Everyone knows the story of Snow White. A wicked stepmother,1upon finding out from her magic mirror that her stepdaughter, Snow White (who is ‘as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in the window frame’), is fairer than herself, orders a huntsman to kill the girl. The man, influenced by Snow White’s beauty, lets her live. Left alone in the forest, Snow White is rescued by seven dwarfs. They welcome her to stay with them, as long as she does what good girls/women do. ‘If you will keep house for us, cook and make the beds, wash and sew and knit, and if you will keep everything tidy and clean, you can stay with us and you shall lack for nothing’, they say.
In other words: be our mom, take care of us. Be our wife. Be our slave. All in one.
However, the stepmother learns that Snow White is still alive and she cannot possibly tolerate the existence of someone fairer than she; her mind is narrow like the tiniest needle. She knows that the useless huntsman has betrayed her and she is not to rely on another man. She decides to go get Snow White herself. She tries several things to kill the girl but most famously she, serpent-like, gives her a poisoned apple, which puts Snow White into a deep sleep. But the seven dwarfs think that the girl is dead and place her in a glass coffin. Although she is in the coffin ‘for a long, long time’, Snow White looks as if she’s just sleeping serenely. Even in her supposed death, her beauty attracts a young love-lorn prince, who eventually wakes her up from her prolonged sleep. .
Can you imagine an ugly Snow White? Do you think she would be better off being plain? Then, her stepmother wouldn’t be jealous of her and want to have her killed. But then the story wouldn’t be propelled forward. Perhaps, in the world of fairytales, beauty is first punished and then rewarded. It is due to Snow White’s fairness that the huntsman is kind to her (‘And because she was so fair, the huntsman took pity on her and said: “Run away then, you poor child.”’), the dwarfs put her in a glass coffin to show her off, and the prince falls in love with her beautiful ‘corpse’.
Does that mean these stories are rather superficial, conventional and anti-ugliness?
Of course, one purpose of fairytales is for readers to escape into a fantasy world, so average girls can imagine themselves a beautiful princess. In fairytales, ugliness is often associated with evilness (note: in Snow White, the evil stepmother is fair but her heart is ugly). What I am wondering is whether in traditional fairytales, there is a case in which the heroine is plain (i.e. like the majority of people) or even ugly? If so, does this fairytale have a happy ending and does the heroine manage to get married in the end?2 I am not looking for a story such as The Ugly Duckling, in which someone who is originally considered ugly actually turns out to be beautiful. Nor am I looking formodern reinterpretationsin which the heroine is intensionally made ugly to provide a feminist critique of traditional fairy stories.3
1Did you know? Until the mid-nineteenth century, ‘mother-in-law’ also meant ‘stepmother’. (Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde, 1994:218)
2According to Warner (1994), stories with wicked stepmothers, such as Cinderella and Snow White, often end with a marriage: ‘the time of ordeal through which the fairytale heroine passes may not represent the liminal interval between childhood and maturity, but another, more socially constituted proving ground or threshold: the beginning of marriage’. (219)
3The version of Snow White discussed in this post is Joyce Crick’s translation of Brothers Grimm’s original in the Guardian‘s “Great Fairytales”series.