Bruno Bettelheim
Bruno Bettelheim; drawing by David Levine

Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” (1919) can be said to have defined, for our century, what criticism once called the Sublime. An apprehension of a beyond or of the daemonic—a sense of transcendence—appears in literature or life, according to Freud, when we feel that something uncanny (unheimlich) is being represented, or conjured up, or at least intimated. Freud locates the source of the uncanny in our narcissistic and atavistic tendency to believe in “the omnipotence of thought,” that is, in the power of our own or of others’ minds over the natural world. The uncanny is thus a return to animistic conceptions of the universe, and is produced by the psychic defense Freud called repression, an unconsciously purposeful forgetting of drives that might menace our socially conditioned “ego-ideals,” that is, the models we attempt to imitate.

It would have seemed likely for Freud to find his literary instances of the uncanny, or at least some of them, in fairy tales, since as much as any other fictions they seem to be connected with repressed desires and archaic forms of thought. But Freud specifically excluded fairy tales from the realm of the uncanny. “Who would be so bold,” Freud asks, “as to call it an uncanny moment, for instance, when Snow-White opens her eyes once more?” Why not? Because, he goes on to say, in those stories everything is possible and so nothing is incredible, and therefore no conflicts in the reader’s judgment are provoked. Freud concludes his essay, “The Uncanny,” by an even more arbitrary judgment: “In fairy-stories feelings of fear—including uncanny sensations—are ruled out altogether.”

Why Freud takes this attitude toward fairy tales is something of a mystery, at least to me, though two surmises immediately suggest themselves: there may be a hidden polemic here, against Jung and his excursions into daemonic romance, and there always is an ambivalence on Freud’s part toward literary romance, so that the forms of what Northrop Frye, adapting Schiller, calls “naive romance” are not tempting to Freud’s interpretative skills. Essentially, Freud chose dreams and mistakes and neurotic symptoms in preference to stories, and his keen sense of texts did not betray him in such choosing; for even the simplest fairy tale tends to be a palimpsest, a textual jungle in which one interpretation has grown itself upon another, until by now the interpretations have become the story.

Where Freud would not venture, few orthodox Freudians have trespassed, though Karl Abraham and Otto Rank (in his earlier work) in different ways verged upon the area of the folk tale. Now Bruno Bettelheim, with a kind of wise innocence, has subjected fairy tales, in general and in particular, to very close, generally orthodox, and wholly reductive Freudian interpretations. Bettelheim’s book, written in apparent ignorance of the vast critical traditions of interpreting literary romance, is nevertheless a splendid achievement, brimming with useful ideas, with insights into how young children read and understand, and most of all overflowing with a realistic optimism and with an experienced and therapeutic good will. What Freud might have thought of it hardly can be conjectured, and many readers may find themselves somewhat baffled by its perpetual vigor in reductiveness, in discovering the same common denominators in what plainly are very varied stories. I myself am bothered by Bettelheim’s need to see nearly all his stories as being equally coherent and consistent, but that is only a secondary reaction. Primarily, I am moved, charmed, and frequently persuaded by this humane effort to clarify the daemonic ground of romance and so to substitute the uses of enchantment for the uncanny actualities of the enchantment.

Bruno Bettelheim’s major concern has been with autistic children, and inevitably his interpretative activity is directed against any child’s tendency to defensive withdrawal, to submit to the temptations of an abnormal subjectivity or virtual solipsism. Throughout this book, Bettelheim argues for the child’s legitimate needs, and against the parent’s self-centeredness. The child’s desperate isolation and loneliness, his inarticulate anxieties, are addressed directly by fairy tales, according to Bettelheim, and the parents’ function is to mediate by telling the child the story, thus strengthening the therapeutic effect by the authority of their approval. But why should fairy tales, in themselves, be therapeutic? Bettelheim’s answer depends upon the child being his own interpreter:

The fairy tale is therapeutic because the patient finds his own solutions, through contemplating what the story seems to imply about him and his inner conflicts at this moment in his life.

Bettelheim proceeds on the basis of two complementary assumptions: that the child will interpret a story benignly, for his own good; and that the Freudian interpretations will yield an accurate account of the child’s interpretations. The child, questing for help, and the analyst, attempting to find helpful patterns in the stories, thus read alike, though in different vocabularies. A layman, reading Bettelheim’s interpretation of a fairy tale, will come into possession of a key to what the child finds. That both of his assumptions might be questioned does not occur to Bettelheim. Perhaps this is all to the good, since it leaves unimpaired his confidence as an interpreter; and a child analyst, like any analyst, would be destroyed without such confidence.


