Fairy Tales, Sexuality and Gender in France. – Review

Fairy Tales, Sexuality and Gender in France. – Review – book reviews

Ruth Glass

Fairy Tales, Sexuality and Gender in France. By Lewis C. Seifert. Cambridge Studies in French. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 37.50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0 521 55005

Over recent years fairytales, individually and as a genre, have provided the material for many and varied studies, but few of these have been as thoroughly disciplined, informative and stimulating as this first book by Lewis C. Siefert.

By limiting his study to a specific group of fairytales written for adult readers during a period of twenty-five years at the end of the reign of Louis XIV, Seifert is able to reveal in them many of the myths and ideologies central to that culture, with sexuality and gender as the most dominant. This period (1690-1715) saw the first of two vogues of fairytale publication in France, and Seifert regards these tales, which were a response to a specific cultural climate, as theoretically and structurally more cohesive than those of the second vogue (1730-58).

In his introductory section he notes that, although Charles Perrault is the most renowned of the sixteen writers of the period, the seven conteuses headed by Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy were the most prolific, producing 74 tales while the nine male authors wrote only 38. He asserts that the genre allowed these women writers to demonstrate their own ideas of women’s role in society and literary culture, and also to indicate their awareness not only of the persistence of patriarchy but of its instability. Thus Seifert regards these tales, many of which resolve the conflicts of childhood and adolescence into adulthood, as “instruments of socialisation and acculturation” with the closure of so many of them being an ideal marriage. In the context of his broadly based consideration of the function of the fairytale genre, Seifert examines its role in illustrating the ramifications and the conditions of “proper feminine conduct” (p.175). He also contrasts the complex contemporary reception and production of fairytales by such writers as Angela Carter and Anne Sexton, with their intelligent empowered females who resist passive and victimised roles, with the work of Walt Disney Studios in which such tales present highly conservative gender norms to the mass market.

The subtitle “Nostalgic Utopias” designates the new approach taken in Seifert’s analytical corpus. The work is presented in two parts, “Marvellous Story-telling” and “Marvellous Desires,” which allows the author to argue that it is the element of the marvellous which mediates between nostalgia and utopian longings. In the literary contes de fees under scrutiny he posits “a central ambivalence or tension between nostalgia on the one hand and utopia on the other” (p. 15), which relates to the cultural and social unpredictability of the time. He notes in particular the diametrically opposed desires of gender roles in conservative nostalgia and their more unconventional possibilities in an anticipated Utopia. He suggests that the nostalgia of the tales (“once upon a time”), dismisses the present as decadent, imagines a pastoral setting, and often creates a peasant woman storyteller, so that there it, a fantasised background of the past. This nostalgia he opposes with a Utopia which contests the status quo, and presents an unknown and unattainable closure. He thus describes these fairytales with the oxymoron “nostalgic Utopias” and notes “that nostalgia and Utopia are central not only to late seventeenth century France but to all critical moments of cultural and epistemological change” (p. 18).

The first section considers the development of the fairytale genre in the seventeenth-century French society of weakening aristocratic ideals and hostility to women as writers. Seifert makes distinctions between the textuality of male and female writing and proposes that these fairytales can be interpreted as a form of gendered writing. However, he suggests that the complexity of the material allows for the expression of collective as well as individual desires. As he probes that function of the marvellous within the vogue, where reality and the supernatural sit comfortably together as kings and queens act alongside ogres and witches, he reveals that each tale attempts to resolve a problem in the setting of a mythic past, to produce an ideal solution in an unattainable Utopia; that is, to provide a wish fulfilment.

Seifert risks the assertion that “relatively few critics have recognised the importance of irony” in the contes de fees genre (p. 44) in a chapter which is most illuminating and should be on the reading list of any would-be critic of fairytales. Certainly, for many it is just this irony which ensures the persistence of fairytale metaphors in contemporary culture and literature, and provides some fun for the critic. For those specialising in origins, Seifert places the development of the first vogue within the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes at the end of the seventeenth century, when folkloric tales were held to have as much moral value as classical fables. He reasons that these new fantasies were written in order to provide an evocation of an idealised past and a recognition of a present in decline.

The second part, “Marvellous Desires,” explores the profoundly ambiguous treatment of heterosexual passion, masculinity and femininity, and the ideology of Western romantic love in certain contes de fees. This “myth of heterosexual complementarity” is thoroughly examined. Seifert insists that the quest and the marriage closure which convey the nostalgia and the Utopian longing “enable the protagonists to affirm their sexual identity and to re-establish the familial and social order disrupted at the outset of the narrative” (p. 105). That the idealised couple are most often revealed to be of royal birth allowed the romantic quest to reach the height of social mobility for the largely bourgeois readership. After examining the heroes and heroines of several of the tales, Seifert admits that they “seem to suggest a cultural malaise or even anxiety about the place of sexuality in society” (p. 136), and that the glorification of romantic love does seem to ignore the repression of women.

No feminist could better analyse the role of the male in these tales than Seifert does in the chapter “(De)mystification of masculinity.” He examines “the darkest sides of paternal authority,” “the vulnerability of masculinity,” and how the conteuses “use the fairy tale to distort, as well as to mirror, the patriarchal model” (p. 173). Quite different are his findings on the opposite sex when he continues with “imagining femininity.” Not only does he find that the females seem to dominate the tales, but that their binary structures–fairy godmother/evil fairy, good sister/bad sister–“make a statement about the difficulty of female bonding with patriarchy” (p. 219). These conflicting roles allow for the most extreme of social and psychological behaviour to be presented through their physical suffering and pleasures at a time when “sexuality and gender differences were ever more closely regulated” (p. 221). Thus women writers of the seventeenth-century genre could question the controlling of the body and its social meanings. That they attempted to satisfy nostalgic desires from a mythic past was just as difficult for them, suggests Siefert, as it would be for us to realise our idealised fiction of “traditional family values” today.

For students of folklore, the bibliography provides a wealth of primary and secondary sources. French quotations are followed by a full English translation, and his notes are made easily accessible by direct reference to the page on which they appear. Readers who wish to further their knowledge of literary fairytales and enjoy the experience hugely should award themselves a copy of this most original work.

Ruth Glass, Canterbury

COPYRIGHT 1999 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group