Postmodern Retellings 102: Deconstruction in Fairy Tales


Postmodern Retellings 101 focused on modern interpretations of fairy tales that dated from the 1960s or the 1970s. Sexton, Atwood and Carter were some of the first authors to tackle this task and ended up developing a great legacy for the new writers to come. As time passed, philosopher Derrida’s 'deconstruction' remained the main focal point and gender studies surrounding the role of women in society continued to influence greatly. Nevertheless, new retellings started focusing on other motifs or themes in addition to developing new narrative strategies. The boundaries between genders are blurred and the mythopoeic qualities of the original tales are challenged. The meta-folklore is necessary to raise awareness about previous readings of fairy tales and provide the original characters with a voice of their own. Thus, this series will focus on retellings from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

This series will be divided as follows:

Postmodern Retellings 102: Deconstruction in Fairy Tales

Postmodern Retellings 102: Yumiko Kurahashi’s A Mermaid’s Tears

Postmodern Retellings 102: Jeanette Winterson’s Twelve Dancing Princesses

Postmodern Retellings 102: Gillian Cross’s Wolf

Postmodern Retellings 102: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose

Postmodern Retellings 102: Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan

Deconstruction in Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are usually marked with two characteristic phrases – “Once upon a time” and “happily ever after”– which are some of the most relevant and iconic tropes in language. This genre has a solid and extremely rigid framing structure defined as a “monological structure” (O’Brien, 2008, p. 142). The use of this term signifies that the narration consists of an uninterrupted speech usually delivered by a single character who, in the case of fairy tales, is the narrator. Thus, tales often are framed within a structure which advances to “a preordained destination being central to the genre” and include several stable tropes, such as the beautiful princess, the enchanted castle, the evil witch or the kind-hearted fairy (O’Brien, 2008, p. 141). However, these rigid and stable patterns began to be questioned from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, mainly using what is known as 'deconstruction' (Bacchilega, 1997).

Despite ‘deconstruction’ being a textual analysis, it offers a new perspective to reflect on the world and has become one of the main approaches to challenge regular tropes in fairy tales (Castle, 2007). It functions as a questioning device which disassembles commonplaces and ideological principles, that is, 'deconstruction' serves as a driving force to counter-react to dogmatic ideas or any kind of rigid orthodoxy (O’Brien, 2008). French philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that ‘deconstruction’ is a method for critical analysis which requires the undoing of a series of “presuppositions” and “prejudices” (Derrida, 2001, p. 110). For example, one of Derrida’s most important contributions is his criticism of the tyranny of Western thought and its praise for ‘logocentricity’, which means that words represent thoughts in a person’s mind. (O’Brien, 2008). Furthermore, the author “displaces the speech-centeredness of folkloric and generally verbal signs”, which is particularly useful when addressing gender and ideological aspects (Bacchilega, 1999, p. 13). As a result, the philosopher and other deconstructionists have been essential to develop other disciplines, such as Psychoanalysis or gender studies, which have also been essential to fairy tale criticism (Castle, 2007).

Figure 1. Arturo Espinosa. Jacques Derrida. (n.d).

The ultimate objective of Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ is to find the ambiguities of a specific text, particularly the series of double standards or contradictions which are enclosed within it (O’Brien, 2008). Thus, he must dissemble the binary oppositions which lie within the text and have “a violent hierarchy” (Derrida 1981, p. 41). In addition, binaries are also dichotomic concepts which have an “oppositional binary logic” (Wilkie-Stibbs, 2002, p. 75). In particular, Derrida rejects the principles that oppose traditional dichotomies of Western culture, such as same/other, good/bad or male/female. Binary opposition is especially relevant in fairy tales since it is necessary to decode the text’s intentions and establish new ideas (Vitkūnė, 2022). According to Putri & Sarwato (2016), binary oppositions are indispensable in a wide range of fields of study, but more importantly in literary studies since the reader can reflect on the different meanings of a given text. For instance, fairy tales often feature the life/death opposition since it encourages the characters to cope with serious challenges and to learn from “grief and pain of loss” (Vitkūnė, 2022, p. 119). Another important lesson drawn from this opposition is the relevance of pursuing happiness and being kind to one another, which is a common pattern in the genre.