The first half of Bettelheim’s book, in which he explains and justifies his approach to fairy tales, is almost wholly a success. Fairy tale is compared to fable and to myth, and preferred to either because of its realistic optimism. A gentle, persuasive reading of “The Three Little Pigs” becomes a masterly demonstration of the opposition between Pleasure Principle and Reality Principle, and Bettelheim develops a considerable defense of fantasy as a mode of overcoming the vestiges of infancy and bringing the young self to an early sense of autonomy.

Perhaps the best pages in this fine “Part One: A Pocketful of Magic” concern “The Goose Girl,” a superb Grimm Brothers story, in which a princess is displaced by her wicked maid, whose crime of usurpation is augmented when she has the head of Falada, the faithful talking horse of the princess, chopped off. Reduced for a time to herding geese, the princess nevertheless ends happily, her true identity disclosed, while the unfaithful maid is stripped naked, placed inside a barrel with pointed nails, and dragged by horses up street and down until she is dead, a punishment she has unwittingly suggested as appropriate for someone with her guilt.

Bettelheim reads this as an Oedipal pattern, with the story warning the child against the desire to usurp the place of the parent of the same sex, just as the maid took the place of the princess. This displacement occurred after the princess lost a white handkerchief given to her by her mother, a handkerchief stained deliberately by three drops of the mother’s blood. Noting that the Queen gave this handkerchief to her daughter as she was leaving home to be married, Bettelheim interprets the blood as symbolic of potential sexual maturity, and the loss of the handkerchief as indicating the princess was not ready for such maturity.

To have lost the handkerchief, Bettelheim writes, is a ” ‘Freudian’ slip, by means of which she avoided what she did not wish to be reminded of: the impending loss of her maidenhood.” It allowed her to revert to childhood as a goose girl. This regression brings about tragedy for poor Falada, whose head is nailed to a gateway. Each morning, the goose girl laments to the horse’s head: “Falada, thou who hangest there,” to which the head replies: “If this your mother knew, / Her heart would break in two.” Bettelheim translates this as expressing the mother’s helpless grief, and so as admonishing the goose girl to cease being passive, at least for her poor mother’s sake. “All the bad things that happen are the girl’s own fault because she fails to assert herself.”

When the maid eventually is punished, Bettelheim urges us not to believe that children will be repelled by so ghastly an execution. Instead, they will say she chose it for herself, deserved it anyway, and fittingly is destroyed by horse in retribution for having killed the noble Falada. The Oedipal situation has been redressed, with the usurper serving as a scapegoat for the princess herself, who will believe no longer that her own mother was a usurper threatening the princess’s true place, and whose story serves to warn other children against prolonging dependence with its attendant passivities. Here Bettelheim has been shrewd and observant, and his interpretation has a curious rightness.

Part Two: In Fairy Land” is a descent, and I suspect that it will please fewer readers who have some care for romance and its interpretation. Bettelheim takes a series of the most famous tales—“Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Snow White,” “Cinderella” among them—and tries to give rather straightforward Freudian readings that become less analyses of the texts, and rather more explanations of how and why young children should emerge with particular meanings to each story. Freud’s belief that fairy tales lack a repressed element, a daemonic or uncanny aspect, is developed implicitly by Bettelheim’s well-intentioned pleasure in uncovering only beneficent meanings, except in the instance of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” which frustrates the analyst’s best efforts, until he ends by condemning it as a story:

Parents would like their daughters to remain eternally their little girls, and the child would like to believe that it is possible to evade the struggle of growing up. That is why the spontaneous reaction to “Goldilocks” is: “What a lovely story.” But it is also why this story does not help the child to gain emotional maturity.

Why does “Goldilocks” fail Bettelheim? Because, as he says, it raises questions which it does not answer, “while the greatest merit of a fairy story is that it gives answers, fantastic though these may overtly be, even to questions of which we are unaware because they perturb us only in our unconscious.” The more unresolved a text, the less therapeutic, thus threatens to become a Bettelheimian formula. But “Goldilocks” presents problems for Bettelheim precisely because “the three bears form a happy family, where things proceed in such unison that no sexual or oedipal problems exist for them.” Unable to break into the happily balanced world of Father Bear, Mother Bear, and Baby Bear, Goldilocks achieves “no resolution of the identity problem…, no self-discovery, no becoming a new and independent person.”


Bettelheim greatly prefers “Snow White” (which he recognizes as a precursor-text to “Goldilocks”), and his full, approving commentary upon “Snow White” ought therefore to be useful for assessing his interpretative method. I think that, as a reading, it fails, but the failure stems from the Freudian view of fairy tales as not belonging to the uncanny, to the sometimes Sublime world of romance.

