The Alternative Beauty of Cinderella's Fairy Tale

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Fairy tales function as a medium for spreading moral values in communities throughout history. For instance, one particularly popular story is “Cinderella” by Charles Perrault. It teaches children, in a plain manner, the importance of kind-heartedness through depicting the dramatic change of the fate of the protagonist Cinderella, going from being abused by her sisters to marrying the prince. Despite the tale’s straightforwardness, the actions and decisions made by the characters negate the obvious, intended moral.

“Cinderella” begins with a description of the situation Cinderella is in, parents and two vicious stepsisters treating her as a servant rather than family. One day, the king’s son invites the stepsisters to a ball. Overwhelmed with joy, the stepsisters use all their efforts to prepare for the ball, further laboring Cinderella. They insult Cinderella, who has to put on a fake smile and claim the ball is not for her. Upon witnessing the departure of the stepsisters to the ball, Cinderella finally confesses her desire to attend the ball to her godmother. Her godmother then uses magic to dress up Cinderella and creates the carriage needed to send Cinderella to the ball. Everyone at the ball—including the prince—is shocked by Cinderella’s stunning beauty without knowing her identity. Although received by the prince honorably, Cinderella recalls Godmother’s advice and flees just before midnight. When her sisters return, Cinderella conceals her attendance to the ball. The next day, Cinderella joins the ball, dressed glamorously once again. Indulged with enjoyment, she loses track of time, so she sprints away in a hurry, dropping one of her glass slippers. Nonetheless, Cinderella, in her ordinary clothes, continues to lie to her sisters about her presence at the ball. Compelled by the love the prince has towards the girl, he orders a search for a woman whose foot will fit the slipper. When the stepsisters are brutally trying to fit their feet in, Cinderella proposes trying it on, despite her sisters’ disparagement. Just as the slipper goes on her feet perfectly, her godmother transforms her clothes into the most extraordinary garments once more. The story concludes with Cinderella marrying the prince and forgiving her sisters’ wrongdoing, It teaches the audience the importance of inner beauty, virtue, and kindness, also annotating that the help from others is another critical part for success. (Perrault 449-454)

The approach that Perrault takes to convey the moral is to portray a clear contrast between two opposite traits of the evil stepsisters and good-hearted Cinderella; the “gentleness and goodness” of the protagonist are compared with the “detestable” quality of the stepsisters (Perrault 449-450). With Cinderella marrying the prince, the story celebrates her inner beauty by granting her a wonderful ending. Perrault explicitly states the lesson that “it’s kindness … that can win a man’s heart with greater success” (454). This kind of statement always implies that evil shall be punished or at least not be rewarded.

However, when we examine what happens to the stepsisters, doubts about the viability of the apparent moral start to grow. Virtuous Cinderella forgives them and “[gives] her sisters apartments in the palace and [has] them married … to two great noblemen”, without any negative consequences for them (453). Even though their ending is not as spectacular as the protagonist’s, their wellbeing challenges the moral by offering validation that one does not need positive virtues to attain success. The same applies to the stepmother and father, who is under his wife’s control; since their ending is left out, it cannot be assumed they face punishment of any sort. The family of Cinderella possesses the extreme opposite of kindness, and yet they are not condemned for their misdoing. Their ending threatens the message that the first moral conveys: the significance of personal quality in achieving success.

The role that the godmother plays in pushing the story forward is undeniable, yet her morals are also very questionable. She possesses the all-powerful magical power to turn ordinary items into amazing blessings from heaven (451). Nevertheless, she does not do anything about the abuse Cinderella suffers, which can be viewed as allowing unethical activities to prevail without trying to stop them. Cinderella, the protagonist who holds the moral standard in the story, relies on Godmother to (make a comeback in her life/). Through Godmother’s role, the tale communicates the second lesson that one needs others’ help to succeed (454). Godmother functions as a mentor to the protagonist, guiding Cinderella through misery, and therefore should be the most ethically and morally correct. Her unconcern for Cinderella’s desperate situation blurs the standard of righteousness that the tale tries to establish.

Godmother’s actions also challenge another crucial aspect of the moral: kindness is more important than appearance (454). Godmother is the decisive part of the story’s turning point: the reversal of Cinderella’s fate; interestingly, she utilizes her incredible ability to help Cinderella to get “attired”, instead of helping Cinderella or any other characters pursue inner beauty (451). The story has a way to restrain the beauty of Cinderella, as the spell expires after midnight, although the intention of this restriction is unknown. Imposing this limitation on the enchantment sends a message to the reader that beauty is not permanent, even for Cinderella. All the gorgeousness is merely a way for Cinderella to get to meet the prince at the ball so that she can win his heart with her graciousness. Perrault, by restricting the duration of the magic, controls and reduces the power of beauty and appearance. By doing so, the story ironically demonstrates how beauty crucial is to Cinderella’s success.

