In Tatar’s “Introduction: Hansel and Gretel,” the first point discussed is food. She says, “Food—it’s presence and absence—shapes the social world of fairy tales in a profound way,” (Tatar, 1999, p. 179). In the case of the “Hansel and Gretel” stories, it is the absence of food that is the story’s driving force. Tatar also reaffirms what we’ve already discussed about how fairy tales reflect the climate of society; these stories “not so much stage a child’s fears about starvation, exposure and abandonment as mirror the hard facts of the pre-modern era” (Tatar, 1999, p. 180). Starvation was a real part of the mid-19th century in Ireland, where a fungus wiped out the potato crops in a country where the majority of the population was relied on this crop for survival.
Tatar also discusses the transformation from the mother into the witch, which seems to be a motif among fairy tale stories. In this incarnation of the maternal transformation motif, both the mother and the witch are most concerned with their own survival, rather than the survival of the offspring, though “the witch is an even more exaggerated form of maternal malice than the stepmother” (Tatar, 1999, p. 180). The mother, since she is not capable of providing nourishment for her entire household, plots to rid herself of the competition, thus ensuring, or at least upping the odds of, her continued existence. The witch’s survival, on the other hand, is not dependent upon her cannibalistic tendencies, as she has the means to fatten up the children, but it is clearly her preferred means of sustenance. It is the fact that the witch appears to be the antithesis of the mother character that the children follow her and their cleverness that they triumph over her.
Bettelheim suggests that “Hansel and Gretel” is a story based on the “oral greed, denial and regression of the children” (Tatar, 1999, p. 181). The question I have is regression to where? Yes, in some versions of the story it is the reincarnated child that avenges his or her own death, but is that regression? It’s not like Golding’s Lord of the Flies, where the lack of structure facilitates a regression of sorts to a pack-type mentality. In the case of the characters of Hansel and Gretel, their motivation stems from the desire not to be eaten, as well as the desire to return home to their father.
Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the Flies. United States: Wideview/Perigee Books.
Tatar, M. (1999). The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.