Dana Lancaster English 215-007 Professor Otero-Piersante Critical response 10-28-09 Hansel & Gretel In the fairy tale, “Hansel and Gretel” by the Brothers Grimm, the protagonists Serve as heroes who must overcome the circumstances of their birth in order to reach maturity and enlightenment. This hero quest takes place in three stages. The first is the separation, in which the parents cast the children away from their home. In this stage, the children are for the most part controlled by their surroundings.
The second stage of their journey is the transformation, when the children “battle a monster,” or, in this case, defeat an evil witch.
In this stage, the children rely upon their own increasing intelligence to control their future. In the final stage, the return, the children reunite with their father. By this point they have completed their journey and can enjoy the treasures (literally and figuratively) of their newly found enlightenment. When the stepmother decides that the children should be thrown out of the house (and subsequently forces the husband to agree with her), the first stage of the hero journey has, quite unwillingly, already begun for Hansel and Gretel.
They are not able to control what is happening to them, and in fact can only gather pebbles in an attempt to prepare to return home. While the children know that their father is initially on their side, no attempt by the Father is made to save them. He is an ineffective figure throughout the story, and pales in Comparison to the all-important Mother, in both her positive and negative aspects. It is Ironic then that by the end of the story, the children triumphantly return to him and Embrace him as though he was long trying to protect them.
Heroes, however, must make Their returns to their families, and Hansel and Gretel are not exceptions. Although the children lack the distinguished parents that generally define a hero, they would appear to have a suitable replacement. The forest near which the family lives traditionally would represent a feminine figure, a giver of life and sustenance. In this case, however, the family is going hungry, and that mother figure is failing. This represents the second (and surely not the last) time that the children would be disappointed by women.
One of the women who disappoint the children, the stepmother, may appear at first to be a purely negative figure. It is her destructive intentions, however, that actually spark Hansel and Gretel to begin their hero quest, which is certainly a positive development. Perhaps the most recognizable symbols that is present throughout the development of the heroes are birds, which represent the aspirations that the children hold and the love and freedom that they long for. Additionally, the white dove that Hansel claimed to be looking at as he left his home symbolizes a superior power.
This makes sense because, while at the times the birds are detrimental to the journey (such as when they eat the breadcrumbs and ultimately force the confrontation with the witch by leading the children to the gingerbread house), they are instrumental in it, particularly in the last two stages of the story. Felines are another symbol used in the story. As he is being taken away from his house a second time, Gretel says that he is looking back at his white kitten. The cat here represents a female figure, and in fact could be his biological mother, or something that each hero, by definition, longs to discover.
Colors also play a key role in the archetypal development of the story. Besides fire and the red of the witch’s eyes, white is the only color mentioned throughout the tale: “white pebbles,” the “white kitten,” a “snow-white bird,” the witch’s “white beds,” a “white duck,” and a “white back. ” The white represents the innocence of the young heroes, even after they have killed the witch. Contrasting with that white is the red-hot fire that the father makes for his children before he deserts them. It represents life, warmth, and spirit, something that their stepmother appears unwilling to give them.
This final act by the father for his children may be what keeps them loyal to him through the next phase of their journey. In the second stage of Hansel and Gretel’s hero quest, the transformation, they must defeat and conquer their youth, id, and naivete. They do this by killing the evil witch who had lured them into her gingerbread house. This is the most vital part of their development, yet they begin it in their most vulnerable position. When the children are alone in the woods, they have lost a sense of security and previous values. They must work towards a higher level of psychological existence: their form of heroism. The cottage was made of bread and roofed with cakes, while the window was made of transparent sugar. ” (48) A gingerbread house is a symbol of the mother, who nurses the infant from her body. In this way, the house serves as the Good Mother to the children. When the children are shocked to see the failure of the witch as a mother figure, it only further intensifies their oedipal development. By eating the gingerbread house, the children show they are ready to destroy somebody’s home, which is what caused them to be deserted by their parents in the first place.
