Missing Moms and the Fairytale Characters Living Without Them
The fairytale genre is one of the most well-known. It’s the first one most of us are introduced to as children, and whether we know it or not, it’s our first exposure to many tropes and archetypes. Fairytales have many conventions in common, such as clear delineations between heroes and villains, the use of magic, and the use of tests the hero must pass to prove worthy of achieving a goal. However, even if a fairytale doesn’t use one of these tropes, chances are it will use another common one: the lack of a mother or mother figure. In almost every classic fairytale, the hero or heroine has no biological mother, often due to her death. While this isn’t heavily discussed in most stories, the lack of a mother has a significant impact on every fairytale hero or heroine, for good or ill.
Say the word “fairytale,” and Cinderella likely comes to mind immediately. The story has been a favorite for generations. It has undergone countless retellings in books, film, and other media, and been critiqued from almost every angle. Most critiques focus on Cinderella’s desire for a prince and whether she is a positive female role model. Yet not much attention is paid to what shaped her desires or influencing ability. Cinderella grows up without a mother, which arguably shapes her more than any event in her life, including her triumph at the ball.
Readers and viewers know Cinderella’s mother died, although how is not specified in many versions. The 2015 live action Disney remake shows the mother succumbing to an illness, perhaps tuberculosis if we go by her constant cough. Other versions state she was ill for a long time without specifying the sickness, but most versions simply show Cinderella growing up with a single father. This arrangement persists for an unknown period until the father, who travels frequently, brings home a stepmother and her two daughters.
The word “stepmother” immediately connotes “villain” for fairytale aficionados. According to the SurLaLune annotated version of Cinderella, the stepmother figure is always “associated with jealousy and cruelty.” According to masculine psychology, she is “a symbol of the unconscious in a destructive role,” and according to Jungian psychology, she is the archetype for a destructive mother or inner tyrant. “Better a serpent than a stepmother,” Euripidies said in 437 BC, and in Cinderella’s case, he was correct. Cinderella’s stepmother instantly takes over the household, using her new husband’s absence to her advantage. She privileges her biological daughters over Cinderella, abusing and demeaning her stepdaughter at every turn. She gets away with it because during the story’s time period, the house was considered a woman’s domain. Cinderella’s father would not have paid much if any attention to what took place there.
In making Cinderella a servant, the stepmother strips her stepdaughter of her rightful place as lady of the house. She does not provide instruction on running a household correctly as a biological mother might have. Cinderella has no opportunity for education or socialization; her stepmother does not teach her the social graces a lady of her time would need to know. Instead, Cinderella’s position in her own household is that of scullery maid. She does “the meanest work of the house”–scrubbing floors, emptying chamber pots, and most famously, cleaning chimneys. With every chore, Cinderella’s stepmother silently sends the message, “You are not a lady. You do not deserve the role you were born into. I am in control, not you.” In the 2015 remake, Lady Tremaine drives this home with the declaration, “A ragged servant girl is what you will always be.” Indeed, Cinderella apparently has no way to escape her new role or change her future.
Cinderella is not hopeless or helpless, though she appears to be. Her lack of an attentive mother figure has stunted her emotional, educational, and social growth. Yet in most versions, she doesn’t seem aware of that stunting. If she is, she doesn’t let it affect her kind, patient attitude, or her dreams for a better future. Without a mother, Cinderella has learned if she wants to be a lady, she’ll have to teach herself. Much of that teaching comes from inner strength. She remembers she is a gentleman’s daughter, even when her father dies, leaving her with no family other than her abusers. That memory informs her every word and action. She may not know how to dance properly, set a fancy table, or converse in multiple languages, but she does know how to be kind. She knows how to treat those less fortunate, tackle hard work with grace, and conduct herself no matter who is in her company. In many versions, Cinderella treats the prince as a person rather than a royal, perhaps because she lacks a noblewoman’s traditional education. For his part, the prince finds this refreshing and attractive.
Most versions don’t give Cinderella’s mother much, if any, time to teach her daughter these crucial lessons. What is there shines through, however. The adversity Cinderella faces from the woman who was supposed to step into her mother’s nurturing role only enhances her abilities.
Like Cinderella, Snow White suffers under the wrath of a wicked stepmother. In the Disney version, the stepmother, also known as the Evil Queen, does make Snow White a scullery maid, but this is not her ultimate plan. The Evil Queen does not simply want to humiliate Snow White; she wants to murder her. The Queen has long been “the fairest in the land,” but Snow White has taken the title. This is partially because Snow White is beautiful; she’s described as pale-skinned with “lips red as the rose” and “hair black as ebony.” Such a striking combination is rare in fairytales, where many princesses are blue-eyed and fair-haired. It’s also rare genetically, making her more of a marvel. Like Cinderella though, Snow White is mostly “the fairest” due to her kindness, gentleness, and patience. The Queen cannot or will not emulate these traits, and seeing them acted out day after day rankles her. In many adaptations, such as Once Upon a Time’s version of Snow White’s story, the princess’ goodwill earns her the love of her kingdom’s people, increasing the Queen’s thirst for blood and vengeance.
