The Natural Home: Societal Virtues of the German Household in Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The German duo Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected and stylized some of the most famous fairy tales known today about two centuries ago. Initially published in 1812 (and continuing with seven other editions), their Children’s and Household Tales includes fairy tales such as “Snow White,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” among many others. While scholars critique the female characters’ ineptitude or the sanitization of the brothers’ stories with each edition, it should also be noted that the German social climate and the brothers’ background and political views highly influenced these tales. Some criticism is warranted, but the stories must contain some value since they generated a timeless influence in the Western world. This analysis will focus on how the Grimms used their fairy tales to symbolically paint a picture of 19th-century Germany, outlining social mores that convey both admiration and critique for their society.
The Grimms’ background was paramount in reshaping their collected folk tales. After the death of their father in 1796, they experienced a fall of social status which deeply affected them and their mother, making it difficult to obtain higher schooling. As a result, many of their fairy tales involve the common people: peasants, tailors, millers, and others who struggled financially and socially. The theme of family also appears vital to the Grimms, especially the ties that connect the family members. In “Red Riding Hood,” a tale reconceptualized from the French Charles Perrault, the Grimms included the loving mother who prepares food for the sick grandmother. In “Snow White,” the evil female is but a stepmother, an unfit surrogate of the sacred mother the Grimms had in their lives. Still, not all familial relationships present in their tales have a basis in love. The brothers knew that some children are less fortunate to have loving parents, so they included something that could represent the female proxy of a true German home: nature.
Forests play a huge part in the Grimms’ fairy tales. As kids themselves, the brothers lived close to nature and deep into the agrarian customs; they were nature children, and their stories that appealed to lower classes had to reflect those same values. Regarding this, Jack Zipes remarks that the characters “inevitably find their way into the forest. It is there that they lose and find themselves … In many ways, [the forest] is the supreme authority on earth and often the great provider” (65).This notion is the core of “Hansel and Gretel,” where the forest presents both a place of unknown danger (since it is there they find the witch’s house) and the space for spiritual and physical growth. In the Grimms’ compiled work where they altered motifs and meanings to suit their viewpoint better, the forest remains unchanged as a kind of topos; it is the only place that equally belongs to everyone in the nation.
With the changes of the 19th century in children’s literature, entertainment gave way to the need to educate, and the Grimms emphasized in their stories what they perceived as universal truths and customary behaviors in Germany. Today’s parents might disagree with earlier editions where revenge is ever-present, but it was considered a German trait at the time; revenge was good as long as it was deserving: Hansel and Gretel cooked the evil witch because she wanted to do the same to them. Crasser than today’s literature, the brothers’ stories still show a clear message of hope, where evildoers are punished, and the good people (mostly the common folk) are repaid tenfold for their struggles. Without a doubt, the Grimms’ stories entertain an uninterrupted discourse about the problems in their society, and show the means to better it for the lower classes.
Today, some scholars critique the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales for their outdated views on society, but the stories remain prevalent, embedded in people’s minds. They accurately portray the German society of the 19th century, showing its best and worst sides in a collection that came second only to the Bible. With these tales, the Grimms succeeded in introducing bourgeois notions and values to the common people to level the field socially, eliminating the division they had experienced in their childhoods. As such, the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales will continue to influence Western society in ways they had not predicted, but which will perpetuate German core values.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. 2001. Project Gutenberg, gutenberg.org/files/2591/2591-h/2591-h.htm.
Zipes, Jack. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World. Palgrave, Macmillan, 2002.