Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gingerbread Temptations: Analysis of the Grimm Brothers' Hansel & Gretel

Wilhelm (left) and Jacob Grimm (right) in 1855.
While the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale Hansel and Gretel is legendary, it's a somewhat vague tale, suitable for each generation to adapt the symbols and metaphors to its own needs, thereby making it a timeless story for all (the entire story is quite short and can be found in its entirety at this link). The original collection of tales were published in 1812, but Hansel and Gretel probably originated during medieval times. Due to the violent nature of some stories, changes were often made to the original publications (the Grimms tended to keep everything as they heard it from the oral tales they collected, believing their was more merit in the uncensored version), resulting in confusion: for example, in the H & G original story, the father--a woodcutter--and his wife, are the biological parents, but in later versions, the mother is changed to a stepmother, the idea being that a mother would never kill her children. So, what does the story mean?
There are endless possibilities and we will explore several of them including feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, iconography and spirituality.
Hansel gathering pebbles by moonlight. As always, numerous interpretations of any art work are possible, with all being equally valid but the interpretation which can account for the greatest amount of the story proves the most fruitful. In this part of the story illustrated above, for example, a Marxist might demonstrate how the father symbolizes the "fatherland" and the mother might be the culture whereas Hansel and Gretel are the proletarians, the working class, being starved by the incompetent rulers which have failed to provide for the lower-classes. Hansel and Gretel hearing their parents talking because they couldn't "sleep for hunger" might be understood by a Marxist as the political awakening of the middle-class workers, brought on by tragedy (hunger) and the lack of concern of rulers for those beneath them socially. That Hansel's and Gretel's adaptability throughout the story demonstrates the superiority of the workers to make their own decisions and control their own destinies by controlling wealth (the riches they get from the candy cottage). On the other hand, a feminist would most likely focus on the "unwanted children" and the father's incompetency: the mother obviously has a better way of managing the household resources and if birth control had been available to her, there would not be over-crowding due to population control needs; if the mother had not been forced into marrying the father  (it is assumed she was at this point in time), materially, everyone everyone would have been much better off, including the unborn children. The witch in the candy cottage reveals society's bias against women because the woman is obviously successful in having everything she needs and not being forced into marriage or having children against her will, and labeling her a witch brainwashes young women such as Gretel into fearing having a mind of her own, exploring her sexuality and living an independent life free of male domination. A feminist might continue her argument that far from wanting to eat the children, the witch wants to liberate the children through education, but the male-dominated society fears the "dark mystery of womanhood" (symbolized by the forest the witch lives in) so turns the witch instead into a cannibal, establishing feminism as a taboo for other, impressionable females such as Gretel that, if feminists (unnatural women like the witch) are going to eat Hansel and undermine male authority, the feminists will eat the Gretels, too, but if Gretel wants to be protected and provided for, then she has to reject the self-sufficient life the witch presents and that's done by rejecting sexual freedom (the witch's oven as a sexual symbol): society turns the feminist agenda around: feminism will free Gretel, not enslave her (the witch making her work), but society can't let her know that or men will lose their power. I don't agree with these interpretations, however, they are valid, and that's why art shows us who we are and what we believe, we tend to project our universe onto the art which reflects it back to us so we can see ourselves.
As mentioned, the original story of Hansel and Gretel probably started sometime in the Middle Ages, when famines were frequent, thereby suggesting the cannibalistic story might have been a cathartic release for what some parents had done during extreme circumstances; while such an explanation indeed explains taboo behavior (cannibalism) it fails in accounting for the continued popularity of the tale beyond that historical time and into today. Certainly catharsis is always one possible impetus for artistic creation; primarily, however, fairy tales serve as encoded secular morals to the world much like Christ employed parables for His followers. Fairy tales explain why we don't steal, why you don't engage in sexual relations outside of marriage, why you don't cheat people, why patience is such a virtue, etc. offering real-world lessons which often line-up with religious teachings, yet displays society's wisdom of regulating citizens. By examining the structure of Hansel and Gretel, therefore, we should find behavior that we can condemn and behavior we can exonerate.
