by J.D. Stephen Flynn
Fairy tales have qualities that should be taken more seriously. In both fairy tale and myth there is much to be discovered about ourselves. I suggest that the whole fairy tale be interpreted as part of an individual’s psyche. Each figure within the story impacts on the whole, each turn of event has a cause and effect, forming or conforming to patterns that unfold towards a workable unity, just as “the Self” seeks resolution (Jung 1960: 316). I suggest that a chart of the path our heroine Snow White took could also be used as a guide for therapists working clinically with people suffering from neurosis. However, Marie- Louise von Franz (1980) reminds us that the figures in the fairy tale, and in myth alike, lack personality and cannot be compared directly with the human ego. Nevertheless, taking these limitations into account, I suggest that collectively these tales offer insight into, and a blue-print for, the psyche’s pathway to maturity.
A Jungian analysis of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs
The Opies tell us that the story of Snow White can be found with little variation all over the world “…from Ireland to Asia Minor and in several parts of North and West Africa” (Opie & Opie, 1980: 227). So, we are dealing with a fairy tale which has a lot of meaning for many people, and like myth, it continues to fascinate. Perhaps they are ‘invented’ to show us something of ourselves and, perhaps also, these simple stories are, as C. G. Jung considers myth to be, the “…unconscious expressions of ourselves…” (Jung & Kerényi, 1993: 162). In this Jungian context I use the term ‘anima’ to represent archetypal feminine qualities, acknowledging that development of the feminine within a person demands a parallel development of the masculine and vice versa. The anima is “irrespective of gender” (Jung, 1960: 345). That is, within each person resides both the feminine and masculine and, as I demonstrate herein, development of one demands the development of the other in parallel. I use the Jungian terms ‘anima’ and ‘animus’ to describe the development of our heroine, rather than woman/ man, boy/girl. This is consistent with Jung’s definition of the anima as “the personification of the unconscious” (Jung, 1983: 42), whereas the animus within the woman refers to men “…more often as a group or crowd” (Jung, 1983: 41), which becomes evident as the tale progresses.
Here is a brief reminder of the story
Three women are depicted in this story:
The first, a mother who dies in child birth.
The second, a child bereft of a birthmother.
The third, the ‘wicked stepmother’ whose sole task is to usurp our heroine, in this case, Snow White.
Our tale starts with the depiction of a young queen who sat sewing by a window in mid- winter, using an ebony embroidery frame. She pricked her finger and seeing the red blood, made a wish that the child within her should have skin as white as the snow, with cheeks as red as the blood and hair and eyes as black as the ebony frame. Subsequently, a daughter was born with the gifts the queen wished for, but she herself died at the birth. A year later, the king married again.
His new queen was very beautiful, but vain and proud. She relied on a magic mirror to assure her of her supremacy in beauty.
When Snow White was seven years old, the magic mirror told the queen that her stepdaughter had surpassed her in beauty. The queen fell into a rage and sent for a huntsman, and ordered him to take Snow White into the forest and kill her. He could not bring himself to carry out her order, but left her in the forest. Eventually, Snow White stumbled across a cottage wherein lived seven dwarfs. She was invited to stay in return for housekeeping and they undertook to look after her, having heard her story.
Concerned for her safety, they told her she must not allow anyone into the house when they were away working, digging for precious metals in the nearby mountains.
The stepmother queen found out from her magic mirror that Snow White was still alive and still surpassing her in beauty. She made three more attempts to kill her and thought she had succeeded in the fourth attempt with a poisoned apple.
The dwarfs thought Snow White’s seemingly lifeless body was dead and placed her in a glass coffin so that she remained as beautiful as ever. Sometime later a prince came by on a horse, fell in love with Snow White and as he lifted her onto his horse, the piece of poisoned apple fell out of her mouth and she was brought back to life.
The prince took Snow White back to his castle where they were married amidst great rejoicing. The stepmother queen danced herself to death in rage at their wedding.
In psychological terms, what is going on for Snow White?
Our simple story touches on the same archetypal pattern found in the making of a mythical goddess. I contend that these stories follow archetypal patterns we humans needs must tread, albeit in our own unique way, to reach individual fulfillment. The parallel is the same: The “… ‘maid’ transcending to ‘mother’. The metamorphosis of ‘one unfolding of the bud like idea that envisaged the continuity of life in the unity of maiden, mother, and child, a being that dies, gives birth, and comes to life again” (Jung & Kerenyi, 1993: 148). What is involved in achieving the above cannot develop without its counterpart of both masculine and feminine qualities, consequently the fulfillment of ‘the self’ requires parallel development.
Examining the development of the masculine and feminine in the story
Professor Kerényi reminds us that prior to puberty the development of a boy or girl is similar in that “…the role of the child was restricted neither to the male nor the female sex” (Jung & Kerényi, 1993: 147). So initially any child would be faced with the same problems. However, as the story unfolds it becomes evident this is the journey of a maid embracing adulthood. There are ten men in the story, and nine represent weak or inadequate father figures within Snow White. These ten men can be broken down into four stages of development of the masculine within the female, in her striving to become a fully mature woman at the end of the story.
