In response to:

The Meaning of Mother Goose from the February 2, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

In “The Meaning of Mother Goose” [NYR, February 2], historian Robert Darnton devotes approximately 80 percent of his essay—the last four fifths—to demonstrating that the original tales of the Mother Goose genre reflect the ugly, dirty, and often brutal circumstances of seventeenth-century French peasant life. He believes that the tales, of which some ten thousand have been collected, categorized, and neatly assorted, reflect two chronic and urgent concerns, one with hunger and the other with the dangers of the tough world out there. That was particularly threatening because of knavery and treachery, necessitating a wary eye on one’s neighbors and an ability to out-trick tricksters. That ability, and the pleasure derived from it, as reflected in the tales handed down in an oral tradition from one illiterate peasant generation to the next, contributed to a particular characteristic Professor Darnton calls “Frenchness.” His central theme, in the last 80 percent or so of his essay, is to describe that trait and how it developed. In essence, the central wishful fantasy of a full belly was the core of the tale, and it was typically surrounded by allusions to plague, violence, and similar evils about which the storytellers cautioned their audience.

My concern is not with the accuracy of Professor Darnton’s speculation (although I wonder whether he believes that the tricksters in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale were, au fond, French, and wonder also what differentiates such allegedly French trickiness from that so abundant in Italian tales—e.g., those in the Decameron). I write, rather, as a psycho-analyst, to draw attention to facts and conclusions Professor Darnton has overlooked despite having alluded to these facts himself, for his own special purposes, in the first 20 percent of his essay. I am grateful for the ill wind which he blew in the direction of my profession, because in the process—hoist with his own petard—he related the original version of what was to become Little Red Riding Hood. His intent seems to have been to pillory two writers he identifies as “two of the best-known psychoanalysts,” and thereby to lambaste psycho-analysis—about which more later. In the process, he presents details which provide support for conclusions different from those he went on to draw, toward the end of his essay.

For example, he describes the child’s being eaten by the wolf, and relates other instances of outright cannibalism, all of which do indeed have a possible connection with the central preoccupation with having enough to eat. For even the most obtuse, however, it is evident that something else is present, namely sadism. In some of the variants, parents are tricked into eating the flesh of their savagely butchered children. In fact, in addition to rampant sadism, accounts of anal perversion, incest, and rape abound. One wonders whether Professor Darnton is aware that Freud proved that there is a link between sadism and anality, and whether he is even aware of the connection between sadism and sex! It is really quite evident that the raconteurs who kept these tales alive pandered to the lusts of their audiences, much as do the scriptwriters today, in seeing to it that the cinema and television screen are well supplied with murderous slashings and other forms of savagery.

It is in relating the full story of what was to become the tale of Little Red Riding Hood that the professor provides the most startling evidence that the storyteller did not merely offer the wish-fulfillment of a full belly, coupled with warnings about the perils of the outside world. In what Darnton himself refers to as a striptease, the little girl divests herself of all of her clothing at the command of the wolf in the guise of her grandmother. Without the insights of psychoanalysis, which have become commonplace in the understanding of literature—Professor Darnton to the contrary notwithstanding—it would be difficult for the modern reader to believe that in a brutal, primitive, marginal society, in which the opportunity to dress or undress fully, let alone to bathe, must have been remote; when privacy must have been a scarcely conceivable luxury and modesty nonexistent; when one defecated on the community dunghill or perhaps into a pot in the presence of others—it would be difficult, I repeat, to believe that a raconteur could regularly titillate his audience by detailing every item of clothing: apron, bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings, as the little girl removed these prior to getting into bed with the wolf. In short, in his gratuitous sideswipe at psychoanalysis, Professor Darnton has unwittingly provided support for a thesis much more complex and profound than his own, namely that along with hunger and fear, sex was a fundamental component of the French folk tale.