Another paradigm for interpretation is the sexual awakening of Hansel and Gretel trying to overcome their sexual inhibitions. Far from hearing their parents "talking," a psychoanalyst might say, the children actually hear their parents engaging in sexual intercourse at night which awakens their own sexual appetites and that hunger for sex is what keeps the children awake. The famine, or hunger, is everyone's starving libido, not a physical hunger for food. The trail of pebbles and crumbs Hansel leaves behind actually symbolizes his sperm which he comes to realize he has in the forest surrounded by the towering phallic structures of the trees (the cat Hansel sees is Hansel seeing his sister as a sexual object). Hansel and Gretel, in other words, "lose themselves" in the ecstasy of sexual delight through incest, the most taboo of society's sexual laws. The siblings "finding their way back home" means they willingly suppress their libidos to return to the acceptable sexual practices of sexuality. But "hunger" (for sex) comes again when they hear their parents "talking" again (having sex in the next room). The second time in the forest, however, the siblings engage in oral sex because they are "eating" together; the bird Hansel saw before leaving the house indicates sexual freedom, the the bird not being bound to earth and Hansel not being bound by society and that's why the birds eat his bread crumbs because that's illuminating his sperm being consumed by Gretel and then he consumes her bread meaning he reciprocates (because bread is baked in an oven and the oven is a symbol of female sexuality). On one hand, the children are upset because they know they are losing themselves in the dark forest of dark sexuality, but they also "can't find their way back" to the socially accepted limitations of sexual experience. The candy cottage, then, becomes a Garden of Eden of sexual delights because the house symbolizes the body (a psychoanalyst would argue) and that everything is edible on the house reveals how every part of the human body can be used for sexual stimulation. The witch, with her crutches (sex toys) is what society posits as lurking behind this fantasy of utter sexual freedom. The slavery Hansel and Gretel experience in the candy cottage is the reality of sexual excess (like the excessive amount of candy on the cottage) society wants to communicate to youth: even though Hansel is "getting fat" engaging all his sexual fantasies, he is also wasting away because the "bone" he gives the witch is a phallic symbol for his erection; Gretel's sexuality is being likened, not to freedom, but the womanly chores of house keeping because sexual freedom will actually dominate her and make her waste away, too (that is, her sexual appetites won't be fulfilled--evidenced by the witch starving her--because she will exist only to fulfill a man's sexual needs, in this case, Hansel's, and if Hansel doesn't control his sexual appetites, he will be dominated by the woman who will control him through sex, symbolized by the witch). Gretel pushing the witch into the oven symbolizes Gretel "being in heat"and the heat of sexual lust not being hot enough to want to choose that life of licentiousness for herself which is why she can kill the witch because she has chosen to free herself of sexual desire. Hansel, then, can only be freed by a woman who has freed herself from sex (Gretel). When Gretel frees Hansel from the cage, they dance "and kiss each other," because now, this doesn't risk incest because they have learned their lesson. The gems the children gather further illustrates their new found "sexual education" because Hansel 'thrusting" the gems into his pockets puts the gems next to his genitals, meaning that he now has a greater value for his sexuality and won't waste it; likewise, Gretel putting gems in her pinafore (like a little apron worn over the dress) puts the gems next to her breasts so she won't waste her sexuality either. The pond the children then come to symbolizes once again, sex  (as Freud taught us), but this time--instead of the dark forest of sexual taboos in which they wee lost earlier--now they come to the sanctioned sexual intercourse of society: marriage. Ducks mate for life, and Gretel going across the pond on the duck, then Hansel going across the pond, symbolizes that each sibling will get married in their turn and their own taboo relationship will have to end because a marriage won't be able to "support" the sexual drives of the spouse and the sibling.  Returning  home, then,  is a return to society and the "law of the father" which destroys woman's authority in the household based on her sexual status and all three (remaining) members of the family are now sexually healthy and once again part of society. Regardless of whether you like or dislike this interpretation, it is valid (instead of Freud, you would need to  use Jacques Lacan, to make it a more modern psychoanalytic interpretation).
