Fairy Tales 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bettelheim's Future and Darnton's Past

Darnton’s argument that the details of folktales cannot be overly scrutinized because they fluctuate so wildly through the different geographical and generational versions is convincing, but not actually a refutation of the argument Bettelheim makes in his own essay. Darnton argues that one cannot psychoanalyze the details of a fairy tale in order to prove that the oedipal dilemmas, unconscious, etc. extend back to Enlightenment era peasantry. Bettelheim’s essay does not deal with history. He doesn’t challenge the notion of the origin of fairy tales. He only hopes to explore the relationship between a child’s psychological development and the literature to which they are introduced. In that sense, Darnton’s argument that fairy tales don’t exist “in a timeless contemporaneity” does not apply. The tale being shown to the child, which is the only tale which concerns Bettelheim in this essay, does exist as a document to itself. The history of that document has no bearing on the psychological impact of its narrative for the child.

Whether Bettelheim’s sins are perpetrated in other essays, as Darnton claims, is not the topic at hand. Comparing the two juxtaposed essays, both seem to exist within separate spheres of influence. Darnton directs his queries to the past, while Bettelheim focuses on the future, specifically for children. However, Bettelheim’s use of vague generalities and under-explored terms makes the argumentative flow of his essay problematic. Particularly glaring is his claim that “Since the child at every moment of his life is exposed to the society in which he lives, he will certainly learn to cope with its conditions, provided his inner resources permit him to do so.” If this were the case, wouldn’t the correct course of action in child-raising, assuming the goal is to raise children which act toward the benefit of themselves within the rules of the society, be to not introduce the children to anything else at all? What are the conditions of these inner resources which allow or fail to allow children to learn to cope with the conditions of society? Bettelheim throws around the word “fairy tale” without taking the pains to define the term. For a product which he so wholly advocates, he speaks little of the actual product. When he does speak of the fairy tale, it is in abstract and reverent terms.

My main contention with Darnton’s argument is that he seems to be attacking an enemy which doesn’t exist. He chides psychoanalysts for assigning too much value to symbols which are not featured in every version of the fairy tale, but why does it matter if the details reoccur in every version of the story or not? If the story was taken from the Grimm’s collection, whether or not an accurate recreation of the oral telling, the story came into being without prior influence from Freud or any other psychoanalyst. From the psychoanalytic perspective, I could argue that my reading of the story cannot be discredited just because the tale has taken other forms. Just because there are many forms does not mean each one of the individual forms any less a “unified” tale. As long as the psychoanalyst does not try to extend his argument to a historical context he does not come into conflict with Darnton’s essay.

Bettelheim and Darnton

I find Bettelheim to be fairly mistaken on most any of the original ideas he had within his paper. I do agree with his overall idea on children though. The idea that the environment a child is raised in is the most important determining factor within a child's development is a strong one. Bettelheim continues to say that the second most important part of a child's development is the literature he/she is exposed to at a young age. I would go so far as to say that the odds of a child from a negative home most likely wouldn't be properly exposed to the literature like Bettelheim wishes. Generally it is the parent's job to expose the child, and the parents are doing a bad job of parenting, there isn't much hope.

Darnton i find to have a much more down to earth and realistic approach to the topic. He is right in saying that Bettelheim makes broad generalizations and that it is wrong to take a single version of a folk tale and apply it to all people. Taking the common themes and motifs from all of the regionally affiliated stories and compiling them would create a much more accurate view of the intent of the stories. Darnton's idea to use these folk tales to examine peasant culture is fairly interesting to me. It is probably the best way to approach learning of a people with little written history of their own. Also, as the main purveyor of folk tales, it is likely that all of these tales contain some insight to each of the originating groups. Darnton, once again being the more realistic of the two writers, goes on to talk about the difference in the versions of the folk tales that we had today versus the original versions ( or at least the oldest versions). When first transmitted by way of mouth, these tales included the human element that cannot be captured on paper. The story tellers themselves added an extra element. Between the two arguments, i believe Darnton's to be the much stronger of the two, especially seeing as he disproves Bettelheims within the first two pages.

