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The earliest fairy tales were published in a patriarchal society where women had little rights and played a subordinate role, raised to bow to male authority. As a result, most traditional fairy tales tend to reflect the norms of such a society. Even some popular modern versions still undermine female authority by presenting women who are objectified and easily pitted against each other due to petty reasons. In “Feminism and Fairy Tales,” Karen Rowe discusses the anti-feminist sentiments of fairy tales and explains the importance of strong female characters. We must ask, is it even possible to retell “Cinderella” in a feminist manner? In her modern retelling “When The Clock Strikes” which was written in 1983, Tanith Lee deals with Cinderella’s anti-feminist history in complex ways. Lee’s story revolves around a young girl called ‘Ashella’ who practices dark magic, taught to her by her mother, and performs ‘evil’ tasks yet still ends up victorious. It might seem, at first, that Lee’s tale which “bears witness against women” goes along with Rowe’s conclusion that “the liberation of the female psyche has not matured with sufficient strength” (358) to strongly challenge the patriarchal society. However, I argue that despite expectations of passive female characters Lee’s fairy tale defy the norms by presenting ‘evil’ yet powerful female characters.
While most Cinderella tales barely mention the mother, “When The Clock Strikes” presents Ashella’s mother with an irreplaceable role. According to Marina Warner, in most “familiar retellings” of Cinderella “the heroine’s mother no longer plays a part” (205). This quote refers to how well-known fairy tales often portray a father-daughter bond while forgetting to involve the natural mother. Warner explains the cultural reason for removal of mothers by stating that writers could not produce material where maternal figures are ambivalent or dangerous since it might adversely affect the audience, who were predominantly children. This argument is directed towards the popular versions of Cinderella, but Lee’s retelling is related to the older versions where mothers are significant. In contrast to Warner’s claims, Rowe argues that “mothers enforce their daughter’s conformity” (349), where the noun ‘conformity’ refers to one’s compliance with the set standards and regulations. Rowe implies that the importance of a mother-daughter connection has been undermined in fairy tales, and the extent of influence that these relationships can have is demonstrated in Lee’s work. Ashella is her mother’s helper and has been “recruited into her service nearly as soon as the infant could walk” (Lee, 119). The use of ‘infant’ instead of child is interesting since it emphasizes Ashella’s innocence and conveys how malleable she was when her mother started to teach her black magic. Additionally, Lee utilises the verb “recruited”, making it seem as though Ashella was being called into military service where supervisors or commanding officers shape the soldiers’ conformity, and her mother occupies the role of the supervisor. Also, she swore Ashella “to the fellowship of Hell” (Lee, 120), an event which dictates her actions throughout the story. Ashella’s mother, despite her evil nature, depicts strength and promotes feminist sentiments because, even though she was killed, she stood up for her beliefs and by staying true to her faith, she prevails over the patriarchy. Therefore, the utilisation of a maternal character who is powerful and dangerous defy norms while promoting strong female influences.
Despite their opposing views on the role of mothers, both Warner and Rowe agree that the stepmother is an embodiment of female rivalry. Warner states that the second wife “often found herself and her children in competition” (213) and Rowe’s essay supports this claim by stating that the stepmother embodies “obstacles against this passage to womanhood” as well as “female rivalry, predatory sexuality and constrictive authority” (Rowe, 348). The stepmother in Lee’s fairy tale, when compared to those from Perrault’s and Brothers Grimm’s versions, is more willing to accept Ashella. Nevertheless, she soon tires of her grave behaviour and exclaims that the people will think that she and her daughters mistreat Ashella “from jealousy of her dead mother” (Lee, 122). The noun ‘jealously’ hints to the futile rivalry between the dead mother and the stepmother, and since the mother is no longer a part of the story, this competitiveness is redirected towards Ashella. Furthermore, Rowe also says that the rivalry with the stepmother personifies “the adolescent’s negative feelings toward her mother” (Rowe, 348). Even though Rowe’s arguments are directed towards the popular classic versions of Cinderella, we must ask if her words can still apply to the modern retellings or not. Her claim does not seem entirely appropriate to Ashella’s situation because, due to her close bond with her late mother, the existent female rivalry stems from Ashella’s devotion to her mother. In fact, Ashella exerts her superiority over the stepmother by not engaging in such petty rivalries. This is also an example of how the mother, despite being deceased, still influences Ashella’s decisions and relationships. Therefore, female rivalry is not what the stepmother embodies in “When The Clock Strikes”, but she personifies Ashella’s determination to execute her mother’s wishes, and this shows strength of character.
For centuries, fairy tales have revolved around good natured and passive heroines, but Lee’s “When The Clock Strikes” rebels against this norm. As stated by Warner, “authentic power lies with the bad women” and in Lee’s modern tale, “sinister and gruesome forces are magnified and prevail throughout” (Warner 207). Warner’s definition of a ‘bad’ woman refers to someone who is unchangeably evil in their very nature and ‘power’ implies the ability to act independently and make influential decisions. Although it can be argued that Ashella’s mother is punished due to her nefariousness, it is more important to note that Ashella is rewarded, despite being like her mother, because this ending distinguishes Lee’s story from the classic versions. Some may argue that portraying a woman as evil is anti-feminist, but the fact that this evil woman emerges victorious makes Lee’s story feminist. An example of Ashella’s triumph is hidden within Lee’s tale: “Only one thing was left behind. A woman’s shoe. A shoe no woman could ever have danced in. It was made of glass” (Lee, 128). The first line, “only one thing was left behind”, evidently conveys that at the end of the ball, Ashella was the one left standing. The third and fourth lines subtly juxtapose power and fragility; the shoe is a metaphor for Ashella’s challenging journey which no other ordinary woman, or man for that matter, could have survived. The glass in this situation refers to Ashella’s emotional fragility, which is observed throughout the period in which she smothered herself with ashes, and use of past tense such as “was” suggests that she has overcome that vulnerability. Rowe elaborates on this argument by providing a reason why characters are passive in the first place: “‘Romance’ glosses over the heroine’s impotence: she is unable to act independently or self-assertively; she relies on external agents for rescue” (Rowe, 345). Considering that romance is not a significant theme in Lee’s version, Ashella does not passively wait for “external agents of rescue” or a prince to sweep her off her feet. Instead, she acts independently and liberates herself from the weight of her desires for vengeance. Through creating a non-passive heroine, Lee shows the contrast between Ashella and most Cinderella’s who need godmothers and princes to rescue them.
Anti-feminist ideals have been incorporated into fairy tales for many centuries, and it has led to stereotypes which often convey that women need men to act as their heroes; essentially, several popular fairy tales promote the idea of damsels-in-distress. “When The Clock Strikes” by Tanith Lee is a pro-feminist Cinderella story which revolves around a female hero who achieves her goals with little external help. Warner and Rowe are both critics that have strong views on feminism, and comparing the two with relation to Tanith Lee’s story allows us to see how this modern retelling is different from the classic versions. By presenting stronger, dominant female characters and not including romance as a major theme of the story, Lee essentially challenges the ideas of traditional Cinderella stories and effectively presents a feminist retelling of it.
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