Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Who's Wicked Now? the Stepmother as Fairy-Tale Heroine

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Who's Wicked Now? the Stepmother as Fairy-Tale Heroine

Article excerpt

The wicked stepmother is a staple of the popular fairy-tale tradition and arguably its most famous villain. While she wasn't always wicked or always a stepmother in folklore tradition, the wicked stepmother can be found in a variety of well-known Western fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm feature some of the best-known stepmothers, such as those in "Cinderella" (ATU 510A), "Snow White" (ATU 709), and "Hansel and Gretel" (ATU 327A) as well as lesserknown stepmothers, such as those in "The Six Swans" (ATU 450) and "The Juniper Tree" (ATU 720), all of whom are wicked. Walt Disney took the Grimms' wicked stepmother and gave her an unforgettable face in his 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White's stepmother stands out for her terrifying image as the wicked queen. Since then, the wicked stepmother has become a stock figure, a fairy-tale type that invokes a vivid image at the mention of her role - so much so that stepmothers in general have had to fight against their fairy-tale reflections. A quick Internet search for the term "wicked stepmother" will produce hundreds of websites dedicated to the plight of stepmothers fighting against the "wicked" moniker they have inherited from fairy tales.

Robert Coover's 2004 novel, Stepmother, takes on the wicked stepmother figure of fairy-tale tradition and offers a more complex depiction of the character. The plot of Coover's novel is quite simple; the novel, however, is far from simple. Stepmother, the title character and the novel's protagonist, is trying to save her daughter's life. Her unnamed daughter has been found guilty of an unnamed crime against the court of Reaper's Woods and is to be executed. Stepmother breaks her daughter out of prison, and the two of them flee to the woods. Stepmother hides her daughter and, once the daughter is recaptured, tries various schemes to prevent, or at least to delay, the planned execution. She tries appealing to the Reaper, her arch enemy and the authority in the woods, with magic, sex, and reason, but she fails. Her daughter is executed, and Stepmother seeks vengeance. The execution of her daughter and Stepmother's subsequent revenge is not a new plot to Stepmother, as she repeats it over and again with each of her daughters, the many heroines of fairy-tale tradition:

How many I've seen go this way, daughters, stepdaughters, whatever - some just turn up at my door, I'm never quite sure whose they are or where they come from - but I know where they go: to be drowned, hung, stoned, beheaded, burned at the stake, impaled, torn apart, shot, put to the sword, boiled in oil, dragged down the street in barrels studded on the inside with nails or nailed into barrels with holes drilled in them and rolled into the river. Their going always sickens me and the deep self-righteous laughter of their executioners causes the bile to rise, and for a time thereafter I unleash a storm of hell, or at least what's in my meager power to raise, and so do my beautiful wild daughters, it's a kind of violent mourning, and so they come down on us again and more daughters are caught up in what the Reaper calls the noble toils of justice and thus we keep the cycle going, rolling along through this timeless time like those tumbling nail-studded barrels. (1-2)

Stepmother explains that there is nothing new in what we are about to read; she has experienced it all before and will experience it all again. But she still has to try to save her daughter, and as readers we are left with the impression that she will keep trying with each new daughter's appearance.

The impetus of the novel is summed up in its second sentence, narrated by Stepmother: "my poor desperate daughter, her head is locked on one thing and one thing only: how to escape her inescapable fate" (1). Throughout the novel, Stepmother and other characters struggle against their predetermined fairy-tale functions. Despite recognizing the "inescapability" of their fates, they still try to change the cycle of events they know will unfold by manipulating fairy-tale patterns to their advantage. …

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