Psychoanalysis and the Fairytale: Bruno Bettleheim's Take on Rapunzel.
In his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettleheim discusses the importance of fairy tales to the healthy development of young children. According to Bettleheim, fairy tales, "represent in imaginative form what the process of healthy human development consists of...(and) make great and positive psychological contributions to the child's inner growth" (Bettleheim, 12). Bettleheim believes that fairy tales are expressions of our cultural heritage. As a child psychologist, he insists that a child's preference for a certain fairy tale is a result of "what the tale evokes in his conscious and unconscious mind" (17) in terms of his "needs of the moment"(12). Above all, however, Betttleheim is a Freudian and, thus, his interpretations of fairytales must take into account conflicts of sexuality and of identity. In the introduction to his book, Bettleheim lays out his interpretation of the Rapunzel tale. Rapunzel, he writes, "is... the story of a pubertal girl, and of her jealous mother who tries to prevent her from gaining independence." He disagrees with the idea that young children identify with characters within fairy tales solely according to gender type. For instance, he insists, a little boy will not necessarily identify for with a male character than with a female character. Instead, Bettleheim presents the idea that this 'identification' is more one of sharing a common situation with a character, not one of sharing their gender. Bettleheim offers the following example.
"When (one five year old boy) learned that his grandmother, who took care of him for most of the day, would have to go to the hospital because of a serious illness- his mother was working all day, and there was no father in the home- he asked to be read the story of Rapunzel. At this critical time in his life, two elements of the tale were important to him. First, there was the security from all dangers in which the substitute mother kept the child...and even more important was...that Rapunzel found the means to escape her predicament in her own body...That one's body can provide a lifeline reassured him that...he would similarly find in his body the source of his security... This shows that a fairy tale- because it addresses itself in the most imaginative form to essential human problems, and does so in an indirect way- can have much to offer to a little boy even if the story's heroine is an adolescent girl. (Bettleheim, 17)."
This runs contrary to many feminist criticisms which insist that sterotyped gender roles which present passive heroines and active heros infuse negative messages into their prospective readers since children identify with characters of like gender.
In another example, Bettleheim recalls his encounter with a a young woman whose mother had died ealry in her life. The girl was taken care of by a nanny who was less than mothering to the child, until her father remarried. It was during this second marriage that the girls fascination with Rapunzel began, according to Bettleheim. Her story, along with Bettleheims analysis, are included in the passage below.
"The girl...felt akin to Rapunzel, since the witch had forcibly obtained her, as her stepmother had forcibly worked her way into the girl's life. The girl felt imprisoned in her new home, as the nurse who had cared little had given her complete freedom to do what she wanted. She felt as victimized as Rapunzel , who, in her tower, had so little control over her life. Rapunzel's long hair was the key to the story for her. The girl wanted her hair to grow long, but her stepmother cut it short; long hair, in itself, became the symbol of freedom and happiness to her. As an adult, she realized that the prince for whose coming she had pined was her father. The story convinced her that he would someday come and rescue her, and this conviction sustained her. If life became too difficult, all she needed to do was to imagine herself as Rapunzel, her hair grown long, and the prince loving and rescuing her. And she gave Rapunzel a happy ending. In the story, the prince was blinded for a time- this meant that her father had become blinded, by the "witch" with whom he lived, to how preferable his daughter was- but eventually her hair which the stepmother had cut grew long again, and the prince came to live with her happily ever after."
Bettleheim's inclusion of the above case studies serves to illustrate the role which fairy tales in general, and 'Rapunzel' in particular, can play in the lives of their readers. Readers not only correlate fairy tale motifs to happenings in their own life, but actually begin to sympathise with Rapunzel. Thus, to certain readers who identify with Rapunzel's situation, the tale becomes a story of hope and the endurance in sharing a common situation.
Bettleheim's critique would not be complete without a discussion of sexual tensions. He writes, "All goes well until Rapunzel... reaches the age of sexual maturity"(148). "The sorceress visits Rapunzel in her tower by climbing up by her tresses- the same tresses which permit Rapunzel to establish a relationship to the prince. Thus, the transfer from a relationship established to a parent to that of a lover is symbolized. Rapunzel must know how terribly important she is to her sorceress substitute-mother, because in this story occurs one of the rare "Freudian" slips to be found in fairy tales Rapunzel." This "Freudian slip occurs when Rapunzel 'spills the beans' to the witch, proclaiming, "How come you are so much heavier to pull up than the young son of the king?"
Lastly, Bettelheim writes that the ending of the story, when the prince is blinded and Rapunzel is banished, represents their seperation from their adolescence. Both must embark on a journey in order to learn how to fend for themselves. Bettleheim believes that "their relative immaturity is suggested by their having given up hope- not trusting the future really means not trusting oneself.(150)" Thus, their respective journeys represent a "period of growing, of finding themselves, an era of recovery," ending in their ability to take care of themselves individually and as a couple when they finally reunite in the desert.
Back to the core page