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Psychoanalysis of Fairytales

Examine one or more fairytales from a psychoanalytic perspective. How valid, in your view, is such an approach when applied to fairytales in general?
The psychoanalysts’ view of the fairy tale varies greatly between individuals. Tales are, to the general public audience, a mode of entertainment. To the person interested in the hidden meanings and interpretation of the human condition, they are vehicles for the distribution of latent content. This content can generally be seen to embody both phallic and moralistic features. The tales of Sleeping Beauty (Briar Rose) and Little Red Riding Hood (Little Red Cap) both illustrate sexual maturity and moral instruction. As with all areas of psychology, there is room for variance in the interpretation of images and actions. There does seem, however, to have a general consistency in the interpretation of symbols and signs, allowing for the stating of perhaps taboo topics in an illustrative manner.

Tales are said to contain more than meets the eye. Initially, there is the surface, or manifest content; presented and taken, generally, at face value. As with Freudian theories regarding dream interpretation, this is what is ‘seen’ as opposed to the ‘hidden’ latent content. It is this constituent that lies open to interpretation, depicting what the tale is ‘actually’ about, through symbolic representation.

Symbols, as used in the interpretative sense, are objects, colours, people or scenes that represent the inner moods or occurrences around us or needing to be addressed. The argument that is presented regarding the interpretation of these symbols is: what are the standards and who sets them? Over time there have come to be certain accepted symbols for major themes such as sexuality and fear. Erich Fromm writes in his The Forgotten Language that, “If one fails to grasp the true meaning of the myth, one finds oneself confronted with this alternative: either the myth is…a naive picture of the world and of history and at best a product…of imagination or…the manifest story is true…a correct report of events which actually happen in ‘reality'”. Thus, his argument being: the tales are too naive and fantastical to be believable so therefore there must be underlying meaning in order to justify their creation. There are a great number of critics and sceptics to this view. In analysis, however, the pattern and commonality of a number of symbols is perhaps too frequent to be coincidental.

Little Red Riding Hood can be said to be one of the most widely known fairy-stories. On the surface it is a tale of deception ending in the destruction of the ‘evil’ and deceptive source. The story does, at the same time, lend itself to Freudian interpretation regarding the male/female relationship and conflict. The tale’s primary character is a young girl who is obviously carefree and loving, thus representing her youth. She is given a red velvet cap by her grandmother, which she chooses to wear all the time. Red is one of the most dramatic and most widely recognised symbols. It is the colour of passion, sexuality and maturation. The young girl has reached the age of puberty, thus also the point at which menstruation will begin as a sign of the onset of sexual maturity. She is therefore about to make the transition from being a carefree child to being confronted by the issues of womanhood and sexuality. She is about to set off on the journey to her grandmother’s house, however to get there she has to journey down a path surrounded by a thick wood. She is warned not to stray from the path and not to drop the contents of her basket. The path represents the ideal and righteous road to follow, perhaps the ‘path of virtue’. Her mother has warned her not to stray from this because she does not know what might befall her in the ‘real world’.

The basket is symbolic of her innocence, she is not to let her guard down to the risk of losing her virginity. This is the protective mother, trying to keep her child innocent and protected. The wood is a dark and mysterious place, there is no knowing what goes on within the confines of the dark and shadowy trees. It is the world that we all as individuals must face and stand up against. Temptation is a human flaw that we cannot escape. Mystery is temptation, therefore we are tempted to enter the unknown ‘woods of the world’. This test of life is presented to the young girl as she walks by herself along the path. The fact that she is alone is a key detail; her mother cannot come with her and cannot be with her every step of the way. Parents must let go of their children, all they can do is hope that their guidelines will keep them away from danger.

The wolf character enters while she is walking the path. He tempts her by telling her to come and see the flowers that grow just off the road, in the wood. She resists at first, remembering that she has been told not to listen to strangers and not to stray. However, after a bit of coaxing she does agree, convincing herself that she could collect some flowers for her grandmother. The wolf is seen as the dark, sleazy and deceptive male symbol. To him, the girl is young, sexually naive and yet mature, because of this he wishes to take advantage of her. The wolf is one of the devil’s animals, seen as being dangerously destructive, representing evil in the highest form. He is also cunningly keen and aware of his power of persuasion and seduction. He speaks of the flowers and the birds singing in the forest. Flowers again are a symbol of her innocence and of sex. Having been convinced to go have a look, she is lured “deeper and deeper into the woods”. The wolf then runs on ahead to the house of the sickly grandmother, where he promptly devours her.

This is seen as a sign again of the animal nature of the male. Masquerading as the grandmother he again ‘swallows’ Little Red Riding Hood and falls asleep when he as satiated his appetite. The role of the man here is quite clearly that of evil. Sex is seen as an act enjoyed purely by the male and as some form of cannibalistic activity wherein he uses the female to get what and as much as he desires. What is presented is a seemingly deep antagonistic view of men. As well as showing the dangers of sex, the tale is able to portray men as being cunning but at the same time ridiculous. Even though the wolf has succeeded in his deception it is ultimately the female that comes out on top. After devouring the girl and her grandmother, he has two living beings in his stomach. Thus, making him a man attempting to play the role of a pregnant woman. This is a feminist interjection on the apparent superiority of females because of their ability to give birth. The two females are saved by a huntsman releasing them from the belly of the wolf. When released Little Red Riding Hood says, ‘Ah how frightened I have been! How dark it is inside the wolf!’ Thus making an exclamation that straying from the path of virtue was not the right choice, she only caused herself pain and anguish. Thus she promises herself that she will never stray from the path for the rest of her life. The anti-male view is furthered by the final act of the girl. While the wolf is still asleep, she fills his stomach with stones, thus when he arises, he falls down dead. Since stones are a symbol of sterility, the wolf cannot continue. The fact that he cannot assert his power as a male through his ability to reproduce results in the shallow conviction that he would be better off dead.

