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The Little Red Hen - a story with unclear moral?

Updated on August 16, 2014

Little Red Hen is always in action

Little Small Red Hen by Johnny Gruelle
Little Small Red Hen by Johnny Gruelle

The basic plot and the major differences

A Little Red Hen finds a seed and through series of tasks makes some bread while her friends don't want to help her until the bread is ready to be eaten. At this moment she denies their right to eat with simple explanation: they didn't work, so they don't have the right to eat.

Now it's time to point out some major differences in this old story. Some are more cosmetic and don't really make a difference, but some are pretty important, if we want to achieve the major goal of the story - to teach a lesson.

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1. Friends or foes

'Friends' of the major character are not always the same. In some cases they are three, in others only two, sometimes four or even five of them. Among them we can find a dog, a duck, a pig, a cow, a cat, a mouse, ... This is not crucial for the plot, but can have important impact on the rhythm of narration.

One of the biggest powers in this simple story is its almost hypnotic tempo. If we want to entertain our audience with this fable, we should be very careful with this. A simple repetition of 'Not I!' or 'I shan't!' offers huge opportunities at interpretation to good storyteller, so use it to its full potential.

The Little Red Hen as Video Story

2. More or less descriptive names

In some versions side characters are described only by basic names (Dog, Cat, Duck, etc.) but in others they all have adjectives as well: (Sleepy Cat, Lazy Dog, Noisy Duck, etc.). In my opinion we should avoid the later for very simple reasons.

First, they dilute the tension of Hen's questions. What's the point of asking for help somebody who is already presented as lazy? Story without a tension soon becomes boring and boring stories are waste of time.

Second, and this is even more important - adjectives like these lead to stereotypes and prejudices. While stereotypes can help to achieve certain effects in storytelling (but not in this case), prejudices are never good for the story. If we want to show the contrast between hardworking Hen and her lazy companions, this should be done through actions of the characters only, not with their descriptions.

This kind of writing is very often at beginners. I believe this fable is old enough to be read and listen in versions, written by authors, who already understand the basics of storytelling.

Little Red Hen by Tony Sarg
Little Red Hen by Tony Sarg

What about the Fox?

4. There are many versions of the same fable with additional character in the role of the classic enemy. In most cases this is the fox who abducts the Hen and her friends to serve the to his kids. But on the way home the Fox falls asleep and the little animals escape from the bag, which is then filled with stones, just like the Big Bad Wolf's stomach is filled in the tale of Red Cap.

This story neglects the process of making the bread and importance of investing one's time and skills to make something useful. It also doesn't build the tension among Red Hen and her roommates. The whole focus is on escape from the predator and the importance of team work when things get serious. I don't particularly fancy this version because it doesn't seriously deal with relationships in the house of the Little Red Hen and the story about the escape from much stronger opponent is better treated in The Red Cap or Wolf and the Seven Kids.

I suspect the main reason for the addition of the Fox is expansion of the story to the full length picture book by the newly applied standards in the first half of 20th century. In last decades, when authors (partly thanks to globalization) decided to shift the focus on Little Red Hen's major dilemma (to share or not to share with those who didn't help) in the light of different social systems (I am not talking about capitalism and socialism only, both systems are applied in different countries in very different ways as well), we don't meet the fox anymore.

The Fox is defeated by Red Hen and her friends (by Tony Sarg)
The Fox is defeated by Red Hen and her friends (by Tony Sarg)

3. With or without the family

Little Red Hen is in most cases alone, but sometimes she has kids. In versions, where she acts alone to the very end, her character pans out selfish despite the fact she contributed all the work. When she denies sharing with her friends, but gives bread to her little chicks, a nice compromise is achieved.

She gives a lesson to ones who didn't want to contribute, but still shares with ones who can't. This way the story distinguish among characters who don't work because they are too lazy and characters, who don't work because they are too small or weak or disabled for whatever the reason.

I guess this case is the closest to the ideal of humanity. Being human, meaning being above the basic nature instincts but still not denying something so important as the survival instinct.

Should the Red Hen invite others to the table?

5. The final scene where the hard working Hen already made the bread is presented in two very different versions. First is the one where she invites her friends to the table and asks them if they would like to eat the bread only to inform them they don't have the right to eat. In the second they invite themselves, but still don't get food.

I don't like the first version, because her behavior is simply too rude. Although she has full right to eat the bread, there is no need to provoke others. It's simply not a hospitable gesture to invite somebody just to exhibit your rights or powers. The second version is much better in my opinion. The Hen can even offer them small bites to show them what they may be entitled to, if they contributed their share of workload.

The fable as political propaganda

6. In times of permissive education (which is still popular among many parents) the Hen shares bread with others what shows her kindness but somehow kids never bought it. The situation is similar to different variations of Cinderella (major characters in both stories are very much alike): the one where the evil step sisters get punished and the one where Cinderella forgive them and arrange marriages to both.

Reagan's administration used this story to show the problem of ideas of Democratic Party with short addition. Here the Farmer - representing the Government - decides to take the bread from the Hen and distributes it to everybody what demotivates the Hen to produce anything more in the future.

I love this version for its clear (and pretty whimsical) illustration of actions and reactions, but don't like the idea of one and final truth which is obvious: the one who contributed all the work should enjoy all the benefits.

If we accept this idea, we would never have taxes, insurance, public services of any kind and we can eventually loose the basic human rights. I will not go into details, but our history clearly shows anybody who can produce, should contribute at least something to the community. How much and on what conditions, is another question (actually two questions) way over the general message of the story of Red Hen.

Little Red Hen at the table with friends (by Tony Sarg)
Little Red Hen at the table with friends (by Tony Sarg)

Story of endless interpretations

7. The fable is still evolving. The generic plot is in public domain, so everybody can interpret it in his or her own way according to his or her personal views and goals. In last years I have found some pretty cool solutions of the Hen's dilemma.

My final thoughts: the beauty of this story is in its possibilities opened when we discuss the actions of all the characters. There is no right and wrong, no final answer, because life is not black and white. There are many gray shades between being a despot and a parasite.

This is why, although sometimes appearing very unfair, life is so beautiful.

Picture by Johnny Gruelle
Picture by Johnny Gruelle

My resources:

All used images are public domain. Illustrations with a Hen wearing a red hood are done by Johnny Gruelle (1880-1938) and others by Tony Sarg (1880-1942).

Complete set of color illustrations by Sarg is available here (with summary in my native Slovene language).

If you need more ideas to use the story of Little Red Hen as a resource for learning lessons, feel free to check this blog post.

Please, share your views about Red Hen and her dilemma!

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    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

      You point out how rich and deep these "simple" fairy tales can be.

    • Tolovaj profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj 2 years ago

      Thank you very much, ologsinquito, that's exactly what I wanted. Simplicity and depth/greatness can coexist and Universe is loaded with examples.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting analysis of this fairy tale, Tolovaj. Important lessons are learned with these and I agree that simplicity usually works best.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      The Little Red Hen is one of my favorite tales to share with children. THere is so much to learn from the story. I have even used it in college to demonstrate story writing. Excellent post with creative flair.

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 2 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Very interesting topic to write about. You are so right too. The old stories offer so much interpretation and fit so often events in our history. Enjoyed!

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