John Milton once wrote, “Innocence once lost can never be regained. Darkness once gazed upon can never be lost.” This statement stands irrefutable regardless of time. It makes me reminisce my childhood; overflowing with fairy tale like fancies about “once upon a time” and “happily ever after”. My obsession with fairy tales began when I first discovered that I could travel through the magical worlds that never were, and without it I was nowhere.
Grimm brothers took it upon themselves to preserve the innocence of the childhood, as they stirred up the western world with their German fairy tales. Snow White is one of their most renowned works. Published in 1812, this story seems almost dreamlike dreamlike –
A simple story of a delightful little princess saved from the evil deeds of her wicked stepmother, by a group of seven adorable dwarfs and the Prince who came like a promise for a bright future. Doesn’t this story seem too perfect to be true? But this perfectness is no stronger than a thin sheet of ice in the blazing sun.
As a child, I found security in its magic, as a teenager I found hope in its happy ending, but as an adult now, I find sadness and pain laced throughout the tale which has been sugar coated and is heavily quoted. When I re-read these stories, I realized that it made my childhood when its very own was camouflaged and tattered. I realized the core of these fairy tales had much deeper implications which were beyond the conventional façades of “once upon a time”, “knight in shining armour”, “damsel in distress” and “happily ever after”. How splendid it would have been if these characters had leaded a happy life instead of searching for a happy ending? And this very thought led me to unveil the psyche of the evil stepmother from one of my most cherished story –“Snow White”.
The character of the evil Queen is one of the most intriguing for me. My childish naivety made me fear the atrocities of the stepmother, but now instead of fear I feel pity for her. Was she actually cruel as we read in the story? Is she really ruled by her jealousy? Did she intentionally commit such crimes? Or was she compelled to because of her insecurities? These nagging questions found their answer in Lacan’s mirror theory.
Jacques Lacan was a 20th century French psychoanalyst who came up with the mirror theory. According to this theory-“When a fragmented subject looks into the mirror, it perceives a non-fragmented whole with which it then identifies itself.” Lacan argues that the character in the mirror is fabricated. In the mirror stage, the infant’s reflected image, “I” presents itself as a means of overcoming the infant’s sensations of bodily fragmentation and powerlessness.
Lacan describes that the “I” produced in the mirror stage holds together the unruly, fragmenting organic drives into a coherent whole. This theory has also determined that when something goes wrong with the formation of “I”, it is bound to give birth to mental illness.
While reading this story as a kid I did not give much thought to the stepmother’s peculiar obsession with her magic mirror because I myself was intrigued by the world appearing on the other side of the mirror. While exerting this mirror theory to the psyche of the evil Queen, it is obvious that she was psychologically disturbed to an extent. According to Lacan, this obsession with the mirror is an important stage that a child goes through; this stage forms the child’s identity. During this stage it is commonly noticed that the child has a tendency to speak to the image in the mirror. This unusual behaviour is also found in the stepmother’s character. Her daily conversations with the mirror show that she has not outgrown her mirror stage. This leads us to believe that the evil stepmother must have childhood experiences that stymied her emotional growth making her behave like an infant stuck inside a grown-up’s body.
Many critics, who follow Jung’s footsteps, claim that this exchange with the mirror can also be attributed to her narcissism which evokes the egoistic admiration of her attributes. To support their statement about her narcissism, they have evoked many stories from the folklore, where the character is preoccupied with reflective objects.
While scrutinizing this situation from a different light, we can see glimpses of insecurity. Stepmother’s infamous daily routine of questioning the mirror “Who’s the fairest of us all?” and waiting for an answer itself shows how fragile her ego was! And being insecure is not an attribute of someone who is a narcissist. The main characteristic of a narcissist is self-confidence and self-admiration. It is crystal clear that the evil Queen is not even slightly narcissistic instead she is stuck in a dilemmatic situation where she has lost her identity and needs constant reminders and reassurances of who she is.
One might also claim that, the Queen is constantly seeking affirmations on her vanity instead of her identity. This drives her to eliminate anyone she considers a threat to her vanity and Snow White being judged the “fairest of them all” by the mirror threatens the evil Queen’s vanity. To an extent we can agree with this statement but, if we re-examine this statement under a magnifying glass, we can see many intricate details that have been intentionally fabricated under the pretext of narcissism.
If we study the stepmother’s character as an infant who is not properly weaned out of the mirror stage, we can justify her obsession with her vanity. One does not complement a child in accordance to his/her intellect or personality; instead we would always praise the child for its beauty and adorableness. Now while examining stepmother’s constant questioning about her vanity from this standpoint, we can conclude that her narcissistic quality is non-existent.
