Masters Thesis

The Fairytale Motif in the Victorian Novel:

A thesis presented to the University of New England (Australia) in partial Satisfaction of the degree of Master of Letters 1996



The Victorian novelists adapted and rewrote traditional fairy tale plots to suit their own unique artistic purposes, and a number of traditional fairy tale motifs can be identified within the text of the Victorian Novel. Further analysis demonstrates that these motifs function as poetic images which add symbolic undertones to the text and enable the text to enter into ironic and subversive dialogue with the body of literature and folklore from which the motif originated. This paper will discuss the function and significance of the fairy tale motif within the Victorian period in general, and specifically in The Old Curiosity Shop, Jane Eyre, Silas Marner, Great Expectations, and The Law and the Lady. The Victorian novelists will be perceived as story tellers who have entered into the tradition of re-composing a folk tale as they tell it, and inserting their own concerns about independence, morality and the importance of personal integrity.

The motifs discussed will be derived from the traditional tales of Cinderella, Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, which appear to be familiar to all the authors under discussion. The work of Charles Dickens employs by far the greatest range of traditional fairy tale motifs with a composite motif of a young man who goes to London to seek his fortune being derived from the tales of Dick Whittington and Puss in Boots. Dickens also employs motifs from the tales of Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, and the motif of the little man who stockpiles gold from Rumplestiltskin, is found in both The Old Curiosity Shop and Silas Marner.

The fairy tale is an ideal instrument of subversion because it primarily developed as an oral tale, and hence was the undisputed property of each speaker throughout the centuries. The producers of written tales naturally followed this tradition, adapting and adjusting the tales to make them their own. Moreover, the fairy tale has a unique structure and a number of specific motifs which make it a highly suitable medium for subversive use.

Vladimir Propp observed that the Russian fairy tales he studied all contained a specific series of events: "...fairy tales possess a quite particular structure which is immediately felt and which determines their category. (1)

According to Propp's study the typical tale contains the following events: an "initial situation" in which one or more members of the family absent themselves, the protagonist is given instructions and a villain enters. During intermediate situations the villain causes harm or injury to the protagonist, prompting them to leave home. The protagonist faces a series of challenges and overcomes them using a magical gift. The villain is vanquished and the protagonist returns home. Upon providing proof of his or her identity the protagonist receives a reward, which usually consists of a marital partner and ascension to the throne. (2)

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Iona and Peter Opie observe that the main character of a fairy tale is often an orphan: "The hero is almost invariably a young person, usually the youngest member of a family, and if not deformed or already an orphan, is probably in the process of being disowned or abandoned". (3)

The use of an orphan as protagonist allows the author to represent the main character in transgression of patriarchal authority because there simply is no adequate authority figure functioning in the character's life. The character is also isolated from society and placed in a position of social mobility where they may take full advantage of any connections to other characters they may acquire or discover.

Luthi demonstrates that the fairy tale is a moral of development, in which the main character journeys through a number of symbolic rites of passage and chooses the correct path to maturity and success. (4) In many of the novels studied, the protagonist also struggles to maintain their personal integrity, and develop a value system which is based upon a mature consideration of each situation they encounter.

Luthi demonstrates that fairy tales are composed of a series of contrasts between good and evil, and characters may function as personifications of moral extremes. (5) Good and evil may be represented using a system of characterisation in which motives are exaggerated, so that dislike becomes attempted murder, and advice becomes a stipulation or prohibition. (6) These exaggerations allow the author to create characters and situations which symbolise struggles between social forces or issues of personal morality.

The "magical gift" and other fantastic motifs referred to by Propp assist the fairy tale in its subversive function. Opie observes that the fairy tale is allowed to transgress reality: "A characteristic of the fairy tale, as told today, is that it is unbelievable. Although a fairy tale is seldom a tale about does contain an enchantment or other supernatural element that is clearly imaginary". (7)

The fairy tale, because it is not obliged to the laws of probability, may subvert rather than portray reality to represent the world as the author wishes it to be represented. Thus the protagonist may be rewarded as the author wishes, and the villain may be punished according to the author's judgement, without any concession to the likelihood of these events in the mundane world. Moreover, the author may depict situations which rarely arise in society and may explore extremely unusual scenarios.

Avery and Bull point out that the fantastic motifs in fairy tales also lent themselves towards allegorical interpretation: "The fairy tale conventions were extremely desirable, because of the scope they allowed in the creation of symbolic properties - castles, forests, and towers - and also of supernatural characters". (8) Thus the author could design a plot containing an enchantment which would symbolise certain moral issues or represent a number of developmental tasks.

