The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) grew, Bruno Bettelheim writes in his introduction, out of his therapeutic work with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties:
This work made it obvious to me that if children were reared so that life was meaningful to them, they would not need special help. I was confronted with the problem of deducing what experiences in a child’s life are most suited to promote his ability to find meaning in his life; to endow life in general with more meaning.
Our cultural heritage, Bettelheim continues, is second only to our parents in importance when it comes to developing this meaning, which is conveyed best to young children as literature. Bettelheim explains that he has found fairy tales to be perfect for this task:
This book attempts to show how fairy stories represent in imaginative form what the process of healthy human development consists of, and how the tales make such development attractive for the child to engage in. This growth process begins with the resistance against the parents and fear of growing up, and ends when youth has truly found itself, achieved psychological independence and moral maturity, and no longer views the other sex as threatening or demonic, but is able to relate positively to it. In short, this book explicates why fairy tales make such great and positive psychological contributions to the child’s inner growth.
He then divides his book into two parts, in the first of which he argues fairy tales’ importance to his purpose and outlines how they fit with child development and in the second of which he takes a handful of tales and explores them, teasing out their underlying messages. He argues that fairy tales proceed by image and symbol; these account for their richness, lending them to many sorts of interpretation which need not be exclusive of any other. For Bettelheim, a Freudian psycho-analyst, fairy tales’ images operate in the listener’s (and presumably the teller’s) mind at an unconscious level. This makes them very powerful educative vehicles and also allows the child to understand only so much of the story as he (the child is always male in this book) is ready to accept. Thus a child may interpret the fitting of Cinderella’s slipper onto her foot as symbolic of the prince identifying the ‘correct’ bride; adults may perceive the slipper as representing the vagina and the offering of it to Cinderella as the prince's acceptance of the vagina and her penis envy.
So, ‘The Three Little Pigs’ explains to the child that he must turn from the Pleasure Principle (quickly rigging up a frail straw shack so that you can rush off and play) to the Reality Principle (building a solid brick house and going out early in the morning to do your business); ‘The Goose Girl’ tells the story of a princess who must learn to be responsible and autonomous from her parents; ‘The Frog King’ teaches that sex might seem disgusting but can be beautiful. Oedipal conflicts are represented for boys in stories which describe heroes slaying giants and monsters and rescuing maidens, and for girls in those which feature good mothers and wicked stepmothers (two sides of the same mother figure). ‘Snow White’ explores narcissism, both of the (step)mother who cannot bear the daughter to surpass her and of the daughter herself, so easily tempted by the laces and the comb (and the dwarves are trapped in a ‘phallic existence’, a detail of interpretation I loved).
‘Hansel and Gretel’ centres around oral anxiety, the fear of starvation and the need to curb one’s destructive desires. It begins with the children overhearing their parents deciding to abandon them. In the version Bettelheim uses, it is the mother who proposes leaving the children in the forest and thus the mother who is experienced as the betrayer. Knowing that they need their parents desperately, the children successfully return home.
Before a child has the courage to embark on the voyage of finding himself, of becoming an independent person through meeting the world, he can develop initiative only in trying to return to passivity, to secure for himself eternally dependent gratification... The story of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and hence destructive desires.
Relying on food for safety is the children’s undoing when the creatures of the forest gobble up the trail of crumbs and then again when they see the gingerbread house which they immediately fall to devouring rather than understanding may offer shelter and safety. When they hear the little voice, ‘Who is nibbling at my little house?’, they lie to themselves that it is the wind who speaks (Bettelheim suggests the voice represents their consciences). The witch is both ‘a personification of the destructive aspects of orality’ and the ‘bad, destructive’ mother. Once the children defeat the witch by ‘exchang[ing] subservience to the pressures of the id for acting in accordance with the ego’ and develop initiative and planning, the good mother is once again revealed and the house offers them jewels which will then benefit all the family. Hansel and Gretel’s experience has purged them of their orality and they arrive home as ‘mature’ children.
