Portrayals of Curiosity in Grimm’s “The White Snake” & “Little Snow-White”
The Grimm brothers’ widely-known collection of fairy tales includes two especially significant stories: “Little Snow-White” and the lesser-known “The White Snake.” The main characters of each tale are, respectively, Snow White, a beautiful young princess, and an unnamed, lowly, but handsome servant boy. Though each tale has a similarly happy ending–the protagonists marry amicably and into (or back into, in the case of Snow White) royalty–Snow White and the servant arrive at their conclusions in exceedingly different ways. Both characters strongly display the trait of curiosity, but one is rewarded for it, while the other is punished. The underlying reason behind this difference is, of course, their respective genders. It seems that, in fairy tales, women are constantly punished for their curiosity, whereas men always reap the rewards.
Most people are highly familiar with the tale of Snow White, in which a jealous stepmother tries in vain to have her young step daughter killed because of her immense beauty. While Snow White’s defining characteristic is certainly her beauty; in the Grimm’s tale, she displays a distinct sense of curiosity as well. The twelve dwarves with whom she resides after her escape command her to “be sure to let no one come in” the home, but she repeatedly does so despite this prohibition (Grimm 252). The first two times she lets her disguised stepmother in, she does so because of her desire to see the “pretty things” that the woman pretends to be selling (253). This sense of curiosity seems distinctly feminine; one would assume that a man would not be as inclined to show interest in objects that are characterized as “pretty,” and especially not in hair combs or laces for a corset, as the merchandise turns out to be. In this way, Snow White’s sense of curiosity is made to seem unimportant and silly, a girlish pursuit rather than an intellectual or honorable one.
Despite this trivialization, Snow White is still harshly punished for her trespasses. The first two times she falls victim to her stepmother’s cunning, she merely falls to the ground and lies there “as if dead,” only to be awakened later by the dwarves (253, 254). But the final time, when she takes a bite of the poisonous apple, Snow White receives what perhaps most would consider the ultimate punishment–death.
In “The White Snake,” the servant is tasked with bringing the king his mysterious secret meal each night, covered so that no one can see what it is. One day, he is “overcome with such curiosity” that he looks underneath the cover and sees the eponymous white snake (Grimm 98). It is important to note the similarity of this description with the passage in “Little Snow-White” in which Snow White ultimately meets her demise by eating a slice of her stepmother’s poisonous apple. It is stated that she eats the apple because “she could resist no longer” (255). So, both Snow White and the servant are portrayed as having such strong senses of curiosity that they lose control over personal impulses. And yet, despite this similarity, the two characters face highly contrasting consequences for their actions.
Even after discovering exactly what the dish contains, the servant’s curiosity is still not satisfied–so he eats a bite of the snake, as well. Thus, he can be seen as being even more curious than Snow White. After all, he gives into his curiosity twice and possibly at the expense of others. By eating a bite of the snake, however small, he is taking that morsel away from the king. Snow White’s trespasses do not threaten to harm anyone but herself, yet still she reaps far worse results than the servant. Once he eats the snake, he is granted to ability to converse with animals, a skill that helps him time and time again. Eventually, he is able to rise from the rank of a lowly servant to that of a prince. The animals he helps along the way repeatedly declare that “one good deserves another,” so one would think that the reverse was also true (99, 100). However, the servant receives no form of punishment for viewing and eating the forbidden dish. True, he is accused of stealing a ring, but he is ultimately acquitted of this crime and receives no punishment for it; in fact, he is rewarded yet again by being allowed to ask a favor from the king.
Why is there such a disparity between the treatments of these two characters? The two stories reside, after all, in the same collection and arguably in the same tradition. As mentioned earlier, the protagonists’ genders are the key components into how they are treated. One should not assume that fairy tales were merely crafted for entertainment; they were used as instructional guides for both the children they were read to and the women (both mothers and servants) who read them aloud. It was in the interest of men who wanted to maintain their hegemony to repress girls’ and women’s curiosity, while simultaneously encouraging this trait in young boys. A perfect way to do so was to disguise this sexist rhetoric within fairy tales, which were and still are exceedingly popular among children and adults alike.
Luckily, in contemporary times, we are seeing an emergence of more empowering tales, in which curious girls are heralded rather than punished. Disney’s 2012 film Brave is one prominent example. Authors like Barbara Walker have even taken on classic tales like that of Snow White and re-written them with feminist inflections. Yet, the influence of tales like the Grimm’s “Little Snow-White” and “The White Snake” still remains.
Grimm, Jacob, Wilhelm Grimm, Padraic Colum, and Josef Scharl. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.
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