To what extent do the Brothers Grimm conform to contemporary eighteenth century notions of gender in their tales?

Essay 2011 15 Pages

German Studies - Modern German Literature


Mid-nineteenth century Germany saw a great shift in class identity. As a relatively new classing group, the bourgeoisie sought to define itself against the aristocracy, and the lower classes. This act of definition involved various different aspects, including their increasing economic and political roles in society. Of equal importance, though, was their social identity: sentiments which were cultivated as ‘typically bourgeoisie’. Both a bourgeois sense of family and ideological gender roles had been developed within the home. There was a particular focus on what constituted to femininity, women were expected to function as domestic labourers, wives and mothers and were consigned exclusively to the private sphere of the home. Whilst men on the other hand, were heads of the household and dealt with all public matters. Other spheres such as religion also played a role in what came to represent womanhood, and women were partly characterised by Christian teachings, for example the biblical story of the fall of Eve.[1] Consequently, there was a need to relieve male anxieties about women, whose innately “uncontrollable”[2] behaviour was seen as a threat to bourgeois stability. Women were thereby urged to be silent, obedient, industrious and prudish. As fairy tales were considered one of the vital socializing elements of the German civilisation,[3] this essay will mainly explore to what extent the Grimms’ fairy tales served to acculturate women to these prototypes. In particular, it will focus on the function of daughters, wives and mothers in the tales, exploring just how consciously the Grimms groomed women for their social functions. It is essential to compare the original vernacular versions with both the 1812 Kinder-und Hausmӓrchen edition and the later reconstituted texts of 1857. This essay will begin by considering the role of sexual repression and prudery in the tales, and then it will turn to the influence of patriarchal Christian values, which will be followed by an analysis of female curiosity and silence in the tales. This will then lead to an exploration on female passivity and the extent to which the classical fairy tale image of the docile damsel in distress is contemporarily relevant. The discussion will move onto the presentation of domestication, with a close look at the gender divide between the private and public spheres in the tales. In correspondence with the last station of the bourgeois woman, this essay will end with an exploration of motherhood.

Sexual Repression and Prudery.

According to Sarah Slavin, during the 19th century there was an attempt to recast women as lesser sexual creatures than men, and enforce a sexual prudery upon them.[4] This was particularly the case for the bourgeoisie, who, in an attempt to draw the sexes further apart, epitomised purity and modesty as ideal characteristics for the genteel woman.[5] To what extent, then, did the Grimms consciously cultivate fairy tales as a means to regulate female sexuality? In some cases, such as Rapunzel, this process appears particularly clear. In the original 1812 version, Rapunzel complains about her clothes tightening following her daily romps in the tower with the prince.[6] The text thus, unexpectedly to those of us used to the modern, sanitized versions, refers explicitly to sex before marriage. In the 1857 version however, Rapunzel’s lewd is substituted with a sentence accidentally disclosing the prince’s visits to Frau Gothel, the witch keeping her locked in the tower: “sag Sie mir doch, Frau Gothel, wie kommt es nur, Sie wird mir viel schwerer heraufzuziehen als der junge Kӧnigssohn?“.[7] Rapunzel’s pregnancy is thereby deleted and replaced with an innocent statement revealing nothing more than the prince’s visits, thus removing all sexual overtones from the story. Her oblivious betrayal is also very in keeping with the image of the innocent, naive bourgeois girl. Furthermore, the prince first asks “ob sie ihn zum Manne nehmen wollte” (89) thereby legitimising any amorous activity with the promise of matrimony.

