With the recent resurgence in popularity of Cinderella, I’ve been thinking of the original tale that I remember reading and watching in my youth. From the classic Walt Disney version, to the Rodgers and Hammerstein version with its skewed view of how interracial couples produce children, I remember the hope I used to feel, that one-day, I too would find my Prince Charming and become the princess I thought my name entitled me to one day be. To be fair, at this point in my life I don’t think I quite realized that other people could also have a name that meant princess. But now, as I think of the fairytale from my childhood the feminist in me sees another side of the tale and the literature lover within me sees patterns.
When I think of Cinderella, I think of the fact that women are separated into innocent princesses and evil stepmothers. I think of how it instills the idea of the makeover being necessary for a woman to catch the eye of a man. I think of the fact that the entire goal of the heroine of this tale is to meet a man who can save her by marrying her. But ultimately, when I think of this fairytale, I also think of how it, and famous fairytales like it, has influenced much of the literature that has come after it. There may be strong, independent women who came before this fairytale princess, the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Biblical Judith, but it is not these women that young girls grow up idealizing. Little girls worship princesses and this does not stop when these women stop being children, it continues as the fairytales they grew up with follow them into adulthood.
When I think of books like Pride and Prejudice or even the hot topic book of the last few years, Fifty Shades of Grey, there are still fairytale undertones in each of them, Cinderella undertones specifically since I’ve been discussing that fairytale in particular in this blog. When considering all three of these tales it is readily visible that all three depict females in less well off financial situations who meet wealthy men who eventually help them in some way (either by saving them from evil stepmothers, helping save their sisters from reputational ruin, and helping save them from the monotonous life of postgrad). The only major differences that can be seen between these three tales are setting, familiar circumstances, a glass slipper, and a few whips and chains.
Though I was interested in seeing the similarities and minute differences between novels and many of my favorite fairytales, I was more interested in how I struggled to come up with novels that were in no way impacted by fairytales. I could think of horror novels and short stories, but many of these can been seen as takes on the original versions of fairytales. In the original fairytales there was rape in Sleeping Beauty, cannibalism in Little Red Riding Hood, women cutting off parts of their feet like something out of a Saw movie in Cinderella, and undertones of necrophilia in Snow White. So even these types of stories take bits from the tales that came before them.
But this process is cyclical. Even if I could think of stories that aren’t based on other stories I’ve read before, I haven’t read everything the world has to offer and never could. Even if I found some obscure novel or even piece of nonfiction, there is probably someone who has written a story just like it before or who has lived through similar experiences and written about it. This brings me my real overarching question, however. If recent literature all has some basis in the books and stories that came before them, can any new books actually be considered new? Is there any such thing as a new piece of literature?
Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain to most of the world, has been quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” If Clemens is correct, then everything that has ever been thought, seen, or written has been thought, seen, or been written before. While I agree with Clemens in part of his argument, I also have a little rebuttal. Indeed, I agree with Clemens when he says that everything is just the “same old pieces or colored glass” and they are all just being turned “and making new combinations indefinitely,” but doesn’t this undermine the concept that there are no new ideas? Isn’t the idea to rearrange the pieces of glass into new formations new in and of itself? So even if new books take ideas from old fairytales or biblical stories, aren’t they new in the inventive execution of these old ideas? I think they are. I think that the ability of authors to piece old storylines together into new tales is what makes literature a creative art form. Even if parts of the story have been written before, they are still new in how those bits and pieces fit together. They are still new to the world in some way or another and that is one of the reasons why I continue writing and reading. I hope that some day I can write or read something that is exorbitantly different than what has come before it.