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Fairy Tales 101: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


Fairy Tales 101 articles discuss a hidden aspect of apparently innocent tales with happy endings. The stories tackled in this series were part of countless childhoods and helped to shape the personalities and lives of kids around the world. Due to the huge influence of these tales, these 101 series of articles aims to delve deeper into the beginning of Fairy Tales, track the original manuscripts of some of the most popular fictions, and analyze the changes made throughout the decades. The articles will also look at these fairy tales through a psychoanalytical lens, to try to decipher the implicit symbols and meanings.

Fairy Tales 101 is mainly divided into 6 articles, as follows:

Once upon a time: The Oldest Fairytale; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

• Midnight Mystery: Cinderella

• Cursed to Slumber: Sleeping Beauty

• The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Little Mermaid

• The 21st Century Fairytale: A modern twist on traditional works.

Once Upon a Time: The Oldest Fairytale; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Figure 1: Illustration of Schneewittchen from the German fairytale book Marchenbuch (1919)

The first part of the Fairy Tales 101 explained that literature tends to evolve and progress to meet the needs of the ever-changing societies and their respective cultures. Throughout the years, new genres and sub-genres have emerged to cater to the novel tastes of readers around the world. Due to their oral origins, fairytales are one of the few genres with great flexibility and adaptability,and have undergone a multitude of retellings and revisions to suit their audience. During the early 19thcentury, the Brothers Grimmleft behind a hefty collection of children’s tales that stood the test of time and are still famous nowadays. Their oldest tale,Schneewittchen, which roughly translates to Snow White, has been the subject of numerous changes and altercations. While the first article of this series introduced the beginning of the fairytale as a genre, this week’s article aims at looking the oldest and arguably one of the most famous fairytales, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and interpreting some of its underlying meanings.

Figure 2: Illustration of Snow White by Wistful Art (2020)s

Snow White, previously entitled "Keeper of the Dwarf ", is a 19th-century German fairy tale that has become distinguished throughout the Western world. The magic mirror, the poisoned apple, the glass coffin, the Evil Queen and the Seven Dwarfs are recognizable features in this renowned tale. According to Saunders (2008), in the last 500 years, nearly 400 different versions of Snow White have been recorded. The altered stories vary in terms of setting, length, language, and plot, yet preserve the key elements so that the original story remains recognizable. Most fairytales, including Snow White, were originally meant for adults, but were later on altered to suit younger generations. Windling (2000) reinstates this idea when talking about Snow White:

The Snow White theme is one of the darkest and strangest to be found in the fairy tale canon—a chilling tale of murderous rivalry, adolescent sexual ripening, poisoned gifts, blood on snow, witchcraft, and ritual cannibalism, in short, not a tale originally intended for children’s tender ears.

Scholars argue that the Brothers Grimm are not the original authors of the story, but rather documented a famous folktale of their time. Kawan (2008) mentions some earlier altercations that were made by the Brothers Grimm themselves: for example,replacing the mother with a step-mother; the reason behind that change was because “they did not want to perpetuate a bad mother image in a book meant as reading material for families”. Additionally, they added later on the figure of the compassionate huntsman that refuses to kill the innocent protagonist, whereas in earlier oral versions, Snow white dies in the forest never to be found again. Kawan (2008) states that, in the Brothers Grimm’s original manuscript, Snow White’s father is the one who findshis daughter’s body in the forest and the resuscitation was attempted by a doctor who tied her body to the four corners of a room, instead of a true love’s kiss.

Figure 3: Illustration of Schneewittchenfrom the German fairytale book Marchenbuch (1919)

Some versions of Snow White are considered to be milestones in the history of the fairy tale, as they highlight new aspects of the story that were previously ignored. Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is undoubtedly one of the most renowned versions of the Grimm’s tale. It was a triumph in film, cinema, and animation when it was released in 1937, bringing the talents and possibilities of an animated movie to a level never seen before. Inge (2004) says that Walt Disney was inspired by the 1916 film, where the disguised queen gives “a poisoned comb to Snow White, who puts it in her hair and falls unconscious”. However, the Dwarfs are able to revive her, and the fairytale’s iconic poisonous red apple is actually the queen’s second attempt to kill Snow White. Nevertheless, Disney’s version included another set of changes to the original plot: the 1916 animation was the first account to include names for the dwarfs. But, their first names (Bik, Blik, Frik, Fik, Snik, and Dik) were different from those commonly known nowadays: Dopey, Doc, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, Grumpy, and Sleepy. The significance of the seven dwarfs is disputed; however, the number seven is frequently associated with 'divine' natural order: seven natural wonders of the world, seven seas to sail and so on.

