Does Anne Sexton Still Deliver A Fairy Tale Punch?

Fairy tales serve as powerful archetypes for me.

I’ve written before how the Little Red Riding Hood image is at the center of the story I am shaping into a book-length memoir (link to post).  The girl, the wolf, the grandmother, the danger, and the huntsman are all there.  In my post which describes how I found out I am a Highly Sensitive Person, I wrote about the function of “The Princess and the Pea,” and how I go through my life-like the girl who feels the pea underneath all those mattresses and featherbeds. In my last post, I wrote about my terror at meeting Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.

So it’s probably not a surprise that I love to read different versions of these tales. There are a lot of movies which remake the old stories. Ever After might be one of the most popular, but there have been many versions of the Snow White and Cinderella stories.  If you want to watch a really creepy Red Riding Hood tale, check out Reese Witherspoon in Freeway.

Because the majority of these tales originated either from the ancient oral tradition of storytelling or from storytellers who lived hundreds of years ago, the cultural mores and expectations are different from those of today.  That’s why seeing them through modern eyes, such as witnessing the Rapunzel character in Tangled showing herself to be the opposite of the helpless princess of days gone by, can be very satisfying.

Library shelves are jam-packed with picture book versions of these traditional stories which have been re-told, either by staying true to the original or by updating to conform to today’s viewpoints.  There are also feminist versions for adults, such as are found side by side with the classic versions in Maria Tatar’s The Classic Fairy Tales.

Some of my favorites are the poems by Anne Sexton.  She based each poem on a Grimm Brothers fairy tale.  Note: these are not Disney versions.

Sexton passed away in 1974, and her book of fairy tale poems, titled Transformations, was published in 1972. So there are some dated references.  At the very ending of “Cinderella,” Cindy and the prince are described this way:

Cinderella and the prince

lived, they say, happily ever after,

like two dolls in a museum case

never bothered by diapers or dust,

never arguing over the timing of an egg,

never telling the same story twice,

never getting a middle- aged spread,

their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.

Regular Bobbsey Twins.

That story.

Clearly, to understand the reference, a reader needs to know who the Bobbsey Twins were. The Bobbsey Twins books were a series developed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate in the early 20th century.  The twins were two sets of twins which comprised, with their parents, the Bobbsey family. They were a younger reader version of books like the Nancy Drew books, which were also Stratemeyer books.  The term “Bobbsey Twins” has been used for decades to mean two people who are a lot alike, such as “two peas in a pod.”

For fun, here’s the full text of Sexton’s Snow White version.  See what you think–is it still relevant?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

by Anne Sexton

No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin Du Rhône,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes
open and shut.
Open to say, 
Good Day Mama,
and shut for the thrust
of the unicorn.
She is unsoiled.
She is as white as a bonefish.

Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother,
a beauty in her own right,
though eaten, of course, by age,
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.
Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.
The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred--
something like the weather forecast--
a mirror that proclaimed 
the one beauty of the land.
She would ask,
Looking glass upon the wall,
who is fairest of us all?
And the mirror would reply,
You are the fairest of us all.
Pride pumped in her like poison.

Suddenly one day the mirror replied,
Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true,
but Snow White is fairer than you.
Until that moment Snow White
had been no more important
than a dust mouse under the bed.
But now the queen saw brown spots on her hand
and four whiskers over her lip
so she condemned Snow White
to be hacked to death.
Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter,
and I will salt it and eat it.
The hunter, however, let his prisoner go
and brought a boar's heart back to the castle.
The queen chewed it up like a cube steak.
Now I am fairest, she said,
lapping her slim white fingers.

Snow White walked in the wildwood
for weeks and weeks.
At each turn there were twenty doorways
and at each stood a hungry wolf,
his tongue lolling out like a worm.
The birds called out lewdly,
talking like pink parrots,
and the snakes hung down in loops,
each a noose for her sweet white neck.
On the seventh week
she came to the seventh mountain
and there she found the dwarf house.
It was as droll as a honeymoon cottage
and completely equipped with
seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks
and seven chamber pots.
Snow White ate seven chicken livers
and lay down, at last, to sleep.

The dwarfs, those little hot dogs,
walked three times around Snow White,
the sleeping virgin.  They were wise
and wattled like small czars.
Yes.  It's a good omen,
they said, and will bring us luck.
They stood on tiptoes to watch
Snow White wake up.  She told them
about the mirror and the killer-queen
and they asked her to stay and keep house.
Beware of your stepmother,
they said.
Soon she will know you are here.
While we are away in the mines
during the day, you must not
open the door.