We could, for example, deconstruct the story by locating inherent instability: let's look at degrees of  "eating."  The mother "eats at" the father so he will agree to her plan; Wild animals in the forest will "tear them to pieces"; the children eat the witch's house, which they "tear to pieces" in eating it; the witch is going to "eat" them and the birds eat the bread crumb trail while Hansel eats to get fat and Gretel is starved. The witch uses her house as a bait for hungry children. The father likens "sharing" with eating the last loaf with his children and Gretel shares her last piece of bread with Hansel while Hansel gives Gretel "food for thought" in telling her to be comforted, God will take care of them; of course, the whole story starts because there isn't "enough to eat." What's singular about Hansel and Gretel are the diverse ways in which food is presented (the two reasons the story is famous, the traits of the narrative people think of first, is for the gingerbread house [a house made of food] and Hansel leaving a trail of bread crumbs, neither of which is a standard representation of food on a plate being consumed at a meal).
An obvious Biblical reference could correlate the Book of Job and God allowing the devil to tempt His servant Job with hardships to H & G 's mother telling the father to lead the children into the forest and leave them there. Job's testing by the devil can be likened to a forest because Job was left in darkness, and a forest symbolizes darkness; God not consoling the servant being tried is the absence of Light/Grace. What about the two animals Hansel claims he sees as he leaves his trails both times? The cat might be an apt symbol for Hansel himself: if the story originated during Medieval times, the symbol of the cat would have been understood by the audience as the one keeping the pests of plague away (Bubonic plague), so even though the cat has to be fed, it provides an invaluable service to the family/community because it keeps down the rat/mouse population. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel having to be fed is not a liability, rather, the children are a blessing because it allows the father's faith to be tested (which he fails by twice agreeing to let the children die to save he and his wife) but Hansel and Gretel surviving their trials of faith brings blessings upon the house. The bird Hansel sees the second time they leave the house is probably invoking the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove; as Hansel leaves his father's house and sees the bird, it's like, again, he sees an image of himself. He is not burdened with fear or worry because he believes God will take care of them and the bread crumbs will lead them back home, so his soul takes the form of a bird. It's also birds that eat the bread crumbs so he can't find his way back. As in the Book of Tobit, when Tobit becomes blind because of bird droppings getting in his eyes, even though he has just performed a good deed, so birds activate a bad situation (losing the way back home)  even though it is something bad happening to a good person (Hansel and Gretel). Why? This is perhaps the whole purpose the story attempts to answer, and it's signified by the next bird appearing, after the children have been lost, "When it was mid-day, they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away before them, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted; and when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar."  The bird they follow this time is the Holy Spirit because the bird's song comforts the children and leads them, two of the three main giving Gifts of the Spirit; the third Gift, is Life and that is where the candy cottage comes in (please see below for more).  
Of course, as previously stated, fairy tales are secular moral lessons (so the current trend in Hollywood produced fairy tales could be Hollywood's encoded way of saying that society is deteriorating and needs to be reminded of the basic tenants of the social contract to survive). Examples of behavior that would be condemned by a society include the mother "eating at" the father (nagging and wearing him down, as the children "eating at" the witch's house) to abandon the children. It has often been suggested that the mother being dead when the children return to their father means we are to understand the witch as a metaphor for the mother: the wretched plan of the mother turns her into a witch, the way the witch intends on turning the children into a meal. That is why it is Gretel who must kill the witch: the witch and mother are the future Gretel, what she will turn into unless she renounces them to become a virtuous woman instead of a witch (the "food of wickedness"--i.e., the burnt body of the witch roasting in the oven--that Gretel does not eat so she is not consumed by evil), which leads us to another approach: chaos theory.
Following the pebbles back home. Hansel and Gretel can get back home because in this part of the story, they don't have anything they can exchange with God. In the economy of the spiritual life, God will give us something, then take it away and replace it with something better: for example, God first gave Abraham his son Ishmael, then gave him his son Isaac, nearly took Isaac away when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but gave Isaac back a second time and increased His Blessing upon Abraham and Isaac and all the descendants. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel have not yet been given anything by God, so the siblings finding their way back home gives them confidence; when the bread crumbs are eaten, and they cannot find their way back home, God takes that confidence to give them Trust in Him (and this is mentioned in the story) but you can't Trust in God wholly until you have nothing. The second time they get back home highlights the differences between the two experiences as well as the monetary difference between the white pebbles like "silver pennies," and the wealth of the gems.  
