Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

"You Must Kill Her": The Fact and Fantasy of Filicide in "Snow White"

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

"You Must Kill Her": The Fact and Fantasy of Filicide in "Snow White"

Article excerpt

No quarrels ... are so bitter as family quarrels.

-William Alcott, The Young Husband (1846)

Psychologists Geoffrey R. McKee and Steven J. Shea have asserted, "Few crimes generate greater public reaction than the intentional murder of children" (678). Given prevailing views about the innocence and defenselessness of young people, the slaying of a boy or girl is seen as particularly heinous. Although individuals can imagine an array of reasons that an adult might kill another adult, they cannot fathom what could possibly prompt an adult to murder a child. As Marianne Szegedy-Maszak has written on the subject, "Both the crime and the motivations defy easy comprehension" (28). As a result, the killing of an infant, toddler, or adolescent is regarded as shocking as it is senseless.

Given the condemnation associated with child murder, it is surprising how commonly this act is featured in fairy tales. Many of the homicides depicted in some of the most beloved stories are acts of filicide, neonaticide, or infanticide. The Wolf's consumption of Little Red Riding Hood, the witch's similar attempt to bake and eat young Hansel and Gretel, the ogre's slaughter of his seven daughters in "Little Tom Thumb," and the stepmother's brutal decapitation of her stepson in "The Juniper Tree" are just a few representative examples.

Of all the fairy tales that depict the murder of a child, arguably the most well-known is "Snow White." As Linda Dégh has observed, "The common knowledge of the [narrative] is so profound, so deeply ingrained, that, even without the story being told in full, a reference or casual hint is enough" for readers to recognize the plot (102). Although the story of "Snow White" exists in numerous forms, the telling by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm has risen to prominence. As Maria Tatar has written, "Today, adults and children the world over read the Grimms' tales in nearly every shape and form: illustrated and annotated, bowdlerized and abridged, faithful to the original or fractured" (Hard Facts xv).

The Grimm Brothers' version of "Snow White" is not only the most popular but also the most homicidal. The jealous stepmother in the tale kills the beautiful title character not once but three times: first, by suffocating her with staylaces; next, by brushing her hair with an enchanted lethal comb; and, finally, by feeding her a poisoned apple. Moreover, these murders occur only after an initial unsuccessful attempt on Snow White's life. In a passage that is as famous as it is gruesome, the evil Queen instructs the Huntsman to take Snow White deep into the woods and "kill her and bring me her lungs and liver as proof of your deed" (Grimm 84). Demonstrating the centrality of murder to the story, even in Walt Disney's highly sanitized animated film version of the Grimms' "Snow White," the title character is murdered: after the Huntsman is unable to kill the little girl, the evil stepmother draws on her magical powers to transform herself into a crone, concoct a poisoned apple, and murder the young girl herself (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

In this essay 1 seek to account for the ongoing fascination, timeless appeal, and mass popularity of "Snow White" in general and the version by the Grimm Brothers in particular. 1 argue that the story endures not in spite of its depiction of a heinous queen who engages in the horrific act of child murder, but because of it. As Bruno Bettelheim famously argues in The Uses of Enchantment (1975), the story of "Snow White" is the product of the repressed feelings, hidden desires, and forbidden feelings of its juvenile readers. In Bettelheim's reading the tale is not about a stepmother who is jealous of her daughter but about a daughter who is jealous of her mother. In what has become an oft-quoted passage, Bettelheim asserts:

Snow White, if she were a real child, could not help being intensely jealous of her mother and all her advantages and power. …

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