If Snow White’s biological mother had lived, would the princess be the focal point of murderous plots? Readers and viewers might say yes, but evidence suggests otherwise. In the original Grimm fairytale, Snow White’s biological mother was the villain. Rather than nurturing her flesh and blood, she chose to murder Snow White because the princess stole her mother’s beauty. This puts Snow White at a distinct disadvantage over Cinderella. She has never had a loving mother of any description. Whether biological or a stepmother, the only female figure she knows and trusts does not even want her alive. As for Snow White’s father, he is barely mentioned; like Cinderella’s father, he dies early in the tale.
Snow White is left with no one to trust, no one to care for her, and no one to nurture her. She must fend for herself from an early age; the Disney version paints her as young as fourteen. She ends up living in a cottage of seven dwarves – all men – who cherish her but expect her to be their housekeeper and caretaker. The dwarves’ intentions are not sexual. In the Disney version, Snow White thinks of them almost as her children. In Once Upon a Time, the dwarves act as overprotective brothers, and cannot have relations with Snow White because their culture demands they remain celibate. That said, it is disturbing for Snow White to seek refuge exclusively with men once she’s on her own. This suggests that while she knows how to do house chores, she has no concept of what it means to embrace womanhood. She’s never been taught that women are fundamentally different from men, or that there are things women know that men are not meant to probe into. Without a mother figure, Snow White arguably doesn’t truly know she’s a woman.
This deficit comes to the forefront when Snow meets her prince. The tale of Snow White, especially its Disney adaptation, has long been criticized because its heroine begins a serious relationship with, and ostensibly marries, a man she just met. They’ve never had a real conversation, and Snow’s first kiss occurs when she is comatose. In other words, though lovingly, the prince takes advantage of her weakened state. Yet Snow White never questions any of this. She doesn’t get to know the prince or ruminate on what life with him would be like. She accepts him because he’s handsome and seems kind. Arguably, she also accepts him because he is male, and she has absorbed the message she needs males to survive. Readers or viewers are meant to understand Snow White will be okay, even happy, with her true love, but in real life, the story doesn’t translate well. Her lack of a mother has taught Snow that she can’t make it on her own – that in fact, without a man, she is in constant danger. Unlike Cinderella, whose motherlessness makes her stronger, Snow White becomes emotionally weaker, constantly floundering in a world too big, complicated, and frightening for her to navigate.
Belle, protagonist of Beauty and the Beast, is a third motherless fairytale heroine. In many versions of her story such as the SurLaLune annotation, Belle (or Beauty, as she’s sometimes known) never mentions having or missing a mother. The mother’s absence goes unexplained in many incarnations of the story, although more modern adaptations have given her a backstory. Whether or not her mother has a backstory though, Belle is always given an attentive father. Belle and her father are always close; if Belle has siblings, she is painted as her father’s favorite.
Belle’s closeness with her father gives her a distinct advantage over Cinderella and Snow White. She is one of the only fairytale heroines, especially in the Disney canon, who has a close relationship with a biological parent. Readers and viewers can infer this connection gives Belle more security, although her story doesn’t delve into that. This security gives Belle room to develop not only kindness and patience, but a definite sense of personhood and self-respect. In her book Captivating, author Stasi Eldridge explores this concept more fully. She argues that all girls want to be “the Beauty” worth rescuing, whether or not they act like “damsels in distress,” so to speak. This desire to be the Beauty often starts with the father. Eldridge explains girls often will twirl, dance, or otherwise perform in front of their fathers. Daughters want their fathers to affirmatively answer their hearts’ question, “Am I pretty, Daddy?” Here, “pretty” means both physically beautiful and inwardly valuable. Belle’s father consistently gives her an affirmative answer, even when others do not. Thus, Belle grows up knowing she can do and be whatever she is meant to, because she is treasured in her father’s eyes. She might well miss her mother, but Belle recognizes Papa doing his best to fill that void. She rewards him with unconditional love, loyalty, and intuitive understanding of what he needs.
Her strong sense of security and understanding of men serve Belle well when she encounters the Beast. At first, the Beast rebuffs Belle’s attempts to be patient and subservient with him. As befits his animalistic personality, he roars, stomps around, intimidates others, and insists on his own way. In many versions of Beauty and the Beast, he also treats Belle as a servant, or at least underappreciated subordinate. Belle eventually reaches her limit and lets the Beast know she won’t tolerate his temper. Yet she doesn’t do so with petty anger. Instead, she stands up for herself as she has learned to do with the help of a wise and caring dad. In short order, Belle also mixes firmness with compassion. She learns to see the good in the Beast because her father, and perhaps her mother, were there to teach her how to look for the good in everyone. Belle is a prime example of a motherless heroine whose other family has stepped up to continue the lessons Mom did not get to finish teaching, and she flourishes because of it.
The Little Mermaid (Ariel)
So far, we have examined two heroines whose motherlessness has shaped them for good, and one whose lack of a mother figure has negatively influenced her. Our last heroine, the Little Mermaid, has a different relationship with motherlessness. The Little Mermaid has gleaned positive and negative traits from her lack of a mother figure.