Again with the tale of Sleeping Beauty, the focus is on sexual maturation and its’ implications. The character of Briar Rose is placed under a curse which foretells that she will prick her finger on her fifteenth birthday and fall dead. On her birthday, she does prick her finger but only falls into a deep slumber, along with the rest of the kingdom. The importance of her age illustrates that this is the point of sexual maturation, as with Little Red Riding Hood. When she pricks her finger, she draws blood, obviously a sign of the commencement of menstruation and developed womanhood. The issue of the difference between physical and psychological maturation is addressed by the growth of the thicket around the tower where she sleeps. The girl may be physically able to have sex and bare children, however she is not ready mentally and therefore there is no need for her to be active. The thicket grows around the tower to prevent her from the advances of men, this is her protection.

Many suitors do come and try to wake her but they are entangled in the thorns and do not make it to her. The symbol of the tower represents a phallic image, thus enticing men to attempt to court her,  in vane as it turns out. However, when the Prince comes along, “Mr Right” if you will, the thorns are replaced by flowers which move out of the way to create a clear path to the sleeping damsel. Thus, she has accepted him as a suitor, and had come to terms with her sexual maturity. The phallic symbolism contained within the tale is also seen in the spindle upon which she pricks her finger. The King declares at the start that all spindles shall be removed from the castle for fear of losing his daughter. The protective father is thus making sure that there is to be no introduction of the ways of sex to his daughter. Again, the protective parent is doing what he believes to be the best thing, however it may cause curiosity and end in possible harm.

The story perhaps does not appear to be as intricate and full of latent content as Little Red Riding Hood, but nevertheless it does have a clear purpose. The evident theme is more on the fact that maturation in a physical sense is not always a sign of psychological readiness. Society often puts pressure on the individual to have sex once they reach the age of maturity. However, people are not always ready at the same time. Some women may wish to have sex as soon as they are physically mature enough, while others are more content to wait and keep men at bay until they feel they are ready, as the character of Briar Rose.

There are many symbols that run common throughout the range of fairy tales. For example, the forest. The forest and it’s inhabitants feature heavily in tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstilskin, to name a few. In each of the situations, it is a dark and mysterious place that no one is really knowledgeable about. The confines of both the human mind and the darker side of society can be said to be present in the woods. The musical writer and composer Steven Sondheim created a musical stage production based on the theme of the Woods and what it presents to the individual. Within the piece, “Into The Woods”, characters find that in order to reach a goal they have to enter into the unknown woods and take risks.

A commentary on human nature is made in all the cases of fairy tale characters entering into the dark forest. Darkness tends to represent what cannot be predicted, and therefore is seen as being scary and unable to be prepared for. The image of the woods brings about the idea of not only the unknown but of dangerous creatures and great risk. Almost all fairy tales have a dark and daunting image within it. This tends to be the aspect that frightens little children but at the same time excites them. The witch, the goblin and the troll all reside in the woods where it is dark and ‘spooky’. The child is the prince or princess who is faced with these evil challenges. They come out on top and thus, a sense of hope and dedication is aroused within the psyche of the youthful audience.
One may look at the findings of psychoanalyst’s and be somewhat disgusted that the tale can lose it’s ‘innocence’ through interpretations of this sort.

However, if one is to look at the general tale that is told to the child today and compare it to perhaps the original versions of the work, one will see that the stories have often been ‘watered down’ for the young audience. What critics of this view must realise is that the oral tradition and story telling is a form of education. Informing young children of the danger of the stranger on the corner (i.e. the wolf), is one level of interpretation. It has not always been the case that children were seen as being too young to hear of instances of rape and the onset of puberty. This is a somewhat recent development in the psychology of the adult versus the child. Conceptually, the child would not be as naive of the dangers of sex as they are in today’s world because the introductions were made through the tales of their childhood.

Freud and Jung spent the greater part of their psychoanalytic career on the interpretation of latent content within the dream and other forms of symbolic representation. The tale can be said to be a ‘gold-mine’ of hidden details and social commentary. There are a number of levels upon which the reader can interpret the story presented to them. There is, of course, the surface view which means that the tale is taken at pure fantastical face value. This is the option that people assume all children look at stories with, and so this is the sole level that is possible to be extracted. However, children are more perceptive than adults often give them credit for. The introduction of fantasy is a most important feature in their lives. It is through the use of imagination and play that they learn how to grow up and how to live life. By bringing issues of the world into their entertainment, the story-teller is not only providing a source of ‘fun’ but a critical opportunity for the education of youth. By dealing with sexual, psychological, moralistic and social issues through the employment of the oral tradition, the writer or story-teller is reaching out to both young and old, distributing through symbols the state of the world and the dangers that we as a society are presenting.

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