The Grimms’ efforts to clean up the tales that suggest female desire are just as apparent in Der Frosch Kӧnig. The 1812 version’s ending alludes subtly towards sex before marriage: “so fiel er herunter in das Bett, da legte sich die Kӧnigstocher zu ihm”.[8] Here, the heroine is prepared to engage with the prince intimately without hesitation. In the 1857 version however, the princess throws the frog against the wall in disgust. Thus, the bed arguably becomes a place from which the prince is banished and the princess displays a prudishness which is more in keeping with the expected modesty of the bourgeois girl. The prince only becomes her bed companion once the father permits it and it is sanctioned by marriage: “der war nun ihres Vaters Willen nach ihr lieber Geselle und Gemahl” (32). For rejecting the prince’s sexual advances and obeying her father, the heroine is rewarded with marriage to a wealthy, “schӧn und freundlich” (32) prince who whisks her away in a carriage “mit acht weiẞen Pferden” (32).The Grimms’ highly romanticised and mythical ‘happy ending’ can be seen as an attempt to convince young girls of the rewards which await those who are modest, thereby establishing modesty as a feminine ideal. Their literary alterations, although subtle, show the brothers’ willingness to support the socialisation of female sexuality.

The stringent sexual codes of the bourgeoisie lead to a kind of dichotomy between female virtue and vice, Sarah Slavin asserts that “the world came to be made up of good girls and bad girls. The bad girls represented sexuality, the good girls purity of mind and spirit”.[9] The Grimms version of Rotkӓppchen could accommodate for the former, as it presents a “bad girl” who indulges in sensuality. In the original folk tale the protagonist displays a natural, relaxed attitude towards her body and the story celebrates a girl’s coming of age.[10] The Grimms version paradoxically provides a warning against the dangers of female sexual awakening. Zipes interprets the tale as a “coded message about rationalising bodies and sex”.[11] In a sexualised reading, then, the wolf could represent masculine desire and seduction, as illustrated by his motives to satisfy his “Gelüsten” (159). The wolf successfully seduces Rotkӓppchen and lures her away from the path with the prospect of “schӧnen Blumen und Vӧglein” (157). In this reading, when the heroine leaves the path and enters nature she is essentially indulging in sensual pleasures, thereby exploring sexual desires which should otherwise remain suppressed. As punishment for not being orderly and normal by bourgeoisie standards, Rotkӓppchen is eaten. Whilhelm Solms comments that it is here that the tale’s “pӓdagogischen Zweck” is fulfilled.[12] However, this educational lesson shows that is not enough to be innocent and modest like the princess in Der Froschkӧnig; a girl must learn to fear her own curiosity and sexual instincts.

Comparing Der Frosch Kӧnig with Rotkӓppchen supports Slavin’s comment on the dichotomy of female sexuality. Whilst the prude princess becomes a model for modesty and virtue, her sexualised counterpart, Rotkӓppchen is punished for her unconventional behaviour. She is only exonerated by the Grimms once she promises never to let herself go again: “du willst dein Lebtag nicht wieder vom Wege ab in den Wald laufen” (160). A path which arguably symbolises the normative behaviour expected of the bourgeoisie girl. The tales were thus reworked by the Grimms to produce narrative models which would support a culture which sought to regulate female sexuality. But do the tales actually do more than that? It is clear that the Bourgeois was trying to establish itself as a more moral class by enforcing sexual restrictions, creating this ideal image of the virtuous, genteel female in doing so. But, although not suggested within the tales themselves, the focus on female modesty could also be seen a patriarchal attempt to ensure that women remained chaste before matrimony, as marriage to an unchaste wife was always a long standing male anxiety. However, this does depend largely on how the tales are read.

Christian Values.

