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Postmodern Retellings 101: Postmodernist Perspectives and Subversion


By the second half of the 20th century, modern retellings of fairy tales had spread over the globe for various reasons such as the development of literary criticism or postmodernist ideas. The former had received critical acclaim in the academic field to such an extent that it promoted a reaction against the established social conventions. Therefore, many cultural products and perspectives were revised. All postmodern authors presented in this series take classic (fairy) tales as the foundation for their works and rewrite them. Each transforms the classic tale into a modern creation by presenting them from a postmodern perspective.

The poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida claims that it is necessary to revise all the misconceptions derived from modernity since they do not represent the substance of reality. This process of discovery is named "deconstruction". Therefore, the authors appropriate classical forms and assimilate them in terms of 1970s postmodernism, which addresses different themes, from feminism and sexuality to psychoanalysis. The purpose of this series is to show how modern retellings differ from the original fairy tales, that is, what elements the authors have changed in their stories to "make them postmodern".

This series will be divided as follows:

  1. Postmodern Retellings 101: Postmodernist Perspectives and Subversion

  2. Postmodern Retellings 101: Robert Coover’s The Dead Queen

  3. Postmodern Retellings 101: Angela Carter’s The Tiger's Bride

  4. Postmodern Retellings 101: Sylvia Plath’s The Princess and the Goblins

  5. Postmodern Retellings 101: Anne Sexton’s Rapunzel

  6. Postmodern Retellings 101: Olga Broumas’s Cinderella

Postmodern Retellings 101: Postmodernist Perspectives and Subversion

Traditional fairy tales possess metaliterary and metatextual dimensions that have allowed them to serve as a model for other authors. They present ideas or concepts that would become a turning point for literary criticism. Tales offer a wide range of themes depicting their time and context, but they have been widely used for other studies. The authors of modern retellings often return to traditional tales to explore current concerns as a source of inspiration (Bettelheim, 1976). The overlap between retellings and criticism has established an intertextual discussion in terms of form and content. This dialogue has subverted the traditional features of tales to defy the limits of the fictional narrative (Joosen, 2011).

Tales serve several purposes since they are used as a vehicle to fulfill different functions in distinct social situations. Their purpose ranges from children's entertainment (bedtime stories or games) to education at various levels—e.g., at university where students come across short fiction for reading or as a part of their curricular itinerary. The identification of tales with children does not define entirely their social function (Joosen, 2011). The pertinence of tales as teaching material for children was a source of debate during the 1970s and 1980s (Bettelheim, 1976). The psychoanalytic analysis of retellings would not be appropriate for children and, therefore, retellings would revert the therapeutic effect of the original tale. However, other authors commented on the advantages of making the unconscious content of tales explicit so that children could recognize their emotions or problems and not be threatened by them (Bettelheim, 1976).

Modern retellings have also been highly influenced by The Madwoman in the Attic’s angel and witch dichotomy, which represents the patriarchal structures that keep women constricted. These role models are not exclusive, but women must learn to find the balance. This dichotomy is often embodied by the rivalry between stepmother and stepdaughter in traditional tales. According to psychoanalysis, retellings manage to clarify and expose the implicit message of tales, that is, the patriarchal ideas that intend to play women off against each other and to keep them as objects inserted in the social structure (Gilbert & Gubar, 2000).

Figure1: Jane Eyre’s Betha Mason (DevianArt, n.d.).

Tales have served as a narrative and structural model for different authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Italo Calvino, and Charles Dickens (Bacchilega, 1997). Literary criticism has studied comprehensively the role of tales in society and how their relevance has fluctuated over time. The genre met great success at the beginning of the 20th century, but its prevalence vanished after the Second World War. However, once the postmodern retellings were written in the 1960s or 1970s, the genre was revitalized again (Joosen, 2011).

Modern retellings give a new life to traditional stories since they explore the ambivalence and the questions that have remained underlying throughout the narrative. A wide range of possibilities extends to the modern author who intends to bring to life the ambiguities of the original text and its mythopoeic qualities again (Bettelheim, 1976). In a way, modern retellings are regarded as myths of modernity to the extent that the original tales also served as a medium to contextualize their social and temporary contexts. Postmodern tales defy the general concept of tales as children's literature and acquire a metaliterary character since they address the inherent characteristics of the genre (Bacchilega, 1997).

