The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

In his landmark examination of the more mature aspects of the original versions of fairy tales, “The Uses of Enchantment,” Bruno Bettelheim targets Charles Perrault for some very criticism in the way that he edited and reinterpreted folks tales that had been handed down in the oral tradition for centuries. According to Bettelheim, Perrault’s version of these stories which nearly every American adult knows by heart suffer from other versions collected or written by the likes of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen as a result of Perrault’s insistent refusal to take the literary genre seriously. In fact, according to Bettelheim, Perrault was far more interested in crafting his version of the stories for the purpose of applying “cute or moralistic verse ending” (230). Bettelheim’s critique of the Perrault versions’ cuteness ultimately serves to call into question the contention that his writings were intended for adult female readers since his quest was to remove all offensive or vulgar content from the tales (250). Such an argument is actually counterintuitive since the flaws that Bettelheim is describing can also be read as an example of Perrault transforming the overly horrific melodrama of the traditional elements of fairy tales intended to scare young girls into more subtle life lessons directed toward adult women with a more fully developed maturity about how the world really works.

Fairy tales are a literary genre with a long tradition of conventional utilization for the purposes of inspiring self-control over impulsive desires. When it comes to such impulse control, who is more in need of learning lessons through moral tales than children? And what better mean do storytellers have at their disposal for instilling such moral lessons about the potential dangers of giving into impulsive desires than provocative horror stories that indulge in the most unsubtle of images designed to essentially freak out unmolded minds about the terror that awaits them in the scary adult world. The unsympathetic underpinning of strict morality that lies at the heart of the fairy tale’s reason for being no longer has the power to secure the attention of adults. After all, they are no longer the innocent protagonist, but one of the masses of adults or beasts who are not to be entirely trusted. The central conceit that the horror and terror found in other versions (such as Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters cutting off their toes or otherwise mutilating their bodies in order to make the shoe fit) no longer provides an entryway into the conscious workings of the adult mind. Thus stripped those vulgar and offensive elements that are situated within fairy tales as a means for scaring underdeveloped minds into adhering to the dominant moral code, Perrault’s versions become capable of existing on two levels. The surface level still retains enough of the core warnings to influence young readers to behave while also existing as pure entertainment.

It is that second level that Perrault adds which comes into direct conflict with the criticism of Bettelheim and others over the subject of to whom the stories are intended. While not generally lumped into the same category as the fables of Aesop, fairy tales do exist for the purpose of serving a moral. The moral, however, is typically an inherent one that serves as part of the narrative process. When Bettelheim criticizes Perrault for recrafting these tales expressly for the purpose of adding a cute bit of verse or prose at the end, he is referring to Perrault’s penchant for replicating the inherent moral in a more direct, explicit and, it would seem, ironic way.

Take, for instance, the addendum to the story of Little Red Riding Hood: “Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all” (Perrault). Prior to this moral, the story of Red’s ill-fated decision trip to granny’s house in the woods is amazingly free of the most gruesome elements to be found in some other versions. And yet, there is yet to be found any “version of the story prior to Perrault’s manuscript in which both Granny and Little Red are devoured” (Panati, 1989, p. 171). So even though Perrault’s account is low on gore, it is the first in which both young girl and old woman die and the wolf walks away unscathed. Perrault’s separately constructed moral addendum thus seems strangely out of tune with the tone of the preceding story leading up to it.

This disconnect is consistent throughout his canon but is especially true in Perrault’s version of Cinderella in which he offers not just one moral addendum, but two. If there is any doubt that Perrault was writing not just for children, but adults, there is this except from the first moral: “Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can do anything (Perrault). And if anyone remains unconvinced that Perrault’s moral additions inhabit a real of irony clearly aimed well over the head of children on their way to a target made up of adult maturity, the second moral of his Cinderella should clear away any remaining doubt:

“Without doubt it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother” (Perrault).

Bruno Bettelheim’s criticism of the way that Perrault handles his recreation of fairy tales is not directed toward his talent as a writer and indeed, he even explicitly states that he certainly not “lacking in artistry.” The criticism is actually leveled more toward how Perrault allowed his intended readers to wield undue influence over his artistry. According to Bettelheim, “Perrault, speaking to the courtiers he had in mind as his readers, made fun of the fairy stories he told” (230). If this is true, it is certainly not too great a leap of extrapolation to implicate the level of maturity of these courtiers as the stimulus for the realm of irony which those moral addendums of Perrault’s versions inhabit.