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Master's Thesis: The Fairy-Tale Motif and the Victorian Novel

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In 1996 I presented a 20,000-word thesis on the fairy tale motif in the Victorian Novel to the University of New England (in Australia) in partial satisfaction of the degree of Master of Letters.

Actually, I exceeded the word limit and went to more like 32,000 words. The paper was the result of more than two years of dedicated research, following coursework units on relevant topics. The discussion presented here represents a summary of my arguments.

A vintage pop-up from a book featuring the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. (Strand Publications) Photo by Allan Schultz

A vintage pop-up from a book featuring the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. (Strand Publications) Photo by Allan Schultz


My argument was that the Victorian novelists were story-tellers who entered into the tradition of re-working the folk tales; and inserted contemporary Victorian concerns such as independence, morality and the importance of personal integrity.

The fairy tales were perceived as ideal instruments of subversion because they primarily developed as oral tales, and hence were the personal property of each teller throughout the centuries. The producers of written tales naturally followed this tradition, adapting the story motifs to make them their own.

Fairy Tale Structure

Vladimir Propp observed that the Russian fairy tales he studied contained the following events:

  1. an "initial situation" in which one or more members of the family absent themselves, the protagonist is given instructions and a villain enters.
  2. During intermediate situations the villain causes harm or injury to the protagonist, prompting them to leave home.
  3. The protagonist faces a series of challenges and overcomes them using a magical gift.
  4. The villain is vanquished and the protagonist returns home.
  5. Upon providing proof of his or her identity the protagonist receives a reward, which usually consists of a marital partner and ascension to the throne. (1)

Quiz Mania: Charlotte Bronte

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Charlotte Bronte was the daughter of...
    • a country pastor
    • a blacksmith
    • a wealthy merchant
    • the Prince of Wales
  2. Charlotte Bronte's two sisters were called...
    • Snow White and Rose Red
    • Hope and Charity
    • Anne and Emily
    • Elizabeth and Victoria
  3. Charlotte Bronte mostly wrote about...
    • the dramas of the Napoleonic War
    • breeding horses in rural England
    • pirates of the seven seas
    • young women trying to make their way in life
  4. Which of the following was not written by a Bronte sister?
    • Wuthering Heights
    • Sense and Sensibility
    • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
    • Agnes Grey

Answer Key

  1. a country pastor
  2. Anne and Emily
  3. young women trying to make their way in life
  4. Sense and Sensibility


Iona and Peter Opie observe that the main character is often an orphan. There is no adequate authority figure functioning in the character's life, the character is isolated and placed in a position of social mobility where they may take full advantage of anything they may acquire or discover. (2)

Luthi demonstrates that the fairy tale may be a moral of development, in which the main character journeys through rites of passage and chooses the correct path. Luthi also demonstrates that fairy tales are composed of a series of contrasts between good and evil. Motives are exaggerated, and these exaggerations allow the story-teller to create situations that symbolise struggles between social forces. (3)

The "magical gift" and other fantastic motifs referred to by Propp assist the fairy tale in its subversive function, because it is not obliged to the laws of probability. The fairy tale, therefore, may subvert reality and represent the world as the story-teller wishes it to be! Moreover, they may depict situations that rarely arise and explore unusual scenarios.

Avery and Bull point out that the fantastic motifs in fairy tales also lend themselves towards allegorical interpretation:

  • "The fairy tale conventions were extremely desirable, because of the scope they allowed in the creation of symbolic properties - castles, forests, and towers - and also of supernatural characters". (4)

Quiz Mania: Charles Dickens

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

Scroll to Continue
  1. When he was a child Charles Dickens loved to play...
    • with a cricket bat
    • with his toy theatre
    • cops and robbers
    • monopoly
  2. Charles Dickens mostly wrote...
    • letters to his maiden aunt
    • poetry comissioned by the queen
    • melodramatic serialised novels
    • reports about his travels in Europe
  3. After a long day, Charles Dickens liked to...
    • act in his own theatrical productions
    • get very drunk and play pranks
    • go to bed early
    • relax in front of the fire
  4. Which of the following is not a book by Charles Dickens?
    • The Old Curiosity Shop
    • Vanity Fair
    • Great Expectations
    • Dombey and Son

