Snow white: Maria Tatar’s classic Fairy tales Analysis

Table of Content

            Throughout time, the fairy tale, Snow White, has been introduced with number and series of different illustrations and role portrayals (Tatar 77). However, despite different interpretations and illustrations, the core concept of the fairy tale still remains intact and unchanged. In this discussion, the emphasis is placed on the mother-and-daughter conflict occurring in the versions of Brother’s Grimm, Anne Sexton, and Bettelheim. With all the step-queen’s efforts of destroying Snow White’s chances of becoming the next heir of beauty and throne, Snow White emerges as the end victor in the conflict of the two feminist portrayals.

            In the fairy tale of Snow White, various elements involving beauty, death and feminism are intertwined in order to reveal the set conflicts between the mother and the daughter: “…Snow White reproduces a cultural script in which women are enmeshed in a discourse connecting beauty, death and feminity” (Tatar 78). At some point of analysis, such conflict relates to the psychoanalytical theory of Freud that involves mother-daughter feud for placement and power over males in society, which is known as Electra complex: “…the mother is seen in the framework of the Electra Complex as the person who stultifies the daughter from achieving her love object…” (Danilewitz 87).

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            In Snow White, the main implication uplifts the feministic feud in gaining the authority over men. Various elements supporting the feud between the daughter and stepmother are surprisingly available in the story, such as the mirror spokesperson, seven dwarves, and other supporting characters in the novel. However, one point of perspective to consider is the absence of masculine dominion, which is somehow uncommon to most fairy tales since male power is considered as the dominating need.

            Snow White, the main protagonist of the story, is characterized by intensified to seemingly exaggerated description of beauty. To figuratively relate to the character of Snow White, the venue (the castle), event (winter and falling of snow) and the character of his biological mother (wishful, timid and conservative) are associated to her most important function, to be the fairest feminine character in the story . The description of Snow White revolves in the concept of these three components; the castle that illustrates her indirect dominion through beauty, winter that illustrates her fair and beauty, and the characters of her biological mother that illustrates her non-aggressive, timid and peaceful impressions (Danesi 160-161). In the story, Snow White’s beauty is described as, “…white as snow, red as blood and black as ebony…” (Tatar 83).

            With these conditions, Snow White does not only possess the function of being the fairest role, but most importantly dominion over authority of men (indirectly implied through the castle’s seduction to her), beauty as white as snow, and her fair character different from the antagonist of the story: ”Snow White was so beautiful that the huntsman took pit on her and said, ‘just run away, you poor child” (Tatar 84); “One day, she (the Queen) summoned a huntsman and said, ‘take the child out into the       forest. I don’t             want to have to lay eyes on her ever again…’ the huntsman obeyed…” (Tatar 84).

            Meanwhile, in analysis of the antagonist’s character, we reveal the essentials of her portrayal in the story. Most notably, the queen has entered the scenarios of the story right after the death of Snow White’s biological mother and the first wife of the King. The queen or Snow White’s stepmother is described as the “beautiful lady, but proud and arrogant and could not bear being second to anyone in beauty” (Tatar 83). She uses a mirror to assess her surroundings for possible threats to her position and title. The implications of beauty to the queen are direct and clearly significant at all angles. In analysis of her identity and character, she has the complete opposite of Snow White’s fundamental characteristics, dominion over authority of men (directly imposing her will through her powers obtained from seducing the king), beauty next to Snow white, and the attitude of being proud, arrogant, deceptive and cunning.

            “Finally, she came up with a plan. After staining her face and dressing up as an old         peddler woman, she was completely unrecognizable. She traveled beyond the seven hills             to the seven dwarfs in that disguise…” (Tatar 86).

            In the story of Snow White, the direction of conflicts move in two mutual paths, the Queen’s direct conflict towards Snow White for stealing her title, and Snow White’s indirect conflict towards the Queen for stealing her role and placement in the castle. In these conditions, one significant consideration is the synonymous usage or directness between the words, beauty and dominion. Evidently, the basic strengths of the characters are evaluated through the extents or intensities of their beauty (i.e. Queen ordering the huntsman to kill Snow White, but Snow White refutes the Queen’s order by overwhelming the man with her beauty; Tatar 84). In application of Electra complex theory, the opposition of the daughter to her mother is considered indirect and caused by the displacement of her position as the indirect dominator in the castle (the setting where authority of men, specifically the King, resides): “…the emotional distancing in Electra rivalry (or complex) is illustrated by her envy towards her stepdaughter’s beauty, which symbolizes sexual authority…” (Lubetsky 246). As for the queen, the main conflict is to save herself from being displaced in the highlights of her title, beauty, which is also equivalent from being displaced to her position as a Queen (implying dominion).

