Many parents read fairy tales to their children. Young people are able to use their imaginations while listening to these fantastical stories. Filled with dragons, witches, damsels in distress, and heroes, these tales stay in the mind children for years to come. However, these young listeners are getting much more than a happy ending. Fairy tales such as The Goose Girl, The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, and Snow White one can find theories of psychology. Erik Eriksons theories of social development as well as Sigmund Freuds theory of the map of the mind and his controversial Oedipal complex can be found in many fairy tales. Within every fairy tale there lies a hidden lesson in psychology.
In 1963, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson developed one of the most comprehensive theories of social development. The theory centers around eight stages of psychological development. One of the stages, autonomy versus shame and doubt, occurs between the ages of one and a half and three years old. In this stage toddlers develop independence if freedom and exploration are encouraged. Autonomy itself means having control over oneself. At any given moment, our behavior, including this sense autonomy, is influenced by the outer environment and our inner psychological state (Restak 268). If they are overly restricted and protected they develop shame. Shame is the estrangement of being exposed and conscious of being looked at disapprovingly, of wishing to bury ones face or sink into the ground. (Blake 115). The key to developing autonomy over shame and doubt lies in the amount of control. If parents control their children too much the children will not be able to develop their own sense of control in the environment around them. However, if the parents provide too little control the children will become overly demanding.
Gaining autonomy from ones parents is the topic of a once famous Brothers Grimm story, The Goose Girl. The story is of a beautiful princess who is to be married to a prince chosen by her mother. The girl along with her maid was sent to the castle of the prince. On the way the princess gave her maid a golden cup and asked for a drink. The maid took the cup and told the princess she would no longer be her servant. Again this happened and this time the maid realized her power over the princes and forced her to switch horses and dresses and to tell no one. Upon arrival at the castle the maid was married while the true princess was forced to tend to the geese in a pasture. In the pasture while tending geese with a boy she let her pure gold hair down. The boy wished to grab it. However, the princess summoned the winds and would not allow the boy to touch her hair. The boy calls the king to witness this daily event. This reveals the truth and the maid is killed. The true princess marries her prince and they rule their kingdom in peace.
This tale shows the consequences of a childish dependence clung to for a long time. The princess trusts her mother who then sends her off to get married. Because she was protected as a child she did not develop autonomy. She was very dependent on her parents. Her dependence is then shifted to her maid who robs her of her title. The princess fears the maid and goes along with her lies. When the princess is in the pasture herding geese her partner wishes to touch her hair. She stands up for herself and will not allow this. The boy degrading her is the turning point in her life. The happy solution came about by the girl asserting herself and her dignity in not allowing the boy to touch her hair. The Goose girl learned that it is much harder to be truly oneself, but that this alone will gain her true autonomy and change her fate.
One of Sigmund Freuds theories centers on the map of the mind. He divided the mind into three parts. The three parts are the id, the ego, and the super ego. The id is known as the pleasure principal. He believed Our entire physical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain. (Restak 110). The id only wants to seek pleasure. It is mainly concerned with discharging built up energy. The second part is the super ego. The super ego keeps control over the id by causing guilt for being bad and pride for doing good. The third part is the ego. The ego is also known as the reality principal. It regulates the interactions of the person with their environment. The ego allows us to express the desires of the id in a socially acceptable way and within the boundaries of the super ego. Freud believed these three things were in all minds and were in constant interaction.
The fairy tale of the Three Little Pigs centers around three pigs who are told they must live on their own. The first two pigs make week homes and then celebrate until the wolf blows their house down. They travel to the oldest pigs home, which is made of sturdy bricks. There they live in peace. This tale deals directly with the ongoing battle between the id and the super ego. The pigs must choose between the pleasure principal and the reality principal. The two pigs that built weak homes chose to side with the pleasure principal and seek gratification. They were not thinking of the dangers of reality. The oldest pig learned to behave in agreement with the reality principal or the super ego. Instead of acting out of desire he acts on his ability to predict what may occur in the future. Thus, Freuds theory of the map of the mind deals directly with the three little pigs.
