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Although Rapunzel was also a part of the Brothers Grimm’s first edition of “Children’s and Household Tales” it was an adaptation of the story Persinette which was written by the French novelist and poet, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force in 1698.
The story of Rapunzel, the girl who was locked away in a tower, is said to be based on the legend of Saint Barbara, a Christian Saint and martyr who lived around the third century. Saint Barbara was locked in a tower by her father after she refused a variety of marriage proposals. This legend as well as Rapunzel speaks to how, in past centuries, women were ‘locked away’ in convents or even at home in order to isolate them from society, separate them from men as well as to control their behaviour. This therefore suggests that the purpose for the story of Rapunzel was to not only give these women a voice, but to also bring light to their oppression, fear and helplessness.
The protagonist, Rapunzel, represents what was considered to be the idealistic woman during the time in which the story was written. As is common in many fairy tales, Rapunzel is described in a way that is very shallow. The only things that we learn about her from these descriptions is that she is “the most beautiful child under the sun” (Grimm, 43), kind, has a lovely voice and is lonely in her tower.
Singing is an important characteristic for Rapunzel to have. It is her beautiful voice that not only leads to her eventual freedom but it also is the only other positive quality given to her other than her physical beauty. Singing is a characteristic that would have set Rapunzel apart from most people during that time, as people who had beautiful voices were held in high esteem.
Despite her few positive qualities, Rapunzel had quite a few negative ones. One of the most prominent of these was her lack of intelligence. Evidence of her inanity can be seen when she gives away her plans to run away with the prince. She mistakenly blurts to Mother Gothel: “how is it that you’re much heavier than the prince? When I pull him up, he’s here in a second” (Grimm, 44). Later in the story, when Mother Gothel confronts the prince, she compares Rapunzel to a “beautiful bird.” Comparing Rapunzel to a caged songbird solidifies the idea that the protagonist is simple-minded and has dull tendencies. Along with being less than smart, Rapunzel is also seen as passive because she allows others to think for her. The fact that it was the prince who suggests that she escapes proves this idea.
As is common with fairy tales, the theme of good versus evil is also explored in Rapunzel. Despite the role that the parents played in the story, they were not considered to be the villains. This was the part of the sorceress, Mother Gothel. With a closer look at the text, it can be seen that Mother Gothel was not as much of the villain as she was claimed to be. In the beginning of the text, she is described as “very powerful and feared by all” (Grimm, 42) but not as evil or wicked. When she discovers Rapunzel’s father stealing from her garden, naturally, she is angry. Though after hearing that the father did so for his sick wife, “the anger of the sorceress subsided” (Grimm, 43). Instead of punishing Rapunzel’s father, she allows him to take as much lettuce as he needed in exchange for his daughter. As stated in the story, the reason that Gothel wanted Rapunzel was so that she could become a mother. She tells Rapunzel’s father that he “needn’t fear about the child’s well-being, for I shall take care of it like a mother” (Grimm, 43). This in itself shows that she is not really evil at all, at least not in the beginning. It is not until after she has been deceived, for the second time, by Rapunzel that she is described as “cruel.” The things that she does to Rapunzel, cutting off her hair and banishing her to a desolate land, is all done out of anger.
Hair is an important symbols in the story of Rapunzel. In many fairy tales, hair is “a source of magic power…cutting the hair and sacrificing it often means submission to a new collective state—a giving up and a rebirth” (Marie-Louise von Franz, 179). Rapunzel hair is symbolic of her love and affection. By allowing the prince to climb up the tower and using her hair as rope, Rapunzel transfers her love to the prince and away from the sorceress. As punishment, the sorceress forcibly cuts off her hair and banishes her to a desert where she experiences a form of rebirth. Rapunzel’s hair is cut as she gains control of her life. Cutting hair may also symbolize a woman severing the ties to her parents to create her own family with her husband. Evidence of this is seen when she was “leading a wretched existence with the twins, a boy and a girl, to whom she had given birth” (Grimm, 45). Not only does this imply that Rapunzel engaged in premarital sex, but also that this is one of the reasons why she was punished. The religious undertones throughout the story suggests a possible reason for this. Premarital sex was viewed as something that was quite scandalous during this time, partially due to religion. The story of Rapunzel possibly served as a teaching tool to children. It shows them that, if they partake in such acts, they will be punished severely.
Rapunzel leaving the tower is another important symbol as it represents her maturing into a young woman. This suggests that women are unable to fully mature until they leave their parents’ house and try to make it on their own.
There were three main female characters in the story are Rapunzel, Rapunzel’s mother and Mother Gothel. These three women represents the three stages in a woman’s life. Rapunzel represents being young, beautiful and naive. Women in this stage of life are preoccupied with trying to gain control of their lives and looking for husbands. The second stage in a woman’s life involves being a mother-women during this time should be focused on having children. The text infers that as women get older, they show more negative qualities such as being selfish and greedy. Mother Gothel represents older women. Her character suggests that women become more cruel and controlled by their emotions overtime.
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