Darnton & Bettelheim

Bettelheim sees fairytales as a means of connecting to one’s unconscious and cultivating imagination and exploring the boundaries of the unconscious so that it can be dealt with in the conscious. He is concerned that as children develop their egos they need ways to translate their urges that society sees a taboo and unspeakable so children negotiate these urges and fantasies by bringing them to the conscious in a safe way with fairytales. Although I agree with Bettelheim in the beginning of his essay and liked when he said, “to find deeper meaning, one must become able to transcend the narrow confines of a self-centered existence and believe that one will make a significant contribution to life…our positive feelings give us the strength to develop our rationality”. And I agree with him that the most important influences on a child are his or her parents. However, I do not necessarily believe that fairytales help exorcise our unconscious fantasies into our conscious minds. I think he is mixing the realm of fantasy with our unconscious as though the two are one and the same, which I don’t agree with. Even though fairytales do operate in a universal, magical, and almost timeless world outside our reality, that does not mean they operate in our unconscious or that we read them with our unconscious minds any more than we read or interpret everything else in our lives.

I think Darnton makes a more compelling argument when he discusses that you cannot take symbols from these stories and interpret them as with common meanings for all people. Bettelheim assumes all people have the same problems, fantasies, and ways of dealing with them while I think Darnton is more realistic and acknowledges that these stories have multiple variations, come from varying cultural environments which they are adapted to, and are read by different people different ways. I think Bettelheim has some good ideas but he takes them too far. I agree with Darnton and find his assertion that we can learn something about the peasant illiterate classes from these tales interesting. But I don’t’ think these tales are as specifically illustrative of the peasant class as he argues. Yes, these fairytales began with stories from the peasant class but the stories we have today have been contaminated by simple fact that they are no longer oral tales of the peasant class but instead they are literature written by and for the elite in society. So the tales we read today are not necessarily genuinely reflective of the peasant classes. I don’t think you have to take sides on this debate, both authors have their strengths and weaknesses although I find Darnton’s argument more reasonable.

Bettelheim and Darnton

I found Bettelheim to be somewhat convincing. I agree that fairy tales play a more important role than providing entertainment. As children grow up, they need to learn more about life, struggle, and morals, and I agree that it is best to learn them through imagination and stories such as fairy tales. Bettelheim claims that a good children’s story “must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must stimulate his imagination, help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him.” All of this sounds great to me. It may be unrealistic to hope for all of these aspects within one story, yet, a story may have quite a few of these traits to it, and that is something to aim for. That being said, I did not fully agree with everything Bettelheim said. He talks about how a “clean cut” fairy tale can make a child a monster in his own eyes because they may not always be good when everyone in a fairy tale is. I do not agree with this. I think it is good to have some fairy tales that have less than perfect lives and personalities, and it is okay to have some hardships and violence. But I do not see anything wrong with having some fairy tales show the brighter side of life. The child knows that most of these stories take place in a fantasy world, so it should be okay to want a happy ending. I do not agree that a child would see a monster in himself if the hero did not struggle with some flaws. This could help show the child how to be optimistic, and it can provide role models for children. Therefore, I do not see any big issue with cleaning up some fairy tales – they do not all have to be cleaned up, but it is okay for some to be.
Darnton’s view on fairy tales was definitely different from Bettelheim’s view. Bettelheim focused on the psychological aspect of fairy tales while Darnton focuses on the historical, more literal aspect. Therefore, even though they are completely different viewpoints, I believe that it is okay to agree with both Darnton and Bettelheim. If they both focused on the psychological aspect but had different points of view, it would be different, but since this is not the case, I think they can complement each other. I did not, however, find Darnton to be particularly stimulating. He did not agree with focusing on the psychological aspect of fairy tales, which I disagree with. He made some excellent points about how some people analyze fairy tales and its symbolism too much, but I think we should still analyze them somewhat. I agree that we probably could used fairy tales to study life during the Enlightenment only because we do not have anything else to study. I believe that fairy tales would be rather inaccurate, but since there is nothing else, we can learn something. Yet, I still find this to be not as enticing as analyzing the psychological aspect of a fairy tale.

