Thursday, September 6, 2012

Little Red Riding Hood

This week in my class I'm teaching Little Red Riding Hood.

I love being able to say that.

Our text for this section of the course is the Norton Critical Edition of The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by the brilliant Maria Tatar, who organized the Harvard University symposium on fairy tales in honor of the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the Grimm Brothers' Nursery and Household Tales; in eager anticipation of teaching this course, I attended that symposium last winter.

My students read six different versions of Little Red Riding Hood: an early oral version of the tale, "The Story of Grandmother," transcribed by a scholar of folklore; Charles Perrault's late 17th century French retelling; the early nineteenth-century Grimm version; an Italian version retold by Italo Calvino; a Chinese version told by Chiang Mi, and humorous renderings of the tale by James Thurber and Roald Dahl.

We looked at two psychoanalytic readings of the tale as revealing deep, universal, timeless feature of the human unconscious. In Eric Fromm's reading, the color of Little Red Riding Hood's signature garment is important: the color of menstruation, marking the onset of puberty; here her mother's warning not to stray off the path lest she "fall and break the glass" [of wine she is carrying to her grandmother] carries a warning about lost virginity. In Bruno Bettelheim's reading, the tale reveals Oedipal-stage anxieties for LRRH to vanquish her mother [grandmother] and sleep with her father [wolf[.

We read an analysis of the difference between Perrault's version and the Grimm version that focused on differences in French versus German national character: the French offer more humor, the Germans offer more terror. Another analysis of the difference between Perrault and Grimm focused not on national identity but on changing constructions of childhood over the more than a century that separates them. Perrault is telling his tale primarily to a sophisticated Parisian salon audience, winking over the heads of children to spin out a moral to young ladies that "tame wolves are the most dangerous of all." The Grimms are more intent on telling children to obey their  mothers.

And James Thurber concludes his brief retelling in this way:

She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf; for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion look like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead. Moral: it is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be. 

In their short response papers on the tale, one student wrote about which versions of the tale were more "wolf-centric" versus "little red-centric." Another wrote her own version of the tale in which LRRH is noteworthy not for her beauty but her kindness; her mother walks with her to grandmother's house and gives her much clearer warnings about how and why to avoid wolves; and when they do encounter a wolf, LRRH is able to tame him through kindness.

I love my class!

No comments:

Post a Comment