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The Not-So-Absent “Mothers” of Cinderella
The story of Cinderella is one of the oldest and most memorable fairy-tales of all time. Something about it captures the imagination of the audience. Surely its rags-to-riches element gives it broad appeal to those aspiring to bigger and better things, but it also appeals to people in a very different, important way as well. The presence of a guardian figure is a very strong pattern within Cinderella tales across generations. This protective figure is found in Charles Perrault’s widely popular version of Cinderella, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Ashputtle, The Cat Cinderella by Giambattista Basile, Walt Disney’s adaption of "Cinderella," and, perhaps the earliest version of Cinderella, Tuan Ch’eng-shih’s A Chinese "Cinderella."
But how does this protective figure fit into the rags-to-riches Cinderella tales? Well, an important feature that these tales share is the state of the family the Cinderella character has. The original mother is often dead, the father is often absent or indifferent to his daughter, and the step-family treats Cinderella poorly. So the protective figures in these tales must play the role of the missing mother. Everyone else involved in Cinderella’s home-life either ignores her or causes her to suffer in a way that, at least ideally speaking, is very against the family model. Since Cinderella often cannot seem to pull herself out of this situation, the interference of someone to her benefit is required.
The idea of these fairy-godmother type characters is extremely appealing to many of its listeners. It hearkens to tales long ago, of dead relatives protecting their descendants from danger. It also can be likened to the idea of a guardian angel: a personal care-taker who can intercede on their behalf, keep them safe from danger and love them unconditionally. This idea is a great comfort to those in troubled times and changeable circumstances.
Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella is perhaps the most influential version among many as it served the basis for Disney’s "Cinderella" movie, which set the standard for how the tale is remembered in recent generations. It begins with the familiar set-up of a young girl who, having lost her mother, is forced into servitude by her wicked step-mother and stepsisters, with her father unwilling to help her due to the influence of his new wife. Yet, when things get their worst and even the sweet-natured and optimistic Cinderella is in tears, her godmother comes to her rescue. The suddenness of this rescue is a little bit jarring. Unlike the Disney version where the Fairy Godmother bursts onto the scene in a manner that seems almost like divine intervention, Perrault’s Fairy Godmother seems more like a godmother who just happens to be a fairy. The presence of this woman in the house is not even known until the step-family leaves for the ball. Cinderella begins to cry and: “her godmother, seeing her all in tears, asked what was the matter." A good question might be: if this godmother was hanging around all that time and aware of Cinderella’s mistreatment, why wouldn’t she step in sooner? The answer lies in Perrault’s depiction of Cinderella as sweet-natured and obliging. Unlike many other tales, she does not actively campaign to go to the ball and never complains when treated poorly. By waiting until the heroine had broken down and had to ask for help, her godmother taught her to be her own advocate and rewarded her by helping her along the way. The enchantments her godmother gave her were only temporary; in this story Cinderella had to learn to make it through on her own.
Ashputtle, the Brothers Grimm’s version of Cinderella, has perhaps the most active, protective, motherly figure of any Cinderella tale. Ashputtle has just lost her mother, who promised to care for her even in death, saying: “Dear child, be good and say your prayers; God will help you, and I shall look down on you from heaven and always be with you." In her grief, Ashputtle plants a hazel branch on her mother’s grave. She cried over it so much, that the branch grew to become a tree which she prayed and grieved under as white birds flocked to it, granting her wishes. Both the tree and the birds become the replacement for her mother. In a house where she was marginalized, she was still doted on and fiercely protected by her mother’s spirit. This spirit helped her to win the prince, revealed the trickery of her step-family, and, in the end, brutally punished her daughter’s oppressors. As Elisabeth Panttaja noted in her essay “Cinderella: Not So Morally Superior,” in this tale the protective figure is much the same as the wicked step-mother. While the stepmother wishes only for the advancement of her daughters and the expense of Ashputtle, the mother-spirit wishes to “beat the step-mother at the game of marrying off daughters” by any means necessary.
The protective figure in The Cat Cinderella by Giambattista Basile is also a fairy, but there is a unique quality about this character. The fairy in this story seems to have absolutely no connection to Zezolla, the “Cat Cinderella.” Zezolla is really just hanging around after her father’s marriage when a messenger of the fairy tells her: “if you desire anything, send to ask for it from the dove of the fairies of the Island of Sardinia, and you will at once have it." This good turn seems awfully random compared to Cinderella’s godmother and Ashputtle’s tree and birds; in truth that’s what it is. Yet this too is wish fulfillment for the audience. Cinderella and Ashputtle both had connections and both seemed deserving of help. Zezolla had no connections and had previously committed the murder of her first step-mother. Unfortunately, it is much easier to relate to the lonesome and vengeful Zezolla than the almost supernaturally good Cinderella. It’s much easier to be Zezolla than Cinderella. But even audience members who know they are more like Zezolla than Cinderella still want that unconditional, destined support.
In Walt Disney’s version of “Cinderella” it seems like the fairy godmother is introduced as quickly as possible, adding to the notion that she is a central selling-point of the story. She is introduced when Cinderella cries that she cannot go to the ball, saying that: “Suddenly a little old woman with a sweet, kind face stood before her. It was her fairy godmother." The way this character is introduced as “her fairy godmother” almost seems to imply that this is something everyone has. Who wouldn’t want a magical being that could make things perfect just when things look their worst?
In the “Chinese Cinderella,” the protagonist Yeh-hsien has lost both her mother and loving father. She is left with a step-mother who treated her cruelly, making her “collect firewood in dangerous places and draw water from deep pools." In the absence of a caring family, she bonds with a fish that she has raised. One day her step-mother cruelly kills the fish. Yeh-hsien cries over the loss, but then discovers that if she prays upon the fish’s bones her wishes will be granted. The spirit that inhabits these bones may just be the grateful fish rewarding the one who took care of it, or might be that of her dead parents taking care of her from beyond the grave as in Ashputtle. In either case the veneration of the dead often practiced in China seems to be at the core of the magic in this tale.
While the demeanor of the protective figures changed, as did their connection to the protagonist, their motives remained clear and consistent: to unconditionally aid Cinderella in an environment where everyone was against her. While the notion that a guardian watched over them was likely untrue for many of those that heard these stories it cannot be doubted that the idea was a comfort.