An exploration of the four stages of development
Uniformity starts to emerge when we read how the queen died at the birth of her child and after her death “…the king took another wife” (Grimm, Grimm & Rackman, 1984: 188). This is the only mention of Snow White’s father. He utterly fails to protect his child from the murderous hands of his new wife. This indolent father figure is also shared with Cinderella and perhaps Little Red Riding Hood who does not seem to have a father at all. Common to all these tales is the fact that the negative aspect of the masculine (indolent or non-existent father) cannot be integrated and this results in a denial of the masculine: “…These maidens are always doomed to die, because their exclusive domination of the feminine psyche hinders the individuation process, that is, the maturation of personality’ (Jung & Kerényi, 1993: 172)
The counterbalance to the weak anima at this stage of our tale is the equally weak animus which is inflated, compensating the negative feminine ‘shadow’ which “… is totally unconscious….and …seems to possess a peculiar wisdom of its own…” (Jung, 1981: 233f). In Snow White’s case this negative feminine ‘shadow’ takes the form of the wicked stepmother. The whole story seems to be about Snow White finding her prince, the tenth male figure, before she is able to face and tame her rage within.
If you think about it, the shadow (the wicked queen) is not the legitimate heir to the psyche. She is usurping the ego, and by so doing, is prepared to commit annihilation of her inner child or as Jung puts it, “partial suicide” (Jung & Kerényi, 1993: 110). The wicked queen’s modus operandi includes the notion that “…there is no actual loss of reality, only a falsification of it” (Jung, 1995: 140).
The ego begins its own development when Snow White is seven years old, and it is then that we find terror expressed by our queenly stepmother. This terror can also accommodate jealousy, a lack of love for the child within, which then becomes hateful and murderous “…she would have been ready to tear her heart out of her body” (Grimm, 1984: 189). A rare expression of emotion was whilst Snow White was in the forest, where the story states that she became “…dreadfully frightened, and knew not what to do. She ran on as long as she could until her feet were quite sore; and towards the evening she saw, to her great joy, a pretty little house” (Grimm, 1984: 189).
How many times do we therapists marvel at what our patients have been through? I am often presented with dullness of feeling and at the same time ‘toughness’. This latter quality is the very thing that will take the patient through the analysis to reach integration. It is as though the resilience, or ability to suffer, is equal to the task to be surmounted.
The shadow within, our new usurper queen, is out to destroy Snow White, and has hired the services of the huntsman as the killer. Thus enters the second male figure. He is not as violent as the first, in that he does do something; he refuses to harm her but also fails to protect her, letting her go into unknown danger in the wood. At least he deceives the shadow figure (the usurper queen) and takes back a heart of a deer as a pretense. This involves the first glimmer of awareness on the part of Snow White. She is considered a threat by the shadow figure in her psyche; the wicked stepmother. So, the first state of animus awareness emerges too; the woodsman or huntsman who will do no harm, but will not protect either. This is a transit stage for Snow White as she finds herself wandering in the wilderness of the wood abandoned by adults.
The ego at this stage is under the spell of unknown forces within and is “…being alienated from normal life” (Jung, 1960: 311). Snow White continues ‘hiding in the woods’. All the masculine forces of the father in Snow White are mesmerized by the attributes of beauty, masking the evil content which harboured no warmth of feeling. We are told the shadow queen “…could not endure that anyone should surpass her in beauty” (Grimm et al., 1984: 188). The magic mirror is actually her inner real self, looking back from within the mirror itself. This is indeed a symbol of one aspect of feminine beauty. Jung says of such a woman that they have “…artistry in illusion being a specifically feminine talent…”. However, it seems that if a woman remains content thus “she has no feminine individuality. She is empty and merely glitters – a welcome vessel for masculine projection” (Jung & Kerenyi, 1993: 172-3).
The mirror told the queen she was no longer the best. The first emotion emerges “…the queen was terrified” (Grimm, 1984: 189). Her beauty is also about control, because if she ceases to mesmerise her man, he would ‘see though her’ and all would be lost.
There is maturing within the feminine and masculine at this stage. Snow White meets the animus which “….is undifferentiated and many” (Jung, 1981: 16f)). “The animus also embodies helpful figures…” (Jung, 1960: 347) as the dwarfs proved to be, and thus starts the ego’s road back to recovery. This is where Snow White meets the common man, the vast majority of men, all seven of them! He (the dwarfs) works all day and expects everyone else to do so. Snow White enters a tenancy agreement based on mutual help: She does the housework for her keep and they needs-must work. She is beginning to develop an ego identity; the budding flower is beginning to blossom. The shadow takes up a disguise at this stage too (the wicked queen arriving to the dwarf’s cottage) as the shadow is also becoming aware of the budding ego Snow White. But the dwarfs, half man size as it were, fail to protect Snow White, as all seven of them go to work, even after repeated homicide attempts. Likewise, the feminine is equally as stupid where she obeys the instructions ‘not to open the door’ but opens the window instead, because they never told her not to do that. In this state, although obviously distressed, Snow White is unable to get in touch with her feelings. The split within herself eventually becomes evident. The discovery of the hatred expressed by her own negative mother within, is actually witnessed.
