Fairy Tales, Princesses, Gothic Witches, & Popular Fiction

First, just to clarify: in this post, I won’t be discussing fairy tale retellings (books that set out to retell a specific fairy tale in a different way) but rather fairy tale inspired works.

If you look at many of my favorite books from Jane Eyre, to Rebecca, to Wuthering Heights, to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, you’ll see a lot of similar elements. Big houses, family secrets, and other gothic trappings. But there’s another element that’s consistent in them: fairy tales. Jane Eyre and Rebecca are both Bluebeard stories: A young woman becomes romantically involved with a wealthy man with a big house. It would seem to be a Cinderella story, but there’s a secret involving the man’s previous wife. In both cases, the man bears some degree of culpability. In Wuthering Heights, we see Heathcliff continuously compared to a beast; called “wolfish” with “sharp, cannibal teeth.” But unlike the traditional fairytale romantic beast, his actions are as beastly as the rest of him. While the love between Beauty and the Beast sets the Beast’s castle free of an enchantment, the love between Cathy and Heathcliff imprisons them and their families for a generation. We see a more traditional Beauty and the Beast story play out later with their children. Hareton is the Beast made in his father’s image, and Catherine is the Beauty who “tames” him. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we see the fairytale castle before it became an enchanted ruin. We learn about the crime that made Witches of normal women.

But the fairy tale influence isn’t just limited to classics.  As a pre-teen, I was, like many, obsessed with VC Andrews. My favorite of her books was Flowers in the Attic. I haven’t reread it in years and I don’t 51qf7-d2cl-_ac_us218_want to. I have the sense that it’s not the kind of book that will hold up well. But the fairy tale influences are strong throughout. When their father dies, four children are brought to Grandmother’s House by their mother. In this case, Grandmother’s House happens to be a mansion and the children are locked in the attic because if  Grandfather finds out they exist, Mom won’t get her inheritance.  They’re told they won’t be up there long. Grandfather is old and dying. And Mom will try to tell him about them eventually. They’ll be in the attic maybe a week tops.  They’re up there for three years. We have two “witches” here. Grandmother has a bible verse for every occasion, a wide definition of sin, and a ready whip. But even more frightening is Mom, who seems a helpless, beautiful Princess at first. Caught in a bad situation she just wants to do what’s best for her family. But by degrees, she becomes convinced that keeping the kids locked up is the best thing for them. Then she realizes it’s the best thing for her and stops caring about them.  The narrator, Cathy, is twelve when the book begins, and fifteen when it ends. In many ways, she’s literally the Princess locked away in a tower. But she’s also got a bit of a Witch in her (explored more in the sequel, Petals on the Wind) in that like most teenage girls, she’s selfish, cynical, and can see things as pretty bleak. Also, in her family, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. She comes from a long line of Witches. A lot of the tension in the series deals with who she ultimately becomes: Princess or Witch?

A few years ago, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became a major bestseller. We saw some of that Witch/Princess emerge in the character of Amy. She’s beautiful, in danger, and (for a time) locked away. But she also has some fairly witchy characteristics. Unlike Cathy, in Flowers in the Attic, who is always straddling the Princess/Witch divide, Amy definitely falls on one side more than the other. I won’t say which, to avoid spoilers. But Gone Girl wasn’t the only fairy tale inspired work that Gillian Flynn has in her oeuvre. Its success made her other two novels best sellers. Sharp Objects was just turned into a TV miniseries. In it, we have a clear Witch and a Princess/Witch. Camille is a  troubled journalist who returns to her hometown to investigate a double murder. We also meet her mother, Adora, is a manipulative narcissist. In her essay, “I Was Not A Nice Little Girl” Flynn discusses her intention to write about a Princess raised by a Witch.  Would Rapunzel, raised in a tower by a Witch, be a good woman? Or would she turn into a Witch herself?

It’s certainly no accident that Flynn cites Flowers in the Attic as a major influence on her work. Several other contemporary female authors do as well. A recent article in The Guardian looked at writers ranging from Flynn, to Megan Abbott, Cassandra Clare, and Robin Wasserman, who all cite Andrews as influential. Megan Abbott says.

