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Postmodern Retellings 101: Anne Sexton’s "Rapunzel"


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:

5. Postmodern Retellings 101: Anne Sexton’s Rapunzel

6. Postmodern Retellings 101: Olga Broumas’s Cinderella

Postmodern Retellings 101: Anne Sexton's "Rapunzel"

Anne Sexton’s Transformations is one of the earliest and most critically acclaimed collections of revisionist tales. It changed the traditional conventions of the genre, such as the prince charming as a hero, the wisdom of the maternal figure, the victory made possible by the male figure, the evilness of the stepmother or the happy endings, among others. Sexton carries out a satire of popular fairy tales to transform them into different stories of greed, selfishness or perversion (Mohammed, 2015). In this case, Sexton’s 1971 Rapunzel, raises concerns about lesbianism and coming-of-age which serve as a turning point to explore other topics, such as teen romance and girlhood (Kapurch, 2015).

During the second wave of feminism, women writers challenged the archetypes established by fairy tales and, consequently, tried to write a more gender-oriented kind of narrative that broke traditional stereotypes (Mohammed, 2015). Regarding this aspect, Gilbert and Gubar (2000) in The Madwoman in the Attic affirm that the categories of literature, authorship and gender have been shattered away to such an extent that the literary realm is reviewed through different lenses of gender, race, religion or class. In particular, from gender studies perspective, the tendency of re-writing traditional stories acquires aesthetic and political meaning. In fact, female writers wanted to reclaim women’s position and their accurate role in society in political terms whereas, from an aesthetic point of view, they aimed to recover or reaffirm their relevance in the literary canon (Mohammed, 2015).

Figure 1: "Fair Rosamund" (Waterhourse, 1916).

Anne Sexton was a woman poet that also participated in this wave of transformations and feminist action. Her perspective focused on the role of women in poetry since she wanted woman writers to be included in serious literary studies and reclaim their literary status. The work of woman poets had always been disregarded because it was seen as overly personal in comparison with male authors. In this way, re-tellings were a great vehicle for women to achieve intellectual independence from male poets since they could work on traditional and well-known stories that were not directly linked to their first-hand experience. Thus, they could erase their poetic selves from the narrative and counter-write popular and classic fairy tales (Mohammed, 2015).

The original source of Sexton's Rapunzel is the Grimm’s tale that narrates the locking of a girl in a tower due to her father's misconduct. The tale begins with a pregnant woman who eats parsley or any other kind of herb from a sorceress’ garden. Her husband is in charge of bringing it to her as a pregnancy craving, but he is captured by the sorceress and, finally, agrees to exchange their unborn child for his and his wife’s lives. Therefore, the child ends up enclosed in a tower where her only way out is her long hair. Nevertheless, a prince manages to climb the tower with Rapunzel’s hair and they both start a romantic relationship until the girl unwillingly gives away the secret to the sorceress. Thus, Rapunzel is sent into exile and the witch blinds the prince. Finally, they both reunite when he magically hears Rapunzel’s voice again and his tears of joy cure his blindness (Wilcox, 2021).

Figure 2: "The Enchanted Garden" (Waterhouse, 1917).

The scheme of Sexton’s revision is similar to the Grimm’s story, but she chooses to focus on the relationship between Rapunzel and the sorceress named Mother Gothel. In the original story, the witch is called Dame Gothel, but Sexton alters the name in the first verse of the stanza in order to produce an anaphoric effect (Korzeniewska-Nowakowska, 2015). The verse continues as follows: “A woman / who loves a woman / is forever Young” (Sexton, 1971, p. 35). Sexton later develops the relationship between the two women as rather ambiguous because it could be either considered to be maternal or romantic love.

The image of a princess inside a tower is one of the most popular literary motifs of all time and its legacy has endured to the present (Wolf, 2003). In addition, the figure of the sorceress ordering the young princess to let down her hair to climb the tower is also a recurring pattern in the literary realm as Anne Sexton explores in her re-writing: “Rapunzel’s hair fell to the ground like a rainbow. / It was as yellow as a dandelion / And as strong as a dog leash” (Sexton, 1971, p. 40). The long braid of Rapunzel has been a symbol that has largely impacted the minds of children and adults since it symbolizes the beauty of the princess, the enchantment of the story and the imagination involving fairy tales (Wolf, 2003). Rapunzel’s braid is the symbolic embodiment of the tale’s literary legacy. Nevertheless, in Sexton’s re-writing, the hair is a symbol of intimacy and romantic connection (Kapurch, 2015).

Figure 3: "La Belle Dame sans Merci" (Waterhouse, 1893).

The introductory part fulfills a double function: on the one hand, it serves as a presentation monologue to the reader and, on the other hand, it is a speech addressed to the girl by Mother Gothel who pretends to highlight their connection and their belonging to each other. Their relationship is presented in a tender way, but it also has aspects of toxicity which is commonplace in Sexton’s poetry. In her work, familiar relations are always shown with a shade of perversion and distortion in contrast with the Grimm’s perspective where parents are noble and protectors of their descendants (Korzeniewska-Nowakowska, 2015). In addition, Sexton introduces several indicators of possible sexual innuendo between both women: “The mentor / and the student / feed off each other” (Sexton, 1971, p. 35). However, she never entails explicitly the true meaning of her words (Kapurch, 2015). In the same way, she continues referring to the age difference between the sorceress and Rapunzel and their mentoring relationship. Sexton also introduces details that make obvious references to the Grimm’s narrative, such as the description of Mother Gothel’s garden (Kapurch, 2015). In this part, she also reveals constant similitudes between the garden’s nature and the human body: “growing leaf by leaf, skin by skin” (Sexton, 1971, p. 39).