And further to justify her intense anger towards Snow White, we can say it was because she was suddenly engulfed with an identity crisis; her glimmer of hope was lost. She couldn’t comprehend the fact that she was being replaced by someone else. One cannot grow out of a state of mind unless they realize that they have outgrown that stage, and this realization plays a crucial role in one’s maturity and brain development. And in the case of the stepmother, she simply does not have any recollection or realization of her “mirror stage”. Therefore to fill the void left behind in her memory, she keeps role playing as a child who is in a constant search for self-identity. The affirmations of the mirror,becomes the catalyst which keeps her delusions alive.
Now that the stepmother’s insecurities are exposed and we somewhat sympathize with her, we are left with one question still unanswered – that of her ‘Evil’ personality. How do we even define evil? The definition itself differs from one to another, and by bringing the situation at hand under consideration it further complicates the process. Even the evilest of the evils have a reason to behave in a certain way, no one is evil just for the sake of being evil!
In the story of Snow White, as we have discussed earlier, stepmother is psychologically deprived of certain growth areas, she is stuck somewhere in between both the worlds of childhood and adulthood. She behaves more like a child than the 7 year old Snow White. Stepmother’s evilness originates from her lack of identity. She believes that her identity as the “fairest” has been snatched from her by her stepdaughter. She saw Snow White as her competition whom she had to defeat to regain her lost position. The very mindset of competing against a 7 year old shows the deprivation of identity and the her desperate attempts to cling it, projects the pitiable state that she is in. Her evilness can be equated to psychotic rage over-powering her sanity. Ever her thought process is not like a manipulative and revenge-driven grown-up, it inclines more towards the childish method of taking revenge but her physical process of eliminating Snow White remains like that of an adult. Her rage formulates from her lack of self-identity,she didn’t know who she was anymore so instinctively she believed that if she eliminates Snow White from the picture, she would be able to find herself. We can conclude her evil actions were an instinct to protect herself from her identity crisis. Nevertheless, it is inarguable that it was a cruel way of retaining her identity.
In the Disney adaptation of this story, we don’t see a magical figure inside the mirror rather it is an image of fire which assures the stepmother of her identity. A lot of critics have asserted that the fire represents the wrath of the stepmother against Snow White. It is often also compared to her vanity which is deadly, therefore the fire in the mirror is supposedly the re-incarnation of the devil. But it can also be seen as a major misconception. According to pagan religious beliefs, fire represents the Gnostic “spark of life” or better known as creation of life; but it also stands as much for the inferno of destruction. Here, the fire creates the realm of identity for the Queen, but also demolishes the mirage created. The destruction represented by the fire exceeds the limit of being confined in the psychological realm as it also transcends into the boundaries of foretelling the future punishment awaiting for the stepmother.
The story of Snow White as we know, ends at- “happily ever after”. But the Grimm brothers’ stories were equally grim as their name. The story of Snow White continues till the wedding ceremony of Snow White, where, the Queen yet again appears to get revenge but sadly ends up dead as she was forced to wear the red-hot iron slippers and was made to dance till she dropped dead. The image of fire yet again makes its appearance, it also fulfills its dual purpose of creation and destruction. The ‘fair’ Snow White upholds the bright new beginning and the dead Queen represents the defeated ‘evil’. The death of the stepmother although tragic, it still retains hope for a better new life. She gets an escape from her never-ending search of self and gets to move ahead towards a new beginning. Although the cruelty of punishment is inextricable, but there is consolation too in the escape from the tragic life.
After deep perusal of the psychological damages that Stepmother had to go through, we now cannot enjoy the story as we had earlier and neither can we hate her wholeheartedly. This story is hard to read and harder to forget. And I guess the main motive of Grimm brothers’ stories were teach us an important way to look at life- “Every question need not have an answer, every poison may not have an antidote…we should start living life instead of waiting for our happy ending, as endings usually never are”.
- John Milton’s quote, (goodreads.com)
- Snow White – Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, Children’s and Househld Tales; 1812
- Snow White – Walt Disney;1937
- Mirror Theory,( http://faculty.wiu.edu/D-Banash/eng299/LacanMirrorPhase.pdf, http://www.lacanonline.com/index/2010/09/what-does-lacan-say-about-the-mirror-stage-part-i/)
- Criticism of stepmother’s narcissism, (http://www.cgjung-vereniging.nl/home/files/nancy_vd_berg.pdf)