Notice how the feminine shadow includes the ‘glistening’ part of the libido. It allures the masculine with little concern for the more wholesome purpose which should include the need to form an intimate relationship and/or to reproduce. However, in our story the potential of the ego resorts to hiding, and thereby grows up slowly replacing the totally inept animus (the indolent father) with the undifferentiated but helpful dwarfs. (Perhaps the therapist plays the role of the dwarfs retrieving treasures from the unconscious, and the analysand is represented by the ego ‘keeping house’, the temporary safe space). When working with women striving to integrate, the therapist’s task includes helping her to “Keep everything neat and clean and orderly…” (Grimm, 1984: 191) and helping her at the same time to see “…directly that all was not right…” (Opie & Opie, 1974: 232). This latter comment includes looking at the ‘sociology’ of our patients too. The number of times in fairy stories where a girl has a father in name only indicates uniformity “The psychotherapist cannot fail to be impressed when s/he realizes how uniform the unconscious images are despite their surface richness” (Jung, 1995: 175).
Thus the creative dwarfs toil away in secret; the phallus, also working in darkness, begets a living thing; the key unlocks the mysterious forbidden door behind which some wonderful thing awaits discovery.
(Jung, 1995: 124)
(It was only later in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, that the dwarfs received any personality traits whatsoever). For Snow White’s personal growth, her transcendence is dependent on the process of building up the inadequate masculine father through the help of the dwarfs. In the meantime the shadow imposter, having failed the first time, makes a total of four attempts to destroy the ego. The fourth succeeds, she thinks. Snow White has been pursued, robbed of her rights, been misunderstood or failed in her understanding, and yet she has shown few emotions. She did thank the hunter who had been ordered to kill her “…so sweetly…” (Grimm, 1984: 189) for sparing her life.
The fairy story of a young man’s personal development is similar, but he needs must go forth to meet his shadow, as in the case of Jack and the beanstalk (Flynn, 2018), whereas the woman almost invariably remains in the house and is visited by her shadow.
The prince comes into her world only when she is unconscious, before she can lay claim to her birthright as a princess. What luck she had, lying there as dead when the Prince happened to come along, or as Jung would have it “… is there some other nervous substrate in us, apart from the cerebrum, that can think and perceive, or whether the psychic process that go on in us during loss of consciousness are synchronistic phenomena…” (Ibid: 509)
Another pattern common in the fairy story is the notion of hiding or a comatose state of our heroine, which amounts to a special kind of sleep, and even results (as in our case) in the wicked queen stopping scheming too. The ego has now a chance to become redeemable, that is ‘return to life’ and at the same time claim unity with the masculine (the arrival of the prince). United in marriage, they return to put the usurper in her proper place.
Some reflections on the above
The interpretation of the complex (Jung, 1960, describes that complexes “are in fact splinter psyches”: 98; 369) actually dancing itself harmlessly to death from vexation and rage, constitutes the demise of the maiden. Change is death of what went before, ‘her innocence, her naivety’, not her actual death. Significantly, her wedding is taking place at the same time, which indicates the unifying of the feminine and masculine, the maiden embracing womanhood. This is the symbol of the fourth element or fourth stage (as above), the completion.
I have tried to show that the fairy tale has a lot of the hallmarks normally reserved for classical myth. This being so, I suggest that the fairy tale represents “authentic primitive unconscious patterns within the psyche” (Graves, 1999: 411). In fairy stories of anima growth this is singular in regard to the male, by contrast the animus in the female fairy is multiple, represented here by the ten men. Note the progression:
- The first was her father who did absolutely nothing.
- The second man would not hurt Snow White but did little to help her either and let her go in the woods. She did speak to him though, by begging to be let free.
- The third type of man is Mr Majority, the seven dwarves who were much better. They took her in, offered her shelter and advice. They nursed her when she was attacked. However, she gave back (note that this is the first act of communicating with the masculine by her) by looking after their house for them, entering a contract, an agreement. But the dwarfs care for their female charge was incomplete. There was not a ‘full man’ between them.
The fourth was the prince. The tenth male figure to appear, he represents the symbol of completion of unification with the masculine. After all, Snow White is essentially a story for girls, for the female, and it is about the development of the feminine psyche, but the whole story is as relevant to men as it is to women, as I hope I have indicated.
J.D. Stephen Flynn worked as a Social Worker from 1971. He later retrained as a psychodrama psychotherapist and was the first full- time appointee as a psychotherapist in Ireland. He worked with psychiatric outpatients from 1993 to 2008 when he formally retired. Upon retirement he set about offering an immediate therapeutic service to the clinically suicidal, which continues today serving north Cork (See Diadhuit.ie).
A version of this article was previously published by the author in Inside Out, 2006, issue 48.
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