Critical Analysis of the Tales by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm: Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood

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The defeat of the damsel in distress

Chapter One: The Most Beautiful Child of Them All

In order to understand the journey of defeating the ‘damsel in distress’, it is needed to analyse the first variations. Often when referring to Little Red Riding Hood, it could be argued that both the Perrault and Grimm’s Brothers versions are canonised together, making it often forgettable to identify the differences. In 1697, Charles Perrault, a French writer, published the first written variation of Red Riding Hood, titled Le Petite Chaperon Rouge, in his collective book Mother Goose Tales. In Perrault's version, he introduces the little girl as “the prettiest creature that ever was seen”[footnoteRef:1], and a “good woman”[footnoteRef:2]. Her mother's tell her to go visit her sick Grandma, so she embarks on a journey, through the woods and encounters the Wolf. He is depicted as a creature that conspires to eat the little girl up, which then asks the little girl for directions to Grandma’s house, and without a seconds thought Red Riding Hood tells him. Once parted, the Wolf takes the shortest route and runs to the house, whereas the naive heroine takes a longer route purely because the Wolf tells her to take that route. As the Wolf reaches Grandma’s house, he disguises himself as the young heroine, and swallows Grandma up, and then disguises himself as Grandma, hoping that this will also trick the little girl - which his plan works. In bed, the Wolf “falls upon”[footnoteRef:3] and “eats her all up”[footnoteRef:4]. Red Riding Hood is naive, however, she isn’t completely gullible to the trick, and has some sort of questioning to her Grandma after “hearing the big voice of the Wolf”[footnoteRef:5]. What is puzzling about Perrault's choice of ending is that, even though it is clear how the heroine is not naive and is doubtful towards the Wolf, this still concludes to her taking her clothes off and getting into bed. Perrault’s Red Riding Hood ends with the moral: [1: Charles Perrault, 'Perrault: Little Red Riding Hood', Pitt.Edu, 1697 [Accessed 13 March 2019].] [2: ibid] [3: ibid] [4: ibid] [5: ibid]

“... young ladies should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf”, but there are various kinds of wolves… charming, quiet, polite, is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous”[footnoteRef:6]. [6: ibid]

Similar to Perrault, The Grimm’s’ version, Little Red Cap, functions to justify the limitations of women’s behaviour and actions. Drawing parallels to Perrault's, The Grimm’s’ version heroine sets off to her Grandma’s house, however, in this tale her mother gives her specific directions and instructions on how to behave. As well as clearly stating how to “not leave the path, or you might fall”[footnoteRef:7]. Although this version follows the same path as Perrault's, the Huntsman is introduced to save both the Grandma and Little Red Cap after they have been eaten by the Wolf. He releases the females by cutting the Wolf’s stomach and places stones in his stomach and he dies. Concluding with the moral of the heroine stating “as long as I live, I will never leave the path and run off into the woods by myself if mother tells me not to”[footnoteRef:8]. Therefore indicating that it is wrong to leave the right path and adventure into the woods alone. [7: Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, 'Little Red Cap', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 12 March 2019]. ] [8: Ibid. ]

Rapunzel, another tale by The Brothers Grimm, opens with a wife and husband who are very poor but desire to have a child. The husband goes to the garden of a witch and steals some food (salad called rampion) which his wife is longing for. When the witch finds out about this she is furious, yet allows him as much rampion as he wishes as long as “you must give me the child which your wife will bring into this world”[footnoteRef:9]. The mother then gives birth to the child, who is introduced as “the most beautiful child under the sun”[footnoteRef:10], and the witch retrieves her and places her locked in a tower, isolated from everyone else. However, even though she is hidden away, her singing enables the prince, who hears her, to fall in love with Rapunzel. Upon declaring “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair to me”[footnoteRef:11], the prince climbs her “fine as spun gold”[footnoteRef:12] hair in order to reach his ‘fortune’. Rapunzel is alarmed at first, but then she also falls in love. However, the witch later finds out and cuts Rapunzel’s hair and took her into a desert, later luring the prince up to the tower. The prince thus escapes, however, becomes blind due to him falling on thorns. Blinded, he finds the princess and twins which she has given birth to, and her tears bring back his eyesight, living “happy and contented”[footnoteRef:13]. [9: Jacob & Wilheim Grimm, 'Rapunzel', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 13 March 2019].] [10: ibid.] [11: ibid.] [12: ibid.] [13: ibid.]