When deconstructing literary works, the binaries’ privileged side always becomes inferior which demythologizes the clichéd fairy-tale characters (Mohammadi, 2013). Robert Coover, one of the pioneer authors in experimental fiction of modern America, uses narrative strategies which carefully showcase to what extent well-fixed stereotypical roles are dissatisfying to the narration and, consequently, performs a critical review of the genre and its closed world. In other words, Coover proves how “effortlessly” characters “are collapsed into their roles” (Williams, 2010, p. 269). Not only does the author demonstrate how we use fairy tales, but he also shows how the genre is used. He shows that the fixed conventions and well-established narrative structures “are not as stable and as natural” as they are supposed to be (Williams, 2010, p. 269). In the end, the concept of authority comes into play since fairy tale conventions have become an authoritative brand. However, this phenomenon is not the responsibility of the authors, but of the readers who “assume” fairy tale conventions “to be authoritative” (Williams, 2010, p. 266).

Figure 2. Gustav Klimt. Death and Life. 1910.

By deconstructing fairy tales, authors usually dismantle the “patterns that have been reproduced and naturalized as authoritative in Western popular culture” and that transform characters “into well-defined roles and plots.” (Williams, 2010, p. 265). Writers usually disassemble these common patterns by revealing their control over the conventions constituting the genre and by challenging their authority to prove that they can be questioned and, consequently, they are not “closed-off” or an “almost hermetically-sealed world” (O’Brien, 2008, p. 142). In the end, the authors ultimately defy the traditional patterns “by staging these conflicts from within the stories.” (Williams, 2010, p. 265). For instance, Robert Coover, one of the pioneer authors in experimental fiction of modern America, deconstructs the evil character of the stepmother. In Stepmother (2004), the title character is no longer as wicked as it was supposed to be in the conventional tale and, in fact, none of the characters could be described in that sense. In folklore tradition, the trope of the vile stepmother has been one of the most popular and could arguably be the most recurring villain in fairy tales. Nevertheless, Coover deconstructs the static well-fixed role of the wicked stepmother and transforms her into a committed mother who wants to save her daughter’s life (Williams, 2010).

Moreover, by dismantling binary oppositions, 'deconstruction' frees writing from the “phallocentric” discourse and dissolves the male/female dichotomy to center upon feminine writing (Wilkie-Stibbs, 2002, p. 4). French philosopher Hélène Cixous explores the concept of écriture féminine (women’s writing) which is an alternative form of writing apart from male-dominated literature (Segarra, 2019). Feminine writing allows us to notably explore aspects related to sexual and gender identity. By challenging the male voice, Cixous reclaims the feminine one and faces patriarchal deconstruction. For instance, in Red Riding Hood’s literary tradition, the main character usually ends up being trapped inside a restricting chamber whether she survives the wolf or not. In the tale’s ending, the girl is inside her grandmother’s home for the Grimms or in the wolf’s belly and, therefore, she always is submissive and dependent on “one deliberative masculine body” (Bacchilega, 1999, p.58). Cixous (1981, pp. 42-43) explains that “women have no other choice than to be decapitated”, but, if this fails, they can only maintain their head promising they will eventually lose it metaphorically, i.e. they become “automatons”. Whether the girl is saved by the hunter or devoured by the wolf, her destiny is always defined by a male character. Cixous’s feminine writing is greatly involved with the body in a way that “writes the body in the text” (Segarra, 2019, p. 6). For her, women have a deeper connection with nature which makes them more aware of their bodies and ready for any kind of change. Accordingly, the female author is better qualified to understand alterity and the Other (Segarra, 2019). In this way, Banting (1992, p. 229) claims that Cixous's body writing does not aim to return to a prelinguistic phase, “but rather to a signifying body continually networking with its flesh and the surfaces and particularities of the world”.

Figure 3. Gustave Doré. Little Red Riding Hood. 1862.

According to Cixous (1981), the grandmother and the wolf are one since they share the same patriarchal education and, thus, they end up enclosing the girl either murdered or domesticated. This union culminates with the wolf dressing up as the grandmother when trying to deceive the main character. In the end, Little Red Riding Hood is trapped within a world of metaphors which arrange society and are organized around the binary opposition of male/female. Cixous (1981, p. 44) recovers Derrida's binary oppositions and subordinates them to the opposition to the woman that “cuts endlessly across all the oppositions that order culture”. The aim is to dismantle the dualities and hierarchical orderings which define women as the Other by proposing a purity of interpretations against a well-fixed meaning, which has been especially used when analyzing folklore and tales (Kuhn, 1981). For example, one of the most illustrating tales about women’s place in society is Sleeping Beauty where the woman is set to be found and woken up by the prince. The princess in Sleeping Beauty suffers the same destiny as Little Red Riding Hood since a male character is the one in charge of defining her future. The prince only wakes up the princess so that she is “confined to bed ever after” just like Little Red Riding Hood can only be confined in her grandmother’s home or be punished by the wolf (Cixous, 1981, p .43).