Looking glass upon the wall . . .
The mirror told
and so the queen dressed herself in rags
and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White.
She went across seven mountains.
She came to the dwarf house
and Snow White opened the door
and bought a bit of lacing.
The queen fastened it tightly
around her bodice,
as tight as an Ace bandage,
so tight that Snow White swooned.
She lay on the floor, a plucked daisy.
When the dwarfs came home they undid the lace
and she revived miraculously.
She was as full of life as soda pop.
Beware of your stepmother,
they said.
She will try once more.

Looking glass upon the wall. . .
Once more the mirror told
and once more the queen dressed in rags
and once more Snow White opened the door.
This time she bought a poison comb, 
a curved eight-inch scorpion,
and put it in her hair and swooned again.
The dwarfs returned and took out the comb
and she revived miraculously.
She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie.
Beware, beware, they said,
but the mirror told,
the queen came,
Snow White, the dumb bunny,
opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.
When the dwarfs returned
they undid her bodice,
they looked for a comb,
but it did no good.
Though they washed her with wine
and rubbed her with butter
it was to no avail.
She lay as still as a gold piece.The seven dwarfs could not bring themselves
to bury her in the black ground
so they made a glass coffin
and set it upon the seventh mountain
so that all who passed by
could peek in upon her beauty.
A prince came one June day
and would not budge.
He stayed so long his hair turned green
and still he would not leave.
The dwarfs took pity upon him
and gave him the glass Snow White--
its doll's eyes shut forever--
to keep in his far-off castle.
As the prince's men carried the coffin
they stumbled and dropped it
and the chunk of apple flew out
of her throat and she woke up miraculously.And thus Snow White became the prince's bride.
The wicked queen was invited to the wedding feast
and when she arrived there were
red-hot iron shoes,
in the manner of red-hot roller skates,
clamped upon her feet.
First your toes will smoke
and then your heels will turn black
and you will fry upward like a frog,
she was told.
And so she danced until she was dead,
a subterranean figure,
her tongue flicking in and out
like a gas jet.
Meanwhile Snow White held court,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.

12 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Vintage American culture, Writing

12 responses to “Does Anne Sexton Still Deliver A Fairy Tale Punch?

  1. jeannieunbottled

    I loved that. Getting old myself, I appreciated it all. I think I’ll go watch “Freeway”….

    • Luanne

      Another word for Freeway besides creepy might be disgusting. Don’t blame me if you spend money on it and hate it. You will hate it. But it’s also fascinating, especially watching how Witherspoon handles the role, which is well, very well. A red riding hood movie I loved, even though others I know did not, was oh no–I can’t remember what it’s called. It was a contemporary action movie and it started with the girl with her father living in the woods in the middle of nowhere. What was it called? Also, Red Riding Hood with Amanda Seyfriend was good.

      • jeannieunbottled

        Red Riding Hood is a kind of quest– to get to Gramma’s. It’s also a travel story with some unexpected difficulties. It’s those thing and more.

  2. Wow! I may have to reread this later! I liked the Bobbsey Twins but you are so right, a lot of our readers/ followers may not be acquainted with them. I like any retelling that is positive. I like the retelling of Shakespeare in different times and periods. I do like “10 Things I Hate About You” because Julia Stiles does a great job as “Kate” and I also like the musical “Kiss Me Kate” both, of course based on “Taming of the Shrew.” Fairy tales retold like the movie, “Freeway,” I am not sure I would have recognized that IF I had even seen it!This post is excellent and I applaud your own novel way of incorporating Little Red Riding Hood into your memoir!

    • Luanne

      Me too!! I love 10 Things I Hate About You! Kiss Me, Kate too, although it’s so sexist (like the original). Thanks so much and for your support too xo!

      • I was hesitant to admit liking those versions, so glad you also do like them. In Schiller Park, Columbus, Ohio they have a wonderful free live Actors’ Theatre which includes Shakespeare. Speaking of the sexist part of “Taming of the Shrew” I do think they both learn a little how to bend and give. But the version that Schiller Park had when I took my three children years ago, was one of my favorites because Katherine or Kate
        wore jodphurs and had a riding whip! It was amusing and clean, fun! I think it was set in the 1800’s.

  3. Great post, Luanne. Brought back memories of books I had forgotten about.I may re-read them for fun. You and I are more alike than either of us realize. Barry jokes with me about being the Princess from the Princess and the Pea. Thanks for reconnecting a few memories. Jill xo

I'd love to hear your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s