Restoration and Remembrance in Cinderella

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The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God, 
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion —
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning, 
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.

Isaiah 61:1-3
 

I’m currently in the middle of a unit in some of my literature classes where we are reading and discussing fairy tales. Reading and talking about fairy tales is quite possibly my very favorite thing to do ever. I might be only a tiny little bit hyperbolic about that. Just a smidge. I could honestly do nothing but teach fairy tales all year, every year, and be perfectly happy.

We kicked off our unit with “Cinderella.” The girls in my classes were thrilled when I announced the title. The boys, on the other hand, groaned. “Just you wait,” I said. “You only think you’ve heard ‘Cinderella.’”

I explained that the version of the fairy tales they think they know from Disney movies and pop culture are not the fairy tales we were about to discover. You think the frog in “The Frog Prince” is transformed with a kiss? Oh, just you wait, Dear Reader. We don’t read Disney, we read the Grimm’s.

From the beginning of “Cinderella,” the Grimm’s version is very different from the animated Disney version. In the Grimm’s, Cinderella’s mother dies, and Cinderella visits her grave every day. Her father remarries, and appears throughout the story. Cinderella’s stepsisters are described as beautiful and fair, like Cinderella, but unlike her, their hearts are as black as the darkest night. What separates Cinderella from her stepsisters is not her outward beauty, for they are all beautiful, but her inward virtue.

When their father goes to the fair, he asks all the girls what he should bring back for them. The stepsisters request clothes and pearls and jewels, but Cinderella requests the first branch that breaks off on his hat during his return. He honors all their requests, and Cinderella plants her branch over her mother’s grave, cries upon it, and it turns into a hazel tree. The birds that light in this tree give Cinderella whatever she asks for. Instead of a fairy godmother, she acquires her ballgowns and slippers from the watchful and loving gaze of her mother.

Cinderella goes to the ball three times. The first, when she runs from the prince, she hides in a pigeon house. The prince then goes to her father, the one person who might actually have a clue, asking who the maiden might be. “Could it be Cinderella?” her father asks himself before calling for an axe and chopping the pigeon house into splinters. But Cinderella has escaped and run back home, changing back into her drab clothes, and is sitting among the ashes.

The second time she goes to the ball, when she runs from the prince, she climbs up into a pear tree. Again, the prince goes to her father, asking who the maiden might be. And again, her father asks himself, “Can it be Cinderella?” before calling for an axe and chopping down the tree. But once again, Cinderella has escaped and run back home, changing back into her drab clothes, and is sitting among the ashes.

The third time, the prince finally wises up, and when Cinderella runs from him, she loses a slipper in the pitch he has spread across the stairs. The shoe, of course, is the key to her identity, and this is where my students started freaking out. For instance:

When the prince arrives at Cinderella’s home to see if the shoe fits, the stepsisters get very excited, for, as the Grimm brothers tell us, they have beautiful feet. The older sister takes the shoe into her room, where she can’t fit into it because her toe is too big. Her mother hands her a knife and tells her to cut it off. By then, my students were screaming. They plugged their ears, and some even covered their eyes. The daughter obeys her mother, slices off her toe, shoves her foot into the shoe, bears up under the pain, and is carried off by the prince.

Of course, she is not the right girl, by evidence of all that blood on the path, so the prince returns. The second sister takes the shoe into her room, but she can’t fit into it because her heel is too big. Her mother hands her the knife (How many knives does the stepmother keep on her person? This is goals.), tells her to cut it off, and the second daughter follows in the footsteps of her sister (sorry, I couldn’t resist), slicing off her heel. Again, my classroom erupted into screams and shouts.

Like before, blood tells the truth, and the prince brings the second sister back. He then asks Cinderella’s father if he has any other daughters. And her father? He says no. He says no, he has no other daughters, only that the pitiful child belonging to his late wife still lives in his house. He doesn’t even acknowledge that Cinderella is his own flesh and blood. I can barely read this part aloud without crying. Every time.

The prince, who will not leave until Cinderella appears before him, is resolute in his task. When Cinderella finally does, her face and hands washed, he gives her the slipper. She sits down right then and there and tries it on in the presence of everyone. It fits. When it does, the prince recognizes her and cries out, “This is the true bride!”

They get married, and birds peck out her sisters’ eyes. The end.

By this point in the class, all my boys’ eyes were wide as saucers. “This story is cool!”

Yes, lads. Welcome to real fairy tales.

The differences between the Grimm’s version and the versions they are familiar with are stark. When I ask them to review how the story starts, they pointed out that her mother died, and her father got remarried.

“What happened after that?” I asked.

E, one of the girls in my third grade class, piped up. “Her father started to not remember her.”

Her statement stopped me in my tracks. “Her father started to not remember her.” That’s the whole point, isn’t it? We have the story of Cinderella, her rescue and her redemption from her fate by her prince, all because her father started to not remember her.

The obvious question at the root of the conflict in Cinderella is, “Will Cinderella escape her servitude and become a princess?” But another, quieter question is: “Will Cinderella’s identity be restored?”

In a sense, it never is. Her father doesn’t remember her. After the first two days of the ball, he is so close! He nearly does, asking himself if this elusive maiden is his daughter as if he has an inkling or an insight into someone he used to know and love, but he violently attempts to destroy her at the same time the prince tries to recover her. Thinking her inside the pigeon house or in the tree, he chops them down. With an axe. Then he disavows her in the presence of the prince.

We are never told her father acknowledges her after the prince recognizes her. He isn’t mentioned again, though we are told that the stepmother and the stepsisters turn white with rage. It’s as if her father simply disappears. So you could answer that question "no." 

The prince’s recognition of her doesn’t restore her identity; it does something even better — it gives her a brand new one. It restores what was taken from her by providing her with an identity that transcends her original position.

Sound familiar? I hope so.

This is the work of the gospel: that our broken identities are not just restored but are transformed. Beauty for ashes. All things are made new.