Figure 4. Frederic Leighton. Flaming June. 1895.

In recent retellings, there has been a tendency to deconstruct the male rescuer archetype, such as Luisa Valenzuela’s Prince II. Valenzuela is an award-winning Argentinian writer who aims to analyze the patriarchal structures of society. In this regard, she presents a prince charming who does not wish to wake up the princess because he wants a docile and submissive wife. The author deconstructs this archetype by revealing his real intentions, that is, his real desire is “to take advantage of her powerlessness and to benefit himself” (Fernández Rodríguez, 2002, p. 54). Some authors have also shown an interest in portraying female rescuers and erasing the relevance of male figures when defining the heroine’s journey. In particular, Carolyn Swift's The Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up to the Facts of Life (1985) revisits the figure of the fairy godmother. In this case, fairy godmothers are no longer depicted as “accomplices in the perpetuation of female dependence” since they provide the necessary skills to have a fulfilling life rather than “the traditional feminine graces” (Fernández Rodríguez, 2002, p. 54).

In conclusion, deconstruction in fairy tales advocates for dismantling the canonical archetypes and conventions which frame fairy tales and do not allow room for reflection. Postmodern authors usually rebel against traditional patterns and avoid replicating them. By deconstructing the genre, authors can either analyze original tales from the past or re-write them while erasing the misbelief that fairy tales are only destined for a child audience. By doing so, authors challenge quintessential elements of the genre and question the authority of the conventions. According to Williams (2010, p. 270), authors “can rewrite the popular fairy tale and still write fairytales” since the new heroes or heroines do not need to follow the same path as their predecessors “to reach the story’s happy ending”.

Bibliographical References

Bacchilega, C. (1997). Postmodern fairy tales gender and narrative strategies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Banting, P. (1992). The body as pictogram: Rethinking Hélène Cixous's écriture feminine. Textual Practice, 6(2), 225-246.

Castle, G. (2006). Literary theory (1st ed.). Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

Cixous, H. (1981). Castration or Decapitation? Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 7(1), 41–55.

Coover, R. (2004). Stepmother. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.

Derrida, J. (1976). Of Grammatology (G. Chakravorty Spivak, Trans.). Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mohammadi, S. (2013). Binary Oppositions in Donald Barthelme's Short Fictions. BEST: International Journal of Management, Information Technology and Engineering, 1(3), 117-128.

Nodelman, P. (1990). The Hidden Meaning and the Inner Tale: Deconstruction and the Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 15(3), 143–148.

O'Brien, E. (2008). ‘there’s a lot more to ogres than people think’: Shrek as Ethical Fairy tale. Journal of Franco-Irish Studies, 1(1), 140-170.

Pegenaute, L. (2016). Aproximaciones teóricas contemporáneas a la traducción literaria. In I. Galanes Santos (Ed.), La traducción literaria: nuevas investigaciones (pp. 5-30). Editorial Comares.

Putri, A. & Sarwoto, P. (2016). Saussurian Binary Opposition as the Narrative Structure of Williams ‟Summer and Smoke”, Journal of Language and Literature, 16(1), pp. 82-98.

Kuhn, A. (1981). Introduction to Hélène Cixous’s “Castration or Decapitation?” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 7(1), 36–40.

Rodríguez, C. F. (2002). The Deconstruction of the Male-Rescuer Archetype in Contemporary Feminist Revisions of “The Sleeping Beauty.” Marvels & Tales, 16(1), 51–70.

Sasmaya, P.D. (2018) A Deconstruction on Binary Opposition of Characters in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Segarra, M. (2019). Derrida, Cixous, and Feminine Writing. In J. Rabaté (Ed.), Understanding Derrida, Understanding Modernism (p. 226-239, 2019). London: Bloomsbury.

Swift, C. (1985). The Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up to the Facts of Life. In L. Kavanagh (Ed.), Rapunzel’s Revenge (pp. 42-46). Dublin: Attic Press.

Valenzuela, L. (1993). Príncipe II. In L. Valenzuela (Ed.), Simetrías (pp. 136-37.). Buenos Aires: Ed. Sudamericana.

Vitkūnė, A. (2022). Binary Opposition of Life vs Death in H.C. Andersen's Fairy Tales. International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies, 8(4), 110-122.

Wilkie-Stibbs, C. (2002). The feminine subject in children’s literature. Routledge.

Williams, C. (2010). Who's wicked now? the stepmother as fairy-tale heroine. Marvels & Tales, 24(2), 255-271,192,371. Retrieved from

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