Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cinderella, Perrault, Glass Slippers, Carriages, Etc.

It's time! I'm done with early Cinderellas! Time for a little more discussion of Perrault so we can somewhat forget about him again for a while.  Because after this--and perhaps a quick side trip to the Grimms--we can start discussing the quirky, strange, unusual, sad and entertaining Cinderellas. If I can remember them all....

From my book, Cinderella Tales From Around the World:

Charles Perrault’s influence over the popularity of Cinderella cannot be overstated. His “Cendrillon; ou, La petite pantfoufle de verre,” commonly known as Cinderella in English, is the most recognized version of Cinderella in the modern world. His fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage, and glass slippers have inspired countless renditions of the tale in print, theatre, music, and art since its publication. His version of ATU 510B Donkeyskin is not as well known but it, too, is one of the dominant versions of that tale type and remains popular in France today although its incest theme has caused it to be often suppressed in other countries.

While we can only conjecture about which oral and literary versions of Cinderella inspired Perrault, there is no doubt he left his literary stamp on the tale when he published it for the first time in Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697. Perrault, influenced by the French salons and the fairy tale writers of the late seventeenth century, added descriptive flourishes, romance, and humor to the story.

While the events in his tale are not unique, Perrault most likely invented the glass slipper—there is no trace of it before his version—perhaps as an ironic device since it is a fragile thing and perhaps as simply genius creative license for it has become the iconic symbol of the fairy tale, even surpassing Perrault’s transformed pumpkin carriage as shorthand for the story. The glass slipper has been the cause of much speculation and debate over the years, including a prevalent, albeit erroneous theory, that the glass was a mistake, a confusion between the French verre (glass) and vair (squirrel fur), since fur slippers are not as fantastical, but altogether realistic. In 1841, Honoré de Balzac popularized, perhaps even created the theory, and it has remained popular ever since despite many inherent issues within it, such as its dismissal of Perrault’s own adept literacy. The theory also negates Perrault’s interest in the fantastic and magical, discounting his brilliant creativity. Although the translation error theory has been dismissed by scholars since the 19th century, it continues to appear in popular media all too often today.

Perhaps the most regrettable element of Perrault’s Cinderella is her level of passivity. The known Cinderellas that preceded her were less passive, as are most of the lesser known variants from all around Europe which postdate her. His Cinderella is rewarded for practicing goodness, obedience, and patience by primarily waiting to be rescued, often in tears. She does little else to help herself. Her character has served as a rallying point for modern audiences who want to label fairy tales as anti-feminist or teaching outdated values for women. And yet the majority rules, so Cinderella, in this iteration, remains the most popular when there are literally hundreds of others to choose instead.

Perrault’s fairy godmother is also his own interpretation of the magic helper, not a unique invention, but another element dosed with his storytelling flair, one certainly rounded out by the French literary salons he frequented, especially that of his niece Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon and her friends, including Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy. Both of these women wrote tales with Cinderella motifs, “The Discreet Princess; or the Adventures of Finette” and “Finette Cendron.” Since it diverges further from Cinderella traditions and is overlong, L’Héritier’s story is not included in this collection, but d’Aulnoy’s Finette Cendron is. Both tales can also be found in Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments edited by Jack Zipes (1989). All of these tales were originally published within a few years of each other, but their exact timelines and the extent of the collaborations between the authors are unknown. However, their existence illustrates the popularity of the Cinderella motifs during this period in history.

And really, it is quite simply stunning how much Perrault's version has defined Cinderella in popular culture for decades, if not centuries. His usages are iconic in our culture. Really have to credit him for capturing the imagination of countless people across generations and cultures, don't we?


  1. I think I find it hard to understand how a tale that is so clearly aimed at upper class young ladies was able to become so popular at a time when a vast majority of the population was uneducated, illiterate, and would have no clear access to that version, being as they were so far removed from the lifestyle of those able to go to the salons...how could they relate to a fairy godmother over a magical tree, when their livelihoods were dependent on the natural world?

    So I suppose what I'm curious about is whether Perrault's version's popularity is really down to his new additions or the social setting it was received and shared in? The salons were a setting for the rich upper classes who would have access to influence and technologies such as the printing press...I don't know whether the tale was printed and distributed widely but am aware of the possibility due to the continuing advancements in printing technology, and wonder if that combined with distribution amongst people of higher social standing - those with the influence and power in society - might have ensured its longevity as the oral tales 'died out', so to speak? I'd love to know your thoughts!

    1. From reading turn of the century fiction (such as Edith Nesbit), one does get the impression that the children of that time who know "all the fairy stories" from Andrew Lang, Arabian Nights, etc., are upper-class children, and that when they play with lower class children or servants, they must provide instruction on the fairy tale details. It would be fascinating to know how/when our most well-known fairy tales truly permeated all levels of the culture.