By allowing their id to behave unchecked in this manner, they endanger themselves. In order to defeat the witch, they must ignore the pressures of the id and follow the superego. This balance then gives rise to their ego, which is an essential component of their enlightenment. Birds appear once again in the second stage of the children’s hero quest, this time to guide Hansel and Gretel to the gingerbread house. The two beds lined with clean white sheets that greet them serve as an apparent way for the children to go to heaven, or a state of prelapsarian bliss.
Their heroic return home shows how they artificially overcame this shortcoming. The red eyes of the witch are associated with violence and passion, the very elements of the monster that stands in the way of Hansel and Gretel’s heroic development. Eyesight can be associated with mental vigor and cleverness. Therefore, the witch’s weak eyesight translates to the poor planning that allows her to be baked at the hands of Gretel. This very act shows the duality of women. They can give life (Gretel is saving her brother from death) or they can take it away (she is murdering the witch. The oven in which the witch is killed serves three roles. Firstly, it is beneficial in that it brings about her death. When the witch burns to death, a symbolic purification has been achieved, and evil has destroyed itself. Secondly, it serves as a trap and a symbol of the mother’s womb. Lastly, when Gretel violently shoves the witch into it, it serves as a means for Gretel to satiate her Electra complex, which will allow her to continue her mature. The third stage of the tale, the return, truly marks the triumph of the children.
After killing the witch, they plan to reunite with their father. The children must return home so that they can find true happiness through a “return to paradise. ” They will be wiser and wealthier because of the journey they have taken. First, though, they must find a way back home, and the ever-helpful birds act once again as guides, thus completing their own journey from harmful to helpful. There may in fact have been a good mother hidden inside of the terrible mother that was the witch, because following her death, the children take the jewels that were hidden around her house.
Furthermore, the witch and stepmother are actually the same character, with the former simply being a more literal representation of the evil of the latter. For this reason, the deaths of the two must be simultaneous. While the death of the witch is the climax of the story, the demise of the mother is treated in the simplest terms –the narrator states, “the woman had died. ” The impediments to the children’s Development has been eliminated, and they are now free to head home. The heroes must cross the water so that they can develop their full potential and reach purification and redemption.
This is a standard element of any heroic journey and, once again, Hansel and Gretel are not exceptions. Throughout the story there is a theme of endless death and rebirth. Twice the Children are expelled from their house and twice they return. The witch’s death allows for the rebirth of Hansel and Gretel, who had been marked for death. The death of the stepmother brings about the rebirth of the family. The Yang and Yin are represented fully in this fairy tale. The male characters represent life. It is through Hansel’s cleverness that the children are able to return to the house the first time.
It is the father who is initially opposed to abandoning the children; he can’t “find it in [his] heart to leave [his] children alone in the wood. ” The men also have their Yin, though. Hansel relies on breadcrumbs to get back home the second time. As a boy who lived near the forest, he must have known that the birds would eat his trail. In this way, he nearly killed himself and his sister. Although the father is opposed to leaving the children, he is easily persuaded by his step-wife, and is willing to allow the death of his children. The female characters represent death.
The step-mother/witch figure wants to kill the children. Gretel kills the witch. The women, though, have elements of Yang as well. The stepmother is who begins the journey of enlightenment for the children. It is through Gretel’s cleverness that the children are able to cross the lake. Without the combined efforts of the Yin and Yang, the children would not have been able to survive their stepmother’s plot. Each component was necessary in defeating the witch and getting back home, and in this way the heroes only became heroes by relying upon each other.
It is better that the children didn’t go directly home, because they got to pursue their enlightenment. A child cannot mature until after he or she has confronted her parents, and Hansel and Gretel have done this. Had they been coddled in a perfect home and completely taken care of, they would not be the same people – it simply isn’t the hero way. Hansel and Gretel had to overcome their circumstances, in the form of un-loving mother figures and an apathetic father figure, in order to grow.
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