Cinderella’s Historical Character

Update: February 3rd, 2009

By Joshua L. Coady
June 4, 1999

Things change; perspectives change. A person’s view of someone or something may vastly differ from another person’s view of the same subject. Furthermore, the idea the subject represents varies over time. Jeanne Dubino, Lissa Paul, Colette Dowling, Madonna Kolbenschlag, and Kay F. Stone overlook this evolution of an idea, only seeing the results of the process. They overlook Cinderella’s historical character and focus only on her modern disposition. Dubino’s, Paul’s, Dowling’s, Kolbenschlag’s, and Stone’s recent portrayals of Cinderella’s character as passive, waiting patiently for rescue stem from their interpretation of only Charles Perrault’s popularized version and its descendent variants, which they generalize as the whole of “Cinderella,” but take little note of Cinderella’s birthright to independence and ingenuity in the Brothers Grimm’s version, its ancestors, and its descendent.

In the latter part of this century, Cinderella’s character has most often been classified as passive, waiting patiently for her rescue. Dubino claims “Western society requires that women be small, like Cinderella,” that they receive their rescue due to their smallness and inconspicuousness (115). Cinderella’s service at the hearth and her servant’s quarters attracted her little attention, but her small foot fit perfectly into the slipper, thus rescuing her from servitude.

Paul reflects on Cinderella’s disposition more pointedly:

[Cinderella] is considered to be one of those politically incorrect fairytale heroines disdained for being passive, for willingly spending her life on her knees, for losing herself to her bossy stepsisters, and for being dependent on a fairy godmother to take care of her until the man of her dreams accepts the role on a more permanent basis; i.e., marries her. (par. 13)

Paul sees Cinderella as a negative role model for developing females. She elicits them to be passive by humbly suffering through her diurnal drudgery at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters. While carrying out her daily tasks, Cinderella never complains, she never revolts; she submits. Additionally, after she submits to her stepmother and stepsisters, she gives her life, her identity, to the prince, a man.

This is the point Dowling focuses on. She calls it the “psychological need to avoid independence,” and she determines that it is “an important issue, quite probably the most important issue facing women today” (15). She believes that, “[l]ike Cinderella, women today are still waiting for something external to transform their lives” (16). Women grow up reading, hearing, and seeing the story of “Cinderella.” Through such repetition, the story becomes imbedded into their minds, forming a model of how they wish to be: like Cinderella. Dowling claims that this wish is “the chief force holding women down today” (16). Women submit themselves to others while patiently waiting for their prince to rescue (marry) them. Consequently, women become dependent upon men.

Kolbenschlag describes the character of Cinderella in her statement that “the personality of the heroine is one that, above all, accepts abasement as a prelude to and precondition of affiliation” (63). That is, the work Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters require her to do humbles her. Moreover, Cinderella does not resist this servitude although she suffers from it. Kolbenschlag’s description of these qualities as a “willing acceptance of a condition of worthlessness” assumes a commanding role in her assessment of Cinderella as passive (63, 66).

Additionally, this abasement is a prerequisite for Cinderella’s eventual transformation; she is waiting for the prince to rescue her. Kolbenschlag’s statement that “Cinderella has a vestal quality that relieves her of any obligation to struggle and strive to better her world” displays why Cinderella waits passively for her prince: her virtue deserves it (64). This view leads to Kolbenschlag’s description of work as “seldom to be enjoyed for its own sake, but only to be endured for some greater end” (65). Cinderella suffers through her servitude in hope of her eventual rescue.

Clearly, then, Kolbenschlag’s description of Cinderella as “passive waiting to be rescued” follows from her previous comments (66). These are the character traits (or flaws, as the case may be) that Kolbenschlag defines Cinderella with while using them to find analogies between the tale and the modern feminine stereotype.

Stone begins her argument remarking that “[Alison] Lurie, [Max] Luthi, and [Stith] Thompson all emphasize that fairy tales demonstrate the power of women simply because these stories are dominated by women,” but she criticizes them for failing to note that most of these heroines are “pretty and passive rather than powerful” (127). She goes on to claim that women perceive they are supposed to receive a reward for being pretty, passive, and polite: marriage. Moreover, marriage to a prince (136). She conclude that “Cinderella seems to present the clearest image of our idealized perfect woman–beautiful, sweet, patient, submissive, and all excellent housekeeper and wife” (139). This determination stems from the portrayal of Cinderella described previously: a passive Cinderella waiting patiently for her prince. Perrault depicts just such a Cinderella in his version of the tale.

