Transcending space and time, Charles Perrault’s Cinderella has withstood countless transformations to become the most widely recognized fairy tale of all time. Stemming from an original, albeit much more violent, telling of the story of Cinderella by Giambattista Basile of Naples and eventually retold by the Brothers Grimm, the story’s versatility as well as its durability have endeared it to generations of young readers. Whether they reflect the social escapism of Basile’s fifteenth-century Italy or Perrault’s own experiences at the seventeenth-century French royal court, fairy tales, especially Cinderella, have provided their audiences with a means to escape and transcend their own circumstances in hope of living a dream presented in the land of fairy tales.
This little book itself is a physical manifestation of the age-old power of not only the story Cinderella, but also of the entire genre of fairy tales. Published in 1814 in Albany, New York, the Burns Library’s copy of Cinderella is a chapbook. This 10 centimeter book is miniature, bordering on tiny. Not only does the size of the chapbook suggest its readership and ownership, but the title page indicates that the publication was indeed intended for little girls and that the chapbook was “designed for the entertainment of all good Little Misses.”
Perrault’s tale and his moral intentions therein have endured. The inside front cover contains a helpful sampler of tools to aid in a child’s reading of Cinderella, including the alphabet, a set of numbers, and a set of punctuation marks or “points.” The book’s inside front cover also contains delicate engravings which demonstrate that the publisher not only intended for this book to be read by a child, but by a girl. The publisher’s note states that the book is “ornamented with engravings” that might endear the book to little girls.
One such engraving depicts one of the most emblematic scenes in Cinderella. In this engraving, Cinderella runs away from the prince as the clock turns to midnight so she can return home on time, per her fairy godmother’s wishes. As Cinderella runs away, she loses her glass slipper. The illustration in this edition closely resembles the well-known scene of Cinderella running from the ball in Walt Disney’s 1950 film.
Each author who told Cinderella’s tale altered the story in a manner that reflected his own society’s morals, values, and needs. In fact, although Charles Perrault, born in seventeenth-century Paris, was the first to pen his version of Cinderella (the version with which most modern readers are familiar), the story itself originated with Giambattista Basile, who wrote fairy tales two centuries earlier in Naples and Venice. In Basile’s Cinderella, the protagonist is a young girl known as “The Cinderella Cat,” or “La Gatta Cenerentola.” In this much more violent version of the story, the Cinderella cat escapes her evil stepmother after her governess, analogous to the fairy godmother in Perrault’s tale, instructs the Cinderella cat “to slam a trunk lid onto her stepmother’s neck to be quit of her for good and all.”
Perrault’s Cinderella was considerably less bloody than Basile’s, but much more moralistic. His wish to instruct his young readers stemmed from a long tradition of children’s literature produced to instruct young children in morals and proper conduct. Many of the engravings in Perrault’s works depicted an old nurse or peasant woman sitting with a distaff, spinning her tales to three listening children, indicating that his primary audience was young. However, the rather cynical undertones of some of Perrault’s tales indicated that he not only wrote for children, but also for an older, more worldly audience. Although all of Perrault’s tales, including Cinderella, contain short moral lessons at the end of each tale, Perrault’s moralities read rather cynically. The morals of Perrault’s stories do not neglect the fact that in the real world, good morals and a good heart will not always overcome all.
Although Perrault thought his tale morally superior to Basile’s, both versions accurately depict the social climates in which their authors lived and wrote. Living in volatile fifteenth-century Italy, Basile’s stories represented the needs of his audience. His readers, hoping to be able to move up from poverty to riches, looked to the earliest versions of fairy tales to seek respite from their unpredictable daily lives. Perrault also catered to the social needs of his audience. Writing during the reign of King Louis XIV, Perrault’s works struck a chord with many of the children who listened to or read his works during a time when it was perfectly normal for a young lady to dream of going to the ball at Louis XIV’s court at Versailles. Perrault expanded on Basile’s escapist fantasies by depicting a world that he knew while at the same time rendering it more wondrous than any of his readers could have imagined.
The ability of every author who helped to ensure Cinderella‘s survival as a literary classic speaks to the survival of the entire genre of fairy tales. Not only did these authors know how to tailor fairy tales to their audiences, they also had a feeling for the power of magic in everyday life. Across oceans and centuries, fairy tales have delighted both adults and children alike for generations because of their transcendent power to delight as well as to educate. Cinderella, as evidenced by its numerous transformations through music, movies, and theater, has endured because of its ability, as phrased by Disney himself, to remind its audience that “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”
- Katherine E. Clarke, A & S, Boston College Class of 2015
This blog post is drawn from the exhibit “Making History Public: Books Around the World: 1400 – 1800.” This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2012 HS600 class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries. From April – December 2013, the “Making History Public” exhibit is on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. Stay tuned for more posts from this exhibit!