The two works under analysis are Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale “Cinderella” and Anne Sexton’s poem “Cinderella”. Both works centre on the same plot - the story of a young unfortunate girl who finds happiness. Despite of the outer similarity, they bear completely different idea, and can be opposed to each other. Grimm’s version is a traditional fairy tale that tells a story of the unhappy and miserable, but good and pious girl who one day has become happy. Sexton’s poem retells the well-known plot from absolutely different perspective, presenting personal and ironic critique of the rags-to-riches stories. This work presents a deeper analysis of the similarities and underlying differences of two literary works.
The main opposition of two works is based on the approach to the well-known and so peculiar to the fairy tales conception of unexpected happiness which finally brings in justice, love and happy ending. Anne Sexton argues this idea, showing it as insufficient to reality.
Grimm’s version of the famous folk tale incorporates all the elements of the genre: injustice towards the main character, who, being good, fair and pious suffers a lot; supernatural forces that help; victory of the good; miraculous transformations and eternal love. It tells a story of unfortunate girl, who suffers oppression from her step-mother and sisters, but finally with the help of her mother’s spirit justice triumph’s over, love brings end to the sufferings and evil is punished. In her poem, Saxton, ironically mocks at such fable, providing in the beginning few more examples of such like stories using the repetition “that story”, which generalizes all of these short stories that have absolutely the same plot of unexpected success in life. The repetition serves to connect and show similarity of the fairy tale with other, alike, myths. All these stories have become clichés, the so-called “Cinderella stories”. This preamble introduces the main idea of the poem – reinterpretation of the Cinderella’s story.
The poem Cinderella is a part of Anne Sexton’s book of poems called “Transformations”, which is entirely dedicated to the re-interpreted children’s stories and fairy tales. In her own, “confessional” and feminist style, poet aims at destruction of clichés and myths concerning real life presented in the fables. At the same time Brother Grimm’s fairy tales, including Cinderella, serve to create idealized images of life, to promote belief in the good and to shape the model of the perception of the world. Saxtone challenges this model in favor of the bitter truth. It is notable that the book “Transformations” is opened by the poem “Gold Key”, which contains the reference to Grimm’s stories: “It opens this book of odd tales, which transform the Brothers Grimm” (lines 43-44). As well as “Cinderella”, “Gold Key” and other poems in the book serve the same goal – to dethrone the fairy-tale conception of life and happiness. This mentioning also proves that Anne Sexton decided to respond exactly to the Brothers Grimm’s version of the fable.
The poem contrasts sweet fiction and reality. Saxton sarcastically retells the events of the Grimm’s story, revealing her own bitter feelings and even disappointment concerning real life, which is deprived of illusions. The main idea boils down to the questioning of the main concept of the fairy-tale - “they lived happily ever after”, as contrasted to the real world relationship, full of daily problems and difficulties. Unlike the fairy tale that creates the illusion of unbelievable, unexpected and ideal happiness, poem aims at complete disillusionment. The overall tone of the poem sounds like uncompromising critique that dethrones the idea of absolute happiness and rejects the symbolism behind the fairy tale plot. Through the poem, as well as at the very beginning, Anne Sexton points out the typicality of such “Cinderella stories”, using her sarcastic interjection: “So she went. Which is no surprise” (line 63). There were no doubts that she would go to the ball, because otherwise nothing would have happened and there would have been no fairy tale.
Unlike the Grimm’s version of the story, which is deprived of any personal attitudes or remarks, poem is more personalized. Personal remarks and interjections that are intermingled with the author’s retelling of the fable create sarcastic mood and serve the instrument for author’s mockery. The main character of both works is Cinderella. In the fairy tale, she is a typical protagonist who suffers from the evil and injustice and resorts to the help of mystical good spirits. Grimm’s version of the story comes from Christian tradition and has Christian symbolism. In the very beginning the story appeals to the Christianity. The dying mother said to her child: “Dear child, remain pious and good, and then our dear God will always protect you, and I will look down on you from heaven and be near you.” The image of Cinderella is the image of a humble, devout Christian, who serves the others and prays to God. Coming from this, all her subsequent happiness is the reward for her goodness. She is a typical for Christianity image of suffering good, that after all ordeals receives happiness and blessing. Though, in her poem, Anne Sexton mentions the idea of being devout, her image of Cinderella is absolutely different.
In Saxtone’s poem, Cinderella is felt like naïve, non-adapted to life girl, who “slept on the sooty hearth each night and walked around looking like Al Jolson” (line 32) and constantly asks for help the good spirits instead of making something herself, like washing her face and trying to change the situation in the house. One more Christian symbolism in the Grimm’s version is the pigeon, which generally symbolizes the Holy Spirit and in the context of a fairy tale represents the above good. The sister’s punishment in the end of a story looks also symbolic, as the dove pecked out their eyes – the display of the Divine Justice. In the poem this looks like another fairy tale element of the story, which is stressed with the help of the simile: “Two hollow spots were left like soup spoons” (line 98-99).
