Bruno Bettelheim and "Hansel and Gretel"

>In Bettelheim’s article on “Hansel and Gretel,” he begins by stating the realistic nature of the story. That a family is poor and the parents may not be able to provide for the family is a very real possibility at the time of the story. Bettelheim discusses the differences in how the overheard conversation between parents, when discussing what to do about their hunger, is perceived. In terms of the parents, it is that “poverty and deprivation do not improve man’s character, but rather make him more selfish, les sensitive to the sufferings of others and thus prone to embark on evil deeds” (Bettelheim in Tatar, 1999, p. 273). Basically, the id overpowers the ego. But the children, being children, interpret the communication differently, letting themselves be “convinced that their parents plan to starve them to death” (Bettelheim in Tatar, 1999, p. 273).

In a previous post, I asked about the nature of Bettelheim’s “regression,” wondering if it likened to the Golding’s regression in Lord of the Flies. Rereading helped me understand the actual nature of Bettelheim’s regression, being one that entails reverting back to the original state of being, one that is completely dependent upon the mother. The children are ruled by their id, the need to find food. Bettelheim’s suggestion that the gingerbread house is symbolic of the mother’s body made me think for a minute. If they think of the mother in terms of being someone who provides them with sustenance, then this comparison makes sense.

Because symbolism is particularly interesting to me, the last point that interests me is the symbolism of the bird. Bettelheim explains that Hansel turns back to the house to say goodbye to a bird sitting on the chimney, a white bird guides them to the witch’s house, and it is a bird that guides the children back home. Bettelheim suggests that, since a bird is present at all three stages of the story, that the characters are exactly where they’re supposed to be in order to learn a specific lesson. Given that he also discusses the characters’ newfound independence when they return home, I’m inclined to agree with Bettelheim. Especially when considering the water archetype on the children’s return home. Water is symbolic of purification, and has a transformative nature. As they cross the river to return home, they are transformed from dependent child into independent child who is no longer ruled by the id.

Bettelheim, B. Hansel and Gretel in Tatar, M. (1999). The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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