Answer Key

  1. with his toy theatre
  2. melodramatic serialised novels
  3. act in his own theatrical productions
  4. Vanity Fair

A Woman's Point Of View

According to Zipes, women in France in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries adapted well-known folk tales into stories to be told at court, and new versions that reflected their personal convictions. Zipes describes these "conversational games" as subversive "anticlassical" exercises "implicitly told and written in opposition to Boileau, who was championing Greek and Roman literature as the models for French writers to follow". (5)

Zipes emphasises the majority of the participants of the story-telling games were female and demonstrates that these women deliberately focused their tales upon the female characters. Zipes argues that Madame D'Alnoy's early version of Beauty and the Beast is designed to counteract the undesirable images of women presented in Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche, where Psyche is represented as "too curious" and Venus "too vengeful". Beauty is characterised by gentleness and discretion.

Moreover, Zipes continues, Madame D'Alnoy designed the tale to demonstrate a woman's participation in the choice of her marital partner: "In the conscious composition of the tales she clearly intended to present a woman's viewpoint with regard to such topics as tender love, courtship, honour, and arranged marriages". (6)

Opposition To The Fairy Tale

The original publication of Perrault's Histories ou Contes du Tempes Passe' occurred in 1697 (translated into English in 1729 and 1750), Madame D'Alnoy's Contes des Fee's was published in 1697-8 (translated between 1699 and 1707), and Madame de Beaumont's Magasin Infants, ou Dialogues Entre Une Sage Gouvernante was printed in 1756 (translated 1761). (7)

The fairy tales then entered a period of stagnation. Darton explains that an adverse reaction to the tales, based upon complaints that fantastic motifs transgress common conceptions of "truth and reason", arose. The culture of Eighteenth Century England stressed rationality and practicality, and therefore rejected "Such things as moon leaping cows, banbery cock horses, and booted cats." The tales were not considered "commercial propositions" but "were the imbecilities of the peasantry". Darton also reports some fairy tales were considered offensive for religious reasons. (8)

Negative reactions by the utilitarian sectors of society lasted well into the Nineteenth century, and Avery and Bull report that influential educationalists were opposed to fairy tales:

  • "Moralists, educationalists and those concerned with the religious teaching of children found it hard to reconcile their consciences to offering such fictions enormities as two headed giants, seven-league boots and all the stock-in-trade of fantasy to innocent boys and girls." (9)

Quiz Mania: Wilkie Collins

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Wilkie Collins was best friends with...
    • William Thackeray
    • George Eliot
    • Charles Dickens
    • Charlotte Bronte
  2. Wilkie Collins is known as a pioneer of...
    • antarctic exploration
    • the modern detective story
    • early photographic techniques
    • poetry that does not rhyme
  3. One social theme Wilkie Collins explored was...
    • the slave trade from Africa to America
    • how the government ought to establish schools
    • the poverty of the working class in Victorian England
    • the way the English marriage laws disadvantaged women
  4. Wilkie Collins did not write...
    • The adventures of Sherlock Holmes
    • The Woman in White
    • The Moonstone
    • Armadale

Answer Key

  1. Charles Dickens
  2. the modern detective story
  3. the way the English marriage laws disadvantaged women
  4. The adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Survival Of The Fairy Tale

The result of opposition to the fairy tale was that it went back into the oral tradition to be told by women like Dickens' nurse, Mary Weller and the Bronte's servant, Tabitha Ackroyd; and into the streets to be dramatised by roving players, and sold in chap-book form by itinerant pedlars. (11)