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The fairy tale has a long history as an instrument of subversion. According to Zipes, women in France in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries adapted well known folk tales into stories to be told at court, and made a custom of taking the traditional folk tale and creating a new and original fairy story which reflected their personal convictions. Zipes describes these "conversational games" as subversive "anticlassical" exercises "implicitly told and written in opposition to Boileau, who was championing Greek and Roman literature as the models for French writers to follow". (9)

Zipes emphasises the fact that the majority of the participants of the story telling games were female and demonstrates that these women focused their tales upon the images of the female characters. The women attempted to present a more tenable image of femininity than those presented in tales written by men. For example, Charles Perrault, who was also a participant in the story telling games, wrote the tale of Patient Griselda, in which the woman is required to suffer a great deal of physical and emotional abuse to prove her fidelity to an embittered husband. (10)

Zipes argues that Madame D'Alnoy's early version of Beauty and the Beast is designed to counteract the undesirable images of women presented in Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche, where Psyche is represented as "too curious" and Venus "too vengeful". (11) Beauty, however, is characterised by gentleness and discretion in comparison to her forerunners. Moreover, Zipes continues, Madame D'Alnoy designed the tale to demonstrate a woman's participation in the choice of her marital partner: "In the conscious composition of the tales she clearly intended to present a woman's viewpoint with regard to such topics as tender love, courtship, honour, and arranged marriages". (12)

Zipes analysis of Madame D'Alnoy's tales demonstrates that she made subtle adjustments to the accepted behaviour code of her time rather than attempt to present a radical argument for female independence. Madame D'Alnoy petitioned men to behave in a more considerate manner towards their women folk and her argument contained an inherent compromise to social custom: "D'Alnoy projects the necessity for women to decide their own destiny, but it is a destiny that calls for women to obey men. (13)

Zipes demonstrates that Madame de Beaumont's popular version of Beauty and the Beast contains a number of further compromises. It was published in a book designed to teach girls "sense", and when taken literally, tells the reader to: "(i) sacrifice one's life for the mistakes of one's father; (ii) learn to love an ugly Beast-man if he is kind and has manners; (iii) keep one's pledge to a Beast, no matter what the consequences may be". (14) Thus, while the tale represents women in a flattering manner, its emphasis upon self sacrifice encourages self destructive behaviour.

Iona and Peter Opie, like Zipes, observe that the traditional tales contain subtle subversions of the culture of their time, but nevertheless uphold the values of "the established order". (15) Moreover, as the Opies observe, the traditional fairy tale emphasises material success over personal morality: "A premium may be placed upon...worldly success but not on the means by which the success is achieved...the rewards sought after are wealth, comfortable living and an ideal partner". (16) Hence we may conclude the traditional fairy tale reached a point where it began to uphold the values of an aristocratic and patriarchal society, and was due to undergo another process of re-writing and evolution by the Victorian period.

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After the original publication of Perrault's Histories ou Contes du Tempes Passe' in 1697 (translated into English in 1729 and 1750) (17), Madame D'Alnoy's Contes des Fee's in 1697-8 (translated between 1699 and 1707) (18), and Madame de Beaumont's Magasin Infants, ou Dialogues Entre Une Sage Gouvernante in 1756 (translated 1761) (19), the fairy tales underwent a period of stagnation. Darton explains that an adverse reaction to the tales, based upon complaints about their subversive nature and fantastic motifs which transgress common conceptions of "truth and reason", arose. (20) The culture of Eighteenth Century England stressed rationality and practicality, and therefore rejected fantastic tales: "Such things as moon leaping cows, banbery cock horses, and booted cats stirred but faint enthusiasm in the eighteenth century middle class mind. They were not yet "commercial propositions". They were not "respectable", in the Georgian or original sense of that very English adjective. They were the imbecilities of the peasantry". (21) Darton also reports that fairy tales were considered offensive for religious reasons and some writers deliberately set out to produce alternative literature and distract readers from fairy tales. (22)

Negative reactions by the practical and utilitarian sectors of society lasted well into the Nineteenth century, and Avery and Bull report that influential educationalists were opposed to fairy tales: "In the nineteenth century there was prevalent a strong element of distrust towards fairy tales. Moralists, educationalists and those concerned with the religious teaching of children found it hard to reconcile their consciences to offering such fictions enormities as two headed giants, seven-league boots and all the stock-in-trade of fantasy to innocent boys and girls. (23)