            In the proposition of Electra complex, various events in the story have supported the conflicts of power, title and placement between the Queen and Snow White. However, in order to complete the application of this theory, there must be an object acting as the center of the conflict. In the story, we consider dominion over men or highest masculine authority as the object of conflict, which is present in the king’s courts or the symbolism of castle: “It is customary for fairy-tale heroines to be beautiful; but in Snow White, beauty is the central subject that proposes physical feminine authority and dominion…” (Frey and Griffith 30).

Hence, this proposes that the queen and Snow White are fighting one way or another to obtain their rightful place either as queen of fair beauty and dominion or as fair heir of the castle. Electra complex is therefore presented in mutual paths of conflict between the mother and daughter.

            Snow White, biologically, does not possess any links or attachments to her stepmother although, it is the feud or discrete contradictions occurring between the two characters that created the relationship. In analyzing the literary content of the fairy tale, the main cause of the argument is after the mirror appointed Snow White as the fairest living creature surpassing the queen.

            “Queen: Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?

            The mirror replied, my queen, you are the fairest one here, but Snow White is a thousand           times more fair than you” (Tatar 83).

By this statement, the weakness of the queen (surpassing her fair characteristic) has been triggered and eventually causing an extent of hatred over her stepdaughter, Snow White. However, under this condition, the king or any masculine figure is absent to resolve and configure the conflict. In Electra complex, the flow of conflicts and psychological intents only occur between the mother and the daughter as with the portrayals of Snow White and the Queen. In fact, “the male figure in the story are either suppressed or kept in supportive position in order to highlight the conflict between the stepmother and the stepdaughter” (Anderson 43).

            To support this claim, we consider the roots of argument, particularly beauty, dominion, and title. During the processes of their conflict resolution (the killing of Snow White in the perspective of the Queen; survival and retrieval back to the castle in Snow White’s perspective), there are many events in the story that illustrate the supporting roles of masculine figures. In addition, another point to consider is the contributing factor that induces this control of feminine roles over the masculine roles of the story.

            In the Queen’s case, her role in bypassing the masculine figure is essential to fulfill her antagonistic image and role as the negative dominator. Some of the scenarios that illustrate her manipulation over masculine power are her command and control towards her vast number of henchmen (Tatar 84), and the queen’s cunning and deceptive power over kingly authority in the castle (although the physical presence of the king is absent) allowing her to perform almost anything according to her will (Tatar 84, 85 and 99).

            “You must kill her and bring me her lungs and liver as proof of your deed” (Tatar 84).

            “…she was sure that she was once again the fairest of all in the land” (Tatar 85).

            “Snow White, the dumb bunny, opened the door and she bit into a poison apple and fell            down for the final time” (Tatar 99).

            The feministic powers of the Queen are applied in order to emphasize her role as the mother who conflicts against her stepdaughter. In the physical absence of high masculine power governing her intentions (king’s presence), the Queen, as the second power in the land, possesses every authority over masculine powers, and practicality, even on the heir of the kingdom, Snow White (Tatar 84). Therefore, there is a direct conflict of dominion and power confronting the Mother-Daughter relationship, which consequently supports the idea of Electra complex.

            On the other hand, Snow White’s case also provides events of masculine domination but her difference from the queen are her intents. Evidently, Snow White’s power over masculine figures is indirect in nature wherein she unconsciously manipulates the males surrounding her (Tatar 84, 85, 86, and 98):

            “Snow White was so beautiful that the huntsman took pity on her and said: ‘just ran away         you poor child” (Tatar 84)

            “The dwarfs told her: ‘ If you will keep house for us, cook, make the meals, wash, sew, knit and keep everything neat and tidy, then you can stay with us and we’ll give you     everything you need” (Tatar 85).

            “…the sleeping virgin… Yes, it’s a good omen” (Tatar 98).

            Some of the instances illustrating these claims are the hunter’s decision to free her from his murderous intents, and deceive the Queen by laying down the Bear’s lungs and liver instead of Snow White’s: “She realized that the huntsman had deceived her and that Snow White must still be alive” (Tatar 86) and Snow White’s labor contract with the seven dwarves wherein the dwarves have decided to request perform hous keeping in exchange for her board and lodgings. In contrast to the Queen’s way of dominating men, Snow White’s indirect way of controlling the male characters of her environment is mainly because of her seducing beauty. In fact, her characteristics of being the fair maiden have seduced the Queen’s hunter (Tatar 84), seven dwarves (Tatar 85, 97) and the prince: “The prince came one June day and would not budge. He stayed so long his hair turned    green and still he would not leave” (Tatar 99).