Chaos theory affords numerous avenues for potential interpretations, but one way to look at Hansel and Gretel is like the Russian doll sets: there is a big doll, with a smaller, identical doll inside it, with a smaller, identical doll inside it, etc., and the story presents us with the same kind of large pattern, and smaller patterns of it within the narrative, etc. The mother and father are what Hansel and Gretel would become if they follow bad examples of marriage (because marriages have always had problems) and the nagging wife and weak husband synthesizes bad traits into a bad marriage while Hansel and Gretel uncover their inner-virtues to work together and help each other, being a better example of what a good marriage is: not a political or sexual union for wealth or even survival, rather, a bonding of loyalty and selfless fidelity.
Birds eat the trail of crumbs. Why? Spiritually speaking, Hansel depends on himself here, but the Holy Spirit (discussed below towards the end) wants to be trusted and therefore takes away our ability to provide for our self so we must turn to God for our needs. The "thousand" birds of the forest eating the crumbs echoes the language of the Bible (especially the Old Testament, when armies would march against Israel and the death toll was recorded). Again, the many birds suggest this tragedy is in God's planning for the children so they can return to God the Father before returning to their earthly father. The mother/witch, then, symbolizes the world in this context because of the extremes of worldly burdens both women represent in the story (poverty and wealth).
We can see little Hansel gathering pebbles to be more resourceful than his father gathering wood: while the young Hansel is thrown into a more dire situation and saves himself and his sister, the father isn't capable of providing the basics to feed his family. While the mother knows the father is weak, and clearly sees how far she can push him (the opposite of the witch's poor eyesight), Hansel uses weakness as a virtue in showing the thin bone to the witch to keep himself alive, whereas the father's feebleness he displays to his wife only causes him anguish. On the other hand, while the mother sits up at night plotting against her own children because she doesn't trust her husband can/will provide, Gretel sleeps trusting her brother will save her. Whereas the mother/witch all the children names including "goose" before the oven's fire, Gretel calls out and a swan appears on the water. Whereas the father is trapped in his impoverished marriage, Hansel is freed from his cage by Gretel. Once the mother/witch has been destroyed, Gretel is free to grow up to be a virtuous woman, Hansel won't be eaten like his father and the father is once again head of the household. 
In this illustration, we see a gingerbread house more "bread" than ginger: "they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar." The house being made of the same food they go without, and the same food they share, actually fits the story better than gingerbread. Why? If the story originated during medieval times, than the Roman Catholic church was the dominate religion (no other denominations of Christianity yet existed; all Christians were Catholic at this time). The Eucharist is the consecrated Body of Christ, so a house made of bread--the food peasants consumed each day--might be seen as an alternative church, either a life in the world and not a spiritual life, or an actual alternative church. After the Protestant Reformation began, and groups started splitting away from the Catholic Church to start their own churches, its possible--since bread plays such an important role in the story and the Eucharist was an important point in Protestant debates--that the story took on the historical significance of that time in later versions. Depending upon which church you belonged to, one could make the Catholics out to be the witch, or Protestants, but this historical angle is another valid venue of interpretation.  Since the Eucharist is THE Body of Christ, and the witch proposes to commit cannibalism with Hansel's and Gretel's bodies, this perspective probes a new way of explaining that detail of the story.
As I have said in the past, in whatever format, art is essential for life, because more than any other human endeavor, it offers each individual the chance for self-knowledge by the manner how and what we reflect upon: in other words, we can only see in art what we have within ourselves, but we wouldn't know it was a part of us, without the mirror of art. Without self-knowledge, we cannot know our gifts and and dreams, virtues and vices, so we cannot fulfill our destiny; because of this, there is never a "right" or "wrong" interpretation, and all interpretations are valid as long as they utilize as many elements of the art work as possible and nothing within the artwork flat-out contradicts the interpretation. Having said that, since the story references God so many times, being a Christian, I would like to apply a moralist reading.
This isn't a great illustration, but the best I could find. In today's culture, there is more sweet stuff on the "candy cottage" and not just a house of bread. Why? In the film Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, the cottage is covered in sweet stuff and this evolution of a story detail indicates a divergence from the original so we today can express our  culture and our traits as a society; the question is, what does the candy reveal about us? I will leave that to you as food for thought,...