The result of the opposition to the fairy tale was that it went back into the oral tradition to be told by women like Dickens' nurse, Mary Weller and the Bronte's servant, Tabitha Ackroyd (24); and into the streets to be dramatised by roving players, and sold in chap-book form by itinerant pedlars. A chap-book was a cheaply printed and bound leaflet which sold for a penny. These booklets commonly contained fairy tales, nursery rhymes, tales of history, royalty or crime, and were illustrated using woodcuts. (25) Bluebeard, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, Jack the Giant Killer, several of the tales from the Arabian Nights and Dick Whittington were all popular in chapbook form. (26)

Fairy tales motifs which had been incorporated into the works of major literary figures also continued to be propagated during the period of rationalism. The plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the allegories of John Bunyan, are all mentioned as sources of recreational reading by the authors studied in this paper, and are valued amongst their favourite texts. (27) Shakespeare employed a lot of folklore motifs from the oral tradition, and moreover, is known to have consulted the 1550 edition of Le Piacevoli Notti by Gianfrancesco Straparola which included primitive versions of Beauty and the Beast and Puss in Boots. (28) John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress employed fantastic motifs in an allegorical fashion, and set a precedent for the use of such motifs to add a moral dimension to the text. Walter Scott is known for his scholarly interest in folklore and his inclusion of fairy tale motifs in the text of his novels set a precedent for the use of these motifs by Victorian novelists. (29)

Campbell demonstrates that Scott and the Romantic literary movement elevated folk poetry and fairy tales as an essential part of literature, and a source of poetic inspiration. Hence, the use of the fairy tale motif by the Victorian novelist represents a continuation of the Romantic impulse throughout the Victorian era. (30) The Romantics also contributed a growing awareness that childhood was a distinct stage of the human lifespan, which prompted an interest in the publication of fairy tales for children. (31)

In 1818 Sir Richard Phillips re-introduced fairy tales to the reading public with the publication of Popular Fairy Tales, or a Lilipitian Library (sic), which contained all of Perrault's tales, Beauty and the Beast, and a number of other stories. (32) However, it was the subsequent publication in 1823 of a volume entitled German Popular Stories written by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Edgar Taylor and illustrated by George Cruikshank, which made a significant impact on the English public and brought fairy tales back into popularity. (33)

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The first of the novels studied in this paper, The old Curiosity Shop, was published in 1841, following these early editions of fairy tales, and preceding many of the specifically Victorian collections of fairy stories. (34) Hence, as Briggs observes, much of Dickens fairy tale material is derived from informal sources, like the tales of his Nursemaid, and is "first hand stiff - source material" to the folklorist. (35) It is interesting to that chap-books and street theatre play a significant role in the text of The Old Curiosity Shop. Nell and her grandfather spend several days travelling with a Punch and Judy show (Chapters Sixteen to Nineteen) and Mrs. Jarley commissions a series of verses advertising the waxworks from a commercial poet similar to those employed by the chap-book printers Pitts and Catanach. (36)

In 1846 the fairy tale was foregrounded in the eyes of the Victorian public by the publication of Hans Andersen's Wonderful Stories for Children. (37) These stories were immensely popular, and the popularity of fairy stories in general increased, prompting the publication of a number of other collections including: Danish Fairy Legends and Tales edited by Caroline Peachup, A child's Fairy Library and Fairy Tales of all Nations. (38) The Opies observe that Anderson's tales represent a significant point in the evolution of fairy literature because they were original in nature: "Hans Andersen was unlike the Grimms in that he was a creator not a collector. Even when he used traditional themes for his tales he made the stories his own, putting into them his own life and personality. (39)

The immensely popular Jane Eyre was published in 1847, just following Hans Andersen's tales, and also created an original tale from the combination of traditional fairy tale plots. (40) While the Brothers Grimm had been collectors of folklore, and Dickens had used isolated motifs to decorate his early novels, Anderson and Bronte employed the fairy tale formulae to craft entirely new tales.

Following Bronte and Anderson collections of fairy tales increased in popularity and originality. Ruskin published The King of the Golden River in 1851, Thackeray contributed The Rose and the Ring in 1855, and J.R. Planche produced a new translation of the tales of Madame D'Alnoy entitled Four and Twenty Tales. (41) Darton observes that the fairy tale was established as a growing genre by this point in the Victorian period: "The fairy tale had at last come into its own...But now there was added the recognition that it was lawful, and even praiseworthy to invent and release fantasy, and to circulate folklore itself. (42)

In 1861 George Eliot published Silas Marner and Charles Dickens published Great Expectations. (43) Both of these novels make extensive use of fairy tale motifs, but change and subvert them from those in the traditional tale, to create new and original tales, and even contradict the outcomes of the traditional tales.

Fairy tale collections and fantasy stories continued to be published, and increased in popularity. Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), and George Macdonald's Dealings with Fairies (1867) are a few examples.