As shown through the notions of marriage just explored, the bourgeois value system was somewhat influenced by Christian ethics. For example Eve’s contribution to notions of womanhood, although no longer a central focus, had remained intact during this era.[13] As Christian dogma defined all women by Eve, it was asserted that they inherently embodied her sins. Thus, curiosity was linked intrinsically with the feminine. In contradiction to Bruno Bettelheim’s assertion, that girl and boy can be read without gender distinction as “das Kind” in the tales,[14] it can be argued that the Grimms did internalise the Christian teachings, and presented curiosity exclusively as a female sin. For example Frau Trude is a tale which explicitly warns against the dangers of female curiosity. Out of burning “Neugier” (226) a young girl disobeys her parents and visits the witch in the forest, as punishment for her transgression she is turned into a block of wood and burned by the witch, ending with her troubling, unsympathetic comment, “das leuchtet einmal hell!” (227).This suggests that even the witch’s sadistic actions remain unquestioned as she takes the role of punisher, suggesting that curiosity is a far worse crime. The tale is brutally short and lacks the traditional promising ending, indicating its primary purpose as a “Schreckmӓrchen”[15] to warn young girls of the repercussions of curiosity. Paradoxically, where female curiosity is chastised; male curiosity is encouraged and rewarded by the Grimms. In Der treue Johannes a young king refuses to move from the spot until he is allowed into a forbidden room that holds a painting of a mesmerising princess, “Nun gehe ich nicht von der Stelle, bis du aufgeschlossen hast” (56). Once he sees the portrait he is so overwhelmed that he falls “ohnmӓchtig zur Erde” (56). However, this is not a form of punishment as his transgression is eventually rewarded with her hand in marriage. Here, male curiosity translates into determination and daring; if little boys are bold and inquisitive, they shall ascend and reap rewards. Tales with curious female protagonists end on a different note; not reward but punishment sets the tone.

Jack Zipes notes that “Eve’s transgression prescribes all women’s consequently necessary silencing”,[16] suggesting an intrinsic connection between curiosity and silence in the tales with female protagonists. This can be supported by the Christian tale Marienkind. In a re-enactment of Eve’s fall, the heroine’s uncontrollable curiosity compels her to unlock a forbidden door: “sie empfand eine groẞe Lust zu wissen, was dahinter verborgen wӓre” (37). As punishment she is banished from heaven and muted by the Virgin Mary. The silencing is masked as a redemptive effort, designed to liberate the girl from her sins. It is however a clear form of punishment as the muted girl cannot defend herself against the villagers’ accusations against her being a “Menschenfresserin” (41). It is interesting that the Virgin Mary is cast as both judge and ideal woman, having been the inverse of Eve and having only spoken to express total obedience to God’s will.[17] Thus, the tales emulate Christian values, with female silence functioning as a precondition, punishment and atonement Eve’s transgression. However, it is not just in the Christian tales that we see a preference for silent females. In Aschenputtel the heroine remains conspicuously silent in the face of verbal abuse from her stepsisters and stepmother. Her sisters’ direct speech is full of imperious demands: “Kӓmm uns die Haare, bürste uns die Schuhe” (138), whilst the mother speaks only to taunt and ridicule Aschenputtel: “du bist voll Staub und Schmutz und willst zur Hochzeit?” (138). When female characters speak, it is to reveal unsavoury intentions, thus associating female eloquence indisputably with vice. In contrast, Aschenputtel reacts with silent compliance and “gehorchte, weinte” (138). The closest Achenputtel comes to verbal expression is through crying, with the Grimms mainly choosing to describe her feelings rather than letting her voice her own reactions and thoughts. After silently enduring the torture from her sisters and mother, Cinderella is rewarded with betrothal to a prince and is subsequently socially elevated. Silent heroines appear to be a pattern of discourse in the Grimms’ Tales, textual silencing also exists in Rapunzel, we learn of her “Gesang” (88) and “ihre süẞe Stimme” (89), but we do not hear her sing. We are told that “anfang erschrak Rapunzel gewaltig” (89) but we do not hear any direct exclamations. Her communication is thereby limited to physical forms of expression. The prince on the other hand, cries out his surprise and his intention, “Ist das die Leiter, auf welcher man hinaufkommt, so will ich auch einmal mein Glück versuchen” (89). Accordingly, the Grimms give speech to men and malevolent females, whilst the positive images associated with muted girls and women clearly establish silence as a feminine ideal.


