Theory and Meaning. How Literary Theory Can Influence the Perception of a Text
A same story can be perceived differently depending on who reads it. Indeed, depending on our cultural background and the historical period in which we live a story can take on different meanings. Similarly, our perception of a story may change over the years, since each time we read it we have a different perspective and knowledge of the world. However, the interpretation of a story may also vary according to the literary theory one uses to analyze the text. Indeed, thanks to literary theory we can analyze the connection that occurs between writer and text as well as the hidden references to class, gender, and race. In this paper, I will analyze the Grimm’s story “Hansel and Gretel” from different points of view to highlight how different theoretical approach can change our perception of the story.
In order to analyze Hansel and Gretel from a structuralist point of view one needs to consider the story in relation to its literary genre, the folktales, and has to underline systematic patterns of structure. Once these patterns have been identified, it is necessary to analyze them and find in what they differ from the main structure of fairytales. In particular, it is essential to use Propp’s thirty-one functions to outline which are the similarities within stories and sequences of action, that, not matter how much the setting, the characters and the plot of the story may vary, will always remain the same. For instance, in “Hansel and Gretel” we can find three of the seven elements that are recurrent in the introduction of most folktales.
As a matter of fact, immediately after having introduced Hansel and Gretel, their father and their stepmother (the father and the stepmother in this paper will be defined as parents), the Grimm brothers reveal to the reader who the villain is and what the villain is seeking: the villain is represented by the stepmother who wants to get rid of her husband’s children. Then, the stepmother attempts to deceive Hansel and Gretel by making up an excuse to lead them into the woods and leave them there. However, the stepmother tries to deceive the children twice, since the first time they had been able to find their way back home. Nevertheless, the second time Hansel and Gretel have been carried into the woods, they have unintentionally helped their stepmother get rid of them, since “they did not find their way out of the woods […] but managed only to go deeper and deeper into the woods” (Grimm). In the introduction of the story, the Grimm brothers have used the fourth, the sixth and the seventh of the thirty-one functions theorized by Propp. However, it is possible to identify these sequences of action as part of the introduction and not as part of the body of the story only because the villain in Hansel and Gretel are two. Indeed, in the body of the story there is the identification of the lack of the villain too, that in this case is represented by the scene in which the witch admits that “When he is fat I am going to eat [Hansel]” (Grimm).
To analyze the story from a psychoanalytic point of view, it is necessary to read “Hansel and Gretel” as if it was a dream to try to distinguish between the overt and the covert content of the story. In particular, I want to focus on the introduction when Hansel and Gretel are deceived and led into the woods. Indeed, the first time the two children are led into the woods, Hansel cleverly uses some little stones to trace the path that will lead them back home. Even though the children knew that their parents have intentionally left them into the woods, they erect a defense mechanism that makes them deny the fact that their parents have intentionally abandoned them and makes them hope to get back home. The second time, however, Hansel unconsciously realizes that their parents no longer want them in their life, and, therefore, he decides to use bread crumbs instead of pebbles to indicate the traveled path. It is Hansel’s id that makes the two children get lost in the woods.
Another scene that can be interpreted under a psychoanalytic point of view is the scene when Hansel and Gretel arrive at the witch’s house, which is made of food, and start eating it. The children, who are experiencing hunger and tiredness, allow their unconscious, their IDs, to manifest, and so to eat the house. The voice of the witch who questions “Who’s nibbling my house?” (Grimm) represents Hansel and Gretel superegos that is trying to control their instinctive drives, yet they need to satisfy their desire, so they continue eating.
The meaning of the story changes again if we interpret it from a Marxist point of view. To analyze a story from a Marxist point of view, we have first to accept the fact that in every society there is a class conflict and that every society is divided into two. On the one hand, there is the upper-middle-class society, which in “Hansel and Gretel” is represented by the character of the witch; on the other hand, there is the proletariat, which in the story is represented by Hansel and Gretel. Usually the upper-middle class, who has a surplus of income, exploit the proletariat, who is extremely poor, to get richer. Similarly, the witch is the one who has a surplus of livelihood, so that even her house is made of food, but who, at the same time, is not satisfied with what she has. Consequently, she wants to exploit Hansel and Gretel turning them into a nourishment. Marxist theory also asserts that the proletariat fights against the upper-middle class to placate their hunger and to satisfy their other primary needs. Similarly, in this story, Gretel fights against the witch and murder her by “cooking” her in the oven in order to save her life and the life of her brother. The murder of the witch represents the loathing and rage of the proletariat towards the upper-middle class. This anger is what gives life to the class conflict and to the historical changes that occur through the opposition of different social classes.
