Closer Readings Commentary

Chasing Cinderella: A Fairytale

Any consideration of the story we call “Cinderella” for simplicity's sake must acknowledge that “Cinderella” has had a dizzying array of personae over hundreds of years, in many cultures. There is no one authoritative tale of “Cinderella,” only a hall of mirrors with a different face in each reflection. —Marie Rutkoski, Young Adult author

Mass appeal

Into the Woods (2014) a musical fantasy with a unique out-of-the-box twist on the traditional Cinderella story opened last Christmas Day with the most profitable debut of any Broadway-inspired movie musical ever—$31 million. This year’s Cinderella (2015), a British-American romantic fantasy spun into a 19th-century period piece with glamorous 1950s throwback costumes, opened across the world to rave reviews and financial success—$132.5 million. Both were aimed at adult as well as child movie goers and they hit their mark!

The earlier Disney animated Cinderella (1950) is a classic whose impact is still being felt. The first post-war feature film for the studio, it was a huge gamble for Walt—his entire operation hung on its box office returns. She paid off handsomely and paved the way for new productions and construction on Disneyland. Fifty-five years later in 2005 a restored version for DVD sold 3.2 million copies its first week—earning over $64 million. This Cinderella is number nine on the American Film Institute list of the greatest “Animation” films; habitually she ranks in the top ten contenders for favorite Disney princesses.

One wonders how this decidedly old-fashioned good girl with her ashes-to-crown story continues to increase in popularity with every new fabrication, drawing multitudes and reaping millions. Perhaps it's because each of us feels like the poor, downtrodden sibling at times? Perhaps it’s because everyone loves to have a front row seat to a dream coming true? Whatever the reason, clearly there is something about Cinderella that resonates with its audience.

Variations in Cinderella

More than five hundred versions of the Cinderella tale have been found on the continent of Europe alone. Many more related tales featuring the Cinderella archetype have surfaced in cultures all over the globe. Almost every country seems to have its own version, and every storyteller his or her tale.

The first manifestation is believed to be a Chinese story from the ninth century, “Yeh-Shen.” Charles Perrault authored the story of our modern “Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper,” ("Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre") in 1697 Paris. The Brothers Grimm came along in the 19th-century Germany and generated their own version of the story along with other classic folktales in an attempt to preserve a dying oral tradition and transmit cultural values.  

Two EDSITEment lessons Cinderella Folk Tales: Variations in Character and Variations in Plot and Setting tap into multicultural versions of the story to tackle underlying essential questions:

  • What changes does the Cinderella story undergo when it's translated from one culture to another? What remains the same?
  • What literary elements of the Cinderella story are universal?
  • Why do we love the character of Cinderella so much more than her own stepmother does?

In each lesson, students examine dramatic evidence of the Cinderella story as it surfaces in many countries; however, rather than concentrating on cultural differences between the stories, these lessons concentrate on identifying commonalities in the characters, plots and settings. They consider how these elements contribute to the story’s universal appeal across cultures and time. [Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.9: Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.]

In the Variations in Character lesson, students are introduced to several Cinderella figures: Tam from Vietnam; Rashin-Coatie from Scotland; Pepelyouga from Serbia; Katie Woodencloak from Norway, among others. They go on to chart the similarities and differences in these Cinderella figures in “Characters in Cinderella Stories around the World.”

In the Variations in Plot and Setting lesson, student meet other multicultural versions of Cinderella: Aschenputtel from Germany, Fair, Brown and Trembling from Ireland, the Wicked Stepmother from Kashmir, and Cap O' Rushes from England, among others. They go on to the chart “Plot and Setting Elements in the Familiar Cinderella Story” as an aid to finding comparative plot elements.

Finally students compose their own “culturally specific” Cinderella tales. While keeping in mind the essential plot elements, students write a unique 21st-century version of the tale starting with a new setting—one with which they are very familiar from their own experience. (Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.)

Cinderella stories, along with other fairytales, continue to appeal to young and old alike as evidenced by the high ratings of two hit prime time TV shows, “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm,” as well as the commercial successes of the film renditions. Maria Tatar, Harvard’s resident fairy tale expert, chalks this up to their most basic ingredient: magic. “They are stories that I see as massive, potent, and mysterious in many ways … they have a mythical quality to them. They’re not just old wives’ tales that can be easily dismissed. I think they are stories that we listen to and that we internalize, that we keep with us.”

As you work through these different versions with your students ask them to offer their own theories to the secret of her ongoing attraction—what is it about Cinderella that continues to elude, yet captivates endlessly?