The Evolving Concept of Home: An Analysis of Visual Imagery as Related to the Psychological Themes of “Growing Up” in the Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel

April 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

As a child coming of age in the mass-consumerist, technologically innovative, and media-influenced climate of the twentieth century, one’s exposure to fairy tales will have likely been informed by recurrent viewings of Disney film adaptations. Reared on such a diet of animated full-length features, as well as the lucrative merchandising campaigns accompanying each new release, the modern-day child’s concept of the fairy story is strongly linked with catchy musical numbers, comic foils in the form of smart-alecky critters, heroic princes mounted atop white horses, and the healing power of the phrase, “happily ever after.” However as Jack Zipes has observed, as the great villain of the fairy tale tradition, Disney in fact “violated the literary genre of the fairy tale,” effacing its most gripping qualities for the need to create marketable, easily accessible cinematic versions. A powerhouse of visual imagery, compelling stories, poignant metaphor and universal human themes, fairy tales are more than simply charming narratives of magical donors, anthropomorphized objects and true love fulfilled. Able to excite the imagination, harness a child’s fascination with the power of magic and wishes, fairy stories are in fact the literary equivalent of the day dream, a psychological tool by which children can project and, through vicarious association with main characters, allow themselves to live out the fantasies they secretly harbor. Bruno Bettelheim, a child psychologist, firmly believed that the fairy tale served a profound role in the development of children. Bettelheim felt that, above all else, children need help negotiating or finding meaning in their lives, to attain a better understanding of themselves as individuals. In order to do this, to “transcend the confines of a self-centered existence and believe that one will make a significant contribution to life,” children need assistance coming to terms or comprehending the chaotic, messy emotions they experience as a reaction to the chaos and messiness of their surrounding reality. Such an understanding of challenging, unfamiliar concepts or feelings, an organizing of the questions marks in life that emerge as children grow, is achieved not through sheer experience alone, but from channeling the pressures of growing up through customized, comforting, even pleasurable daydreams that attend to their particular conflicts. According to Bettelheim: “It is here that fairy tales have unequaled value, because they offer new dimension to the child’s imagination which would be impossible for him to discover as truly on his own. Even more important, the form and structure of fairy tales suggest images to the child by which he can structure his daydreams and with them give better direction to his life.” Therefore, the psychoanalytic framework provides for a fascinating, unique reading of the fairy tale, where the manifest content of the story is interpreted as the product of a child’s imagination. The idea that the events occurring in any given tale are in fact completely “made up” within the minds of the protagonists allows for these actions to function as metaphors for the struggles informing the child “auteur,” and confer upon the tale a significance, a complexity and depth that extend far beyond the boundaries of the individual narrative itself. As already mentioned, the literary fairy tale derives much of its resonance, its evocative power, its ability to move and inspire readers, from the visual tapestry it so masterfully threads together. In fact, one of the major contributions of psychoanalysis to literary criticism in the 20th century, such as a Bettelheimian interpretation of the fairy story, has been its emphasis on the significance of the verbal as well as visual elements of the text. As Bettelheim suggests, “the fairy tale is the primer from which the child learn to read his mind in the language of images, the only language which permits understanding before intellectual maturity has been achieved.” Visuals are concrete entities that symbolize the nameless, rather intangible and confusing emotional and psychological struggles raging within the nascent psyche of a child. They are the building blocks by which children piece together the puzzle of their psychological development, the vehicle through which the “unconscious content” of growing up is superimposed onto the “conscious fantasies” manifested in a given fairy tale. Often times, these compelling images serve as the anchor for the complex themes within a fairy tale, paradigmatically illustrating these concepts, as well as introducing new material to encourage a reader to reexamine or widen his scope of interpretation. For example, the image of the gingerbread house in the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” is a prime example of such a potent visual. Within the classic tale, this striking image functions as an important symbol on a dual allegorical level. The gingerbread house is, on one hand, a representation of the child’s naïve idea of “home,” of comfort, of safety and protection. However, the house also serves as a warning against the complacency, the paralysis, the stunted growth that might result from a steadfast refusal to challenge and move beyond this childhood familiarity, thus embodying the struggles of growing up inherent to the thematic schema of the story. To understand how the gingerbread house achieves this complex level of signification, one must read “Hansel and Gretel” not as the literal tale of two small children abandoned in the woods, but as a metaphor for the fears associated with growing up, and thus the projected fantasy of a child attempting to reconcile this conflict within himself. In his controversial work, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bettelheim offers an interesting interpretation of “Hansel and Gretel” within this decidedly psychoanalytic framework. Because he asserts that “the fairy tale expresses in words and actions the things which go on in children’s minds,” Bettelheim suggests that the desertion of the children in the forest was a completely imagined event. Rather, this incidence is a realization of the anxiety stemming from a genuine fear of starvation. In fact, Hansel and Gretel felt abandoned and alone the moment they soberly understood that their parents would no longer be able to sufficiently care for them in this capacity, as providers of nourishment, perhaps after awakening from sleep with intense hunger one night. Bettelheim expounds upon this idea: “The mother represents the source of all food to the children, so it is she who now is experienced as abandoning them, as if in a wilderness. It is the child’s anxiety and deep disappointment when Mother is no longer willing to meet all his oral demands, which leads him to believe that suddenly Mother has become unloving, selfish, rejecting. Since the children know they need their parents desperately, they attempt to return home after long being deserted.” Of course, “home” is a term that can be defined in several ways. It is often identified with a “house,” or some form of literal, physical setting. On a more conceptual level, home is a metaphor for that which comforts and soothes us, that which is familiar and reassuring. A nurturing presence or source is sometimes considered a type of “home,” as is a basic notion of stability or sense of belonging. What is the home to which Hansel and Gretel, characters who collectively represent the any-child struggling against the pressures of development, wish to return? If they feel displaced, floundering on their own without the constants by which they have forever been anchored (such as the guarantee of a secure, happy livelihood under the care of infallible parents), where now should they turn? On whom or what can the growing child depend on while traversing the course towards burgeoning independence? Unsure of how to answer these questions, and lost in the wilderness of psychological conflict, of a realization that nothing in life is a given, that the outside world is subject to change and thus cannot be invested with any measure of permanence, Hansel and Gretel make every attempt to return to the home that, while deficient, is at least familiar. Hansel first thinks to lay pebbles to mark the path he and his sister followed upon entering the woods, thus creating a trail by which to trace their steps homewards. However, after the second occurrence of deception and “abandonment” at the hands of their desperate but nonetheless scheming parents (the mother being particularly portrayed as the more criminal character), the children are less successful in their attempts to construct a return route: Hansel mistakenly chooses to mark a path using bread crumbs. Why would he not consider the very real possibility that birds, or really any living creature existing in the recesses of the forest, would eat these crumbs, thereby effacing the trail back home? This foolish, shortsighted, symbolic act is a testament to the any-child’s increasing sense of panic and hopelessness, for so powerful is his fear that the feelings of anxiety begin to occlude his capacity for logical, rational thinking. Bettelheim builds upon this point, commenting that, “having engaged in denial and regression—the return (to a false) home—Hansel has lost much of his initiative and ability to think clearly. Starvation anxiety has driven him back, so now he can think only of food as offering a solution to the problem of finding his way out of a serious predicament.” Soon, however, food, man’s proverbial “life line,” appears like an oasis in this vast desert of the frightened unconscious, embodied in the glorious visual of the gingerbread house. Ostensibly the unequivocal solution to their emotional dilemma, the gingerbread house in “Hansel and Gretel” is a hyperbole, an eroticized image of that which the children feel the most without, what they most crave. After all, what reader, young or old, would not be captivated and stunned by the description of an entire house made of candy, existing as a refreshing little slice of fun, colorful fancy against the stark backdrop of the austere woods? Described in vivid detail within the text of the tale, with “a roof made of cake and transparent windows of sugar,” the image of the house ignites temptation and appeal at a base level, or what Bruno Bettelheim identifies as “the most primitive satisfactions…[a child’s] oral regression. Bruno Bettelheim discusses at length the significance of the children’s manic eating away of the house as a manifestation of their “oral greediness and how attractive it is to give into. I agree that the house represents a form of gluttony, of careless abandon and disregard for mature notions of restraint, respect for others’ property, and adherence to the boundaries of proper decorum. However, I believe the image of the gingerbread house symbolizes, above all else, a mother’s womb, or the “home” the children feel they have lost and want so desperately to find again. In their voracious consumption, Hansel and Gretel, and thus the child in general, are acting out a fantasy of returning to a more infantile state characterized by complete dependence upon a nurturing mother figure. Therefore, the careless manner in which Hansel and Gretel devour the witch’s gingerbread home not only demonstrates the growing child’s desire to regress to a stage of oral fixation, but is literally an assumption of the role and behaviors of the needy infant. Sublimating his individualism in this way, the child reveals his fears about confronting the challenges of adulthood, and would prefer instead to rush to the side of the idyllic “good mother” for eternal protection from the dangers of real life. According to Bettelheim: “A house, as the place at which we dwell, can symbolize the body, usually the mother’s…Thus, the house at which Hansel and Gretel are eating away so blissfully and without a care stands in the unconscious for the good mother, who offers her body as a source of nourishment. It is the original all-giving mother whom ever child hopes to find again later somewhere…when his own mother begins to make demands and to impose restrictions.”Their eating of the house also signifies the children wanting to imbibe notions of security and stability. In their desperation and confusion, upon encountering the gingerbread house, Hansel and Gretel want to be certain that this happy, safe home does not vanish to the ether of psychological development, and instead becomes a part of who they are. By imagining the siblings as performing an act of literal ingestion, the child projects his hope that the concept of home might become part of who he is–inextricably tied to his identity, to his inner soul. However, in order to learn how to cope with challenges inherent to life, no child should remain psychologically mired within the vacuum of a metaphorical womb, sacrificing the liberating power of self-reliance for the familiar, comforting but ultimately paralyzing effects of a nurturing, co-dependent relationship, The dangers of clinging to the trappings of an earlier stage of development for fear of embracing the unknown