cinderella and her sisters

Have you ever stayed up most of the night reading a book from cover to cover? I did this last night, too caught up in Julia Quinn's retelling of Cinderella to bother with sleep, at least until the book was finished. It's a nice book, in a charming, light-hearted romance novel way, with loveable characters and great pacing. Besides, Cinderella has always been one of my favourite stories. There's something so sacred about it - the good heart, clothed in ashes and rags, whose beauty is seen by the Prince. And the ugly sisters who will (in the original version) mutilate themselves to fit into an idea of beauty which they have completely misunderstood.

I actually have a special sympathy for the ugly sisters. I think they are in some ways just as trapped as Cinderella, except for them cruelty, meanness, covetuousness, and malice are all mixed up in their experience of love. Who amongst us didn't grow up believing everything our mothers told us about ourselves and the world around us? How many of us are pure, resilient, and wise, despite our miseducation?

The ugly sisters want love as much as Cinderella does. But they have been betrayed by the people whose job it is to show them what love really is. It could even be argued that Cinderella is luckier than them. Evil abuses and imprisons her, but it does not invade her heart. She is able to make free choices about herself. Her struggle is a hard one, but she can recognise truth, magic, real love. For the ugly sisters, their imprisonment is so complete, inside and out, that they don't even know they should struggle.

So it seems, often, with this society of ours.

part two here


  1. I think this is so true. In fact I was commenting on another blog about how the wounded become the wounder. Looking at life today, I don't think there has been any great understanding, for instance, of how the world wars affected the children and adults growing in that time, and how that then has shaped societies after. I also want to scream every time I hear someone say, well meaningly, children are resilient. If children truely are, why are there so many adults with issues relating to their childhood?? What we probably mean is we need them to be resilient to assuage our own discomfort, and children can be pretty good at hiding how they really feel.

  2. I love this Sarah, you are absolutely brilliant. A bit off topic (well, sort of)... I love, love fairy tales. When I was 8 or 9 I purchased a magnificent collection of them, and read the book cover to cover so many times that it fell apart. The original (oftentimes gruesome) versions have always been my favorite.
    And I must say, I prefer Snow White over Cinderella. ;)
    Though I didn't entirely miss the point of your post! I agree with you 100%. <3

  3. I've never looked at this story that way before. Yes, I agree. It's worse, and maybe even more common, to not even know a struggle is needed.

  4. whenever i read fairy tales as a child, once i was past the simple stage of just reading to comprehend what happens, i remember thinking "what the hell is wrong with the parents/adults in these stories?"
    step-mothers were uniformly evil to step-children. fathers were uniformly useless to their children at best, tools in the hands of ill-intentioned others, and terrifying threats in their own right at worst. rulers and spouses were blind and untrusting. (or untrustworthy.) the only things protecting the innocent in fairy tale land are their cleverness, occasional animal interventions, the magical protection of a usually deceased mother, or---most often---their own extraordinary purity of heart and forbearance and faithfulness.

    yet in some ways, the tales work because to a child, the world is a confusing place filled with incomprehensible people and actions. my own world happened to be pretty tranquil at home. at school there was a sort of chaos, at least to an introverted only child, and characters who wouldn't have gone amiss in classic fairy tales...("you don't scare me. i was taught by nuns.")

    character does matter. by insisting on pure hearts, compassionate action, patient forbearance rather than returning evil, perhaps the stories were communicating something important. we have plenty of examples of the opposite course of action in the world around us, and we do tend to believe what we are told by our parents/authority figures, and that does shape lives. maybe the cinderellas and other "good" characters are meant as examples of how not to become the ugly step-sisters, by reminding us that there is more going on, that if we persevere and choose not to reflect evil back at others and treat others with love and respect (yes, even wolves or birds and inanimate objects and whimsical old women), at some point we will claim our own power, the power of goodness.

    on the other hand, the stories have a clear message that we need another characteristic than goodness and perseverance...we need to develop discernment! some of those whimsical old women really do intend to eat the innocents, rather than merely testing their characters. some of the wolves are going to eat one, not assist her. no amount of forbearance or goodness is going to do for bluebeard in his grisly castle what it might do for the beast in his...

    i too always felt rather sorry for the ugly step-sisters. they cut off their heel and toes at the instigation of their own mother; they had not been taught to be good in their hearts, only pretty (and "presentable") on the surfaces. they had not learned discernment; so they didn't recognize their sisterhood with cinderella and they didn't question their mother's horrible directions to mutilate themselves. perhaps they envied cinderella even her grief for her own, presumably truly loving and gentle mother, and that contributed to their blindness. and as you say, they don't even know that they should struggle. and yes, sadly, that may be too common in our world of flashy false mirrors and ungentle upbringings...

  5. such a powerful awareness on your part
    timely for me
    i have tucked your insight into my heart