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The Fairy-Tale Motif and the Victorian Novel

Updated on June 17, 2017


In 1996 I presented a 20,000 word thesis on the fairy tale motif in the Victorian Novel to the University of New England (in Australia) in partial satisfaction of the degree of Master of Letters.

The the paper was the result of more than two years of dedicated research, following coursework units in compatible areas. The discussion presented here represents a summary of my arguments.

Photo by Allan
Photo by Allan


The paper discussed 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. My argument was that the Victorian novelists were story tellers who entered into the tradition of re-working the folk tale as they told it, and inserted contemporary Victorian concerns such as independence, morality and the importance of personal integrity.

The motifs discussed were derived from the traditional tales of "Cinderella", "Bluebeard", and "Beauty and the Beast", which appear to be familiar to all the authors under discussion. The work of Charles Dickens employed by far the greatest range of fairy tale motifs with a 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 employeed 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 George Eliot's Silas Marner.

Photo by Allan
Photo by Allan

Fairy Tale Structure

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 contained the following events:

  1. an "initial situation" in which one or more members of the family absent themselves, the protagonist is given instructions and a villain enters.
  2. During intermediate situations the villain causes harm or injury to the protagonist, prompting them to leave home.
  3. The protagonist faces a series of challenges and overcomes them using a magical gift.
  4. The villain is vanquished and the protagonist returns home.
  5. 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. (1)

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Photo by Allan


Iona and Peter Opie observe that the main character of a fairy tale is often an orphan. 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. (2)

Luthi demonstrates that the fairy tale may be a moral of development, in which the main character journeys through rites of passage and chooses the correct path to maturity and success. Luthi also demonstrates that fairy tales are composed of a series of contrasts between good and evil, and characters may function as personifications of moral extremes. Motives are exaggerated, so that dislike becomes attempted murder, and advice becomes a stipulation or prohibition. These exaggerations allow the author to create characters and situations which symbolise struggles between social forces or issues of personal morality. (3)

The "magical gift" and other fantastic motifs referred to by Propp assist the fairy tale in its subversive function, because it is not obliged to the laws of probability. The fairy tale, therefore, may subvert reality and represent the world as the author wishes it to be! 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 lend 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". Thus the author could design a plot containing an enchantment which would symbolise certain moral issues or represent a number of developmental tasks. (4)

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Picture courtesy

A woman's point of view

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 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". (5)

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. 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". 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".

Zipes demonstrates that Madame de Beaumont's popular version of Beauty and the Beast also contains a number of 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". Thus, while the tale represents women in a flattering manner, its emphasis is also upon self sacrifice encourages. (6)

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". 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". (7)

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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Picture courtesy

Opposition to the fairy tale

The original publication of Perrault's Histories ou Contes du Tempes Passe' occurred in 1697 (translated into English in 1729 and 1750), Madame D'Alnoy's Contes des Fee's was published in 1697-8 (translated between 1699 and 1707), and Madame de Beaumont's Magasin Infants, ou Dialogues Entre Une Sage Gouvernante was printed in 1756 (translated 1761). (8)

The fairy tales then entered 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. 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". 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. (9)

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. (10)

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Photo courtesy

The survival of the fairy tale

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 (11); 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. 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. (12)

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 among their favourite texts. (13)

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. (14) 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. (15)

Abrams 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. 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. (16)

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. 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. (17)

Quiz Mania: Charles Dickens

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Quiz Mania: Charlotte Bronte

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Quiz Mania: George Eliot

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Quiz Mania: Wilkie Collins

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Quiz Mania: Fairy Tales

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Chronology of Victorian publications

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.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. 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. (18)

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. 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. 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. (19)

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. (20) 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. (21) 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. (22)

In 1861 George Eliot published Silas Marner and Charles Dickens published Great Expectations. (23) 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. Collections of fairy tales continued to be published, with Andrew Lang's "colour" series running into several editions and reprinted in the Twentieth Century. (24) Wilkie Collins' The Law and the Lady, which makes extensive and sophisticated use of the Bluebeard motif was published in 1874. (25)

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Photo by Allan

Different authors use the motifs differently

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". (26) 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. (27) Victorian women, Auerbach and Knoepflmacher report "envied adults rather than children" and strove for independence in their writing. (28) 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... (29)

George Eliot's Nancy Lammeter is prepared to go without 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". (30)

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Content of the paper:

Chapter One of the paper analysed Dickens use of fairy tale motifs in The Old Curiosity Shopand discovered that he employed a fairy tale plot much like that of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the good child Nell, was pursued by the evil wolf Quilp. This plot developed symbolic overtones as Nell began to represent the women and children in Victorian society, and Quilp represented patriarchal commercialism and materialism. Other fairy tale motifs were included inThe Old Curiosity Shop as little quotations from the tales or as small scenes which refer directly back to the original tale. The novel appeared to represent a fairly primitive use of the fairy tale motif, and as the paper demonstrated, the fairy tale motifs were picked up and developed by other Victorian authors, including Dickens himself in Great Expectations.

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

Chapter Three demonstrated that George Eliot employed the fairy tale motifs in an allegorical manner in Silas Marner to create a myth of redemption by love, and Chapter Four argued that Great Expectations demonstrated Dickens despair regarding Victorian society in fairy tale stereotypes which blight and disrupt the characters' lives until personal integrity is developed.

Chapter Five concluded 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 was faced with dangers reminiscent of those faced by Bluebeard's wife and had to analyse and investigate her situation. While a happy ending is achieved, the original tale of Bluebeard remained 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 was 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



1 Propp, V. Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977) p.6, pp.24-63,

2 Opie, I. & P. The Classic Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974)p.15,

3 Luthi, M. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales (Tr. L. Chadeayne & P. Gottwald) (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.) pp.51,71-81,109-120,135-146,

4 Avery, G. & Bull, A.Nineteenth Century Children: Heroes andHeroines in English Children's Stories 1780-1900 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965) p.57,

5 Zipes, in Avery, G. & Briggs, J. Children and Their Books: A Celebrationof the work of Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p.121-128, 132

6. See Perrault, C. Perrault's Fairy Tales (Tr. A. Carter) (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967) for the actual tale,

7 Opie, p.11, p.16,

8. Darton, F.J.H. Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966) p.131-3 list an early translation by an unknown translator, and several translations by Samber and Gent,

Opie, I. & P. p.21, 24 & Zipes, p.123-124,

9 Darton, p.85, 96-97,

10. Avery & Bull p.41,

11. Briggs, K.M. "The Folklore of Charles Dickens" Journal of the Folklore Institute, VII, 1970) pp.10-12, Gaskell, E. The Life of Charlotte Bronte (London: Penguin Books, 1985), & Stone, H. Dark Corners of the Mind: Dickens' Childhood Reading The Horn Book Magazine June 1963, pp.306-321, p.312,

12 Collison, R. The Story of Street Literature:Forerunner of the Popular Press (London: J.M. Dent & Sons LTD., 1973) pp.1-2,

Darton, p.70,

Stone, H. Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Novel Making (London: Macmillan, 1980) pp.43-4,

Collison, pp.111-115, Darton, pp.70,82, ,Targ, W. Bibliophile in the Nursery: A Bookman's Treasury of Collectors' Lore on Old and Rare Children's Books (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1957) p.134,

Picture courtesy
Picture courtesy

13. Stone Horn Book p.320,

Bronte, C. "Letter to Ellen Nussey",

Eliot, G. in Cross, J.W. (Ed.) George Eliot's Life: as Related in her Letters and Journals (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons), Collins,

14. Thistleton-Dyer, R. The Folklore of Shakespeare (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966) Targ, p.126,

15. Alexander, J.H. & Hewitt, D. Scott and his Influence: The Papers of the Aberdeen Scott Conference, 1982 (Aberdeen: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1983),

16. Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953),

17. Darton p.22, p.219-220,

18. Opie, I. & P. The Classic Fairy Tales p.25,

Dickens, C. Dickens, C. The Old Curiosity Shop (London: Everyman, 1995), introduction & p.219

Briggs, p.10,

Collison, pp.4-6,

19. Targ, p.136, Darton p.247-8 & Opie, I. & P. The Classic Fairy Tales p.27,

20. Bronte, C. Bronte, C. Jane Eyre (Sydney: Signet & Tudor Distributors Pty. Ltd., 1970) introduction,

21. Green, R.L. Tellers of Tales: Children's Books and Their Authors from 1800 to 1964 (Edmund Word Publishers LTD., 1965), p.302,

22. Darton, p.247,

23. Dickens, C. Great Expectations (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), Eliot, G. Silas Marner: the Weaver of Raveloe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981),

24. Green, p.304-305,

25. Collins, W. The Law and the Lady (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992)

26 Auerbach, N. and Knoepflmacher, U. C.Forbidden Journeys:Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (Chicago: The University of Chicago press, 1992), p.1,

27. Collins, W. p.321,

28 Auerbach and Knoepflmacher, p.1,

29 Bronte, C. Jane Eyre p.256,

30 Eliot, G. Silas Marner p.149


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