Cinderella, God, and Self-Esteem
Though the original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales are generally considered less optimistic than their modern day counterparts, the original Cinderella story is one that sends a positive message about self-esteem to young girls. The gist of the story is that the wife of a man dies leaving one daughter. The man remarries to a woman with two daughters who treat the daughter from the first marriage terribly. On a magical night, the odd-daughter-out gets the opportunity to attend a ball in which she meets the prince. But just before the prince tries to escort her home she must be off and, in such a rush, leaves her shoe behind. After a long search, the prince finally finds Cinderella and places the shoe on her foot with a perfect fit. The two marry and at the ceremony the eyes of Cinderella’s sisters are dismantled by birds. Throughout this fascinating story are symbols for gender roles and messages to girls to keep their self-esteems high. In addition, the story contains implicit symbolism for Christianity or religion in general.
From the beginning of the story the readers are shown a woman, who turns out to be Cinderella’s mother, dying. The dying breaths of Cinderella’s mother were “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”. Socrates felt that piety was to be “what all the gods love”. In this story piety can be interpreted to mean being religiously dutiful. For Christians, this means being virtuous as well as trying not to break the Ten Commandments. From the outset, the story reveals itself to be one of faith and trusting that God will protect over the good. The story does not reveal at this point, however, that the wicked will be punished by nature. Even without the religious overtones of “God” and “heaven”, the mother still would be asking Cinderella to be virtuous.
The story goes that Cinderella continued to be pious and good. The Grimms then use an action scene to display the movement of time when they write, “When winter came the snow spread a white cloth over the grave, and when the spring sun had removed it again, the man took himself another wife.” Notice, here, the use of the word “Sun”, perhaps implicitly referring to the son of God, Jesus Christ. This is supported by the fact that the sun was in action, which is quite unlike what we typically think of the Sun as doing. The Sun actually removed the snow.
Things get bad for Cinderella at this point. Her father moves on to another wife and she is left with two stepsisters who treat her poorly. But, as it turns out, if she remains pious and good, then all will turn out well for her. This may be a self-esteem message to girls or young women. The idea is that staying good to oneself, or to a God or other spiritual being, then one will be rewarded, either by a supreme being or by the world itself. It happened to work out for Cinderella.
Cinderella’s stepsisters did not even believe that Cinderella deserved to sit with them in the parlor. They refer to her as a “stupid goose”, in some sense calling her a beast instead of a woman. They, then, go on to call her a kitchen maid, reducing Cinderella to servitude in their speech. But Cinderella does not waiver on her morals for them. She stands strong and remains good. Interestingly, the sisters say “If she wants to eat bread, then she will have to earn it”. This may be a foreshadowing of the actions that occur at the end of the story. Cinderella certainly earns her bread by being pious and good throughout, but the girls are punished by having their eyes pocked out. The food most commonly given to birds by humans is bread. Perhaps the intention behind the bread line was a reference to this. This seems like a stretch, but there still may be something to it. Symbolism is often used in children’s stories to embed the values of society into such stories and to teach children these values in ways that they can quickly learn.
The torment goes on for Cinderella. She was put to work, with her father nowhere around to help her. Cinderella seems utterly neglected by her father throughout the story. “Additionally, the theme of parents being out of the picture seems to be common in Grimm literature”. The notion that Cinderella’s father never helps her or stands up for her reinforces the importance of keeping a high self-esteem even when support from the outside, or even the inside of one’s family, is limited. In this case, the male figure is Cinderella’s father, but for many readers it may be another male figure.
However, there is another male figure in Cinderella’s life: the prince. On one hand, the story seems to be telling the reader, especially if the reader is a girl or young woman, that people do not always need others to help them. Some people need to be independent and retain their values no matter what happens in their lives. But, on the other hand, the story also seems to indicate that women do need men. The story seems to say to women, “don’t worry, even if the male figure in your life is not very good to you, there will be another, better, one right around the corner.”
But this, in my opinion, is not the intention behind this story. It seems more likely that the message is that something good will happen to you if you remain pious and good. It just so happens that the best thing to happen to Cinderella was a prince wanted to wed her. According to this interpretation, it is not the fact that a man rescued Cinderella from her evil stepsisters. Rather, it is the fact that something great happened to Cinderella, which happened to include a man in it, because Cinderella was pious and good. Cinderella gets her happy ending not because a man came and rescued her from her terrible life, but because she was rewarded for her piety and virtue.
In this story, Cinderella is forced by her sisters, though admittedly with little resistance form Cinderella, to do all of the dirty chores in the house. These chores resemble the sort of paradigmatic tasks that women are expected to do. Cinderella makes the fires, she washes the clothes and dishes, and she cooks the food, all day long. She is fulfilling the stereotypical role of a woman. According to Lu and Mason, the stereotypical role of a woman was “…the traditional division of labor and power between husband and wife in which women take a subordinate, domestic role…”
Are the Grimms telling the readers that if women will all of the chores all of the time then they too will have a happy ending like Cinderella? Likely, not. It is much more likely that the chores that Cinderella are symbolic of duties that everyone has. It may be the case that Cinderella takes on the entire burden of taking care of the house on her shoulders for few good reasons. Nevertheless, someone has to do the chores. It is the responsibility of the people living in the house that the chores get done. It is rather unfortunate for Cinderella that her stepsisters are free from doing these tasks. Still, nature pays them back in the end when birds poke out their eyes.
