Joyce Carol Oates's story "The Buck" and Margaret Drabble's novel The Witch of Exmoor might be read as reflections of the Grimms' fairy tale "Brother and Sister," in which a young woman cares for her brother after he is transformed into a deer. Oates and Drabble challenge the common perception of fairy tales as childish, sexist, and escapist.
Joyce Carol Oates, the queen of American Gothic, and English novelist Margaret Drabble would seem to have little in common. One imagines terrible consequences if one of Oates's homicidal girl gangs were admitted to Drabble's serene, middle-class Midlands. One is therefore surprised to discover striking similarities between Oates's story "The Buck," which appears in her collection Heat and Other Stories, and a chapter of Drabble's novel The Witch of Exmoor, entitled "Hindspring." In each work, a deer chased by hunters enters a house and encounters a woman living there, in a meeting charged with significance. Both narratives are reminiscent of a fairy tale collected by German folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm entitled "Brother and Sister," in which a young woman keeps house for her brother after he is magically transformed into a deer. A comparison of these two very different contemporary reflections of the same fairy tale enables us to challenge the common perception that writers and readers of serious fiction (i.e., not genre fiction) in the later twentieth century reject fairy tales because of their sexist prescriptions and because of what Karen Rowe identified in 1979 as "the widening gap between social practice and romantic idealization" (211). Modern readers, raised on the saccharine animated Disney films and witness to the explosion in popularity in fantasy writing over the last fifty years, can be forgiven for thinking of fairy tales as childish, sexist, and escapist. However, Oates and Drabble demonstrate that these narratives might still carry meaning for adult readers willing to explore beyond a surface interpretation.
"Few people look to fairy tales for models of humane, civilized behaviour," concludes Maria Tatar's The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. Rather, she suggests, the stories "offer exaggerated visions of the grimmer realities and fantasies" in our lives (192). For feminist readers, the treatment of women in fairy tales figures as one of their grimmest exaggerations. Some readers have focussed on sexist attitudes informing the Grimms' tales themselves; according to Ruth Bottigheimer's study entitled Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales, the Grimms' tales outline "gender-specific and gender-appropriate behaviour," which includes "radically different moral expectations for girls" (168). Others have focussed on how gender bias has corrupted folklore criticism. For example, Tatar wonders why "everyone seems to agree on the wrong message" (165) in reading fairy tales such as "Bluebeard," in which the woman's comparatively minor transgression has attracted more critical attention than the obvious villainy of the male in the story. In her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, Marina Warner argues that some interpretations of fairy tales have damaged the cause of feminists: thanks to Freudian readings of tales such as "Cinderella," she notes, "the bad mother has become an inevitable, even required, ingredient in fantasy, and hatred of her a legitimate, applauded stratagem of psychic survival" (212). The fact that fairy tales offend many female readers is indicated by the existence of a collection of feminist fairy tales and feminist essays on fairy tales entitled Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. The editor, folklorist Jack Zipes, invited women writers to express "dissatisfaction with the dominant male discourse of traditional fairy tales and with those social values and institutions that have provided the framework for sexist prescriptions" (xi). …