To turn now to his tiresome tirade about what Fromm and Bettelheim wrote about LRRH: in the absence of bibliographical data, I assume Darnton’s source was something Fromm wrote in 1951. Fromm is not generally regarded as a spokesman for psychoanalytical thought. In any event Darnton offers no evidence that either Fromm or Bettelheim was attempting to trace the origins of LRRH. In 1975, Bettelheim wrote about the possible meanings to children of symbols in the tales they currently read or hear. Neither author invented the red riding hood. Darnton rules this accoutrement to be nonexistent because it is not to be found in tales written and told centuries ago. That enables him to ignore his obligation as an historian to explain when, how, and, if possible, why such elaborations came into existence. Not only is it a modification or accretion, it is now the title of the tale itself.


It might be of some interest to discover whether Bettelheim is correct about the possible symbolic meaning. However, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt aptly and dryly observed in a recent book review, psychoanalysts scarcely need concern themselves today with demonstrating the existence of sex symbols.

In summary, Professor Darnton’s elaborate demonstration and documentation of important aspects of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French peasant life and feelings—chiefly dread, distrust, and craftiness—fail totally to account for data he provided in the early portion of the essay. Those data require consideration of human motivating forces which psychoanalysts study and seek to integrate with other more obvious and readily understandable data.

Irving B. Harrison, MD

White Plains, New York

To the Editors:

There is no doubt that folk tales and fairy tales need more historical scrutiny of the kind proposed by Robert Darnton in “The Meaning of Mother Goose.” However, Darnton himself has not probed as far as he could have and has perhaps set researchers on the wrong track.

In his discussion of Little Red Riding Hood, he overlooks the historical research of Yvonne Verdier (“Grand-mères, si vous saviez: le petit Chaperon Rouge dans la tradition orale,” Cahiers de la littérature orale, 1978) and myself (The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, 1983). We have investigated Paul Delarue’s synthetic tale of a peasant girl who saves herself from a werewolf—perhaps the oldest model—and related it to the initiation of a young woman in a sewing community. Darnton has overlooked this connection and thus cannot account for the changes in the reception of the tale. Moreover, he has not explored the significant relationship between the oral and literary tradition and how storytellers and writers transformed oral tales. Recent research such as Heinz Rölleke’s Die älteste Märchensammlung der Brüder Grimm, 1975, has demonstrated that the Grimms made enormous changes in recording oral and literary European tales to suit their political and literary interests. Nor did they eliminate all the Perrault tales in the second edition as Darnton argues. In fact, by the seventh edition, many Perrault and French tales were added. In effect, the Grimms created a national “institution” in collection and stylizing folk and fairy tales since they endowed them with characteristics and qualities which, they hoped, would foster German identity and unity. However, by no means were the original tales in their collection already stamped by a specific “German” character.

This leads me to my last point. Darnton maintains that one can discern cultural differences through folk tales. “The peasant raconteurs took the same themes and gave them characteristic twists, the French in one way, the German in the other. Where the French tales tend to be realistic, earthy, bawdy, and comical, the German veer toward the supernatural, the poetic, the exotic, and the violent.” Darnton then goes on to draw comparisons between the French folk tales and so-called German tales drawn mainly from the Grimms’ collection. Not only is this method of comparison suspect because the Grimms’ collection can no longer be considered a product of peasants, but because such tales of folk origin as “The Bremen Town Musicians,” “The Thumbling,” “How Six Got on in the World,” “Clever Gretel,” “Bearskin,” and many others depict the cleverness of exploited underdogs who succeed in the world in comic fashion despite odds. They bear more resemblance to the French peasant folk tales than to Darnton’s German model. There was no such nation as Germany until 1870, and German oral tales contained and contain distinct regional characteristics (Swabian, Bavarian, Hessian, etc.) as do the French. These differences and the rise of literary fairy tales stamped by middle-class writers such as Perrault, the Grimms, Hauff, Bechstein, and others must be studied more carefully before we can make the generalizations about cultural characteristics which Darnton has made. Certainly Darnton is right when he asserts that the “tales told peasants how the world was put together, and [that] they provided a strategy for coping with it.” But, the historian must be more careful in devising a strategy for putting the social origins and reception of the tales together if we are to grasp their basic meaning.


