligible prince marries a pedigreed Boston princess. Besides, Miss Pride does not want to let Sonia go—she is determined to have her as a companion until she dies. So she scolds her, bribes her, threatens her—warns her that with “insanity in the family” she would be wicked to marry. And Miss Pride wins.

In the traditional folk tale, as in Boston Adventure, the fairy godmother and the witch are not always separate characters, but sometimes merge into each other. At one end of the spectrum is the totally wicked, cannibalistic witch of “Hansel and Gretel.” Somewhat less destructive is the witch who, like Miss Pride, keeps a girl in luxurious captivity; the best-known version of this tale is probably “Rapunzel,” where the witch shuts her adopted daughter up in a tower which she enters by using the girl’s long hair as a ladder. Then there are characters like Mother Holle who do not want to possess the heroine forever, but demand her company and services for a long time, usually seven years. At the end of this period the girl is rewarded and sent home. Finally there are fairy godmothers like Cinderella’s who reward you without asking any service in return.

The other fairy-tale character related to the witch is the stepmother. These categories often overlap: a lot of stepmothers are witches, and some witches are stepmothers—or even mothers. The wicked stepmother-witch we know best, the one in “Snow White,” was a mother in the original story the Brothers Grimm collected. They changed it in the printed version, thinking her behavior “unnatural.”

English and American fiction is full of wicked stepmothers, from Miss Murdstone of David Copperfield on. In more recent novels the disguise is often thrown aside, and the real mother is revealed as a witch who has deliberately cast a spell over her child, though her methods are those described by Freud rather than Frazer.

A beautiful example of this witch in a current novel is Sophie Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint:

She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers. And then it was always a relief not to have caught her between incarnations anyway—even if I never stopped trying. I knew that my father and sister were innocent of my mother’s real nature, and the burden of betrayal that I imagined would fall to me if I ever came upon her unawares was more than I wanted to bear at the age of five. I think I even feared that I might have to be done away with were I to catch sight of her flying in from school through the bedroom window, or making herself emerge, limb by limb, out of an invisible state and into her apron.

Sophie Portnoy can fly, make herself invisible, and transform herself into other shapes—and that’s not all, as we find out later. Her husband has no magic powers; he is barely getting by as an insurance agent and suffers from severe constipation. (It isn’t suggested that his affliction is caused by his wife, but since on her own admission she can “do anything,” it seems likely that she could cure him—if she wanted to.)

As soon as Alex is old enough he escapes from the witch, not without considerable struggle. He goes out into the world like any fairy-tale hero and conquers various opponents, mostly female, including one called The Pumpkin and another named Monkey. But he has not broken the witch’s spell, and she gets him in the end when he rashly goes to Israel, his “mother country.” Transforming herself into an Israeli girl, but still recognizable by her red hair and freckles, she defeats Alex after a long struggle in which he is physically victorious but sexually demolished. This sends him straight to the couch of a psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel (Word-Bird)—the magical animal helper of the folk tale, who has appeared in the story unusually, but perhaps not fatally, late.

The wise women of modern fiction are also nature goddesses. They can be recognized by their knowledge of plants, their instinctive sympathy with children and animals, and their intuition, which sometimes operates at the level of ESP. Their power is often related to a semimagic connection with the earth, the seasons, and the processes of growth and creation. (One way we know that Miss Pride of Boston Adventure is a bad fairy godmother is that she dislikes plants and children and is cruel to her cat. But in another sense she too is an earth goddess. Some of her power comes through money, but most is derived from her position in society. In a very Bostonian way, she draws her strength from the past: from the earth of the graveyards where her ancestors are buried, and which she is so fond of visiting.)

Wise women come from all classes of society. Some, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay and Forster’s Mrs. Wilcox are upper or upper-middle class. Others, such as Faulkner’s Dilsey and the cook Berenice Brown in Carson McCullers’s Member of the Wedding, are servants.

A particularly interesting example of the wise woman in a recent novel is Mrs. Robinson in John Updike’s brilliant short novel, Of the Farm. This is the story, told in the first person by an advertising man named Joey Robinson, of his visit with his new second wife and stepson to the Pennsylvania farm where he grew up and where his widowed mother now lives alone. The main action of the book is the conflict between Mrs. Robinson and her new daughter-in-law Peggy. Peggy is what has been called a “man’s woman.” She is approvingly compared by her husband to a submissive “concubine in chains” who “knew herself only in my love for her” and is said to have a “mythology, of women giving themselves to men, of men in return giving women a reason to live.”

Peggy, though a natural beauty, is a “city wife,” a “habituée of foyers and elevators,” not at all at home in the country. She goes blackberry picking in a bikini top and gets badly scratched—and half the berries she picks are green. Frightened by a passing car, she hides in what turns out to be a thicket of poison ivy.

Mrs. Robinson, on the other hand, does not need any man to give her a reason to live. She exists for herself and in relation to the farm which has been in her family for generations. She knows the names of every plant, bird, and animal on the eighty acres, and spares the birds’ nests and the best wild flowers when she mows the fields. She declares impatiently to Peggy that she has never believed in the “psychological differences” between men and women. Unlike Peggy, she believes in God; but when she hears a sermon in church about Eve’s subservience to Adam, her only comment is “I get so tired of men talking about women.” But she is also not interested in dominating or limiting men. She tells Peggy’s eleven-year-old son that he can drive her tractor, but Peggy refuses to permit it, causing one of the worst quarrels in the book.

Mrs. Robinson is compared by her son both to a goddess and a witch:

With her hair down she had seemed witchlike to me ever since as a child I would watch her brushing it in the…yard so that birds might weave her shed hair into their nests.

(She also refers to herself as an “old witch.”) When she tells a story to Peggy’s son, the narrator says that his “eyes had the shininess of the enchanted—the frogs and deer who are princes.”

In spite of her powers Mrs. Robinson lacks serenity—she is dying, and knows it; she knows she will never see her grandchildren again and that her son will sell the farm after she dies because of Peggy’s greed for profit. “She wants the money sitting in these acres…. You’ve taken a vulgar woman to be your wife,” she says, and Joey admits it.

In a final quarrel, Peggy accuses Mrs. Robinson of being in fact a witch:

Peggy’s idea…was that my mother had undervalued and destroyed my father, had been inadequately a “woman” to him, had brought him to a farm which was in fact her giant lover….

The quarrel terrifies Joey:

Their conversation seemed a collision of darknesses to me but my mother’s darkness was nurturing whereas Peggy’s was cold, dense, and metallic…. Her cigarette smoke insulted the room.

The moral victory is Mrs. Robinson’s, but the practical triumph will probably be Peggy’s. The farm will be sold, partly because Peggy wants money and partly because she recognizes Joey’s love for the place and cannot bear to share him with it. The militantly unliberated woman like Peggy has to possess her man totally, because she exists only in relation to him. Like some of the witches in the folk tales, she has no true shape of her own; even if she does not bear her husband any ill will she must wrap herself around him and cling like a vine, finally choking him. In the end, this new variety of witch is worse than the old, and allows a man less freedom.

This Issue

December 2, 1971