A chap-book was a cheaply printed and bound leaflet which sold for a penny. These booklets commonly contained fairy tales, nursery rhymes, tales of history, royalty or crime, and were illustrated using woodcuts. Bluebeard, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, Jack the Giant Killer, several of the tales from the Arabian Nights and Dick Whittington were all popular in chapbook form. (12)

Fairy tales motifs which had been incorporated into the works of major literary figures also continued to be propagated during the period of rationalism. The plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the allegories of John Bunyan, are all mentioned as sources of recreational reading by the authors studied in this paper, and are valued among their favourite texts. (13)

Abrams demonstrates that Scott and the Romantic literary movement elevated folk poetry and fairy tales as an essential part of literature, and a source of poetic inspiration. The Romantics also contributed a growing awareness that childhood was a distinct stage of the human lifespan, and prompted interest in the publication of fairy tales for children. (14)

In 1818 Sir Richard Phillips re-introduced fairy tales to the reading public with the publication of Popular Fairy Tales, or a Lilipitian Library (sic), which contained all of Perrault's tales, "Beauty and the Beast", and a number of other stories. However, it was the subsequent publication in 1823 of a volume entitled German Popular Stories written by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Edgar Taylor and illustrated by George Cruikshank, which made a significant impact on the English public and brought fairy tales back into popularity. (15)

Quiz Mania: Fairy Tales

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. In the story of Cinderella...
    • a wicked Witch curses the Prince
    • Cinderella is made sweep the kitchen
    • Tinkerbell lends Cinderella wings
    • Angels appear just before Cinderella freezes to death
  2. Snow White....
    • is rescued by six Dwarves
    • is almost eaten by a big hungry wolf
    • rubs a bottle and discovers a Genie
    • is put to sleep by a poisoned apple
  3. Blue Beard is notorious for his...
    • habbit of stealing babies
    • army of enchanted mice
    • secret locked room
    • dishonest dealings with a Witch
  4. Ali Baba became rich...
    • when he discovered a cave full of theives loot
    • when he saved the daughter of the Sultan
    • when his forty ships sailed back to him
    • when a Genie built him a magical house

Answer Key

  1. Cinderella is made sweep the kitchen
  2. is put to sleep by a poisoned apple
  3. secret locked room
  4. when he discovered a cave full of theives loot

Chronology Of Victorian Publications

The first of the novels studied in this paper, The old Curiosity Shop, was published in 1841, following these early editions of fairy tales, and preceding some of the specifically Victorian collections of fairy stories. It is interesting too that chap-books and street theatre play a significant role in the text of The Old Curiosity Shop as Nell and her grandfather spend several days travelling with a Punch and Judy show (Chapters Sixteen to Nineteen). (16)

In 1846 the fairy tale was foregrounded in the eyes of the Victorian public by the publication of Hans Andersen's Wonderful Stories for Children. These stories were immensely popular, and the popularity of fairy stories in general increased, prompting the publication of a number of other collections including: Danish Fairy Legends and Tales edited by Caroline Peachup, A child's Fairy Library and Fairy Tales of all Nations. The Opies observe that Anderson's tales represent a significant point in the evolution of fairy literature because Hans Andersen was more of a "creator" than "collector". (17)

The immensely popular Jane Eyre was published in 1847, just following Hans Andersen's tales, also using a combination of fairy tale motifs. (18) Ruskin published The King of the Golden River in 1851, Thackeray contributed The Rose and the Ring in 1855. Then J.R. Planche produced a new translation of the tales of Madame D'Alnoy entitled Four and Twenty Tales. (19)

In 1861 George Eliot published Silas Marner and Charles Dickens published Great Expectations. (20) Both of these novels make extensive use of fairy tale motifs; but change them from those in the traditional tale, even occasionally contradicting the outcomes of the traditional tales.