Not just silence, but a general preference for female passivity was prominent during the nineteenth century. Bourgeois women were particularly made out to be delicate, inactive creatures.[18] To what extent then, did the Grimms consciously strive to voice these sentiments in their tales? Jack Zipes argues that the fairy tales “though ingenious...served a socialisation process that placed great emphasis on passivity for girls.”[19] The Grimms’ version of Rumpelstilzchen supports his claim. When asked by a king to spin straw into gold, the heroine adopts the traditional position of despair and “saẞ nun...und wuẞte um ihr Leben keinen Rat” (285), this is arguably an understandable response to an impossible task. However, the Grimms curiously chose to repeat this process four times, with each display of helpless “weinen” (286) rewarded routinely with the supernatural creature’s rescue. Through repetition, the heroine’s passive behaviour becomes somewhat normative. The Grimms modified ending further demonstrates this. In the vernacular version, Rumpelstilzchen promises to let the heroine keep her child, which he demands as payment for his help, if she correctly guesses his name. The heroine wanders through the market place and overhears the name herself,[20] thus actively participating in her own rescue. The Grimms however, chose to immobilise their protagonist, confining her to her private quarters whilst a “Bote” (287) or messenger, discovers his name. For remaining docile, the heroine is rewarded with Rumpelstilzchen’s name and is allowed to keep her child. Thus, whilst the original heroine is rewarded for her activity, her 1857 counterpart is subversively praised for her inactivity and dependence. Through altering the character’s behaviour, the Grimms consciously catered for the new ideals of femininity established by their contemporaries.

Another popular tale which advocates passivity as a feminine ideal is the notorious Aschenputtel. Bettelheim argues that Cinderella takes the initiative to be recognised by the prince.[21] This doesn’t seem to compensate however, for her grand display of inactivity throughout the rest of the tale. She must essentially remain meek at the ball and rely on her beauty to gain attention. As Zipes aptly comments, “the male acts, the female waits”.[22] It is the prince who “kam ihm entgegen” (140), who chooses her, and who pursues her. The heroine continues to exist passively at home until she “muẞte gerufen werden” (144) by the prince, to try on the missing slipper. When it fits, it is the prince who “nahm Aschenputtel aufs Pferd und ritt mit ihm fort” (144). She remains particularly inactive at the end, purely responding submissively to the imperatives given by the prince. For this, she is rewarded with marriage and elevated to a greater social status. The Grimms demonstrate a peculiar logic that if females wait, they will be chosen, and rewarded. Thus acculturating girls to the inactive roles that they were socially set.

This pattern can also be mapped on to the lesser known tales, and it is here that it gains a profounder dimension. In the tale Der Liebste Roland, after the hero, Roland, has killed a witch pursuing him and his love, already establishing him as the more active of the two, he returns home “um die Hochzeit zu bestellen” (291). Whilst he is free to roam through the forest at will, his lover uses the witch’s wand to turn herself into a stone and declares: “Ich will derweil hierbleiben und auf dich warten” (292). Rather than returning with him, she curiously immobilises herself, morphing into an object which epitomises inactivity. Both their motives remain unquestioned, and seem to present female passivity and male activity as generic gender behaviour. Furthermore, a snare causes the hero to forget her and he agrees to marry another. Instead of taking any control over her unfortunate circumstances, “das arme Mӓdchen stand lange zeit” (293), existing for an enormous period of time completely inactive. She eventually turns herself into a “schӧne Blume” (293) in the hope of being trampled upon. Here, the Grimms could be using the image of a flower to associate inactivity with beauty, thus presenting it as a desirable attribute. The flower is eventually picked by a passerby and brought to Roland’s wedding. Upon transforming herself back, Roland realises that she is “die rechte Braut” (294) and marries her. Thus, for abandoning herself, showing constant dependence, and devoting her life to inactivity, the heroine is reunited with her partner and rewarded with eternal “Freude” (294). Again, the tales contain a peculiar logic which rewards passive females with a happy ever after.