(Michael Foreman, 'Hansel and Gretel at the House in the Woods', illustration from Brian Alderson (trans.), The Brothers Grimm: Popular Folk Tales (1978), poorly photographed by me. Of all the illustrations of this tale I've seen, this is the one which stays with me. Bruno Bettelheim would not approve at all since illustrating fairy tales robs the child of imaginative autonomy – his monsters are no longer his own)
It might not be apparent from what I’m about to write, but The Uses of Enchantment illuminated for me a whole new way of reading fairy tales and was generally convincing. Sometimes though I did feel that Bettelheim was distorting stories to fit them into the framework of his analysis. For instance, he sees ‘Bluebeard’ and ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ as being a warning against female adultery and male vengefulness; for me the story is weighted much more against Bluebeard/the sorcerer as vicious murderers and since they give the heroines the keys to the forbidden chambers they are in fact complicit in what happens, which makes it more complex than a straightforward warning to women not to stray from the marital bed. But on the whole I felt that his writing was very persuasive.
All the same, I did have quite a few problems with it too. First, Bettelheim has a habit of presenting theory and opinion as fact, with no hard evidence to back it up. This is suggested in the first passage I quoted, concerning the importance of a meaning to life for the ‘disturbed children’ with whom Bettelheim worked. Some of these children had autism, and would still need ‘special help’ regardless of how they were reared (Bettelheim was the originator of the thankfully discredited ‘refrigerator mother’ theory – that autism was caused by a mother being cold or distant), but Bettelheim leaves no room for dissent. This is tricky when he is writing about how a person subconsciously reacts to or understands something. I constantly wanted to ask him how he knew that’s what was going on in a child’s mind if the child him- or herself doesn’t know. I wondered how much was based on himself and then generalised out from that.
Second, Bettelheim has a strict definition of a fairy tale: it should be optimistic, consolatory and transformative of its hero(ine). Several of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, including ‘The Little Mermaid’, are discarded as not fairy tales because they have sad endings. Charles Perrault’s version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is also dismissed as Red Riding Hood climbs into bed with the wolf and is subsequently eaten and not saved; she learns nothing from the experience. Perrault is something of a bête noire to Bettelheim, who loathes his tendency to ‘prettify’ and moralise and accuses him of inventing some of the details in his stories.
Third, Bettelheim has an uncertain relationship with the actual texts he uses. He is clearly very widely read and mentions many obscure versions of fairy tales, he accepts that they circulated in oral form long before they were written down and thus were subject to change – he even advises parents to adapt fairy tales to the child to which they’re told. Yet at the same time he deplores some versions, usually Perrault’s, as not being echt or not fulfilling his criteria. In particular he rails about Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’ (the one most of us know – fairy godmother, pumpkin, glass slipper) as inferior to the Grimms’ ‘Aschenputtel’ (hazel twig, doves, gold slipper), which has a more empowered heroine and a more central relationship with her dead mother. Bettelheim does discuss the hated version but because his theoretical frame has become constricting he is unable to allow that it may have a value for other than didactic reasons. Furthermore, he occasionally allows himself to analyse particular phrases in tales – this seems to me questionable since those words may have been added by a collector like the Grimms or may exist in one version of a tale but not another. It seems better to evaluate motifs, which will remain more stable across many retellings.
These reservations did not detract from Bettelheim’s interpretations but they did remind me of their limits. Still, he did render fairy tales a great service by trumpeting their importance and his interpretations of them are always clever and challenging. I hugely enjoyed reading this book even though I did smile at it occasionally, sorry Bruno but I did find the Freudianism relentless at times, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in fairy tales. O, and he definitely raised the bar on bedtime stories – can I hope ever to live up to this?
If, as we tell the story, the agonies of sibling rivalry do not reverberate within us, as well as the desperate feeling of rejection the child has when he doesn’t feel he is thought the best; his feelings of inferiority when his body fails him; his dismal sense of inadequacy if he or others expect the performance of tasks that seem Herculean; his anxiety about the ‘animal’ aspects of sex; and how all this and so much more can be transcended – then we fail the child.