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.