Darnton vs. Bettelheim

Although I would definitely say that Bettelheim's claims are a little extreme, I do think there is some important points that can be taken from his work. I think that children should engage in reading that allows them to use their imagination and to experience situations that are not all happy and perfect. However, I do not think that fairy tales are the only way that a child's imagination and knowledge of human predicaments can be fostered. Someone made the point in class that back when Bettelheim did most of his work that there was not the wide array of children's literature that there is today, and fairy tales may have been a one of the few genres available. That being said, today there are vasts amount of all kinds of children's literature addressing all sorts of difficult situations, and also tons that allow children to use their imagination. I think it is important as educators, parents etc. that we take the time and assess what children are reading and make considerations on specific content of books, making sure they are not surface level. As we discussed in class, Bettelheim kind of assumes that all humans take part in the exact same stages of develop, and that we respond to the same symbols and experiences in the same way. I think this is a huge generalization, as every human on this earth is completely unique from one another in their likes, dislikes and dispositions. I think to assume that the reading of fairy tales is the answer for all children to find meaning in life is absurd. Though I do think the literature that we are exposed to during our development plays a role, children should explore all sorts of literature and expose themselves to all types of stories to find out what they like the best, who they are, and find a sense of meaning through this.

On a completely different note, I think that Bettelheim and Darton's points are widely different; however, I don't particularly think that they are mutually exclusive. Though they each have a difference of opinion on the value of fairy tales, one for the psychological well being of a child and the other to gain a glimpse into an illiterate and disappeared culture, it makes me think that both of these ideas are important. The value of fairy tales comes from both its impression that it makes on the reader, though maybe not as extreme as Bettelheim claims, and also in the reflection of the culture from which it comes from. Though these two authors are not in agreement with each other, I think that in reading both of these essays, it becomes apparent that these two aspects of a fairy tale, its effect on the reader and its historical significance, should both be considered important.

Darnton vs. Bettelheim

The more I read Darnton's article, the more convinced I am the Bettelheim has some truly crazy arguments. Although I understand his point that fairy tales can transcend the conscious mind and that children's books need to be more than entertaining, I find a few major flaws in the rest of his arguments. Firstly, Bettelheim seems to be too broad in what he is trying to argue (either that or I don't see much organization). For example, his article is titled "The Struggle for Meaning" and yet only briefly does he touch on how fairy tales can provide a child with a sense of meaning in his/her life. Rather, Bettelheim seems to focus more on how fairy tales can be used to teach children that the world is not fair and that they will always face difficult situations that can (and eventually will) be overcome. Also, Bettelheim appears to relate fairy tales too closely to reality. As another example, Bettelheim states that a fairy tale must "at one and the same time relate to all aspects of his personality"; I believe this to be an absurd and unrealistic claim. Many, if not most, fairy tales will deal with magic and other unrealistic situations that can in no way relate to a child's personality. Thus, I find it unacceptable to think that a child can learn a proper "way of life" or even meaning for living based on a fairy tale. Also, I can understand Darnton's perspective more because of his believable take on what a fairy tale really is. It is not often fancy literature; the tales are derived from common folk and thus they can be viewed as highly historical. Especially since the fairy/folk tales are mixtures of many different sources and stories, there is no way that one can break down the meaning of a fairy tale into the minutest details. This would be a false attempt to make a common story into a literary masterpiece. Thus, with Bettelheim's exaggeration of the reasons for fairy tales, I find Darnton's argument to be more convincing. 

