Show White, Bruno Bettelheim, and High School Seniors

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A few years ago, the principal at my school asked that the English Department develop elective courses to provide students with choices suited to their particular interests.

I came up with a course I called “Psychoanalytical Criticism, Modernism, and Paris in the 20’s.”

I spent the summer before its debut culling public-domain texts I could publish in a “reader,” a quite laborious undertaking —  almost overwhelming — but I managed to amass 376 pages of essays, short fiction, and poetry.  In addition,  I required students to purchase Hesse’s Steppenwolf and a copy of Hamlet.

I started with Freud, providing an overview of his theories,

then delved into fairy tales, using Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment as a guide.

I began with “Snow White” because Bettelheim does an excellent job of synthesizing Freud’s stages of psychosexual development with the plot of the tale.

He writes

While, psychologically speaking, the parents create the child, it is the arrival of the child which causes these two people to become parents.  Thus, it is the child who creates parental problems, and with these come his own [. . .] As soon as the position of the child in the family becomes a problem to him and his parents, the process of the child’s struggle to escape the triadic existence has begun. With it, he enters the often desperately lonely course to find himself – a struggle in which others serve mainly as foils who facilitate or impede the process [. . .] In “Snow White it is the years Snow White spends with the dwarfs which stand for her time of troubles, of working through problems, her period of growth.[1]

Typically, fairy tales don’t deal with a child’s pre-oedipal history, and “Snow White” is no exception.

“Snow White” begins

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.” Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. And as soon as the child was born, the queen died. A year later the king took himself another wife.

Bettelheim associates the drop of blood with menstruation, “a pre-condition for conception.”

Although her mother died in childbirth, and Snow White has a stepmother by age one, she doesn’t face problems until she starts to mature, and then her narcissistic stepmother takes notice.  Bettelheim points out that “[n]arcissism is very much a part of a young child’s make-up” and “a child must gradually learn to transcend this dangerous form of self-involvement.”

He adds that “all children are jealous, if not of their parents, then of the privileges the parents enjoy as adults [. . .] Since a narcissistic (step)mother is an unsuitable figure to relate to or identify with, Snow White, if she were a real child, could not help being jealous of her mother and all her advantages and powers [. . .] If a child cannot permit himself to feel his jealousy of a parent (this is very threatening to his security), he projects his feelings onto this parent.”  The child wants to be rid of this parent, which again, according to Bettelheim, is projected onto the parent, i.e., the child perceives the parent wants to get rid of her.

So, essentially, Snow White’s oedipal struggle is not repressed. The queen hires a hunter, a father figure, to murder Snow White in the forest, but “he fails to take a strong and definite stand,” not following the queen’s demand to murder her stepdaughter nor doing his moral duty of rescuing her. Rather, he abandons Snow White, expecting her to be killed by wild animals. “A weak father is as little use to Snow White as he was to Hansel and Gretel [. . .] It is such fathers who create unmanageable difficulties in a child or fail to help him solve them.”

Since Snow White is more beautiful than the queen, she has charged the hunter to bring back Snow White’s lungs and liver, which she cannibalizes, though, of course, she’s actually devouring the lungs and liver of an animal the hunter has slain.

Bettelheim:

The pubertal child is ambivalent in his wish to be much better than his parent of the same sex because the child fears that if this were actually so, the parent, still much more powerful, would take terrible revenge.  It is the child who fears destruction because of his imagined or real superiority, not the parent who wants to destroy.  The parent might suffer pangs of jealousy if he, in his turn, has not succeeded in identifying with his child in a positive way, because only then can he take vicarious pleasure in his child’s accomplishments.  It is essential that the parent identify strongly with his child of the same sex for the child’s identification with him to prove successful.”

Which, obviously, isn’t the case with Snow White. She ends up escaping her original home and stumbling across the dwarf’s dwelling in the forest. To satisfy her hunger, she takes a little bit from each of the dwarf’s plates, which Bettelheim suggests shows that she can control her “oral cravings.” She does the same with the dwarf’s beds, settling eventually in the seventh dwarf’s bed.  When these workaholics come home, the seventh dwarf “slept with his companions, one hour with each, until the night had passed.”  Bettelheim argues that “Work is the essence of [the dwarfs’ lives]; they know nothing of leisure or recreation [. . .]  and the price of living with them is conscientious work.”  He adds, “dwarfs are eminently male, but males who are stunted in their development [. . .] They are certainly not men in any sexual sense – their way of life, their interest material goods to the exclusion of love, suggest a pre-oedipal existence.”

Snow White’s sojourn with the dwarfs symbolizes the latency period, yet it is not a time free from dangers.  Her stepmother reappears in her life and tempts her three times, first with stay laces, suggesting that Snow White is now an adolescent.  Disguised as a peddler, the stepmother laces Snow White so tightly that she faints from a lack of oxygen.  Bettelheim argues that here the queen stands “for a parent who temporarily succeeds in maintaining his dominance by arresting his child’s development.”  Bettelheim posits this incident denotes Snow White’s becoming “overwhelmed by the conflict between her sexual desires and her anxiety about them.”

Indeed, vanity also plays into the queen’s second temptation, the poisoned combs that she places in Snow White’s hair.  The final temptation, of course, is the poisoned apple, which Bettelheim argues is a symbol for love and sex, harkening back to the Eden myth and the Judgement of Paris. The queen divides the apple in half, eating “the white part herself, while Snow White accepts the red, ‘poisonous half.’”  Bettelheim goes on to add, “Repeatedly we have been told of Snow White’s double nature: she is as white as snow and as red as blood – that is her being has both its asexual and its erotic aspect.

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“Eating the red (erotic) part of the apple is the end of Snow White’s innocence. The dwarfs, the companions of her latency existence, can no longer bring her back to life; Snow White has made her choice, which is as necessary as it is fateful. The redness of the apple evokes sexual associations like the three drops of blood which led to Snow White’s birth, and also menstruation, the event which marks the beginning of sexual maturity.”

He ends the essay by stating that the tale “teaches that just because one has reached physical maturity, one is by no means intellectually or emotionally ready for adulthood, as represented by marriage.”

“Like Snow White,” he writes, “each child in his development must repeat the history of man, real or imagined.  We are all expelled eventually from the original paradise of infancy, where all our wishes seemed to be fulfilled without any effort on our part. Learning about good and evil – gaining knowledge – seems to split our personality in two: the red chaos of unbridled emotions, the id; and the white purity of conscience, the superego.  As we grow up, we vacillate between being overcome by the turmoil of the first and the rigidity of the second (the tight lacing, and the immobility enforced by the coffin). Adulthood can be reached only when these inner contradictions are resolved and a new awakening of the mature ego is achieved, in which red and white coexist harmoniously.”

***

Depending on the student, these high school seniors either dismissed Bettelheim’s analysis or had their minds’ blown.  I emphasized that Freud was not what I would call a scientist, that his theories are not empirically based, but that they do offer sometimes extraordinary insight into the realm of the unconscious.  I stressed that it’s not necessary to buy into a paradigm to be able to employ it in interpretation, that whether you believe in Freud’s theories or not, being able to synthesize them into a coherent argument is good exercise.  Indeed, for their exam, I provided them the text of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and had them provide a Freudian interpretation.


[1] Bettelheim is no fan of Disney’s version.  “[A] bowdlerization,” he writes, “which unfortunately emphasizes the dwarfs, who failing to develop into mature humanity, are permanently arrested on a pre-oedipal level (dwarfs have no parents, nor so they marry or have children.”)

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