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Grimm’s’ 1812 tale, Little Snow White, begins with the queen wishing for a daughter “as white as snow”[footnoteRef:14], of which she later does, however soon after she dies. The stepmother to this child, who is now the king's wife, cannot comprehend any other beauty apart from hers and often speaks to her talking-mirror asking: “mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all”[footnoteRef:15], which the mirror states that no-one can match her beauty. However, once Snow White turns 7 years old, the mirror reveals how Snow White is more beautiful than the queen, thus the queen orders a hunter to kill her. The hunter, however, spares Snow White and she escapes to the woods to live with the Seven Dwarfs. Making three attempts, the stepmother tries to kill Snow White; the first attempting to sell a poisonous comb; the second selling laces which would kill her; thirdly, with a poisonous apple. Once eating the apple, the dwarfs are unable to wake Snow White up, thus while mourning her, they place her into a glass coffin. While passing, a prince sees Snow White sleeping and falls in love with her, and while moving her coffin she awakes and falls in love with the prince. The story ends with them getting married and the wicked stepmother is told her must wear red hot iron shoes. [14: Jacob & Wilheim Grimm, 'Little Snow White', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 13 March 2019].] [15: Ibid. ]

Beginning with ‘once upon a time’ as most fairytales do, the Brothers are credited to captivate children through “what Perrault began… the Grimm’s completed… and the English Fairy Tale became a melange confus of Perrault and the Grimm’s”[footnoteRef:16]. However, these tales, as I will analyse below, conduct a structure which portrays patriarchal notions of a ‘proper woman’, through the form of a bedtime story read by parents, often seen as a ritual, to prevail the ideologies of women. The Grimm’s Brothers aimed to educate children through their tales, yet arguably the reconfiguration of these tales displays the limitations of the female characters and audience. Through sanitisation of the fairy tales, as John Locke believed that children’s literature should be the product of an “easy pleasant book suited to [the child's] capacity”[footnoteRef:17], often the elements of sex, violence and ironically female independence are not included in these variations, due to its nature of not being a ‘pleasant’ read. This can be seen with the evolution of Perrault's Little Red Riding Hood and the Grimm’s version, of which the lessons from each tale have been sanitised: Perrault's lesson warns women the dangers of men and their manipulations to sex, whereas Grimm’s teach girls to obey their parents and stay on the ‘right path’. Maria Tatar argues that the Brothers had to “delete every phrase unsuitable for children”[footnoteRef:18] in order to publish these tales. However, Jack Zipes argues that Rapunzel addresses “the initiation of a virgin, who must learn hard lessons”[footnoteRef:19], backed up by Bettelheim who argues that the tale is about “a pubertal girl...a jealous mother who tries to prevent her from gaining independence”[footnoteRef:20]. The troubling concept of these variations is that even though these heroines are portrayed to be adventurous enough to explore the woods where beasts lurk, they are also depicted as being naive and innocent when facing these beasts. Maria Lieberman explains how “Fairy tales have only one function and that is to shape girls perceptions to conform to a gendered identity through stereotypical characters like the wicked mother and helpless daughter”[footnoteRef:21] - so by identifying these features of the ‘helpless daughter’ it will allow me to then understand the limitations of the heroine in tales formed for children and how this can be criticised (seen in Chapter 2) [16: Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales (London: Bodley Head, 1968), Notes and References for English Fairy Tales. Pg. 5] [17: John Locke, 'Modern History Sourcebook: Some Thoughts Concerning Education', Sourcebooks.Fordham.Edu, 1962 [Accessed 11 March 2019].] [18: Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts Of The Grimms' Fairy Tales, 19th edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).] [19: Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. Witch as Fairy/Fairy as Witch: Unfathomable Baba.] [20: Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tale (New York: Vintage, 1976).] [21: Marcia R. Lieberman, ''Some Day My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation Through The Fairy Tale', College English, 34.3 (1972) . ]

Being saved by a man

Many tales often display similarities within the female character, of which she is an innocent who follows a path which results in her having to be saved, in most cases, by a charming prince. Alice Nikirk states that the narrative for the female often entails on the emphasis that she is “waiting for the prince to appear and take control of her destiny”[footnoteRef:22] in order to live happily ever after. The Grimm’s portray the heroine as weak and unaware of their independence, to which they are unable to fight for themselves. Even though, seen with Little Red Cap, who indicts her acknowledgement of something not right with the repetitive remarks, such as “what a horribly big mouth you have”[footnoteRef:23], rather than voicing her concerns she remains curious but unable to save herself. Her self-reflection, “as long as I love, I will never leave the path and run off into the woods”[footnoteRef:24], indicates the expectations of a child to obey their parents, whether it's the fictional character or the young reader. The Huntsman, arguably, conveys the gender ideologies of the damsel in distress and the heroic man - due to the tale characterising Little Red Cap as weak and not able to protect herself. The tale suggests that women will either be seduced, by a male Wolf, or saved, by a huntsman. Without the huntsman appearing the save the heroine, she would not have had been able to understand her mistakes and learn to always follow her mother's instructions. Not only in Little Red Cap, but also Rapunzel and Little Snow White, is the young man expected to ‘save the day’. The heroine in either of these stories is either, locked away by an evil older woman, or in deep sleep due to an evil older woman. The hero, often only introduced to the later end of the story proves his masculinity by saving the weak girl from evil. However, this differs within the tale of Rapunzel, as he shows up and tricks his way into the tower, and attempts to come up with a strategy to save her. Yet this plan fails as falls out the tower and becomes blind, in which Rapunzel's tears save him - “two of her tears fell into his eyes, and they became clear once again”[footnoteRef:25]. Clearly seen here, the roles are reversed, and Rapunzel takes on the role stereotypically of the prince becoming the hero of the story. The reasoning behind Rapunzel being trapped in the tower firstly was due to the agreement between the witch and her parents, as the parents traded Rapunzel for theirs live - due to her parents mistakes she must pay the consequences, so that already draws questioning as to why the parents did not come to rescue their daughters but instead a man who is a stranger to Rapunzel does. However, it cannot be disregarded that it is the prince who teaches Rapunzel about the outside world and eventually allows her to live happily. [22: Alice Neikirk, '...Happily Ever After (Or What Fairy Tales Teach Girls About Being Woman)', Hilo.Hawaii.Edu, 2019 [Accessed 11 March 2019].] [23: Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, 'Little Red Cap', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 12 March 2019].] [24: Ibid. ] [25: Jacob & Wilheim Grimm, 'Rapunzel', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 13 March 2019].]


