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Bruno Bettelheim, a Freudian psychologist, believes that a child’s storybook has meaning far beyond its colorful pictures and happy endings. Bettelheim expresses this belief in his essay, “Cinderella: A Story of Sibling Rivalry and Oedipal Conflict.” Bettelheim contributes the worldwide popularity and timelessness of Cinderella to the story’s complexity and hidden agendas. Our conscious mind enjoys the top surface of a fairy tale while our unconscious mind works beyond our immediate control to create different meanings. A child’s conscious and unconscious mind has a tendency to relate to Cinderella’s character. A child feels that they are Cinderella. The story of Cinderella is then used as a coping tool to help children conquer some of the struggles that they will face while growing up. In his essay, Bettelheim goes into great length to explain how sibling rivalry and a child’s Oedipal stage contribute to these struggles. When dealing with sibling rivalry, a child hopes, like in the story of Cinderella, that some magical circumstance will allow him to dominate over his siblings and please his parents. During and after the Oedipal stage a child struggles to find understanding for his feelings of anger, jealousy, guilt, worthlessness, rejection and parental criticism. These feelings are normal. It’s the fairy tales, such as Cinderella, that allow children a simple outlet for their thoughts. A young child does not understand the complicated role of his life and therefore cannot see into his future. A child can only relate to what he understands. And he understands Cinderella. Parents encourage the truth in fairy tales by reading them to their children. Hence the child cannot wait until their day, when they too, like Cinderella, will be rescued from the slavery that their parents, siblings, and internal emotions have bestowed upon them.
I liked and disliked Bruno Bettelheim’s essay all at the same time. This is not to say that I could pick his essay apart. In fact, I would have to say that I agreed with many of his points. I liked what he had to say-perhaps it was his intrusion that I disliked. I speak here of the intrusion of ideas and theories upon my inner child. The inner child in me just wants to read a fairy tale for its face value-a good story. I feel, more often than not, that we can complicate the most simple and beautiful things by dissecting them. I see a fairytale as entertainment, a way for words and pictures to come together and add fuel to ones imagination. I believe that innocence can be lost when harsh dissection is unleashed without boundaries. However, it is important to also note that dissection of a fairy tale, as done by Bettelheim, can also lead into a greater understanding of humans and our unconscious needs.
I can recollect times when I related to Cinderella. However, these memories only stir up images of fancy nightgowns, my moms high heels, bright red lipstick, and the trouble I got into for using up all of my mom’s expensive perfume. I cannot remember an exact time when I felt as though I was in competition with anyone for my parents love. I simply had good intentions to be my own Cinderella. My parents reported that this all ended around age six when I traded in my glass slippers for a Tonka truck and a load of dirt. The images of Cinderella left my mind to rest back on the paper pages I once read them from. I don’t know how much of my life I spent relating to fairy tales. Because as Sigmund Freud explains these psychoanalytical processes happen at young ages. It is disturbing to me to think that I could have participated in the Oedipal stage. I cannot imagine trying to compete with my mother for my father’s attention!
I do however remember one relation that I have always had with Cinderella, and that is the hope that my prince will someday come! This, to me, is the beauty of the story. It’s a timeless story of a woman being rescued by a perfect man- a companion as compatible and fitting as a glass slipper. Yes, I know it is the year for feminists to act out against the typical gender assigned roles. However, it is still possible to have this dream of a rescuing “perfect” man and still remain independent. The romance can be inviting. There is nothing the matter with dreaming. Fairy tales invite dreamers. I know from experience that it is the simplicity of these dreams that sometimes offer a child or an adult the hope they need to conquer each day in troubling times. Overall, after reading Bettelheim’s essay, I hope that I can keep the two perspectives separate. I want to allow education and understanding in without letting go of my childhood nostalgia.
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