During the earliest times of feminist criticism, Sexton manages to subvert fairy tale expectations in terms of femininity and coming-of-age since the author depicts the problems of a girl who experiences sexual maturation which feminist psychology would later explore (Burt, 2017). Sexton includes images of leaves that depict Mother Gothel’s sexual desire, but, in literary terms, nature and flowers have always been connected to female sexuality, youth and fertility. Therefore, when describing the witch’s garden, not only does Sexton depict female desire, but she also refers to the blossoming of a young girl (Kapurch, 2015). Sexton manages to associate lesbian love with an aura of purity and idealization by deploying images of nature that underline the timeless character of these women’s relationship. These female figures will always be linked with each other as long as Rapunzel’s legacy as a fairy tale endures in the Western literary tradition (Farwell, 1996).

Figure 4: "Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene" (Solomon, 1864).

Both in the Grimm’s version and in Sexton’s re-writing, the tower and Rapunzel’s hair are symbols of her sexual power. Her enclosure is the reflection of her oppression as a human who is not free and as a woman who cannot mature sexually. However, she has copying mechanisms as her hair that represents a dual force. On the one hand, her braid is the symbol of her repression as a human without free will, but her letting her hair down is a way to reflect her sensuality. In fact, she lets her hair down so that the prince can climb the tower and make love to her in the original source whereas, in Sexton’s version, Rapunzel’s first sexual contact is reserved for Mother Gothel (Kapurch, 2015). Therefore, the hair is also a vehicle to reach liberation:

Hand over hand she shinnied up

the hair like a sailor

and there in the stone-cold room,

as cold as a museum,

Mother Gothel cried:

Hold me, my young dear, hold me,

and thus they played mother-me-do (Sexton, 1971, p. 40).

Nevertheless, Sexton ends up pairing Rapunzel with the prince which blurs the interpretation of the poem as a lesbian affair. According to Burt (2007), the poem indeed describes a lesbian romance but portrays it in a negative light since lesbianism could be perceived as a way to escape from adulthood. Therefore, the first verse of the poem acquires another shade: “A woman / who loves a woman / is forever Young” (Sexton, 1971, p. 35). Sexton seems to support Freud’s theory of Rapunzel’s confinement which means that the girl is forever locked in a prepubescent stage of life and, therefore, she can hardly move or develop. Consequently, the relationship between the sorceress and Rapunzel is only temporary which indicates that Sexton depicted lesbianism as an experimental stage of a woman’s life. However, Farwell (1996) indicates that the tale’s heteronormative ending is due to narratological reasons. Therefore, the ending depended on the other stories that completed Sexton’s Transformations since all of them had heterosexual stories. Given that Rapunzel is embedded in a collection of expected heterosexual endings, its storyline could have disrupted the cohesive narrative that establishes conventional pairings (Kapurch, 2015).

Figure 5: "The Four Roses" (Dvorak, 1903).

In conclusion, the poem’s ending leaves the reader with a devastated Mother Gothel who truly misses Rapunzel. The grief of the sorceress makes the audience wonder if the pairing of Rapunzel and the prince was an accurate happy ending or if a lesbian relationship was indeed the most pleasurable one for the main character. By suggesting this, Sexton deploys a conventional and traditional form of literature, such as fairy tales, to question heteronormative expectations. Thus, understanding the subversive potential that traditional models have opens a new path in order to analyze other expressions of art and helps female poets to recover their position within the literary canon. By erasing her poetic self from the narrative, Sexton dissociates herself from the prevailing criticism about the overly emotional content of women's poetry.

Bibliographical References

Burt, S. (2007). The forms of youth twentieth-century poetry and adolescence. New York: Columbia University Press.

Farwell, M. R. (1996). Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives. New York: New York.

Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (2000). The madwoman in the attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kapurch, K. (2015). Rapunzel Loves Merida: Melodramatic Expressions of Lesbian Girlhood and Teen Romance in Tangled, Brave, and Femslash. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 19(4), 436–453.

Keely, K. A. (2008). “[T]his Book of Odd Tales/Which Transform the Brothers Grimm”: Teaching Anne Sextons Transformations. English Journal, 98(2), 69–75.

Korzeniewska-Nowakowska, P. (2015). Revisiting the fairy land: Anne Sexton’s transformation of the Grimms’ female characters. Crossroads, 10(3), 15–21.

Mohammed, N. F. (2015). The Indecisive Feminist: Study of Anne Sexton’s Revisionist Fairy Tales. Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 6(1), 31–.

Sexton, A. (1971). Transformations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wilcox, B. E. (2021). Pregnancy, Purity, and Body Autonomy in “New Originals” of “Rapunzel.” The German Quarterly, 94(2), 187–196.

Wolf, S. A. (2003). Interpreting Literature with Children. New York: Routledge.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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