There is a continual repetition of occurrences: two times the children are left in the woods, two times they come home, Hansel leaves two trails, etc. Perhaps the most rewarding method of reading the story is as the traditional battle between earthly cares and spiritual battles. There are two ways we can be spiritually destroyed: first, being crushed by poverty, secondly, being crushed by riches and Hansel and Gretel illustrates both examples. The mother and father are crushed by their poverty in not turning to God to provide food for them even though that's a lesson that even young Hansel knows (when he encourages Gretel to trust in God). Proof of this is in the recovery of the family after leaving Hansel and Gretel the first time in the woods and the children successfully fending for themselves and finding their way back home. The mother, however, instead of learning the value of faith, only learned the mean lesson of locking the children in their rooms. Is this why the mother dies? No, the mother--in typical artistic fashion--dies because she is all ready dead. If any character dies in a work of art, it is because the artist "embodies" that character with unacceptable behavior to demonstrate why that type of behavior is death itself. We can support this by the fact that when the children finally return home, the mother has died and no cause of death is given (explicitly) except that we know she exhibited intolerable behavior.
Being locked up insures Hansel won't become like his father  because of the way Hansel has experienced being enslaved to his appetites but not having been through the difficult way like Hansel, the father doesn't realize he is enslaved.
Let's admit it: life was hard in medieval times. Infant mortality was high, sickness was common and cruel, something as simple as a broken arm could lead to death, invasions and famine were common place. Just as we might think of money solving our problems today, so a medieval peasants might think a house made of food would solve their problems then. Hansel and Gretel, then, can be seen as a story of encouragement to examine the hard facts of life--starvation and poverty--and see how God brings good from the worst situations, and how what might seem like a good situation--finding a house made of food when you are starving--is not a good situation; this presented morality introduces the theme of "seeing" into the narrative. The old witch cannot "see" but Hansel can see how to find his way back home (with pebbles and bread crumbs) and how to fool the witch (the bone) and Gretel can see how to get rid of the old witch and cross the pond that has no bridge. These examples point to a "wisdom tale" because we have the figure of "the fool" (the father) with both the wife and witch taking the children to be fools but he children playing the wife/witch to be the actual fools. So where does wisdom come from?
The birds.
What would be the fire of hell for Gretel becomes the fire of purgatory when she pushes the witch in and kills her. The house of "earthly food"--had Gretel continued to eat of it--would have killed her soul and then, she would not only have lost herself, but would not have been able to save Hansel. The witch calling Gretel a "stupid goose" is the witch's denial of the Holy Spirit in Gretel's soul because a goose is not an example of a "graceful bird," and, being a witch, the woman would not be God-fearing. So defeating the witch is also Gretel overcoming the temptation of not believing in her immortal soul and castigating the witch to hell so Gretel can saver herself.
As stated in one of the captions above, the multiple roles of birds within the text supports interpreting the iconography (symbols) as the Holy Spirit. Why would the beautiful bird, singing the beautiful song, lead the children to the candy cottage of the witch IF that bird symbolizes the Holy Spirit? Because the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, and we are not likely to chose the path that leads to real life and real freedom because--like the suffering and trials of the children in the witch's cottage--that way is too hard. Just like the bird leading the children to the witch's cottage (and Jesus being led by the Spirit into the Wilderness after His Baptism)  the Holy Spirit sings our heart a beautiful song we follow (it may be the hope of love, a career path, a financial decision, anything which --had we known what the outcome would be before--we would not have chosen for ourselves, but the Holy Spirit does chose that for us because we will come out better for it (this is a theme we will be exploring in The Hobbit and the contract Bilbo has to sign).  
The last issue is the theme of "There and back again," as JRR Tolkien calls it. Just as Bilbo Baggins is led away from The Shire on an adventure in The Hobbit, so God led Abraham from Canaan only to bring his family back there, and led Moses from Egypt only to take him back to save the Children of Israel before leading them back to Israel; why? It's a way for us to realize what God has accomplished and how much bigger we are as people after His plan for us has been completed; the jewels the children come home with attests to how they have been "enriched" in their souls by the experience because they are being re-united with God the "Father" in the person of their father. 
All fairy tales contain lessons highlighting moral and immoral behavior and the consequences. Employing various models of interpretation sheds light on narrative traits otherwise obscured. Most importantly, however, the tales reflect our own beliefs and morals back on us, revealing what we think and believe when we least expect it. Some important changes were made to Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, and many details added, so now that we know the story in its original format, we can see how it's been adapted to reflect our culture today!
Eta Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner