by: Martha Johnson-Olin (Author)
A Story Capable of Enchanting the World: Cinderella and Its Many VariationsCinderella remains one of the most popular fairy tales. The story of a young protagonist who suffers at the hands of her immediate family before attending a public gathering and marrying royalty spans the globe. Every culture possesses a Cinderella story, and the tale’s components reflect its international and timeless history.
The StoryThe Protagonist
The story usually focuses on a young woman, and Cinderella is the female protagonist in the vast majority of versions. That said, many cultures tell of male Cinderella characters. For every maiden who weeps at the grave of her mother, an Irish cinder lad travels with his protective bull to leave his stepfamily behind.
When the father remarries, he chooses a woman with two daughters, and the stepmother does not accept Cinderella. The new female head of the household rejects the protagonist and works to restructure the home and social status the maiden has known. This destruction can range from making her cook and clean, to taunts and insults, to physical abuse, including starvation or beatings.
Although the Disney version includes the death of both parents, the heroine’s father lives in the majority of classic renditions; thus, Cinderella becomes isolated, having lost home, safety, security, freedom, and family when strangers invade her household. Although her stepsisters can be half or biological sisters, these rival siblings usually arrive from outside the home to contrast how little of the heroine’s natal environment remains.
Despite her hard work and toil, Cinderella remains beautiful. The heroine’s physicality can be read as a sign of her innate nobility. Storytellers focus on her equally attractive actions to contrast how she behaves in relation to her horrifying stepsisters. At times, the protagonist also appears naïve as she begs to go to the ball when the stepmother has already taken other sources of happiness, but often, her perpetual positive nature and willingness to forgive is part of the larger plot. Additionally, not every Cinderella is nice. One rare Italian story contains a heroine who is quite spoiled and terrorizes her biological sisters, even after they wanted her to attend the ball. The main character and her stepsisters are foils. Where one is beautiful, the others are ugly, and although many variants, including the Grimm rendition, will include the beauty of the stepsisters in relation to their wicked actions, many shorter tales rely on a binary of beauty and ugliness to equate behavior and physical attributes.
The Stepmother and Stepsisters
The presence of the stepmother also introduces rivalry to the story. Whether the Cinderella character competes for her father’s affections or for the ability to sleep in her own bed, she must compete against other female figures.
Some versions position this competition between the mothers. The stepmother tries to eradicate the influence of the first wife, and the stepsisters serve as extensions of her will. Other versions give the stepsisters more individuality, and one of the distinctions of the Perrault retelling is that the second stepsister is not as cruel to the protagonist as the elder.
Modern retellings sometimes position all of the children against the stepmother, but the idea of competition never leaves the tale. The protagonist must compete for what little she possesses.
Time at the Hearth
It is from this time of subjugation that the heroine takes her name: Cinderella, Ashputtle, Cendrillon, all imply a relationship with ashes. Cinderella must enter a time of darkness to return to a lifestyle of wealth and stability.
This waiting, however, can be read as a sign of passivity or as a source of strength. When read as a sign of weakness, the heroine’s years of waiting are attributed to a desire to be rescued and understood as her acceptance of her lot until the fairy godmother appears. The tears that water the tree she plants at the grave of her mother are just tears with no ending or escape possible.
If read as a source of strength, the maiden’s time at the ashes can take on a new meaning. Cinderella characters face years of torment and suffering, but their essence can be compared with that of a burning ember, waiting for new material to reignite a flame. The waiting can be as much calculation as subjugation. These protagonists often mock their stepsisters, escape from home for at least a few hours, and state their case clearly when additional help finally arrives.
The Fairy Godmother
This figure assists the protagonist, but its form varies. In many classic versions, the fairy godmother is an animal helper with the type varying across the world. Eagles, frogs, fish, and birds are all common forms for this character.
It is because of the Perrault version or through exposure to Disney films that many people tend to assume the fairy godmother must be a person. This character becomes an individual who happens to be endowed with magic and is sympathetic to Cinderella’s plight.
Some retellings, including the Grimm variant, combine these positions as the mother’s sprit inhabits an animal’s form, so the protagonist’s birth mother watches over her from the grave. The theme of transformation that is so central to the story begins with the presence of this agent of change.
At times, this character arrives on the scene suddenly, helping the protagonist and disappearing from the text. Other times, the Cinderella character earns her assistance by feeding scraps of food to an animal helper who then acts on her behalf. Regardless of the character’s form, the fairy godmother makes it possible for Cinderella to attend the ball. The heroine receives several dresses, which are always made from rare, expensive materials, and new shoes. Her transformation is temporary at this point, but the arrival of the fairy godmother signals that her time at the hearth will soon end.
This event takes many forms: a festival, a bride-finding ball, or a Sunday mass, and most male Cinderella variants omit this element. Yet, despite the variety of forms, the ball has come to be the iconic moment that illustrators choose to represent the tale. Numerous artists show Cinderella preparing for the ball, dancing with the prince, or running down the steps at midnight.
The ball has also become linked with time because a few of the more famous retellings contain a provision that Cinderella must leave by midnight; hence, the image of a clock striking twelve that surprises the heroine is as famous as the slipper or the ugly stepsisters.
The ball is only the tale’s halfway point. It serves to introduce the protagonist and the prince, but many versions contain festivals that span several nights or include other elements between the ball and the story’s resolution. The ball is not the point of a Cinderella tale; it merely creates an opportunity for further change.
Cinderella consistently loses something at the ball, and that item becomes the means by which the Prince will locate her. While most versions use a slipper, the items take many forms from a nose ring in one older version to a cell phone in a film variant. The point is the search not the item itself.
The slipper can also lead to a subtheme of mutilation. Although many versions mention that a few women tried to cut off part of their feet to wear the shoe, the Grimm variant features a more graphic depiction of the stepmother and sisters trying to cut off a toe and heel in desperate attempts to marry the prince. Whether the prince notices the blood, birds announce the deception, or Cinderella reveals herself with her other shoe, the slipper leads to the reunion of the protagonist and the love interest.
While many versions end with the wedding, this plot element serves a dual purpose.
If the story ends with marriage, then the heroine’s future has been secured. Her temporary transformation at the ball becomes stable as her wealth no longer disappears at midnight. Some animal helpers even move in with the heroine to continue to provide advice after the wedding.
The marriage can also create two other opportunities for vengeance. The Grimm version is famous for its ending that includes the doves blinding the stepsisters with the theme of competition reaching its pinnacle as the stepsisters are maimed for their treatment of the heroine. Their mother is also punished via the harm to her daughters.
Many classic versions include another episode before the tale’s resolution where the stepfamily attempts to harm the Cinderella character again. They often try to replace the heroine with the stepsister after the main character is swallowed by a whale, killed, or somehow removed from the prince’s household. Their plan never works, and the stepsister who replaces the heroine is almost always killed quite violently.
Other Types of Cinderella StoriesCatskin Cinderellas
In this tale type, the heroine must flee her father’s incestuous desire. After the protagonist’s mother dies, the incest plot begins. Sometimes the mother demands that the king marry someone who is as beautiful as his first wife; other times the second spouse must be able to wear a particular ring, anklet, or other token, and after much searching, no one besides the king’s daughter can wear the item. In many of the versions, the king or his councilors try to justify the incest, but in several, the father is as horrified by the pending marriage as the maiden. Occasionally the incestuous desire is replaced by an unsuitable spouse.
This tale type creates space for the protagonist’s agency as the heroine, sometimes prompted by a fairy godmother, asks for a series of dresses before the wedding can occur. These dresses echo the traditional Cinderella story, for they are always of the rarest, most expensive materials and are often made to resemble the sun, moon, and stars.
It is the last dress that is the most important, however. The protagonist also asks for a dress made of another set of materials, often animal skins, but other items are used as well. This dress is often part of a desire to stall the wedding on the heroine’s part, and most of the variants take their titles from this final gown: “Allerleirauh” and “Donkeyskin” are two of the most famous versions.
Once the final gown is complete, the heroine leaves home while disguised in her animal skin cloak. She eventually finds work doing the lowliest of chores at a castle where she is abused for her ugly appearance. A few of the heroines in this tale type change into their gowns on Sundays for themselves, leading to their encounters with their prince, but most end up sneaking away from the kitchen to dance with him at a series of balls similar to the traditional Cinderella storyline. The young women also sometimes use riddles to make their princes figure out who they are and where they live.
While a few of these variants offer reconciliation with the heroine’s father, that does not occur consistently.
This sub-variant is similar to the Catskin Cinderella tale, but it possesses two key differences.
The father’s desire is unnatural but not incestuous; instead, he asks each of his daughters to explain how much they love him. He wants to see which one loves him best. The elder two boast about their reams of affection, but the youngest refuses to brag. She claims to love him as much as is proper for a daughter toward her father, and her parent will cast her out for her honesty. She often travels in disguise similar to the Catskin heroines.
Either because he regrets his anger or because the other sisters have deserted the father, he will travel to another kingdom, where the heroine has won a husband similar to the Catskin tales, and the protagonist will forgive the father but remind him that she loves him as much as is proper.
One Eye, Two Eye, Three Eyes
This similar tale involves a more unusual world where people are routinely born with one and three eyes. The mother and sisters disparage the two-eyed daughter, and she is forced to cook, clean, and endure the same abuses as other Cinderella heroines.
With assistance from an animal helper, the heroine will have an opportunity to change her fate, when a magical tree appears that only she can climb. A prince comes by and wants the tree’s fruit and is enchanted by the main character’s beauty. The heroine frequently forgives and takes in her siblings after they encounter less success.