Before this depiction is explored, however, a full understanding of Perrault’s view of women is needed. lack Zipes reports:

[Perrault’s] ideal [civilized female] of upper-class society, the composite female, is beautiful, polite, graceful, industrious, properly groomed, and knows how to control herself at all times. [… she must] show reserve and patience [. . . ] she must be passive until the right man comes along to recognize her virtues and marry her. She lives only through the male and for marriage. (25)

Zipes relates Perrault’s general views specifically to Cinderella by determining that “Cinderella displays all the graces expected from a refined, aristocratic young lady” (27). Perrault’s opinion of the female role in society, along with his target audience, the French upper-class, greatly influenced the characterization of heroines in his transcription of folktales. His heroines are passive, submissive, and dependent on men. Their skills revolve around common household duties.

Karol Kelley continues this account of Perrault, professing that he “wrote to socialize children [… ] to prepare them for the roles he believed they should play in society” (par. 13). It is obvious, then, that Perrault depicted his heroines in such a way as to prepare his young female audience to wait patiently for a favorable suitor, and, in the meantime, to silently carry out the household duties required of them.

Perrault’s stereotypical vision of women is seen in his version of “Cinderella.” To explore this vision it is useful to contrast it simultaneously with another version. Bruno Bettelheim displays why:

Perrault’s story and those directly based on it [i.e., Wait Disney’s version] depict the character of the heroine quite differently from all other versions. Perrault’s Cinderella is sugar-sweet and insipidly good, and she completely lacks initiative. Most other Cinderellas are much more of a person. (251)

One such Cinderella is portrayed in the Brothers Grimm’s version. This version is good contrast to Perrault’s version since it, like Perrault’s version, is widely recognizable; yet, a comparison between the two versions is interesting because Perrault’s and Grimm’s motives were quite different. Maria Tatar points this out: “Perrault strained to please an aristocratic audience; the Grimms sought to capture the authentic voice of the common people” (189). Because of these differing audiences, Cinderella’s character is portrayed distinctly between the two versions and their variants.

Bettelheim describes some of these differences, beginning with Cinderella choosing to sit among the cinders in Perrault’s version while she is forced there in Grimm’s version. Cinderella is self-effacing and passive when she affords herself these quarters while not asking for anything better. Perrault continues to develop her passive character when her fairy godmother tells her she wishes to go to the ball. In Grimm’s version, however, she asks her stepmother if she can go, and perseveres through several denials. Cinderella leaves the ball of her own accord in Grimm’s version, but as an aristocratic young lady in Perrault’s version, she is prohibited from staying out too late. Finally, the prince accepts Cinderella in her lowly position when she tries on the slipper in Grimm’s version, but Perrault does not allow the prince to see her dressed in rags, a gentleman of the court is sent instead (251-52).

Panttaja describes the differences on a universal level. Cinderella, “[f]orced to do all the hard work and abused by all those around her [. . . ] is neither angry, bitter, depressed, nor revolutionary.” Instead of these typical reactions, she simply submits herself while waiting patiently for salvation (Panttaja 101).

Cinderella, not only in Grimm’s version, but also in almost every version except Perrault’s and its variants, takes an active role in her transformation. She plants a branch on her mother’s grave, fertilizes it with her tears, and cultivates it with her prayers. The branch eventually grows into a tree, made possible through Cinderella’s active, hard work; the magic that blesses her comes from this tree. Marie-Louise von Franz states that, symbolically, the mother’s death is

a realization that the daughter can no longer be identical with her, though the essential positive relationship remains. Therefore the mother’s death is the beginning of the process of individuation; the daughter feels that she wants to be a positive feminine being, but in her own form, which entails going through all the difficulties of trading that. (209)

Cinderella’s mother is manifested within the symbol of the tree, and Cinderella’s cultivation of the branch is her ongoing, positive relationship with her dead mother.

Therefore, Cinderella’s transformation is a direct result of her active efforts in determining her future. Clearly, then, “it is through her own efforts, and because of the person she is, that Cinderella is able to transcend magnificently her degraded state, despite what appear as insurmountable obstacles” (Bettelheim 243). Cinderella is active, not passive as Perrault depicts her.

Jane Yolen describes Perrault’s and its descendant’s Cinderella as “a coy, helpless dreamer, a ‘nice’ girl who awaits her rescue with patience arid a song” (297). Yolen furthers this description, adding that Cinderella is “a weepy, prostrate young blonde [. . .] who must be aroused from her sad revery’ by a godmother” (299). She presents the same passive, dependent Cinderella waiting for her rescue that Dubino, Paul, Dowling, Kolbenschlag, and Stone presents, but does not generalize this character as Cinderella. Yolen labels her “the American Cinderella” (297). In fact, Yolen looks to the long history of the popular tale before she draws her conclusions about Cinderella’s character.

Consequently, Yolen’s depiction of Cinderella is completely different from those other portrayals. Yolen cites “Cap o’Rushes” in which Cinderella is independent and hard working. When the fairy godmother could not find a suitable coachman in Charles Perrault’s version, Cinderella fetches a rat; she is helpful and inventive. Moreover, Yolen describes Cinderella as tough and resilient in Grimm’s version along with a French “Cap o’Rushes” variant, “The Dirty Shepherdess” (299). In American versions, however, Cinderella retains “none of this strength of purpose,” states Yolen, who goes on to claim that Cinderella is, instead, “manipulated by the godmother until the moment she stands before he prince where she speaks ‘meekly’ and ‘with downcast eyes and extended hand'” (299).