Another important role that author’s remarks play in the poem is establishing connection between the author and the reader and crediting the events of the fable with real life, for example: “that's the way with stepmothers”, “rather a large package for a simple bird”, “it was a marriage market”, “that is the way with amputations.They just don't heal up like a wish”. All the above remarks bring in author’s personal attitude and are the instrument of disclosure, portraying different kinds of feelings. Derisive disdain for the supernatural help from the good spirits is conveyed in the phrase “rather a large package for a simple bird” (line 62). It not only prejudices the supernatural help, but rather shows the absurdity of such possibility. She boils down all magic to one simple bird: “The bird is important, my dears, so heed him” (line 40). This line intentionally stresses the importance of the bird, suggesting that it is another absurdity of a fairy tale. Strong metaphor “it was a marriage market” presents Saxtone’s more realistic interpretation of the ball and such events; it is her personal point of view on what it really is and how it really looks without a veil of a fable romantics. One more parallel with reality is felt in the phrase about sisters’ decision to cut off some parts of their legs to fit into the shoe: “that is the way with amputations. They just don't heal up like a wish” (lines 86-87). It is felt as a hint on the surgery that many women do nowadays in order to “get hold of the prince”, who does not even notice a trick: “The prince rode away with her until the white dove told him to look at the blood pouring forth” (lines 84-85). Moreover, the poet mocks at the prince portraying him as insensitive person during the procedure of trying on the shoe: “The prince was getting tired. He began to feel like a shoe salesman” (lines 91-92). These lines make all the wife-choosing process, which is meant to be serious and meaningful, look more like a farce. After the bloody description of sisters’ cuttings these words sound like the author’s sarcasm.
Grimm’s fairy tale transmits the sentimental and sweet story, inspiring the belief in the good, justice and in real happiness: “The prince, however, took Cinderella onto his horse and rode away with her”, “And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived”. Saxtone questions this approach and the impression such stories produce creating false idea of life. Retelling the plot of the fable, the poet takes us away from its sweetness and sentiments back to reality. She doubts and disputes the meaning of such fairy stories on the basis of personal experience and perception.
The conceptual difference of two works is the message that they convey. Brothers Grimm’s story, as the most typical fairy tales, depicts the picture of a beautiful world, where the good always wins the evil, justice always triumphs, love is eternal and everything is very simple: “When she stood up the prince looked into her face, and he recognized the beautiful girl who had danced with him. He cried out, “She is my true bride.”. The message that Anne Sexton’s poem transmits is that the world is not like it is described in the fairy tale; it is much more prosaic and sad. She tries to draw attention to the reverse side of the story, which fairy tales never do. Especially this concerns the life of the prince and Cinderella afterwards. Unlike the fairy story, the poem does not end at the wedding ceremony. Coming from a fairy tale notion of life and happiness, Saxtone calls the prince and Cinderella “two dolls in a museum case” (line 102), because this kind of life model is not the real one. This simile stresses the lifelessness of this relationships questioning whether they are real at all. She hyperbolizes the fairy plot, suggesting her own version of the subsequent unfold of the events, which is deprived of any troubles or sadness. She suggests her own vision on how “happily ever after” life might look. The idea is stressed with the help of anaphoric repetition of the word “never”:
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread (lines 103-106).
This exaggerated idealization of the relationship and marital life provides another sarcastic view on the absurdity of such stories and their incompatibility with life; they distort people’s idea and expectations concerning life. This last stanza of the poem contradicts the “they lived happily ever after” conception of the fairy tales. Moreover, it questions and forces the reader to think about what the reality is behind what it may seem at the first sight. The artificiality of the images of prince and Cinderella is underlined with the words: “their darling smiles pasted on for eternity”, which complete the whole dethroned and even sad image of the fairy happiness.
On the surface, the two versions are very similar, but after a deeper insight into the symbolism and implications behind the outer from it becomes clear that two works are completely different due to the divergence in their meaning content. Anne Sextone’s poem has the same title as the Grimm’s fairy tale, which presupposes certain correspondence or an allusion to the famous fable and prepare the reader for the certain kind of information and topic. In this case, the outcome is original and unexpected and presents the story in different light. The opposition of the two versions of the story is the opposition of the realistic and idealistic outlooks on life. Grimm’s story is transparent. Its message is clear and the lesson lies on the surface. Anne Sextone poem is twofold and has inner implication and the inner form. She does not argue or critique the concept of the fairy tale openly, stating that it is unreal and absurd. She agrees with it and at the first glance just retells it, but the real sense lies hidden beneath the imagery, and devices used to convey her ideas.