Before giving the gist of Bettelheim on “Snow White,” let me venture a brief sketch of a different reading, one that would assume a repressed or daemonic component in the story. Ruskin, writing on “Fairy Stories” (1868), warned that their “fair deceit and innocent error…cannot be interpreted nor restrained by a wilful purpose,” including surely a therapeutic one. Fairy stories, as Ruskin observed, cannot be “removed altogether from their sphere of religious faith,” since in them: “the good spirit descends gradually from an angel into a fairy, and the demon shrinks into a playful grotesque of diminutive malevolence.” For Ruskin what is repressed most strongly in fairy tales is a world of angels and demons, a world of energies that transcend familial conflicts, and that offer irrational solutions to the sorrows of “growing up.” Those energies inform “Snow White” as a fiction, but are either unseen or evaded by Bettelheim.

What kind of a story is “Snow White,” when an adult encounters it again in a good translation of the Grimms? It is about as uncanny as Coleridge’s “Christabel,” would be an accurate answer, and it is hardly a paradigm for the process of maturing beyond Oedipal conflicts, as Bettelheim wants it to be. Snow White’s mother, like Christabel’s, dies in child-birth. The relations between her wicked and disguised stepmother and Snow White, during the three attempts to murder the girl, are about as equivocal as the Sapphic encounters between Geraldine and Christabel. Trying to kill a girl by successively tight-lacing her, combing her hair with a poisoned comb, and sharing a partly poisoned apple with her—all these testify to a mutual sexual attraction between Snow White and her stepmother. The stepmother’s desire to devour the liver and lungs of Snow White is demonic in itself, but takes on a particularly uncanny luster in the primal narcissism of a tale dominated by mirrors. When the tale ends, the wicked stepmother, dressed in her most beautiful clothes, has danced herself to death in red-hot slippers at the wedding feast of Snow White, a horror that is an expressive emblem of her frustrated desires.

Bettelheim seems on the verge of taking these hints as when, in one instance, he says: “That which is symbolized by the apple in ‘Snow White’ is something mother and daughter have in common which runs even deeper than their jealousy of each other—their mature sexual desires,” to which I would add: “for each other,” but that is to see a repressed element in a text where Bettelheim, faithful to Freud, cannot bear to see it. Where there is romance, I would argue, there must be repression, because enchantment is necessarily founded upon partial or misleading knowledge. Whatever the uses of enchantment may or may not be, the continuity of enchantment depends upon the ability of the enchanted reader or lover to sustain repression.

Bettelheim says of the stepmother’s terrible end that: “Untrammeled sexual jealousy, which tries to ruin others, destroys itself,” by which he means the stepmother’s supposed jealousy of a love between Snow White and the father, but the father is nowhere involved in the story. All the text tells us is that the stepmother envies a beauty that is greater than her own, in the opinion of her mirror, which after all must represent her own repressed opinion. Rather desperately, Bettelheim tries to import the father into the text in the figure of hunter assigned to kill Snow White. No moment in his book is lamer than Bettelheim’s explanation for his naming the hunter as the royal father:

At that time princes and princesses were as rare as they are today, and fairy tales simply abound with them. But when and where these stories originated, hunting was an aristocratic privilege, which supplies a good reason to see the hunter as an exalted figure like a father.

What can we do with this mode of interpretation, except to see it as confirming Ruskin’s admonition against substituting the moral will for the spirit of the text?

Yet Bettelheim’s moral will is so admirable that we are (and ought to be) uneasy at seeing him interpret so weakly. “Who is the interpreter and what power does he seek to gain over the text?” is the question that Nietzsche taught us to ask of every interpretation. Here the answer is: a benign healer of children is the interpreter, and his will-to-power is a will-to-health for young children who so badly require it. In the presence of motives so authentic and admirable as Bettelheim’s, I feel a sense of shame in yet urging interpretations that would be closer, and better suited, to the daemonic text itself.

Bettelheim’s polemic, as he keeps saying, is against a modern tradition in which parents have deprived their children of fairy tales, because they supposedly wished to protect the children from the pervasive violence of so many of the tales. I suspect that the true motive of many parents was founded rather upon a troubled apprehension, one that Freud, in his ambivalence toward romance, could not allow himself. “Snow White” is as Gnostic in its sexual and spiritual overtones as “Christabel” is; both are romances that set themselves contra naturam.

Bettelheim’s book is pragmatically right, but for the wrong reasons. Yes, fairy tales are good for young children, and for all the rest of us, but not because they are paradigms or parables that teach us how to adjust to an adult reality. They are good for us because their uncanny energies liberate our potential for the Sublime, for that little beyond ourselves that reason, nature, and society together cannot satisfy. As told by Bettelheim, a fairy tale may help a particular child, but the larger teaching of the tale, rather than the teller, is that the instinct for Sublime experience can never be satisfied, except perhaps by romance, human and literary.

This Issue

July 15, 1976