During the last decades of the 20th century, the subversion of tales displaying postmodern tendencies and magic realism has become commonplace for authors. They have engaged in an intertextual dialogue with the genre conventions and modern approaches to deliver a story that not only is a reflection of the past but a portrait of present concerns. One of the most famous collections of retellings is Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber and Other Tales which focuses on Charles Perrault’s tale and will be discussed later in this series. This interest in tales has not merely taken place in the literary realm, but contemporary filmmakers have also engaged in this discussion. For example, Disney has revitalized several traditional tales and East European directors have integrated traditional tales into their work to express their views on the phenomenon (Zipes, 2000).

Figure 2: The Bloody Chamber (Mayer, n.d.).

Postmodern retellings subvert the traditional narrative in different ways. The dialogue between the genre and literary criticism is one of their features. The chronotope of a tale, for instance, is universal and unattainable. The reader cannot locate the place where the tale is set because it is never a real location. In modern retellings, the author usually places the narration in a concrete historical setting or period (Joosen, 2011).

Regarding the supernatural, modern retellings tend to be ambiguous about magic and its uses. Some of them leave the supernatural open to interpretation by using different methods such as dubious narrators or presenting intangible facts. However, they can also decide to discard the fantastical elements (Joosen, 2011).

Figure 3: The Company of Wolves (Strain, n.d.).

In terms of personality development, most tales adapted as novels focus on the psychological state of mind of their characters even if they are marginal or secondary. When rewriting a tale as a poem, the authors usually elaborate on a complex character whose feelings are the center of the poem as is the case with Anne Sexton and Olga Broumas’s retellings (Bettelheim, 1976). Therefore, they leave out a large part of the action because it is not necessary. In addition, retellings often replace the traditional happy ending of the genre with a negative and cynical take on the world. This is due to the fact that retellings can be considered myths of modernity whose main characteristic is pessimism. Myths often present a hero who is trapped in his destiny. The hero must defy adversities that usually are much greater than human nature and, therefore, the fragility and weaknesses of human nature emerge.

Unlike tales, myths use supernatural elements to develop their plot, but their conception of the world is much more tragic and realistic. For that reason, they try to advise the reader on the phenomena that could be dangerous (Bettelheim, 1976). This is an essential feature of retellings which subverts one of the most generalized and pervasive expectations of tales, that is, the happy ending. In this series, Robert Coover’s The Dead Queen will be discussed as a sequel to Snow White which illustrates the apparent happy ending of the original tale (Joosen, 2011).

Figure 4: Illustration for "Snow White" (Ekholm Burkert, 2013).

Regarding style, retellings maintain symbolic numbers, formulas, or objects to deepen their intertextual dialogue with the original tale in addition to their metaliterary character. For example, the seven dwarves in the Snow White retellings remain, but their professions or their occupations vary according to the story. In the same way, retellings are usually narrated using the first person and not with an omniscient narrator as in traditional tales. This narrator can either be the protagonist, a secondary character, or the antagonist (Joosen, 2011).

In conclusion, postmodern retellings offer a wide range of views on the traditional genre of the tale. These new perspectives aim to address the tale in a metaliterary and metatextual way to recover and explore topics or concerns that were long forgotten or ignored. Retellings present a multidimensional take on traditional stories and, therefore, serve as a model and source of inspiration. They deconstruct the misconceptions from the original story to appropriate the tale and deliver a postmodern interpretation establishing a discussion with the previous text and literary criticism.

Bibliographical References

Bacchilega, C. (1997). Postmodern fairy tales gender and narrative strategies. University of Pennsylvania Press. Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. Random House. Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (2000). The madwoman in the attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. Yale University Press. Joosen, V. (2011). Critical and Creative Perspectives on Fairy Tales: An Intertextual Dialogue between Fairy-Tale Scholarship and Postmodern Retellings. (1st ed.). Wayne State University Press. Zipes, J. (2000). The Oxford companion to fairy tales. Oxford University Press.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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