Although most people do not think of male protagonists when they think of Cinderella stories today, many cultures tell Cinderella tales centered around men. The tale type is associated with the story of “The Little Red Ox,” but many other versions exist.
The plot resembles that of the traditional Cinderella heroine, but it contains two exceptions. The fairy godmother is more often an animal helper who is not related to the child. Sometimes, he is given a bull as a pet by his mother before she passes, or a magical cow decides to aid the starving child.
These stories also do not usually contain a ball, although some have a public gathering. The hero can end up covered in gold as happens in an Indian version or earns fine clothes through helping another before his marriage and social elevation occur, but the slipper test and vengeance common to many Cinderella stories does not appear.
How this Website WorksThis site represents a starting point for students and scholars of folklore, fairy tale enthusiasts, and anyone wanting to explore the sense of magic that precedes the moment when a pumpkin becomes a coach and rags become a beautiful gown.
Cinderella remains one of the most popular fairy tales, and the story occurs in films, novels, cartoons, and other genres. This website is divided into sections depending on what medium one wants to explore. When possible, bibliographic information is provided for each entry to make it easier for others to locate each item referenced.
Cinderella, however, is not the only popular fairy tale, and the site also contains a large discussion of Beauty and the Beast, and analysis and examples of other tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White, are forthcoming.
Below is a brief description of the major sections:
Artists and Images
This section focuses on illustrations from many older publications. Examples include Harry Clarke, Walter Crane, and George Cruikshank. The images do not focus on Cinderella exclusively, but one can see which moments in a tale tend to capture an illustrator’s imagination.
Basic European Texts
Examples of classic versions are found in this area. Basile, Perrault, and Grimm all appear with information about key editions and publications. Some tales with similar themes are also offered for comparison.
Biography, Criticism, and Theory and Analysis
This subdivision focuses on fairy tale analysis. It contains a brief section on other websites, but the majority of this vast section refers to fairy tale criticism. Zipes, Dundes, Bettelheim, and Yolen all are represented. While much of the material is Cinderella specific, many of the texts mentioned contain discussions of or apply to other tales as well.
Modern Collections of Cinderella Narratives
This section focuses on contemporary collections. Several scholars have worked to gather variants from around the world, and this section is useful to anyone wanting to compare versions or to locate a tale from a specific region.
Cinderella continues to be retold, and many modern revisions add horror, science fiction, and erotic elements. This section focuses on modern short stories and novels. The annotations in this area help to signal changes to the story and themes along with some indication of the child, teen, or adult audience the work addresses.
Drama, Film, Television, Cartoons and Advertisements
This section divides into three sub-areas. Drama focuses on plays that retell or transform the Cinderella story, but it excludes pantomimes, which has its own section. The subdivision for Movies and Television looks at visual work and how Cinderella variants are retold in these mediums. The section on Cartoons and Advertisements examines how the Cinderella story manifests in popular culture.
This section looks at the many ways Cinderella is marketed to children. It includes examples of toys, pop-up books, coloring books, etc., but it seeks to explore more than Disney Princess merchandise. The items depicted illustrate moments from a variety of retellings.
Musical Compositions and Dances
This section includes four smaller areas: Music Compositions; Ballet; Popular Music and Hard Rock; Opera and Musical Comedy. Cinderella is performed in many mediums, and this section explores the musical inventions of the tale.
Sources and Analogues
This section offers discussions of Ancient and Medieval and Renaissance source texts for the Cinderella stories. While no one story can be proven as the exact origin for a tale, these sources reveal how long the themes common to the story have been circulating. They also show the fluidity of gender and the protagonist more than many contemporary retellings.
Pantomime, Burlesque, and Children’s Drama
This section explores productions of the story directed at children. The pantomime section, in particular, contains information about several decades worth of Cinderella productions, and when possible production and cast information is also provided.
Modern Children’s Editions and Adaptations
This section focuses on children’s retellings and also offers examples of specific tales from around the world. Examples of Cinderella variants, such as the Catskin Cinderella, and of specific regional variants, such as the Nigerian “The Maiden, the Frog, and the Chief’s Son,” occur here.
University of Rochester Student Projects
This section reflects the site’s history with the work of three students who provided annotations and information for the project. Katherine Marsh would produce the earliest version of the Artist Menu, and Erin McCrossan and John Geck researched Cinderella romance novels and the work of Horatio Alger, Jr., respectively.
Beauty and the Beast
This section encompasses another extremely popular tale type. It includes the varied forms this story can take along with examples of modern revisions, film, and television productions.
Other Tales (Coming Soon)
This site remains active, and as time allows, it will grow to encompass other tales, especially those containing female-driven storylines.
Potomac State College of West Virginia University