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Postmodern Retellings 101: Robert Coover’s "The Dead Queen"


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: Robert Coover’s "The Dead Queen"

Robert Coover’s The Dead Queen (1973) is a retelling of Snow White that focuses on the subversion of the innocent but ambiguous heroine’s role. It is a sequel to the original tale and gives Prince Charming a major role in the narrative since he becomes the narrator. As the plot unfolds, the prince doubts the true identity of his wife, Snow White, and suspects she is the embodiment of the evil dead queen (Bacchilega, 1988).

The retelling analyses the dichotomy of stepmother-stepdaughter, reversing their roles. Traditionally, the cruel stepmother has been a recurrent motif of folktales and one of the most popular villains. However, this character has not always been wicked although it became a popular convention of western short fiction. Its origins date back to the Middle Ages when the matriarchal mythology was transformed into a patriarchal one and, therefore, the goddess was turned into a stepmother, a witch or an evil magical creature. Tales had undergone a cultural process in which they assimilated the political and social structures of medieval patriarchy and monarchy. For that reason, the matriarchal elements of the tales went through different phases of "patriarchalization" (Zipes, 2006, p. 7). In Snow White, the stepmother is an evil queen who pursues beauty above all and is willing to murder Snow White since she is the most beautiful of all (Williams, 2010).

Figure 1: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" (Dickson Batten, 1897).

The Dead Queen’s first scene opens with the funeral of the queen which most of the characters attend. The narrator depicts Snow White’s enjoyment in seeing the corpse of her stepmother and recalls her joy when witnessing the queen’s suffering the previous night. During the wedding celebration on that day, the queen was ordered to serve her punishment by dancing herself to death with red-hot iron shoes until she fainted and fell on the floor. At first, the narrator disregards Snow Whiter’s cruel behavior as he thinks it is all due to her trauma (Bacchilega, 1988).

The prince’s inquiries and doubts about his wife’s behavior seem persistent as he watches her conduct during the wedding. He is repulsed by her fascination with luxury and splurging as well as with the enigma that her name entails. The prince’s reflections disarm the meaning of Snow White as a tale of the coming-of-age of an innocent girl and encourage the reader to rethink the interpretation of the original story (Bacchilega, 1988).

The wedding plays a pivotal role in the retelling since marriage usually plays an essential part in tales involving female characters. In traditional tales, marriage often presents the happy climax of the story after coming across and solving problems ranging from social status to sexuality. However, in this retelling, marriage is an element that magnifies the disparity between the prince and Snow White in addition to presenting the mystery of her name (Bacchilega, 1988). The idealised female image of Snow White is portrayed in a negative manner since the retelling depicts traditional feminity as an unnatural and monstrous obstacle to female development. Snow White is not an identity of her own, but the embodiment of her name since a process of anthropomorphism has taken place. In this process, the string of possible semantic associations stalls and finishes proposing a unique and exclusive essence which, eventually, will become a proper name (de Man, 1984). According to Bacchilega (1997), Snow White is nothing other than an empty vessel that cannot change or transform. For that reason, she remains a metaphor for what authors want women to be. From a metaliterary point of view, Coover challenges the rhetorical devices to construct the female coming-of-age story and deconstruct the image on which the narrative has been built. This idea of Snow White as an embodiment of a concept deeply repels the prince since it destroys his expectation of courtly love (Zheng, 2013). However, Snow White can never achieve or finish the process of coming of age because if she did, paradoxically, she would lose her idealised femininity which, in turn, makes the reader appreciate her as a "monster-woman" (Bacchilega, 1988, p. 9).

Figure 2: "Before the wedding" (Muñoz Degrain, 1882).

There is a reference to the myth of Adam and Eve because all three main characters are related to the forbidden fruit: an apple. The prince is one of the most vulnerable characters since he is constantly making existentialist remarks and observations about his bride and her dark past. The queen, though, is the embodiment of the snake and responsible for offering a poisonous apple to Snow White who, just like Eve, willingly accepts the gift. This is evidence of Snow White’s complexity in Coover’s The Dead Queen since she is not the traditional innocent heroine. Therefore, not only will Snow White become the queen’s successor, but the two of them embody the same dichotomy (Joosen, 2011).

According to Gilbert and Gubar (2000), male artists have tended to break down female nature in two aspects: angel and monster. This literary device is explicitly deployed in The Dead Queen concerning the portrayal of the queen and Snow White. The masks imposed by patriarchy are deconstructed and, therefore, the prince feels uneasy and out of control. For example, the queen’s transgressions are disregarded by the prince, and, instead, she is seen as a victim who has failed her mission so her empowerment is not her strongest characteristic. As for Snow White, her condition as an innocent girl is questioned which repels the prince because he idealises her. When he discovers that she is an experienced lover, for instance, he feels that she has failed his expectations as a virginal wife.

Figure 3: "Adam and Eve" (Vecellio, 1550).

The prince realises that the magic mirror creates a dichotomy between the queen and Snow White because he recognises the similarities between the two which leads to rivalry. For him, the stepmother represents the real driving force of the story since she is fully aware of the presence of the mirror and tries to dismantle its verdict whereas the innocent Snow White is only naïve because she is unaware of the existence of the mirror (Bacchilega, 1997). However, the prince seems to appreciate the images of both women merging in the mirror which leads him to think about Snow White’s negative characteristics (Hyun, 2016).

The patriarchal perceptions of the dichotomy of angel-monster start to combine which leads to the prince’s fear of having married an idealised woman who is a monster rather than a saint. However, in a reciprocal process, the queen also resembles Snow White since the prince ends up desiring her and he manages to kiss her corpse to resurrect her. Therefore, she becomes the object of the prince’s courtly love (Joosen, 2011).

Figure 4: "Lady Lilith" (Rossetti, 1868).

In conclusion, Coover makes a metacommentary on the genre conventions, especially about the construction of archetypal female characters. Snow White and the queen are two radically different characters in the original tale. However, her distinction is blurred in the retelling to such an extent that they end up merging. On top of that, Snow White’s idealised femininity is not well received in the retelling since she comes across as a personification of a metaphor or an image rather than a fully-fledged woman. Therefore, Coover implies that idealised women from folktales can never mature since they would lose their perfection or innocence and, in a way, they freeze in time of the original tale. For that reason, the author explores the horror of female objectification and analyses the overlap of the angel-monster dichotomy when women are not restricted by the patriarchal system to perform a particular role.

Bibliographical References

Bacchilega, C. (1997). Postmodern fairy tales gender and narrative strategies. University of Pennsylvania Press. Bacchilega, C. (1988). Cracking the Mirror Three Re-Visions of “Snow White”. Boundary 2, 15/16(3), 1–25. Coover, R. (1973). The Dead Queen. Quarterly Review of Literature, 18, 304-13. de Man, P. (1984). The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Cambridge University Press. Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (2000). The madwoman in the attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. Yale University Press. Hyun, S. K. (2016). Reevaluation of Snow White and the Queen in the Postmodern Retellings of Grimms’ “Snow White”. Modern Studies in English Language & Literature, 60(4), 289-305.

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. Williams, C. (2010). Who’s wicked now? The stepmother as fairy-tale heroine. Marvels & Tales, 24(2), 255-271,192,371. Retrieved from Zheng, B. (2013). From Courtly Love to Snow White. Gender Forum, 44, 3–12. Zipes, J. (2006). Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. Routledge.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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