To analyze the story from a feminist point of view, I will focus on the character of Gretel and on how she is depicted at the beginning of the story. Gretel is presented as a weak character: she is a girl who is not able to make decisions, who constantly needs to be reassured and guided in choices. For instance, when the children hear the stepmother saying that she wants to get rid of them, “Gretel cried bitter tears” (Grimm) while Hansel comforts her and thinks of a way to solve the situation. Similarly, once in the wood is Hansel the one who guides Gretel home while she is completely dependent on him. From a feminist point of view, this scene suggests that women need men to get out of difficult situation. Another scene that may be interpreted from a feminist point of view is when Hansel and Gretel are imprisoned by the witch. The witch decides that she will eat Hansel and so he will be the one who will be fed with “the best things to eat every day, [while] Gretel received nothing but crayfish shells” (Grimm). The fact that the witch chooses Hansel instead of Gretel as her own meal suggests that she thinks that Hansel is better that Gretel, and that Gretel is not even worthy of being used as food, but that she can only be used for housework. This disparity in treatment suggests that women are designated to take care of the house, while men have more “valuable” tasks.
In order to analyze “Hansel and Gretel” from a New Historicist point of view, it is necessary to delineate the historical background of the time in which the story has been produced. The story has been first published by the Grimm brothers in 1812 (Zipes 319), a time in which in Germany, according to Patrick Webb, food supplies were running low (2092). This scarcity of food will then result in the famine of 1817 that will cause thousands of deaths (2092). Considering the historical events that were happening when the Grimm brothers published “Hansel and Gretel,” one can see how the insecurities of the population are unconsciously reflected in the story. Indeed, the father is forced to abandon his children in the forest because, due to the famine, he was no longer able to provide for their livelihood. Similarly, we can take into consideration the rising of the German nationalism at the beginning of the 19th century (Snyder 216) to observe how these new nationalistic feelings are also reflected into the text. In particular, the father, Hansel and Gretel can be seen as the local who are being ruled by an oppressive figure who is represented by the stepmother. Indeed, the stepmother succeeds in getting rid of the children; however, by the end of the story, when the children come back home the stepmother has died and they, together with their father are free to live their life without being ruled by an external power. Last but not least, “Hansel and Gretel” may be analyzed also under a post-colonial point of view.
To analyze the story from a post-colonial point of view is first necessary to establish the relationship among the character to define who represents the “self” and who represents the “other.” In this story, Hansel and Gretel may be defined as the self while the witch may be defined as the other. In particular, we can focus on the exoticism of the witch. Indeed, Hansel and Gretel “[think] they were in heaven” when the witch “served them a good meal: milk and pancakes with sugar, apples, and nuts” (Grimm). Clearly, the two children were not used to eat so many delicacies, as they were used to eat only a piece of bread, and, as a consequence, they perceive the witch’s practice as stimulating and exciting. However, the father, Hansel, and Gretel could also be seen as the other, while the stepmother could be representative of the self. In that sense, the stepmother is exerting her hegemony over her husband, since she convinces him that her decision of getting rid of the children is not only in her interest but in the interest of both. Moreover, the stepmother can be seen as the self since she “colonize” the family imposing her rules over them.
On the whole, the different analyzes of “Hansel and Gretel” show how the meaning of a story changes according to the type of theory with which it is analyzed. Each theory emphasizes a particular aspect of the story that would not be evident by reading the same story for pure pleasure. The gender, race and power dynamics, as well as the recurrent patterns of the text may be revealed through a in-depth literary analysis of the story.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “Hansel and Gretel.” Edited by Dee L. Ashliman, Hansel and Gretel, and Other Folktales about Abandoned Children www.pitt.edu/~dash/type 0327.html#grimm.
Snyder, Louis L. Roots of German Nationalism. Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.
Webb, Patrick. “Emergency Relief during Europe’s Famine of 1817 Anticipated Crisis-Response Mechanisms of Today | The Journal of Nutrition | Oxford Academic.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 July 2002, academic.oup.com/jn/article/132/7/2092S/4687313
Zipes, Jack, editor. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Second edition. ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.
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