The myth of Oedipus begins with a pregnant queen of Thebes. The local prophet told the anxious king that his son to be born would kill his father and marry his mother. When the child was born he was given to a royal servant. The servant was to abandon the child. However, the child was found by a shepherd and was later adopted. One day the child now known as Oedipus traveled to the prophet. The prophet told him he would murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified at the prediction he refused to return home to his adoptive parents. He wandered around and was struck by a chariot containing his birth father. Oedipus killed his unknown birth father and the driver. Unconcerned with what he had done he came to Thebes where he found a sphinx guarding the city. The sphinx would not let anyone into the city unless they answered a riddle. After answering the riddle correctly the sphinx killed herself. The citizens were so happy they offered their queen to Oedipus. He then married the queen who was his unknown birth mother. After having four children the city was plagued with famine. The gods claimed to plague the city because a son killed a father and continued to live among them unpunished. The truth was revealed and the queen hung herself. Oedipus was blinded and left the city into exile.
This same plot can be related to a well known fairy tale. The tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can be directly related to the myth of Oedipus. Her stepmother raises Young Snow White after her fathers death. The evil queen was very vain and asked her magical mirror every day who was the fairest of them all. Once the mirror replied Snow White the queen ordered her to be killed. This can be compared to the life of Oedipus. His father believed his unborn son (Oedipus) was going to kill him and become king. His jealously forced him to have a royal servant kill the young baby. The stories become more similar as they advance. The royal servant in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is sent to kill Snow White but he could not kill such a beautiful creature. Therefore he abandoned her in the woods. Luckily she found a home and lived with the dwarves. Despite her stepmothers jealousy, Snow White not only survives but finds great happiness. (Bettelheim 199). The servant sent to kill Oedipus could not commit the terrible dead and opted to leave him at a home in the forest. In spite of the kings attempts Oedipus gains the crown. Both tales are of unwanted children who prevail in the end.
Sigmund Freuds theory of sexual development contains five stages. This theory has faced opposition from many critics. Freud went down deeper, stayed down longer, and came up dirtier than anyone else. (Miller 242). The third stage or the Phallic stage occurs from the age of two until the age of five or six. During this stage children suffer from what is known as the Oedipus complex. The Oedipal conflict for a girl centers on her father. She wants to be with her father and give him children. She views her mother as an overpowering or evil force that prevents her from being with her father. In the Oedipal conflict, a young boy resents his father for standing in his way of the mothers full attention. The boy wants the mother to see him as the hero. He wished to get the father out of the way. However, he needs his father to protect him. He also fears the father will castrate him. This fear forces the child to repress his desire and his hostility. When the repression is complete the complex disappears.
The theory of the Oedipus complex can be seen in many fairy tales. Tales such as Cinderella and Rapunzel contain oedipal overtones. Cinderella is the tale of a young girl held captive by her dictatorial stepmother. Her stepmother tries to prevent her from attending the royal ball and meeting Prince Charming. The prince can be compared to Cinderellas father. The queen is standing in the way of Cinderellas desires for the prince. Here the theme of the overbearing female figure of the Oedipus complex is transferred into the stepmother refusing Cinderella of the prince. A similar female Oedipus complex is present in Rapunzel. An evil witch traps the young girl in a tower. A prince walking by the tower begins a relationship with Rapunzel. The witch stands in the way of the young girl to be with the prince. This story also contains a male oedipal conflict. The prince wants to be the hero and save Rapunzel. Just as the oedipal boy wants to be the hero to his mother. These two fairy tales are just few examples of this dominating theme.
We should never accept the fact that we have grasped the entire and ultimate meaning of these narrations.(Heuscher 395). To read a fairy tale and relate it to any psychological theory is not an easy task. Many people have different opinions on the topic. Some people feel fairy tales should be left alone and not picked a part. Others feel everything must have a hidden meaning. Heinrich Zimmer once said, We can never exhaust the depths of myths and fairy tales- of that we may be certain; but then neither can anyone else. (Heuscher vii). Fairy tales can mean many different things to many different people. Children may like fairy tales because good triumphs over evil. Adults may favor them because they trigger childhood memories. And a psychologist may prefer fairy tales because every tale presents a theory. In the end everything boils down to the fact that, fairy tales were written to be enjoyed.
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Miller, Geroge. Psychology: The Science of Mental Life. New York: Bann, 1962.
Restak, Richard. The Mind. New York: Holt Company, 1988.
Velikovsky, Immanuel. Oedipus and Akhnation. Garden City: Buccaneer, 1960.