Fairy tale collections and fantasy stories continued to be published, with increasing popularity. These include: Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871). George Macdonald's Dealings with Fairies (1867) is another examples, with Andrew Lang's "colour" series running into several editions reprinted in the Twentieth Century. (21)

Wilkie Collins' The Law and the Lady, which makes extensive and sophisticated use of the Bluebeard motif was published in 1874. (22)

A vintage pop-up from a book featuring the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. (Strand Publications) Photo by Allan Schultz

A vintage pop-up from a book featuring the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. (Strand Publications) Photo by Allan Schultz

Different Authors Use The Motifs Differently

Auerbach and Knoepflmacher demonstrate that the Victorian writers employed the subversive qualities of the fairy tale to create uniquely Victorian Myths. Moreover, male and female writers used fairy tales in different ways. Victorian men demonstrated an "obsessive nostalgia for their own idealised childhoods" which "inspired them to imagine dream countries in which no one had to grow up". (23) Women were more concerned with themes of love and personal independence.

As demonstrated in Chapter One of this paper, Dickens described the importance of fairy tales in his childhood and focuses his novels upon child protagonists. Dickens' heroines are subsumed by the role of the fairy tale princess, with an unrealistic focus upon passivity and matrimony. The Dickens' novel does not provide any solutions for these trapped princesses and his female characters (like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations) frequently shrivel and die before the novel is completed.

Wilkie Collins, whose representation of women does transgress fairy tale stereotypes, has male characters like Benjamin in The Law and the Lady, who turn to fairy tales for a comforting vision of the past in preference to the present or future. Benjamin becomes alarmed by Valeria's "new ideas" and declares: "I am going to read - "Puss in Boots," and "Jack and the Beanstalk," and anything else I can find that doesn't march with the age we live in. (24)

Victorian women, Auerbach and Knoepflmacher report "envied adults rather than children" and strove for independence in their writing. (25) These women writers employ fairy tale motifs to create characters who declare that they value their freedom. For example, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre asserts: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you... (26)

George Eliot's Nancy Lammeter is prepared to go without a marital relationship until she sees a reformation in Godfrey's behaviour, while her sister Priscilla expresses a radical degree of satisfaction in the single state: "Mr. Have-your-own-way is the best husband, and the only one I'd ever promise to obey". (27)

Quiz Mania: George Eliot

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. George Eliot's real name was...
    • Saint Thomas Moore
    • Georgina Everett
    • Mary Ann Evans
    • Bernard Shaw
  2. She used a pen-name because...
    • a woman couldn't get her work published in those days.
    • she was living in a defacto relationship.
    • she was a cousin of the queen.
    • she was the daughter of a minister of the Church of England.
  3. Which one of these is not a book by George Eliot?
    • Pride and Prejudice
    • Adam Bede
    • Silas Marner
    • Middlemarch
  4. George Eliot's stories are mostly about...
    • murder and mystery
    • Queen Victoria's court in London
    • the mistreatment of animals
    • the rising middle class rural society

Answer Key

  1. Mary Ann Evans
  2. she was living in a defacto relationship.
  3. Pride and Prejudice
  4. the rising middle class rural society

Content of the paper:

Chapter One of the paper analysed Dickens use of fairy tale motifs in The Old Curiosity Shopand discovered that he employed a fairy tale plot much like that of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the good child Nell was pursued by the evil wolf Quilp. This plot developed symbolic overtones as Nell began to represent the women and children in Victorian society, and Quilp represented patriarchal commercialism and materialism. Other fairy tale motifs were included in the Old Curiosity Shop as little quotations from the tales or as small scenes which refer directly back to the original tale.

In Chapter Two, the paper discussed Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which employed a number of fairy tale motifs, including the plot structures of Cinderella, Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast; through which Jane journeyed to find and establish her own unique story. Chapter Three demonstrated that George Eliot employed the fairy tale motifs in an allegorical manner in Silas Marner to create a myth of redemption by love. Chapter Four argued that Great Expectations used fairy tale stereotypes which blighted and disrupted the characters' lives until personal integrity was developed.