changes and obstacles of maturity, are illustrated by a second compelling representation of a mother’s womb: the oven inside the witch’s kitchen. An unsettling, vivid image in and of itself, the oven that serves as the backdrop for the climax of “Hansel and Gretel” is, in effect, a revisionist interpretation of the gingerbread house and exposes the risky deficiencies inherent to any infantile concept of home. Allured by the oral temptation ignited by the candy house, and relieved at the thought of having finally returned to a type of “all giving mother” for which they have been desperately searching, Hansel and Gretel are fooled into rather willingly entering a perilous, life-and-death situation. They are captured by the witch, who at first conceals her true nefarious designs, again playing on the children’s wish to suspend their development and revert to a simpler time of complete dependency. Allowing their id-like desires to dull their instincts, to occupy the administrative, decision-making functions that should instead be fulfilled by logical thinking, Hansel and Gretel seem fated to fall prey to the witch as victims of their fears of “growing up.” Bettelheim suggests that, at this point faced with a very real threat, the child recognizes that he needs to develop reliance within himself and his faculties for survival in order to achieve stability and happiness in life. The child must fully purge himself of any silly, ineffectual romantic longings for the “home” of their infancy, for the healing balm of the nurturing mother. Bettelheim confirms this point: “The witch’s evil designs finally force the children to recognize the dangers of unrestrained oral greed and dependence. To survive, they must develop initiative and realize that their only recourse lies in intelligent planning and acting. They must exchange subservience to the pressures of the id for acting in accordance with the ego. Goal-directed behavior based on intelligent assessment of the situation in which they find themselves must take the place of which fulfilling fantasies.”Unlike Bettelheim, however, I am less concerned with the child admitting the consequences of unbridled desire, of his “oral greed,” of his (temporary) disregard for proper conduct or self-control, for I do not think it is shame that motivates a child to cull from the resources of his immediate environment (i.e. his peers, himself) to overcome the challenges of real life. As manifested by the image of the oven, I believe the child is more profoundly impacted by the sobering realization that the notion of the comforting, infantile “home” is in fact corrupt, dangerous, beguiling, and ultimately not the solution for addressing the difficulties of psychological development. For the witch to burn to her death in the oven is a striking inversion of the conceptual association with the “womb” as being the source of creation, for, in this instance, the figure of the womb both terminates the life of the witch, as well as the life of Hansel and Gretel’s empty, ineffectual, child-like longing. At the same time, however, the witch’s demise signifies a new beginning for Hansel and Gretel within the confines of the narrative, and for the any-child within the context of his emotional growth. Rid now of the desire for the anesthetizing comforts of infancy, the child experiences a sort of rebirth through the personas of Hansel and Gretel, assuming the roles of fully functioning, developed, independent “adult” individuals ready to conquer the problems of growing up. The tale of Hansel and Gretel concludes with a return to the home setting that opened the story. However, the children have been forever changed by their experiences, and they are thus not coming back to the same home from which they departed. Bringing back from the gingerbread home the witch’s vast supply of treasure and wealth, Hansel and Gretel are now able to provide for and support their family unit, and no longer need to suffer under the mercy of their parents’ care. The children may finally attain a level of happiness within the physical home that at first seemed deficient or lacking in some way, for they have developed within their psyches the capacity to provide for themselves that which their immediate environment lacks, and are encouraged to constantly pursue “growth toward a higher plane of psychological and intellectual existence.” Psychological development and emotional growth are not processes that occur independent of the child. Children are proactive participants in the socialization to their outside world, and they are not blind or dumb to the frightening realities of life. Complex, difficult concepts such as death, change, loss, destruction and the human capacity for evil do not escape the child’s observant eye. It is the denial on the part of parents or other caretakers that these elements do in fact occur in life that further perplexes the child, instilling in him a paranoia that he is perhaps alone in experiencing challenging emotions or harboring secret fantasies. However, in order to evolve as adults capable of adapting to the difficulties and inconsistencies of grown-up life, children must be allowed an open, safe forum by which to perform investigation into, and reconciliations of, uncomfortable feelings. If unable to rely upon the familiar caretaking-figures to supply the answers to these challenging questions, or the psychological avenues by which these answers can be ascertained, where can mystified children turn to for support? The compelling visually imagery of the fairy tale provides the most effective, satisfying outlet for the channeling of early fears and attainment of adult-like coping skills the developing child has available to him. Referring once again to the words of Bruno Bettelheim, they fairy story expresses “thoughts through impressive images, which lead the child to use his own imagination to derive deeper understanding.” The visual dichotomy of the gingerbread house and witch’s oven as signifiers of two elements of the same basic concept offers the child the opportunity to achieve such a level of comprehension. In this dual image, he recognizes both the alluring quality of the infantile “home,” as well as the danger steadfastly desiring what is essentially a false, insubstantial, and decaying manifestation of home has of “burning” the fibers of psychological development. The imagination is a vast, nay, eternal play-space in which the child can perform the “figuring-out” work of his emotional maturity, and images are the currency through which these transactions, the negotiations for meaning to life’s greatest puzzles, ultimately occur.

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