The Boys Who Went Forth to Learn What Fairy Tales Were

The tension that one senses in Darnton’s article between his perspective on fairy tales and that of Bettelheim does not seem legitimate when one actually compares the two texts. Darnton writes as though he and Bettelheim are both answering a general prompt of “explain fairy tales,” when in fact the two articles answer fundamentally different questions. Bettelheim is excited about what a fairy tale can do (and perhaps why it can do those things), and his scope should not logically extend beyond those specific stories (and versions of those stories) he wishes to address. Yes, he overstates his case quite a few times with sweeping generalizations like “children…find folk fairy tales more satisfying than all other children’s stories” (really? every fairy tale?) and “the child finds this kind of meaning [tangible, pro-social results of right and wrong behavior] through fairy tales” (even when grandmothers stay eaten?). But a more down-to-earth approach to Bettelheim’s basic ideas reveals that they do indeed make some sense: children have some strange thoughts and fears, and some fairy tales allow those concepts to play out in an entertaining, engaging, but ultimately fictional manner. Where Darnton is right to criticize is when this fairly innocuous claim is further extended in efforts to draw out universal symbols from specific details, disregarding the fact that not all people respond the same way to the same story and that the stories themselves vary immensely in their details.
For whatever reason, Darnton uses this fault as an excuse to toss out the psychoanalytic approach entirely, when really he is interested in answering different questions altogether: what are these fairy tales, how did they come to be that way, and what might they say about the cultures that formed and modified them. This more historical method is valid, I believe, but valid in a way that does not negate Bettelheim’s ideas. Furthermore, there is a pitfall in the historical approach that Darnton does not address in his article (though he is careful to point out certain limitations like the inaccessibility of oral performance styles through text alone). Certainly one might find some trends in how a story varies from culture to culture, as Darnton does with the French “Tom Thumb” and German “Hansel and Gretel,” but it would be enormously difficult to prove what those trends might mean about the French and German people who spread the story. Is the French version filled with more “humor and domesticity” because that is what French peasants valued and were familiar with, or is it because they had seen enough of the “terror” of the German version in their own lives and felt no need to revisit it in their fiction? As with Bettelheim, I believe Darnton may need to scale back his ambitions a bit if he intends his personal historical method to be unassailable.

Bettle & Darn

I was first introduced to Bettleheim in my Psychological Anthropology class in the fall of 2008 and I could not have been more annoyed and confused with his psychobabble adapted from Freudian theory. I am just being narrow minded but his argument seems flawed. His background as an educator and therapist for severely disturbed children jaded his work in my opinion. I don't know that these fairy tales are the best medium for children to make sense of their inner turmoil. Since these tales differ in various communities and since these tales have unrealistic/magical elements, it seems odd to me to use a specific version of a tale to make sense of prohibitions and taboos. Additionally, who is to say exposure to the nitty gritty of life leads to victory in the end? I'm not saying sugar coat everything in life because at some point, the child will come into contact with an issue (maybe not to the magnitude that is expressed in the fairy tales) but instead, maybe fairy tales have more practical use as a cultural artifact as Darnton suggests. Darnton acknowledges the pop culture aspect of fairy tales and how it can be used to probe into that set time. It is kind of like music to me. Back in the days, R&B music had more meaning; it was militant, it was making social commentary, it was a unifier but now, its all about sex, aggression but occasionally something more meaningful and respectful. What does that say about artists today or consumers who support their music? What does that mean about the people back then and what was important to them?...Is everyone thinking about the same music as me? Of course not, because there are different genres that took other things seriously and threw others to the wind. Darnton's use of fairy tales is similar to me; fairy tales aren't necessarily going to give you the answer but at the same time, it gives you somewhere to start some kind of analysis based on different regions, prevalent symbols and different story endings. Anyway, I thought Darnton's article was more compelling/believable, otherwise, I'm still struggling for meaning.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Hey everyone. My name is Brett Floyd. I am a freshman from Clarksburg, West Virginia. I am a cellular biology major and hope to go to med school and eventually work in a research field. I always liked Grimm's Fairy Tales as a kid so I think this will be a very interesting class.
Hey, I'm Nathan. I'm a senior biology major from Memphis hoping to teach somewhere after graduation.