Chapter Five concluded the paper with a discussion of Wilkie Collins use of the familiar Bluebeard motif in The Law and the Lady. Valeria was faced with dangers reminiscent of those faced by Bluebeard's wife and had to investigate her situation.

A high positive correlation between trends in the publication of fairy tale collections and the use of fairy tale motifs by Victorian Novelists was demonstrated. The inclusion of fairy tale motifs within the Victorian Novel undoubtedly aided the popularity of fairy tale collections, and allowed the Victorian Novel to access the subversive qualities of fantastic literature.

© Cecelia



1 Propp, V. Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977) p.6, pp.24-63,

2. Opie, I. & P. The Classic Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974)p.15,

3. Luthi, M. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales (Tr. L. Chadeayne & P. Gottwald) (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.) pp.51,71-81,109-120,135-146,

4. Avery, G. & Bull, A.Nineteenth Century Children: Heroes and Heroines in English Children's Stories 1780-1900 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965) p.57,

5. Zipes, in Avery, G. & Briggs, J. Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p.121-128, 132

6. See Perrault, C. Perrault's Fairy Tales (Tr. A. Carter) (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967) for the actual tale,

Zipes, in Avery, G. & Briggs, J. Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p.121-128, 132

7. Darton, F.J.H. Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966) p.131-3 list an early translation by an unknown translator, and several translations by Samber and Gent,

Opie, I. & P. p.21, 24 & Zipes, p.123-124,

8. Darton, p.85, 96-97,

9. Avery & Bull p.41,

11. Briggs, K.M. "The Folklore of Charles Dickens" Journal of the Folklore Institute, VII, 1970) pp.10-12, Gaskell, E. The Life of Charlotte Bronte (London: Penguin Books, 1985), & Stone, H. Dark Corners of the Mind: Dickens' Childhood Reading The Horn Book Magazine June 1963, pp.306-321, p.312,

12. Collison, R. The Story of Street Literature:Forerunner of the Popular Press (London: J.M. Dent & Sons LTD., 1973) pp.1-2,

Darton, p.70,

Stone, H. Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Novel Making (London: Macmillan, 1980) pp.43-4,

Collison, pp.111-115, Darton, pp.70,82, ,Targ, W. Bibliophile in the Nursery: A Bookman's Treasury of Collectors' Lore on Old and Rare Children's Books (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1957) p.134,

13. Stone Horn Book p.320,

Bronte, C. "Letter to Ellen Nussey",

Eliot, G. in Cross, J.W. (Ed.) George Eliot's Life: as Related in her Letters and Journals (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons), Collins,

14. Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953),

15. Darton p.22, p.219-220,

16. Dickens, C. Dickens, C. The Old Curiosity Shop (London: Everyman, 1995), introduction & p.219

See also: Briggs, p.10, Collison, pp.4-6 & Opie, I. & P. The Classic Fairy Tales p.25,

17. Targ, p.136, Darton p.247-8 & Opie, I. & P. The Classic Fairy Tales p.27,

18. Bronte, C. Bronte, C. Jane Eyre (Sydney: Signet & Tudor Distributors Pty. Ltd., 1970), Introduction

19. Green, R.L. Tellers of Tales: Children's Books and Their Authors from 1800 to 1964 (Edmund Word Publishers LTD., 1965), p.302,

20. Dickens, C. Great Expectations (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), Eliot, G. Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981),

21. Green, p.304-305,

22. Collins, W. The Law and the Lady (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992)

23. Auerbach, N. and Knoepflmacher, U. C.Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), p.1,

24. Collins, W. p.321,

25. Auerbach and Knoepflmacher, p.1,

26. Bronte, C. Jane Eyre p.256,

27. Eliot, G. Silas Marner p.149

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2009 Cecelia


Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on November 07, 2019:

When the dew is on the meadow.

and the moon is in the sky.

You can hear the lonely piper,

playing on the pipes nearby.

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