The Cinderella story is so ubiquitous, has so many versions, and is so embedded in our popular culture that I initially found it hard to discuss as a “tale” with a Jungian perspective. But I wanted to try, because this is the story that for some time was played out, over and over again, by my granddaughter “M” as she turned from four to five. I was fascinated by the elements that caught her—and struck by the elements that she didn’t seem to care about at all.
Here is the “M” version of Cinderella—after several storybook variations and of course the Disney movie:
Cinderella lived with her mean stepmother and mean stepsisters. They made her do all the work in the house! The stepmother made her serve breakfast in bed, and do all the wash, and clean everything, and she was never nice to Cinderella! But Cinderella never got mad. She was good and kind. And she loved all the animals in the house (stepmother’s cat possibly excepted).
She wanted to go to the ball, but the mean stepmother would not let her. But the fairy godmother came and turned the pumpkin into a coach and gave her a beautiful dress and she went to the ball.
At the ball she was nice to the stepsisters and gave them oranges and lemons. No one knew who she was, but they knew that she was the most beautiful. She danced with the prince and then ran away when the clock struck. She left her slipper!
They tried the slipper on everyone but only when they got to Cinderella did it fit! She got the beautiful dress and was happy.
We acted this story out over and over. The focus was on the stepmother—played by Grandma—who would lie on the bed, shouting orders and sneering. Cinderella (M) would rush to do all the jobs and also take care of the little animals who loved her. The stepmother and stepsisters would deny her the ball and she would cry, brokenhearted. Then came the fairy godmother, a roundup of the raw elements of the coach and horses, and off to the ball.
M loved to go back again and again to act out the service to the shadow stepmother with unwearying frequency. As she worked on the hard, dull tasks set for her, she also surrounded herself with the little animals, some of them considered vermin, connecting her to the basics of life. In my various supporting roles, I tried to follow her cues. The stepmother perpetually had breakfast in bed while pointing out more menial jobs to do. The godmother sent Cinderella herself scrambling for the materials to be transformed--the pumpkin, the mice, the rats, and the lizards—before the magic could happen. The stepsisters at the ball had to enact amazement and be thrilled when the strange guest presented them with oranges and lemons.
The prince barely intrudes into M’s version of the story. Instead, Cinderella has her transformation and her moment of approach and generosity to the stepsisters at the ball before the clock strikes. And again, the prince does not cut much of a figure at the end; Cinderella simply comes into her own and proves her worth, in M’s version. Revenge against her persecutors isn’t much of a theme; instead, Cinderella shines for a moment, then it’s back to the beginning of the story to see what else can come out of it.
Cinderella has her work cut out for her in M’s version of the story. The toil in the dark, the scramble for the raw materials of change, and the effort to approach the hostile sisters form the story. The happy denouement has its moment, then the child wants to delve back again into the hard work of facing the stepmother, transforming, approaching the shadow stepsisters, and finding, again, the lost shoe.
In my own meditations I am struck again and again by the problem of responding to the power impulse. The urge to power and revenge is so potent. I feel that M is working through a way to encounter the raw urge to power, and to work through the desire we all have to exact revenge when we are bludgeoned by others (within or without) grabbing for dominance. This may be systemic in the outside or the inner world. With the help of the little animals, and her own resilience, Cinderella is able to transform the scenario into her own story of love and triumph. But the work continues, over and over again. That should not be forgotten. The story is really never over, something that little M seemed to grasp, and even to relish.
M has moved on to other stories now. I am still contemplating the way she illuminated this common fairy tale.