            “There are no directives or commands coming from her but these males automatically put down their masculine pride, obedience and affection with just a sight of Snow White’s beauty” (Andrew and Stewart 5). In symbolical comparison, the Queen’s way of manipulation and governance is through her power by position and placement in kingdom, while Snow White, despite of being vulnerable, weak and second to the queen, counters the Queen’s by dominating the title of being fair, indirectly alluring the persona (i.e. the seven dwarves, the animals, the prince, etc.) in Snow White’s environment and threatening the Queen’s position in the castle. In this rationalization, there is indeed a mutually occurring Electra complex between the motherly figure of Queen and the daughter role of Snow White.

            In the perspective of Electra complex, the mutual conflict of the two major roles, Snow White and the Queen, have been resolved in two different ways, specifically by direct and aggressive killing and/or poisoning of the protagonist (in Queen’s perspective), and by surviving, unintendedly keeping the title of being the fairest lady in the land, and retrieving back her rightful place in the kingdom (Snow White’s perspective). In the story, the conclusion of the feud between the mother and daughter, in the essence, involves a vengeful nature.

            “Revenge is predicted on events in the past: a death, a deception, a disappointment… the          lead character (Snow White) on an obsessive course to see justice done, the guilty parties       punished, and the soul restored to peace” (Hamlett 87).

As for the queen, she employs direct and aggressive way of solving her conflict with Snow White. “The queen’s resolution is composed of aggression, death, deception, disappointment and dalliance, which is triggered by the Queen’s interfered obsession to beauty” (Hamlett 36). In the several events from the different versions of Brother’s Grimm, Anne Sexton, and Bettelheim, the queen’s form of revenge is similar in its core concept: an aggressive move against the protagonist is the way to achieve revenge against the protagonist: “Jealousy is also a common theme behind tales of revenge, wherein no expense is spared to make another character’s life miserable and cause that person to forfeit what the opposition wants to have” (Hamlett 87).

            Meanwhile, in the perspective of Snow White, an indirect methodology of escape, survival and retrieval of disposition present her form of revenge: “Since reconciliation is not anymore possible between the two opposing characters, Snow White triumphs in her fantasy or indirect revenge by setting up her wedding party and retrieval of her role as the queen of the kingdom by marrying her prince” (Genova and Ornsein 60).

            There are three literary symbolisms illustrated throughout the events of the fairy tale story, particularly the different perspectives of feud, feminism, aggression and aesthetic competition among female characters, and gender domination of feminism against the masculine figures of the story. These symbolisms summarize the occurring psychological conflict between the mother (the Queen) and daughter (Snow White), specifically known as Electra complex. In analysis of the story, the Queen utilizes her power and position in manipulating the characters of the story, while Snow White indirectly causes this control through her beauty. Dominion to beauty is the essence of the existing feud between the stepmother and stepdaughter, which also provides the link or relationship between the two characters.

Plan of Development

            The proposed thesis of the paper is the controversy of mother and daughter conflict occurring between the Queen and Snow White. The psychological stand of this conflict is known as Electra complex wherein the object of conflict lies in the acquirement of dominion and power, maintenance of title, and gender dominion. In the study, different versions of Snow White, namely Brother’s Grimm, Anne Sexton, and Bettelheim, from the reference of Maria Tatar are used to further the discussion.

            The main inquiry of the study involves the implications of the existing Electra complex to the surrounding male society, mother and daughter conflicts and the resolutions of the two figures. To further answer the thesis statement, the discussion answers the following sub- questions: what are the evidences supporting the occurrence of Mother and Daughter feud? Describe the etiologies of these conflicts and responses made by the two figures; how does each character demonstrate their power and in what nature do this power incline? What are the effects of this feud to the masculine powers of society; and lastly, what are the resolutions conducted by the two figures to win the argument of the complex?

Works Cited

Anderson, Graham. Fairytale in the Ancient World. London, New York: Routledge, 2000.

Andrews, Walter G., and James Stewart. Intersections in Turkish Literature: Essays in Honor of James Stewart-Robinson. Michigan, U.S.A: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Danesi, Marcel. Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives. New York, U.S.A: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Danilewitz, Debra. “Once upon a time….. The meaning and importance of fairy tales.” Early Child Development and Care   75.1 (1991): 87 – 98.

Frey, Charles H., and John W. Griffith. The Literary Heritage of Childhood. New York, U.S.A: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Genova, Paul, and Paul H. Ornstein. The Thaw: Reclaiming the Person for Psychiatry. New York, U.S.A: Routledge, 2002.

Hamlett, Christina. Screen Teen Writers: How Young Screenwriters Can Find Success. New York, U.S.A: Christina Hamlett, 2002.

Lubetsky, Martin J. ” The magic of fairy tales: Psychodynamic and developmental perspectives.” Child Psychiatry and Human Development   19.4 (June 1989): 245-255.


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