Fairy tales are moral fables that transform lives with supernatural events. Modern versions of “Cinderella” grant her wishes without requiring her to take all active role in determining her future;

[b]ut in the fairy tales wishes have a habit of happening – wishes accompanied by the proper action [her emphasis], bad wishes as well as good. That is the beauty of the old stories and their wisdom as well. Take away the proper course of action, take away Cinderella’s ability to think for herself and act for herself, and you are left with a tale of wishes-come-true-regardless. But that is not the way of the fairy tale. (Yolen 303)

Modern “Cinderellas” do not require concomitant action from Cinderella. Consequently their Cinderellas insipid and passive, doing nothing for themselves.

These are the Cinderellas that Dubino, Paul, Dowling, Kolbenschlag, and Stone analyze as being negative mole models. Their error is now obvious: they critique the whole of Cinderella as if she is only the character portrayed in Perrault’s version and its variants. In using modern characterizations of Cinderella as the foundation for their argument that “Cinderella” teaches incorrect values, they overlook Cinderella’s independent characterization. Accordingly, Yolen’s view seems more accurate:

“Cinderella” speaks to all of us in whatever skin we inhabit: the child mistreated, a princess or highborn lady in disguise bearing her trials with patience and fortitude. She makes intelligent decisions for she knows that wishing solves nothing without concomitant action. We have each of us been that child. It is the longing of any youngster sent supperless to bed or given less than a full share at Christmas. It is the adolescent dream. (299-99)

Cinderella teaches that wishes and desires are justifiable, but they are only obtainable if you are willing to pursue them.

Sorting through “Cinderella,” with all the attached symbolisms and covert meanings, is difficult, but certainly useful: the story retains good moral values. When you are looking for these morals, however, do not make the mistake that Dubino, Paul, Dowling, Kolbenschlag, and Stone did. Look at the long history of “Cinderellas,” and determine her meaning for you from all of them, not just the modern ones.

Determining “Cinderella’s” exact meaning and finding a basic story which all others are based upon is virtually impossible. The story’s written history has its origins in Asia, most likely China around 700 A.D. while its oral version is much older. The story quite possibly originated in several regions far removed from each other and at varying times throughout history. The story of Cinderella is a universal trend in many cultures, and, thus, could have been created by several cultures. Barbara Herrnstein Smith states that the “basic story of Cinderella [. . . ] is clearly unknowable – and, indeed, literally unimaginable – by any mortal being” (216). To describe the original “Cinderella” story and to determine its exact meaning is thereby a task only God can complete. We find ourselves staring at R. D. Jameson’s statement” “[t]he meanings of Cinderella are as elusive as her origins” (93).

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Dowling, Colette. The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence. New York: Summit, 1981.

Dubino, Jeanne. “The Cinderella Complex: Romance Fiction, Patriarchy and Capitalism,” Journal of Popular Culture 27 (1993): 103-18. Proquest Direct. 19 May 1999 <>.

Dutides, Alan, ed. Cinderella: A Casebook. 1992. New York: Wildman, 1983.

Fratiz, Marie-Louise von. “The Beautiful Wassilissa.” Dundes 200-18.

Jameson, R. D. “Cinderella in China.” Dundes 71-97.

Kelley, Karol. “A Modern Cinderella.” Journal of American Culture 17 (1994): n.p. Proquest Direct. 19 May 1999 <>.

Kolbenschlag, Madonna. Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye: Breaking the Spell of Feminine Myths and Models. 1979. Toronto: Bantam, 1981.

Panttaja, Elisabeth. “Going Up in the World: Class in ‘Cinderella.'” Western Folklore 52 (1993): 85-104.

Paul, Lissa. “The Politics of Dirt: Or Mucking About with Piggybook, Harry the Dirty Dog, and ‘Cinderella.'” The Horn Book Magazine Sep.-Oct. 1997: 534-42. Proquest Direct. 19 May 1999 <>.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories.” Critical Inquiry 7 (1980-81): 213-36.

Stone, Kay F. “The Misuses of Enchantment: Controversies on the Significance of Fairy Tales.” Women’s Folklore, Women’s Culture. Publications of the American Folklore Society New Ser. 8. Ed. Rosan A. Jordan and Susan J. Kalcik. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985. 125-45.

Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.

Yolen, Jane. “America’s Cinderella.” Dundes 294-306.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Wildman, 1983.

Originally published as a student model paper on the Writing and Reading Accross the Curriculum‘s companion website which has since been taken offline, although an archive of the paper is still available via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

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