By Dr. Jessica McCort, Instructor of Writing in the English Department, Duquesne University
Recently, I have become deeply invested in fostering my students’ ability to question the world around them, particularly the received messages that they tend to accept blindly rather than interrogate. This past semester, for example, in each of the classes I taught, we studied the written versions of different fairy tales with an eye to the fact that these stories are constantly evolving and changing based on the culture that is telling them. As one of the first written assignments for the semester, I asked my students to analyze a specific tale before they came into class to discuss it. I was once again struck, as I am every time I do this exercise, by how much students want to stick to the messages they have learned to associate with these stories, even when the words that are directly in front of them on the page contradict what they recall.
Let’s take “Cinderella,” for example, the tale my students were supposed to examine. I had asked them to read a translation of Charles Perrault’s version of the tale after our careful close reading of several different versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” and how the messages purveyed by each specific tale related directly to the culture out of which that particular version had evolved. Still, I got lots of reflection papers asserting that “Cinderella” is a “rags to riches” story in which the family’s poor, lowly housemaid “pulls herself up by her bootstraps” in order to become a princess; that the “charm” Cinderella has is that she’s such a kind person and that this is why she ascends in her social position by the story’s end.
In the version of the tale my students had read, Cinderella is not always just a lowly housemaid. She is the daughter of a gentleman, a girl who was knocked out of her rightful place in the social order by a stepmother who was a little nervous about her and her biological daughters’ place in the household. The tale has a lot to do with how blood will win out, how you can’t try to rearrange the social order. She may look like the housemaid, but she’s not. Secondly, she doesn’t “pull herself up by her bootstraps.” Her fairy godmother gives her all sorts of accoutrements to make her more desirable or, in the language of our specific translation, more “charming.” To follow up on the papers they had initially written, we spent the next class interrogating the text, asking questions of the following sort: If the Prince is so in love with Cinderella that he just can’t go on without her, why can’t he remember what she looks like? Shouldn’t he remember her face? Her voice? Why does it all boil down to whether a shoe fits or not?
My point here is that a crucial step in becoming a responsible citizen, a thinking person, and a worthy scholar is learning to question the world around you. To turn over the stones, especially the very familiar ones, and look underneath of them in an effort to understand the things squirming around in the loam. What my students wanted to stick to was an American Cinderella, a girl whose tale reflects the American Dream – not the girl they were actually reading about on the page. Any teacher of writing knows that a lot of what writing teachers actually teach is reading, and reading critically. In this case, I tried to get my students to turn the words over and think about the choices writers and translators make in order to persuade their audiences to accept or agree with a certain idea or perspective on the world. Such a thoughtful interaction with writing, especially in the freshman year, translates into greater depth of thought as our students move forward in academia and then enter the real world, whatever their profession.
Dr. Jessica McCort is an Instructor of Writing in the English Department at Duquesne University. Dr. McCort’s scholarship focuses on two areas: (1) the appropriation of children’s literature, particularly Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, by women writers and (2) gothic horror in literature for children and young adults, particularly in modern fairy-tale revisions. Her most recent book project is a compilation of essays concerning the intersection of the horror genre and children’s books.