In the original Hans Christian Andersen story and some other adaptations, the Little Mermaid has something of a mother figure in her dowager grandmother. Grandmother is a source of wisdom for her granddaughter, answering her questions about humans and teaching her the differences between humans and mer-people. Additionally, Grandmother is a source of encouragement. She knows her youngest granddaughter longs to see the human world, as each mermaid gets to do on her fifteenth birthday. Yet because the Little Mermaid is the youngest, she has the longest time to wait. Her grandmother understands the Little Mermaid’s frustration but consistently encourages her to be patient. In the adaptations of her story where her grandmother is present, the Little Mermaid has ample opportunity to cultivate that patience, as well as kindness and prudent curiosity. In addition, the Little Mermaid’s grandmother plays a much bigger role in these adaptations than her father, acting almost as a parent rather than a grandparent. She provides her granddaughter a much-needed female confidante, as well as the courage she needs to act on her desires once she is old enough to see the human world for herself. Grandmother cannot ultimately save the Little Mermaid from her fate; the Little Mermaid still despairs because her prince does not love her, and commits suicide. However, her grandmother’s presence arguably gave her a fuller life and nobler motives than are seen in other adaptations.
More recent adaptations of The Little Mermaid, most notably the Disney version, eliminate the grandmother and any trace of a mother figure. In the Disney version, our little mermaid, called Ariel, has six older sisters, as in the original tale. However, they pay her little to no attention and do not provide sisterly guidance when it comes to the human world or anything else Ariel might need help understanding. The only guidance Ariel gets is from her father, King Triton. Triton is well-intentioned and loves his daughter dearly. Yet he is responsible for an entire kingdom, leaving him little time to help Ariel grow up. More importantly, his negative experiences with humans give him deep-seated prejudices that blind him to Ariel’s need for knowledge and a life outside her sheltered sea palace.
By the time we meet Ariel and Triton in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel is sixteen, headstrong, and independent. Without consistent parental guidance or rules, Ariel has learned to navigate the world largely on her own. She is unfailingly curious, possessing an admirable zest for life, and sees the world as a huge yet fascinating and wonderful place. She is fearless, exploring shipwrecks and facing sharks with enviable confidence. Like Belle, she may miss her absent mother, but is comfortable in who she is even without her. Unlike Belle though, Ariel has not absorbed unconditional love or security from her father. If anything, she has learned her father is an adversary because he keeps her from fulfilling her goals. Thus, her admirable independence, confidence, and fearlessness are not tempered with appropriate caution. They quickly become rebellion and recklessness.
Ariel’s lack of a mother or mother figure has also left her unable to distinguish needs from wants, or communicate those properly. She has subconsciously absorbed the message, “Look out for yourself and take what you want no matter the cost. No one else will do it for you because no one else understands you.” Consequently, Ariel and Triton constantly butt heads. “Do you think I want to see my youngest daughter snared by a fish-eater’s hook?” he laments. Yet Ariel doesn’t see this question as loving or protective; she sees it as more evidence of unreasonable prejudice. Triton only drives the knife in deeper when he rages at Ariel and destroys all her human treasures, including the statue of Eric, the prince she claims to love. Ariel breaks down, and throws herself into the grasp of Ursula the sea witch, arguably because she is desperate for someone, anyone, to understand her point of view.
With a mother figure, Ariel might have been saved from the travail that results. A mother, grandmother, or aunt might have shown sympathy and offered to be an intermediary between Ariel and Triton. Moreover, the grown woman in Ariel’s life might have urged her to think through what she was doing. “Yes,” this figure might have told Ariel, “independence and knowledge is important, but not when your means of getting it hurts someone else. Yes, first love feels wonderful and it’s possible Eric could love you, too. However, you both need time to figure out how you feel.” Without such a person in her life, Ariel continues to navigate the world as a rebellious, angry pseudo-orphan. She continually makes poor choices and others, especially Triton, pay the price. Ariel gets what she wants eventually–a chance at love and the ability to make a self-determined decision about the rest of her life. She and Triton make up, and the kingdom seems happy with her choice. However, viewers are left to wonder how much Ariel has truly grown. Does she possess the maturity she wanted her father and others to credit her with, or is she still a selfish and headstrong girl? Opinions vary, but it is not far-fetched to say Ariel will continue to flounder as an adult because she missed out on crucial guidance during her formative years.
The Final Verdict
Many fairytale protagonists, especially females, lack mothers or mother figures. How this lack influences them is often up to the writers of their stories. Some protagonists come out of motherlessness much stronger, while others make choices that indicate they suffered from this lack. However, it cannot be denied motherlessness shapes beloved fairytale characters in ways that are sometimes less than obvious. They may be absent, but fairytale characters’ mothers often carry the strongest presence in any story. The lessons with which they leave their children, no matter how briefly those lessons were taught, inform everything those children do, even from beyond the grave.
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Eldridge, John & Stasi Eldridge. Captivating. Nelson Books: April 5, 2005.
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