Jack Zipes

University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Robert Darnton replies:

I am sorry that my essay provoked such a howl of pain from Dr. Harrison and other psycho-analysts who have protested about my inability to appreciate the importance of sex. I consider myself chastised, although to tell the truth I had a sneaking suspicion all along that a libidinal undercurrent flowed through the peasants’ Mother Goose. I would go so far as to argue that the peasants had sex lives. They also had appetites for food and ran after the occasional tax collector with a pitchfork. If I could see as deeply into texts as Dr. Harrison does, I would not have to hunt through history in order to understand the meaning of those experiences. I could remain content with the modernized, bowdlerized, and anachronistic Mother Goose of Erich Fromm and Bruno Bettelheim.

Professor Zipes’s criticism comes from another quarter: German literature as understood by the Frankfurt school. If I read him right, his main objection is that I did not cite a series of works on the Brothers Grimm, beginning with his own. I sympathize with his response. When someone invades my turf, I, too, look in the footnotes to see whether he has cited my work. If he has not, I suspect his Wissenschaft. Unfortunately, my essay had only one footnote, which referred to the works of the best-known French and German folklorists. I could not do more, because I was publishing the text of a lecture intended for the general public rather than a scholarly article aimed at specialists. The full version of my text, which appears as the first chapter in my recently published book, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, contains a great many references to folklore studies of all varieties.

Even so, I fear that I neglected some scholars. The literature is too vast to fit within a single bibliography, and the subject is too complex to be contained within a single discipline. Instead of trying to monopolize Little Red Riding Hood for history, I think that everyone should have a crack at her, even Dr. Harrison. Specialists in German literature have worked over the Grimms’ tales for a century. I based my analysis primarily on the painstaking monographs by Johannes Bolte, Georg Polivka, and Wilhelm Schoof, although I read through several shelves of books by other authorities. The most recent books tend to dismiss the Grimms as littérateurs. Perhaps I was wrong to take them seriously as collectors of folk tales, even though I hedged my argument with cautionary remarks about their habit of rewriting their texts and their use of nonpeasant sources. Nonetheless, I remain impressed by the Grimms’ claim to provide reasonably accurate versions of the tales they recorded, many of them in dialect, and by their attempts to distinguish themselves from Clemens Brentano and others, who merely used the tales as starting points for literary fantasies. If compared with Basile, Perrault, or their own contemporaries, I think the Grimms represent the beginning of ethnographic folklore—an imperfect beginning, but one that is still worthy of attention.

In short, I would stand by my argument: use the Grimms, but use them with caution. I also would not retreat from my attempts to analyze the interplay between oral and written traditions and to compare different versions of the same tale in several languages, a mode of analysis that can be done with some rigor thanks to the Aarne-Thompson index. Why Professor Zipes objects that I failed to make that kind of analysis puzzles me, because I devoted so much of my essay to it. He will find still more material in my book, where I discuss the trickster and underdog motifs in the German tales and show how weak they are in comparison with their French and Italian analogues.

More puzzling still, Professor Zipes goes much further than I do in seeing elements of social realism in the Grimms’ tales. In Breaking the Magic Spell, he argues (p. 6) that the Grimms’ collection “essentially reflected late feudal conditions.” When Hansel and Gretel kill the witch, he finds that they expressed “the hatred which the peasantry felt for the aristocracy as hoarders and oppressors” (p. 32). And he concludes that the symbolic elements of the tales “can clearly be understood when placed in the historical context of the transition from feudalism to early capitalism” (p. 33). The feudalism–capitalism formula has been worn so thin in the debates between Marxists and revisionists that it no longer works very well as a way of characterizing European society in the early nineteenth century. And while social historians have abandoned that variety of reductionism, anthropologists have rejected another: the tendency to see folklore as a “reflection” of social structure. I think historians would make a serious error if they read folk tales as photographs of social reality. For my part, I believe the tales provided a way of construing reality. They worked as narratives, showing how the world is made and how one can cope with it.

This Issue

May 10, 1984