Cinderella’s role should be seen as that of a woman’s. However, the reader should not mistake that role for the role of a servant. True, Cinderella acts like a servant out of duty. But, so did Jesus. This is not to say that Cinderella is a metaphor or symbol for Jesus. But there are some similarities worth exploring. For one, Jesus would always turn the other cheek. I think that it is safe to say that the same could be said about Cinderella, even though the opportunity never arises for her to refuse engagement in any sort of combat. Second, God punished man in the stories of the Bible and Jesus never did. Likewise, nature, or perhaps God, punishes the stepsisters at the end of the story and Cinderella never does. Even if Cinderella is not a metaphor for Jesus, which I do not believe that those were the intentions of the Grimms, it still may be the case that Christian values were being portrayed through Cinderella. After all, her mother told her to be pious, which may mean follow Christian values as well. But perhaps the values are those of another religion or society.
Cinderella’s humility is shown in what she asked her father for when he went to the fair. Cinderella’s step sisters asked for a dress and jewelry. But Cinderella, likely not wanting to put any sort of burden on her father, simply asked for a twig. This reinforces the notion that Cinderella is trying to be good, whether just out of the nature of herself or because her mother told her to be. It is likely because her mother told her to be good because just after she receives her twig, Cinderella takes it to her mother’s grave and plants it there. The twig represents a lot of value to Cinderella, as it seems to symbolize her innocence and humility. It would later become a very valuable twig as it grows into a tree that makes whatever Cinderella wishes for come true. It is difficult to tell exactly what set of values that Cinderella promoting here. Still, humility is a Christian value. According to Rushing, “humility is a crucial political virtue that fortifies us and helps us resist disillusionment”. Then again, it is a virtue of many religions and moral theories.
The story takes an interesting turn after Cinderella plants the twig and a tree grows from it. A bird on the tree will grant any wish that Cinderella wants. Cinderella is very powerful at this point, yet she wishes no harm on those who have wronged her. Much like Jesus, some may say, Cinderella has a lot of power, but does not use it for evil or wrongdoing. Instead, Cinderella uses her power to go to a ball. Perhaps this is a reference to Jesus, but, again, perhaps not. Also, though, Cinderella’s new found power shows the readers that good people, even when they do have a lot of power, do not harm others. It is amazing, in fact, that with all of that power Cinderella still cries when she does not believe that she will be able to go to the ball with her stepsisters. In some sense, Cinderella is still helpless even with all of her power because she is a good, pious person.
Birds, the apparent source of Cinderella’s power, play a prominent role in this story. They not only grant Cinderella anything that she wishes, but they take it upon themselves to seek revenge on Cinderella’s stepsisters for their misdeeds against Cinderella. It seems as if the birds were playing God. But I do not think that that is the intended relationship between the birds and God, or another higher power. Rather, it seems that the birds represent nature and nature represents God. That is, God controls nature and since the birds are part of nature God controls the birds. It seems a bit spiteful of God, though, to have the birds peck the eyes out of Cinderella’s stepsisters. Then again, the birds may represent the God of the Old Testament, while Cinderella represents the God of the New Testament, or Jesus. This is a reasonable guess at the intentions of the Grimms, but it may just be that the Grimms are showing two sides of the same God.
In other words, in Cinderella, the main theme may be that God ensures that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This would explain both Cinderella’s happy ending and her stepsisters’ blindness at the end. Cinderella and the birds, then, would not represent any one person or being necessarily, but Cinderella would be a sort of role model to show young women and girls to keep their self-esteem high even when the odds looked stacked against you, while the birds represent nature, as controlled by God. It is certainly an optimistic tale for the good and a pessimistic one for the wicked.
It may be difficult for readers to determine exactly what this story says about forgiveness. On one hand, the story appears to promote forgiveness. Cinderella did not punish or act out against her sisters after they treated her horribly and called her names for so long. But, on the other hand, her sisters get punished severely for their treatment of Cinderella by the birds. One can interpret this to mean that the wicked should be punished. From a Christian perspective, the message could be that people should not punish or judge other people, just as Cinderella herself never punished her sisters. God may punish wicked people, but it is not for people to decide who gets punished and how, the argument may go. Under this interpretation forgiveness seems to be perfectly compatible with the story. People should forgive others and not punish or judge them, but should let nature or God decide.
Tatar discusses the various versions of the story, such as the occasional story in which Cinderella is male. This story could certainly have a moral that applies to both men and women. Just as it is for women, the story could tell men to keep their heads up high even when things are going poorly. But there are a few particulars of the story that make it particularly suitable for women. First, men tend to chase after women and not the other way around. In the original, the prince chases after Cinderella, both when the ball ends and when he is looking for the woman on whose foot the shoe fits. Second, Cinderella’s father does not stand up for her. For women this is intolerable. But for a mom to not stand up for her son, at least when he is in his teens, is not as intolerable. It is bad, certainly, but there is something taboo about a father abandoning his daughter when she is clearly being abused. Also, it is in many ways the father’s fault that they are in that situation. He chose to remarry.
Between the religious symbols in the story, “Cinderella” has a main moral: to keep your head high and be good even when the odds are stacked against you. This them permeates the work, from the very beginning when Cinderella’s mother dies and Cinderella must promise her that she will be pious and good from now on. Cinderella obeys and is rewards with birds that will grant her any wish, including golden shoes, and, at the end, a husband who takes her away from her terrible life with her stepsisters. But it does seem odd that such story with strong religious overtones and a message to be good would have such a terrible ending for the stepsisters. There seems to be one answer to this problem that addresses both the religious side and the moral side. The birds pecking out the eyes of the stepsisters represents hell. Being pious and good, like Cinderella, will save people from such an eternity, but being evil and wicked, like her stepsisters, will result in a terrible afterlife. This interpretation strengthens the religious symbolism of the story and may aid in embedding certain values, perhaps Christian, into the readers. It is an overall positive story that only ends poorly for the stepsisters and Cinderella’s mother, whose death is unexplained.