The emphasis on beauty within these tales can arguably be interpreted as a contest between one female characters beauty and another, emphasising the message of the woman's appearance becoming one of the finest assets, and most important feature of her portrayed. We see within all three tales by the Brothers that the young heroine is described as “the most beautiful child”[footnoteRef:26], who is pure and innocent. Whereas, women who are not beautiful are depicted as evil and conjuring, and therefore often they are jealous of the beautiful child. The beauty of the child, often the first description told, is the attribute that puts them in danger, because of the evil woman, and results in the heroin becoming a victim. Seen in Little Snow White, the stepmother who is first described as a “beautiful woman, but she was proud and arrogant”[footnoteRef:27], implying that a woman being proud of herself is a fault in their character, owns a mirror who informs her of any other beauty in the land that is not her own. Within this tale, the reader is presented with the illusion that beauty is the sole commodity in a woman, through its role of being the central point of this tale. The beauty of Snow White saves her from the huntsman killing her in the woods: “Because she was so beautiful the huntsman took pity on her”[footnoteRef:28] and released her into the woods, indicating that even though beauty has put her at risk, it is her beauty that will save her. As well as, when the dwarf’s first find Snow White, they firstly draw attention to her beauty stating “this child is so beautiful”[footnoteRef:29], which is a difficult concept to understand as Snow White has broken into their house and has been using the dwarfs belongings - yet due to her beauty they are not disgusted by her behaviour, which could have resulted differently if she was not so beautiful. However, the difference between Snow White’s beauty and the Queens is that Snow White does not glorify her beauty, unlike the Queen who is vain. The Queen becomes evil and ugly when she uses her beauty as her advantage and therefore is punished to wear “iron shoes into burning coals”[footnoteRef:30]. Rapunzel is seen to have hair “fine as spun gold”[footnoteRef:31] which is similar to a depiction of perfection, also seen with the implication of Rapunzel and most other heroines pictured as “the most beautiful child under the sun”[footnoteRef:32] representing not only her beauty but rather their supreme beauty. Additionally, it is said that “when she was twelve years old, the sorceress locked her in a tower located in a forest”[footnoteRef:33], which is significant as readings of her imprisonment arguably are linked to her puberty. Marina Warner claims that fairytales help children grow up ‘correctly’, yet by imprisoning Rapunzel it is seen that this is an attempt to preserve her innocence and a moralistic desire to not grow up, due to hiding her away from lusty men who will fall in love with her and no learnings of her origin and parents. The imprisonment of growing up is also depicted in Little Snow White, in which her body is kept frozen due freeze her sexuality and desires and keep her innocent. [26: Ibid. ] [27: Jacob & Wilheim Grimm, 'Little Snow White', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 13 March 2019].] [28: Ibid. ] [29: Ibid. ] [30: Ibid. ] [31: Jacob & Wilheim Grimm, 'Rapunzel', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 13 March 2019].] [32: Ibid. ] [33: Ibid. ]


  1. Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tale (New York: Vintage, 1976)
  2. Jacobs, Joseph, English Fairy Tales (London: Bodley Head, 1968), p. Notes and References for English Fairy Tales
  3. Locke, John, 'Modern History Sourcebook: Some Thoughts Concerning Education', Sourcebooks.Fordham.Edu, 1962 [Accessed 11 March 2019]
  4. Grimm, Jacob & Wilhelm, 'Little Red Cap', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 12 March 2019]
  5. Grimm, Jacob & Wilheim, 'Rapunzel', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 13 March 2019]
  6. Grimm, Jacob & Wilheim, 'Little Snow White', Pitt.Edu, 1812 [Accessed 13 March 2019]
  7. Tatar, Maria, The Hard Facts Of The Grimms' Fairy Tales, 19th edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987)
  8. Neikirk, Alice, '...Happily Ever After (Or What Fairy Tales Teach Girls About Being Woman)', Hilo.Hawaii.Edu, 2019 [Accessed 11 March 2019]
  9. Zipes, Jack, The Irresistible Fairy Tale (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. Witch as Fairy/Fairy as Witch: Unfathomable Baba
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Critical Analysis of the Tales by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm: Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from
“Critical Analysis of the Tales by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm: Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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