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It is very clear that beauty is the quality that attracted the prince, proven by his reaction of being unable to “eat anything because he was so engrossed in watching her” (452). After two nights of seeing Cinderella, her identity remains an uncertainty to the prince. He does not recognize Cinderella’s personality, instead only her appearance. The answer of the guards at the palace gate, who claim to “[have] only seen a poorly dressed girl pass by” that apparently “[has] more the appearance of a peasant than a lady”, poses the same issue (453). In the latter part of the story, this clue is never mentioned nor used again. If the prince had followed this lead, he would have been able to find Cinderella faster. Nobody relates the girl to the princess; thus no one follows up with the clue, just because of the lack of beauty in the poorly dressed peasant. All these keep hinting at the importance of appearance, undermining the need for virtue in success and, with that, the lesson of the story.

The tale shows that external beauty, which is the key for Cinderella to win the prince’s love, is indeed given by Godmother. The second moral of the story adds up since Godmother plays an integral part in helping Cinderella succeed. The first moral, on the contrary, does not agree with the story since Godmother never “[teaches] the girl about love and glory” (454). The only recipe for success that Cinderella obtains from Godmother is comeliness, but not any kind of character moral development. Thus, the first lesson is greatly defeated.

The glass slipper—the indispensable plot coupon of the story, which is also strangely the biggest plot hole—is itself a representation of beauty. While the rest of Cinderella’s clothing returns to its original state, the glass slipper somehow avoids the fate of disenchantment, after sliding off her foot. It is said to be “the prettiest in the world” and keeps reminding the prince of Cinderella’s beauty because the prince “[gazes] upon it for the remainder of the evening” (453). By the end, the prince finds Cinderella through the glass slipper (453). This token, which links the fate of the prince with Cinderella, is a symbol of beauty, but her personality is ignored completely.

Taking a step further, Cinderella is not as virtuous as she appears to be.

Throughout the story, Cinderella is very untrue to herself. She chooses to endure instead of fighting against the injustice imposed on her by her family. Moreover, Cinderella lies to her sisters about her presence in the ball, while her reasoning in doing so is not clearly explained. It seems she wants to spare herself from the jealousy and hatred from her sisters, but could also be she does not want her sisters to know about godmother’s magic to prevent them from getting as good-looking as she is. There is a plot detail with a lot of room for plausible interpretation: when Cinderella asks her sister to lend her a gown so that she can go to the ball, she “expected this refusal … for she would have been greatly embarrassed” if her sister said yes. The reason for the potential embarrassment is ambiguous, but it comes down to that Cinderella will be ashamed to be wearing such clothes compared to the magical one. This shows Cinderella’s preference for beauty over ordinariness and her attention on superficial appearance rather than virtues. Hence, Cinderella and her sisters’ desire for beauty is parallel after all. Without putting any emphasis on kindness, the protagonist fails to uphold the principle which the moral of the story is based on, prompting readers to further question the credibility of the tale’s moral.

Cinderella’s fear of the prince seeing her true self is transparent to readers, as shown by her action of running away from the ball. If she had faith that the prince appreciates her personality, she would be indifferent to the prince facing her dressed messily. This validates how much power beauty has over Cinderella’s life. Overall, the story draws a contrast between plainness and elaborated beauty, by comparing Cinderella’s “dirty”, “shabby” dress and her overwhelmingly “magnificent”, magical dress (452-453). Another section that makes a clear comparison between plainness, or ugliness even, and glamour, is the transformation of the ordinary items; the rats, lizards, and mice change into the “coachman who had the finest moustache”, footmen, and handsome horses (451). In the latter half of the story, this dirty versus beauty tension overtakes the contrast between the characters of Cinderella and her stepsisters. Cinderella’s kindness is only demonstrated by her forgiving her sisters and the insignificant action of her giving her sisters oranges and citrons. The gloriousness of Cinderella at the ball distracts the reader, shifting the focus away from her personality, which does not go well with the intended moral.

Regardless of its self-contradictory nature, the popularity of “Cinderella” in the world of fairy tales is unshakable. The actions of the characters and the relationships between one another at first come across as being insignificant, yet when viewed with scrutiny, they together tell another interesting story that goes against the obvious moral. Next time when given a fairy tale, we shall look closer instead of accepting whatever is on the surface, so as to appreciate the alternative beauty of the wonderful, innocent world of fairy tales.

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