Wilkie Collins' The Law and the Lady, which makes extensive and sophisticated use of the Bluebeard motif was published in 1874. (44) Collections of fairy tales continued to be published, with Andrew Lang's "colour" series running into several editions and reprinted in the Twentieth Century. (45)

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Content of this paper:

Auerbach and Knoepflmacher demonstrate that the Victorian writers employed the subversive qualities of the fairy tale to create uniquely Victorian Myths. Moreover, according to Auerbach and Knoepflmacher, male and female writers used the fairy tales in different ways. Victorian men demonstrated an "obsessive nostalgia for their own idealised childhoods" which "inspired them to imagine dream countries in which no one had to grow up". (46) Auerbach and Knoepflmacher are referring specifically to Lewis Carroll, George Macdonald and James Barrie, but their observation is also true of the male writers studied in this paper.

As will be demonstrated in Chapter One of this paper, Dickens describes the importance of fairy tales in his childhood and focuses his novels upon children. Some of Dickens' childish characters (like little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop) are not allowed to grow up, but are idealised and trapped in the role of fairy tale princess. Dickens' heroines are subsumed by the role of fairy tale princess, with its unrealistic focus upon passivity and matrimony. However, the Dickens' novel does not provide any solutions for these trapped princesses and his female characters, like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, frequently shrivel and die before the novel is completed.

Wilkie Collins, whose representation of women does transgress fairy tale stereotypes, has male characters like Benjamin in The Law and the Lady, who turn to fairy tales for a comforting vision of the past in preference to the present or future. Benjamin becomes alarmed by Valeria's "new ideas" and declares: "I am going to read - "Puss in Boots," and "Jack and the Beanstalk," and anything else I can find that doesn't march with the age we live in. (47) Victorian women, Auerbach and Knoepflmacher report "envied adults rather than children" and strove for independence in their writing. (48) These women writers employ fairy tale motifs to subvert the role of passive child-like princess assigned to women by society and create characters who declare that they value their freedom. For example, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre asserts: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you... (49)

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George Eliot's Nancy Lammeter is prepared to withgo a marital relationship until she sees a reformation in Godfrey's behaviour, while her sister Priscilla expresses a radical degree of satisfaction in the single state: "Mr. Have-your-own-way is the best husband, and the only one I'd ever promise to obey". (50)

Chapter One of this paper analyses Dickens use of fairy tale motifs in The Old Curiosity Shopand discovers that he employs a fairy tale plot much like that of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the good child Nell, is pursued by the evil wolf Quilp. This plot develops symbolic overtones as Nell begins to represent the women and children in Victorian society, and Quilp represents patriarchal commercialism and materialism. Other fairy tale motifs are included inThe Old Curiosity Shop as little quotations from the tales or as small scenes which refer directly back to the original tale. This novel appears to represent a fairly primitive use of the fairy tale motif, and as the paper will continue to demonstrate, these fairy tale motifs are picked up and developed by other Victorian authors, including Dickens himself in Great Expectations.

In Chapter Two, this paper discusses Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which employs a number of fairy tale motifs, including the plot structures of Cinderella, Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast; through which Jane journeys to find and establish her own unique story.

Chapter Three demonstrates that George Eliot employs the fairy tale motifs in an allegorical manner in Silas Marner to create a myth of redemption by love, and Chapter Four argues thatGreat Expectations demonstrates Dickens despair with Victorian society in fairy tale stereotypes which blight and disrupt the characters' lives until the fairy tales are rejected, and personal integrity developed.

Chapter Five concludes the paper with a discussion of Wilkie Collins use of the familiar Bluebeard motif in The Law and the Lady to mythologise a woman's exploration of the dangers involved in her marital situation. Valeria is faced with dangers reminiscent of those faced by Bluebeard's wife and must analyse and investigate her situation. While a happy ending is achieved, the original tale of Bluebeard remains implicit within the text to suggest that her situation may yet be fraught with danger.

A high positive correlation between trends in the publication of fairy tale collections and the use of fairy tale motifs by Victorian Novelists can be demonstrated. The inclusion of fairy tale motifs within the Victorian Novel undoubtedly aided the popularity of fairy tale collections, while the familiarity of traditional tales allowed the text of the Victorian Novel to enter into a dialogue with earlier texts and access the subversive qualities of fantastic literature. Moreover, the Victorian Novelists re-wrote traditional tales and employed their motifs and themes to demonstrate issues pertaining to personal development, morality and integrity.

© Cecelia

Quiz Mania: George Eliot

Quiz Mania: Charles Dickens

Quiz Mania: Wilkie Collins

Quiz Mania: Fairy Tales

Quiz Mania: Charlotte Bronte


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