Charles Perrault: Fairy Tale Morals and Men

It seems commonplace for writers of fairy tales to create either a helpless heroine or a hapless hero, or a combination of the two. During extensive reading however, I discovered that there are many more well-developed female characters over male characters. Nearly all male characters, in nearly all fairy tales, lack what is classified as hero characteristics. As I searched different tales for the best example of this phenomenon, I ran into a specifically interesting piece. Perrault, the author of many of the most well known fairy tales, was always also known for his morals at the end of his tales. He seems, apparently, to be one of the only ones that consistently wrote morals to his stories. In Puss in Boots, I found an extraordinarily weak male character, and such a moral attached to the end. The interesting thing about this story is not that the “youngest son,” was the weakest male character in all of my readings, but rather that the moral shifted the attention of the story to emphasize how weak a character he really was. All in all, the story is a great one, involving craft, wit, and intelligence; yet the moral tells us as readers to look at the “youngest son” as the focus of the story and to take his perspective, rather than that of our apparent main character, the cat. Thus, I found an example and simultaneously an exception to this idea that male characters are inherently weak in fairy tales.

The story itself warrants something of a weak male character. It goes that a miller had died, and upon his death bed, left his possessions to his three sons. The eldest got the mill, the second got the donkey and the “youngest son” got “the cat, and he was not a little disappointed at receiving such a miserable portion.” (155) We already gain that this male character must start out as weak, having nothing, and having received nothing from seemingly the only place that could have given him a start in life. Perrault makes a wise decision in the story to constantly remind us that this male character is weak and does nothing for himself. In order to live, the cat itself goes out and traps game for himself and the son to eat. The cat also arranges for gifts to be given to the King, and even a clever plot to trick the King into helping the son. He even goes so far as to trick a great ogre into turning himself into a mouse and then the cat kills and eats him, seizes his castle in name of his master, which then allows the son to marry the King’s daughter. This all makes for a great story, lessons of “brain over brawn,” cleverness as your most useful tool, and to never take what only is given to you. Yet, at the end of this story, Perrault delivers us two morals, both of which detract from the cleverness and successfulness of the cat. The first obviously being better than the second, he mentions that “knowledge, and a clever mindâÂ?¦Are worth more than mere gifts from others.” (159) This, I admit, is a fairly accurate moral regardless of the poor delivery- industry and knowledge never come into play in this story. Yet, the second moral, the end-note for the story, if you will, tells us that “Perhaps it is the clothes, the appearance, and youthfulnessâÂ?¦ That are seldom the indifferent meansâÂ?¦ Of inspiring love!” (159) This completely detracts from the true meaning of the story. We are thus left with this idea that because this boy is young, attractive, and now rich, he can thus inspire love in a woman. That leaves us as readers, with the temptation to analyze how, in fact, this boy achieved such means. We are also left with the question of how much of this end-result did he achieve on his own. In the end, you can answer all of these questions simply; he was given everything. At no point in the story, was this boy clever, or witty. At no point in the story did he himself work hard for the affection of the daughter, and at no point in the story did he even take his own life into his hands. His entire existence and success in life was in the hands of a talking cat which he was originally just going to eat. Had it not been for the cat wanting to live on and help his master, that boy probably would have died early on in the story or had to be supported by his other brothers. We are thus left with this picture of an incredibly weak male character as most fairy tales end up showing us. Yet, we get to this conclusion for a very unique reason. I argue that because of Perrault’s moral to the story, we are pushed to view him as a uniquely weak character rather than a sub-character to that of the cat. By the end of the reading, we are forced to forget the cat as main character and are asked to think about the boy instead. This is not the only time that Perrault uses stranage and detracting morals to his stories. Nor is this the only story that the male character is uniquely weak.

In Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty, called The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, we experience this dual problem once again, only this time it doesn’t make the male character weaker, it makes the entire story weaker. The male character, the prince, in this story, is already weak enough without Perrault’s help. When the prince initially arrives at Sleeping Beauty’s castle, he doesn’t even have to fight his way through the briars or thicket to get to the castle. The brush conveniently parts as he enters and when he enters the room of Sleeping Beauty she woke at “the hour of disenchantment,” (29) instantly falls in love with him and everything is just great. If this wasn’t enough to show the prince not having to actually be the hero and work for his reward, he is too weak to even mention his love to his ogress mother, for fear that she would eat his children. It is Sleeping Beauty herself that shows immense amounts of courage, when still under the impression that her children had in fact been eaten by the ogress that she offers her own neck to the steward in hopes of seeing her children again. In this moment, she dies freely in order to see her children, rather than run in cowardice. At the end of this story, Perrault issues us another distracting moral. Confusingly enough, in a story of attempted heroic reunion and true love, his moral says that “To wait a bit in choosing a husbandâÂ?¦Rich, courteous, genteel, and kind;âÂ?¦ That is understandable enough.”(33) Courteous, genteel, kind, all of these are admirable qualities, but rich? Not only does Perrault weight so heavily such a seemingly unimportant quality, but he never even shows us the good characteristics in his main male character. The story never fully depicts him as genteel, or courteous- only as meek and fearful, or privileged and expectant at best. As if this was not enough, he goes on to start describing the true moral of the story but never gets to it. Rather he cops out and says that, “But maidens yearn for the wedding joysâÂ?¦With so much ardourâÂ?¦ That I have neither strength nor the heartâÂ?¦ To preach this moral to them.” (34) Not only does he never even give the true moral to the story, but he discredits women as being this entity that desires only to find a man and marry him. He thereby implies that women are capable of understanding nothing but their carnal desires to find love and to be wed to it. Not to mention with the above he also shifts the focus not on the vanquishing of evil or that good will prevail. Rather, Perrault decides to focus the readers on the fact that we should be reading into what a princess looks for- rich, genteel, and that sort. We are again, left with the same problem that we saw in Puss in Boots. The prince never actually gained these things on his own, he was given his riches. He never proves himself to be genteel or courteous. He in essence, creates a suicide of sorts in his stories by including detracting and distracting morals.

During my research, I had set out to prove that male characters were weak in all fairy tales. What I found was that most male characters in other stories, by other authors were still weak characters but for a distinctly different reason. Male characters in other stories may have been weak, but it works because in other stories, they are not the main characters. The focus of the other stories is always on the escape, pleasant life, or success of a maiden. Fairy tales of the time period were almost always female-centric. We often see them as wanting a heroic male to come rescue them or love them, but that is not the subject of the story. It is still the woman and her escape. Therefore, we can have flat, two dimensional male characters that are there only to free her from her dungeon or escape her from the tower. When you have a two-dimensional sub-character, it isn’t looked at highly from a writer’s standpoint, but it can work in children’s fairy tales. However, when you refocus those sub-characters, like Perrault does with his morals, they cannot be flat. They must be robust, want something in the story, and be truly alive on the page. As I said, Puss in Boots is a great story, and I love it still. Yet I only enjoy it without the morals at the end. Perrault accomplishes an interesting end with his morals- he refocuses his stories so that instead of the reader looking at the stronger points of the story, they are instead gazing at the weaker. Therein lies the crucial problem with the morals of Perrault’s fairy tales.

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