Can Carol Ann Duffy’s “Little Red Cap” Be Classified as a Fairy Tale?
Most of us have a clear perception of what fairy tales are, or what we assume them to be. Over the past century, these tales have been burdened with so many clichés, such as evil queens’ curses and damsels-in-distress, that we tend to identify them based on the presence of such clichés. The fairy tale scholar Kate Bernheimer suggests that when trying to determine what a fairy tale is, clichéd themes play an insignificant role. According to her, a fairy tale’s most distinctive qualities are its underdeveloped characters, nonsensical logic and lack of description. Her aesthetic and unrestricted definition allows broad interpretation of what constitutes a fairy tale. However, since most popular fairy tales do seem to consistently share certain formal characteristics, such as a narrative structure, simple imagery and superficial characters, it is easy to assume that if a tale does not follow a similar outline then it is not a fairy tale. “Little Red Cap” is an autobiographical poem, by Carol Ann Duffy, which presents a female perspective on Little Red Riding Hood whilst outlining Duffy’s relationship with an older man. Often, people do not identify it as a fairy tale because it lacks several features that fairy tales are commonly associated with. In “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Bernheimer states that the four “formal components (though there are others) comprise the hard logic of tales” (64). By adding “though there are others” in brackets, she allows modification of her definition. Through examining it through the lens of Bernheimer’s ideas, I will show that “Little Red Cap” by Carol Ann Duffy is a fairy tale.
Flatness is the first aspect Bernheimer listed as an identifying feature of fairy tales, and Duffy uses this technique as well, albeit limitedly. Flatness refers to the “absence of depth” (Bernheimer 66) in characters which allows readers to engage with the text. According to Bernheimer, flatness is used so that the audience can be more engaged and imagine certain character attributes. Duffy, however, uses flatness for metaphorical reasons. For example, the grandmother could be considered a flat character since she is only mentioned once: “I took an axe to the wolf as he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw the glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones” (Duffy 4). She is a symbol rather than a personality; the phrase “virgin white of my grandmother’s bones” is a metaphor for the generations of women who have been oppressed by men. “Glistening virgin white of my grandmother’s bones” denotes that all the oppressed women have been free and regain their pride. Therefore, Duffy’s poem uses flatness to allow people to engage with the text by allowing them to relate to it. Although “Little Red Cap” does not use this technique exactly as Bernheimer described, it does successfully use flatness to promote audience engagement.
Although Duffy does not use the same approach that Bernheimer describes, her poem achieves the same goal that fairytales do. Bernheimer lists “flatness” as one of the key aspects of a fairy tale since “it allows depth of response in the reader” (67). The assumption underlying her claim here is that one of the features of fairytales is that it allows deep responses from readers, which Duffy’s poem also does. Firstly, the allegorical nature of this poem allows readers to interpret the man, on whom the “wolf” is based, in their own manner. Duffy provides her audience with the choice to either read the story superficially or delve into the underlying meanings and explore the characters on a more personal level. Secondly, the poem uses imagery to invite a reflective response from the audience. For instance, the descriptive lines “I crawled in his wake, my stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer…I lost both shoes but got there” (3) exemplify Duffy’s use of intricate imagery and complex syntax in order to invoke a response in the reader. This sequence of events outlines Little Red Cap’s journey throughout the poem: she falls for a dominant lover, the relationship strips her of her innocence, she kills the wolf and loses the last shred of her purity, but is able to free herself. This is just one of the many interpretations hidden within “Little Red Cap”. Although Bernheimer states that flatness provokes a deep response, Duffy does the same through her well-rounded poem.
Bernheimer declares that in fairy tales, “things happen that have no relevance apart from the effect of language” (68), and the same applies for Duffy’s “Little Red Cap”. Fairy tales generally use intuitive logic to create an uncomplicated story which doesn’t encourage readers to question the events that transpire. In contrast, Duffy’s version uses the technique to encourage deeper understanding of the work. In the poem, the protagonist “took an axe to a willow to see how it wept” and “took an axe to the wolf as he slept” (Duffy 4). This statement is an example of nonsensical syntax in the poem. First Little Red Cap was talking about how life with the wolf was becoming monotonous, as he grew older, and then suddenly she was talking about cutting things open as well as killing the wolf. The willow and salmon have no significance to the story of “Little Red Cap” but is important in terms of language. A salmon is often seen as a symbol of determination. Here, Duffy wonders how far she would go to get out of the situation. Not only does the rhyming pattern of “wept”, “leapt” and “slept” enhance the momentum of the story, but it also foreshadows the violent turn that the story is going to take. The symbolism and use of rhyme shows the effect of language. Through using intuitive logic to prioritize the effect of language, Duffy’s poem adheres to Bernheimer’s definition of a fairy tale.
Bernheimer believes that in a fairy tale is a story which “enters and haunts you deeply” (68), and Duffy’s poem does this through its nature. Unlike most versions of Little Red Riding Hood which focus on unrealistic events, this poem presents a situation that many readers have faced. In the poem, Duffy gives a voice to the protagonist who has been silenced. This is especially relatable for women who have been in relationships with men who don’t understand or listen to their opinions. Moreover, Duffy shows that the romance and adventure of a new relationship fades with time, and this is something that many adult readers can associate with. In addition to this, the poem also suggests that Duffy’s creativity and poetic talent were suppressed during this time. The violent and sexual nature of the poem, and the haunting images that Duffy paints through her unique poem definitely constitutes a story which haunts you deeply.
Throughout the book “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale”, Bernheimer makes statements that are not explicitly included in her definition of what constitutes a fairy tale, but are indeed aspects of fairy tales. By examining these statements carefully, we can modify Bernheimer’s definition and adapt it to describe the modern retellings of classic fairy tales. Duffy’s “Little Red Cap” utilizes flatness and intuitive logic, two of the four components Bernheimer listed in her book, and fulfills the same goals as fairy tales. Hence, “Little Red Cap” adheres to the unrestricted definition and is classified a fairy tale.
Bernheimer, Kate. Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale. 2014.
Duffy, Carol Ann. “Little Red Cap.” The World’s Wife. Print. London: Picador, 2000, pp. 3-4
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