Cinderella has got to be the most well-known fairytale in the world. It is also incredibly old and has thousands of variations. The version that is generally considered to be the oldest is the story of Rhodopis, which dates back to the 1st century CE (but could have older origins). That being said, there is no way that I can possibly do full justice to the rich and fascinating history of this tale type. But I’ll do my best to give a suitable overview of the Grimm version. For a more complete list of Cinderella variations, you can visit D.L. Ashliman’s coverage.
The non-Western versions of this story–most of which are much older than the European versions–include Ye Xian from China, “The Second Shaykh’s Story” in One Thousand and One Nights, and The Story of Tam and Cam from Vietnam.
The story is almost always the same: a young woman who toils in poverty and/or obscurity somehow gains the attention of a prince/king and is raised out of the ashes to become his wife. Wicked family members are often present (the persecutor is almost always a woman), as well as a ball or party, a helper (natural or supernatural) and an irresistible shoe of some kind (or possibly an anklet or other piece of jewelry). Often the birth mother is dead, the father has remarried a woman with her own daughters, the father dies unexpectedly, and the young woman becomes a servant in her father’s house. It is important that the villains are women because that is a key component of this tale’s subtype. Type 510B is persecution by a male villain.
The earliest published Western version was the story of “Cenerentola” which was published in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone in 1634. The story took place in Naples and the name means ash, or cinder. The plot includes the wicked family element as well as a transformation by a fairy (though not a fairy godmother), a missing shoe and a hunt by a smitten noble. This is one of the few variations that contains a wicked step-father, who wishes to see that his own daughter fares better than his step-daughter.
This was followed by Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre in 1697. It is from Perrault’s version that we get the pumpkin, the glass slippers, and the fairy godmother. It is this version that is most well-known and the one that was given the Disney treatment, thus immortalizing it. This story involves Cinderella eventually forgiving her step-family for their ill treatment. Perrault appears to be moralizing here about the importance of graciousness as well as beauty:
Beauty in a woman is a rare treasure that will always be admired. Graciousness, however, is priceless and of even greater value. This is what Cinderella’s godmother gave to her when she taught her to behave like a queen. Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can do anything.Perrault: Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper”. Pitt.edu. 8 October 2003.
I’d like to have some words with Perrault about being gracious when dealing with family who have abused and mistreated you to further their own ends but we’ll get to that in a bit.
It wasn’t until 1812 that the Grimm brothers published their version, Aschenputtel, or The Little Ash Girl. This version is bonkers in the amount of violence that it involved. Interestingly, in this version, the father doesn’t appear to be dead when the abuse begins. He is mentioned briefly at the beginning of the story but as soon as the step-mother and her daughters move into the house, they consign the Cinderella to the kitchens and no more is heard about him, at least in the first edition’s version. In other, later versions, the father is very present throughout these events and is just as abusive as his wife and step-daughters.
They poured peas and lentils into the ashes of the hearth so she had to sit there the entire day and separate them. In the evening, when she was tired, there was no bed for her, and she had to lie next to the hearth in the ashes. Since she always rummaged in dust and looked dirty, they named her Cinderella.Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 70). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
In this version, there is no fairy godmother. Instead, Cinderella had planted a hazel twig by her mother’s grave–which her mother requested on her death bed–and when she appeals to her mother at the grave, and asks for the things she needs to go to the ball, they appear before her. There are also birds that are devoted to Cinderella and help her with the things she needs, including preparing for the ball.
Now, the prince danced with Cinderella and showed her royal honor. As he danced, he thought to himself, “I’m supposed to choose a bride, and I know she’s the only one for me.” On the other hand, Cinderella had lived for such a long time in ashes and sadness, and now she was in splendor and joy. But when midnight came, before the clock struck twelve, she stood up and bowed good-bye.Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 73). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
At this point, the violence sets in. As the prince is hunting for his love, he comes to the house and encounters the two step-sisters. Each in turn tries on the slipper and each is forced to mutilate herself at their mother’s urging. The first cuts off her heel in order to fit into the shoe but the prince is alerted to the trailing blood by Cinderella’s bird friends. The second cuts off her toes and the prince is once again alerted by the birds.
So the eldest sister went into the chamber and tried on the slipper. Her toe slipped inside, but her heel was too large. So, she took the knife and cut off a part of her heel until she could force her foot into the slipper.Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 76). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
At this point in the Grimm’s first edition, the prince figures out that it’s Cinderella he’s looking for and takes her away to be married and the story ends. However, the Grimm’s decided to up the ante in the 1819 edition by adding a coda about what happened at the actual wedding. Unlike Perrault’s gracious and forgiving cinder-girl, Cinderella decides to get even:
And when her wedding with the prince was appointed to be held the false sisters came, hoping to curry favour, and to take part in the festivities. So as the bridal procession went to the church, the eldest walked on the right side and the younger on the left, and the pigeons picked out an eye of each of them. And as they returned the elder was on the left side and the younger on the right, and the pigeons picked out the other eye of each of them. And so they were condemned to go blind for the rest of their days because of their wickedness and falsehood.Project Gutenberg: “Aschenputtel,” Household Stories of the Brother’s Grimm
With a story like this, that’s been told so many times over so many thousands of years, it’s hard to tease out all of the different threads in order to analyze and interpret. The sheer amount of variations could be the subject of a dissertation all on its own and I’m sure it has been, more than once. In fact, the article “Cinderella Tales and Their Significance” by Kristen Friedman provides a pretty in-depth analysis of the tale type.
I suppose the most basic interpretation would be: if a woman is thrown into poverty but works hard enough and is kind enough and gracious enough and willing to put up with terrible treatment, eventually she’ll achieve the goal of having someone give her a makeover so that she can just get out of the house for one damn night and dance and in the process she can catch the eye of a royal personage who will hunt her down like a prized deer and marry her, whether she wants to or not.
I think that’s why I like the Grimm’s extended version so much. Her stepsisters actually suffer in their attempts to screw her over and they will eventually pay a very nasty price for the way they treated her because Cinderella has taken more than enough shit and she’s not going to let them disrespect her wedding.
On a more serious note, the most likely analysis of the story is quite simple: women have almost always been forced into competition for the best match possible. A bachelor prince, or king, represents the very pinnacle of what a woman could achieve when it came to a husband and financial stability. Men like this would be highly sought after. We can look at the wicked step-mother as a bad person but we also have to consider that, like other fairytale step-mothers, she is simply a woman trying to do the best she can. In this case, she is trying to obtain the best match possible for her daughters and so her step-daughter becomes, by necessity, the competition.
And too, the step-mother was likely in a situation where she had to accept a marriage offer from a man with children because she was left unable to support her own children when their father died. It was a marriage of necessity, not desire. Essentially, these are often stories of women doing what they have to do in order to survive and in so doing, they encourage the cycle to continue. Women must be mercenary with their daughters in order to see that they’re taken care of but this fact of life is conveniently ignored in favor of the titillation of a wicked step-mother.
I’ll wrap this up by saying that, if you haven’t seen Drew Barrymore’s 1998 movie, Ever After, I highly recommend it. It’s a gorgeous and silly and heartbreaking and just a really lovely rendition of this story. There are no supernatural elements but it does have a delightful and unexpected fairy godfather. Please, go watch it now.