“Her books made – and make – people profoundly uncomfortable…They’re ‘hysterical’ books in that way, out of control and female and thus dangerous. I think we don’t like to ponder what they tell us about young women, about ourselves. So they’re dismissed because it’s easier that way.”

I think the same thing could be said about how fairy tales are regarded as children’s stories. Many people know that the traditional tales have been sanitized for children over the years. But maybe they were sanitized because they tell us things that we’re not sure we want to hear.
419f7dboabl-_ac_us218_Gillian Flynn and VC Andrews aren’t the only popular authors who draw on fairy tale inspiration for the work. We don’t often think about Stephen King and fairy tales in the same breath, but perhaps we should. Carrie is in many ways a quintessential Cinderella story. Carrie is a Princess who is tormented by her classmates (stepsisters) and lives under the thumb of her mother, a religious fanatic (stepmother). She turns out to have telekinetic powers. Some cruel kids set up a prank to publically humiliate Carrie at the prom (ball) after fixing the vote to elect her prom queen. But King also combines the Princess and the Witch, and after Carrie is humiliated she uses her telekinetic powers to take revenge on her tormenters. And the fairy tale parallels don’t end there. Blood is a huge metaphor in the book. Carrie gets her first period in the beginning and that’s what stimulates her telekinesis. At the prom, her tormentors pour pigs blood on Carrie after she’s elected prom queen. And at the end, the one survivor of the prom, Sue Snell, gets her period (meaning she’s not pregnant as previously thought). The blood is very much a fairy tale influence. Think of how blood is a part of so many fairy tales from Snow White to Bluebeard to Jack and the Beanstalk. Even in the Grimm’s Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to try to fit into the glass slipper only to be ratted out by a little bird singing “there’s blood in the shoe.”
So why are Princesses and Witches so often fused in popular fiction? And why is such fiction often dismissed as trashy? Even the classics that I discussed are sometimes dismissed as “Women’s” Literature.  I  think it’s because that tension makes us uncomfortable. Back a few hundred years actresses were considered “loose women” and weren’t respected. Why? Well, there are several reasons, but ultimately an actor’s job is to make an audience believe that they are someone else. People have a history of discomfort with the notion of a woman having more than one side to her personality. Today, authors who play with that notion don’t always gain the respect of the literary world. Andrews, Flynn, and King may be bestsellers but they’re not often given credit for being “literary.” They’re often dismissed by critics as “commercial.” It goes back to the same reason that society dismisses fairy tales as being simple stories for children. In their original forms, they make us uncomfortable so we attempt to take some of that power away by dismissing them. I think that we do the same with these authors, who even though they don’t write retellings, are strongly influenced by fairy tales.
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10 thoughts on “Fairy Tales, Princesses, Gothic Witches, & Popular Fiction

  1. This is an awesome post, thank you! I love some of the parallels you draw. And it’s interesting how we label things (or let others label them) without ever considering why those labels are being added or what they mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: News & Notes – 8/18/2018 – The Bookwyrm’s Hoard

  3. I love this discussion, Fran! I never quite thought of it as a parallel but looking back now, I see how thin the line between princess and witch can be. Even our daily lives reflect that – moments when we so readily hop between the two roles.

    I read Flowers in the Attic as a young kid which, well, shocked my very naive mind. I only remember the book in snippets but would love to give it a re-read.

    Looking forward to more of your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!

      I read Flowers in the Attic when I was about 11 or 12 and it shocked my naive mind too. But I remember liking the sense of shock, and seeking out the rest of the series for that reason! Cathy definitely moves between the Princess and the Witch archetypes, particularly in the sequels. I saw the Lifetime made for TV adaptation not too long ago. I don’t know if it was just not a well done adaptation, or if the material doesn’t hold up to adulthood. I’m sort of hesitant to reread the book because as a kid I had a sort of gleeful shocked horror at it. I don’t think my response would be the same as an adult, because I’m less naive.

      Like

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