Another iconic piece of the story is the poisoned red apple. This symbol is definitely a familiar one, but not only in relation to the fairytale. It reminds the mature reader of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. In both cases, the woman eats the forbidden fruit and suffers the horrific consequences. Much like Eve, Snow White is represented as innocent, fragile and pure. She is assigned motherly attributes as she is portrayed as a housewife, cooking and cleaning and caring after the seven dwarfs. One could argue that the color white attributed to her signifies her virginity, purity and virtue, a contrast with the sinful red apple that could indicate sexuality, lust and even death. Bonner (2015) claims that the forbidden fruit makes Snow White powerless as she falls into a coma after eating the apple, until a prince could resurrect her with a push of the coffin, which dislodges the fruit from her throat, or true love's first kiss.

Figure 4: Still from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animation (1937)

Readers have a tendency to overlook important recurring aspects in children’s literature, especially their depiction of sexuality. It is often considered taboo to discuss such themes in relation to kids’ stories; however, their massive influence on children’s upbringing led scholars to read between the lines. Like most princesses’ stories, Prince Charming is always ready to save the damsel in distress with a true love’s kiss. Nevertheless, in Snow White’s case, the protagonist is unconscious as a stranger kisses her back to life. This scene is a romanticized case of sexual harassment, as the prince does not have any consent of the insensible, underage victim. The story itself lacks a heroic plot,as the problem is solved by a simple, yet inappropriate, gesture from the Prince. Thus, the tale provides unsuitable morals for the young and susceptible audience. Wagner (2011) criticizes these female representations:

Because of this unchanging and constant gender role division, young girls are taught that their ideal role in society is that of inaction and self-sacrifice; they are the helpless damsels awaiting the rescue of handsome princes, a plot that unfailingly results in marriage.

Furthermore, in Grimm’s manuscript (1812), Snow White is described as too pure to be buried in the “black ground”, and instead is laid in a glass coffin. Wagner (2011) condemns this act, describing her “like a piece of art put on display, first by the dwarves and then later desired by the prince for this purpose”. Her beauty is the only factor that attracts the prince to “save” her and she later on marries this complete stranger, almost as if she is returning him the favor.

Moreover, it is noteworthy to take a closer look at the character that initiated the whole plot: the mirror. The evil step-mother’s famous line introduces the talking mirror at the beginning of the story: “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” A deep voice answers her question and announces Snow White is the most beautiful girl in the kingdom. Typical gender stereotypes arise: a man dictating the beauty standard of women, objectifying and reducing a woman to her physical appearance, and most importantly, the expected jealousy and rivalry between women. According to Bacchilega (1988), “Snow White haunts our imagination also because her story silently points to the conditions of women's socialization, to the cultural context which frames that very process of development, defining and legitimizing it, while simultaneously setting stifling boundaries for it”. Thus, Snow White simultaneously celebrates and condemns the beauty and sexuality of women. The only “sin” that Snow White ever committed is being born beautiful; hence, she is hated and killed for something she cannot control, reinstating the unwavering condition of the woman in a patriarchal society.

Figure 5: Alberto Celeste’s illustration Who’s the Fairest of them all? (2019)

To sum up, the Brothers Grimm’s Schneewittchenis a masterpiece layered with symbols and hidden meanings that left scholars wondering for over two centuries. The legendary Snow White is a tale of corrupted innocence, fatal familial rivalry, and sexual oppression. The story has endured countless retellings and variations to adaptto different social, cultural, and technological developments. Nowadays, it remains a significant trademark in the field of children’s literature due to the depth and complexity of its plot, characters and themes.


Bacchilega, C. (1988). Cracking the Mirror Three Re-Visions of" Snow White". boundary 2 (15), 1-25.

Bonner, S. (2015). Snow White's apple: femininity, fine art and other readings. Eating otherwise: an interdisciplinary symposium on food and culture, 28 28 February - 1 March 2015, Lancaster University, UK.

Inge, M. T. (2004). Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Art Adaptation and Ideology. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 32(3), 132-142.

Kawan, C. S. (2008). A brief literary history of snow white.49(3-4), 325-342.

Saunders, J. H. (2008). The Evolution of Snow White: A close textual analysis of three versions of the Snow White fairy tale (Doctoral dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University).

Wagner, S. (2011). The Transformation of Snow White into the Evil Stepmother in Anne Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. The Sigma Tau Delta (8) 110.

Windling, T. (2000). Snow, Glass, Apples: The Story of Snow White. JoMA Archives.

Picture References

Figure 1. Marchenbuch (1919) Schneewittchen [Painting], Flickr.

Figure 2. Wistful Art (2020) Snow White [Digital Illustration], Pupperish.

Figure 3. Marchenbuch (1919) Schneewittchen [Painting], Flickr.

Figure 4. Sharpsteen, Ben, et al (1937) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [Still Animation], RKO Radio Pictures.

Figure 5. Alberto Celeste (2019) Who’s the Fairest of them all?[Digital Illustration], Art Station.


Author Photo

Elsa Abdallah

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