Paradoxically however, in Hansel und Gretel, it is Gretel who plays both an active and essential role in the children’s deliverance from the wicked witch. Gretel decisively locks the witch in the oven and saves her brother: “Sie machte die eiserne Tür zu und schob den Riegel vor...die Hexe muẞte elendiglich verbrennen” (108). Here, the heroine displays an active resourcefulness rarely seen in the tales, and is even able to function as a destroyer without being chastised. A possible reason for this inversion, however, is the tale’s focus on the heroine’s role as a sister, Solms refers to this as “Geschwistertreue...die Treue der Schwester zu ihrem Bruder”.[23] Thus, the tale is one which tests the loyalty of a sister to her brother, giving Gretel the freedom to play a more active role. Looking at the other tales, it becomes clear that the Grimms sought to tie female passivity in with the marriage dominated plots. Ultimately, then, the Grimms were intent on presenting “genteel idleness”,[24] as principle behaviour for the middle class girl approaching womanhood, and more importantly, marriage.

To what extent then, were the brothers intent on aligning activity with the masculine? Looking at the popular tales where the hero gallantly saves the princess, this is very much the case. In Dornrӧschen, the prince heroically “kam zu dem Turm und ӧffnete die Türe...er bückte sich und gab ihm einen Kuẞ”, thus playing a very active role in winning the princess and saving the kingdom. However, the princes in these tales are one-dimensional, functioning purely as the fulcrum which leads to the happy endings. The tales that centre male protagonists however, present an inversion of the masculine stereotype. Maria Tatar argues that the majority of the Grimms heroes are “decidedly unworldly figures”.[25] This is a sound argument when looking at Die drei Federn. When three young brothers are set a task to win their father’s inheritance, the youngest “setzte sich nieder und war traurig” (343), thus displaying a docility and helplessness usually associated with the female characters. The same can be mapped onto Die Bienenkӧnigen, when the Dummling is asked to discharge the first of three tasks, “setzte er sich auf einen Stein und weinte” (342). It is not rare, then, for the fairy tale heroes to suffer silently and endure hardships in a passive fashion. Most curiously, the protagonists are not ridiculed, but rewarded with the help of woodland creatures, allowing them to outsmart their superiors. However, these could be read autobiographically. As Zipes clarifies, the rages to riches stories have a personal value for the brothers, because after their father’s death, the Grimms experienced a sharp drop in social status.[26] Despite this, they worked hard and later became very successful. Their success story was subsequently projected onto some tales, “making it clear to male adolescents, that even the least talented can rise to the top”[27] as Tatar expands. However, one could argue that it is here that the gender differences surface: whilst boys are taught that they can ascend from passive roles and gain social recognition; their female counterparts are limited to passivity, and conditioned to believe that that role alone is socially acceptable.


[1] Hufton Olwen, The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe. (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1995), 12.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] Zipes Jack, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. (Texas: University of Texas Press, 1979), 24.

[4] Slavin Sarah, The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women. (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 293.

[5] Zipes, Magic Spell, 40

[6] Bottigheimer Ruth. B, Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 160.

[7] Die Brüder Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmӓrchen (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam. 1980), 90.

[8] Die Brüder Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmӓrchen, 1812 edition, in Bottigheimer, Bad Girls, 161.

[9] Slavin, Subordinated sex, 45.

[10] Zipes Jack, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. (New York, 2006), 48.

[11] Zipes Jack, The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, (London, 1993), 17.

[12] Solms Wilhelm, Die Moral von Grimms Mӓrchen, (Darmstadt, 1999), 23.

[13] Slavin, Subordinated, 12.

[14] Bettelheim Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales , (Knopf: New York, 1976), 232.

[15] Solms, Die Morale, 45.

[16] Bottigheimer, Bad Girls, 72.

[17] Huften, Prospect of her, 28.

[18] Slavin, Subordinated sex, 247.

[19] Zipes, Subversion, 60.

[20] Solms, Die Morale, 97.

[21] Bettelheim, Enchantment, 46.

[22] Zipes, Subversion, 41.

[23] Solms, Morale, 68.

[24] Slavin, Subordinate, 303.

[25] Tatar, Hard Facts, 68.

[26] Zipes, Enchanted Forests, 30.

[27] Tatar, Hard Facts, 97.


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Title: To what extent do the Brothers Grimm conform to contemporary eighteenth century notions of gender in their tales?