Throughout Winterson’s rendition of ‘the twelve dancing princesses’ – adapted from the renowned story by the Grimm Brothers –the plotline is explicitly centred around an array of fictional images. Implicitly though, the metafiction and accretion used can be unveiled as symbolism that correlates with a larger meaning; the images associated with men are uncomfortable and even evil in comparison to the comforting images (including the mermaid) that represent womanhood. Therefore, in the two specific examples of the mermaid and the poison, the reader may accept fiction as an underlying detail that leads to a deeper truth or argument.
In the exact example of the mermaid the reader learns that the senior princess has fallen in love with her (the mermaid) and that they ‘live in the well’ together. The scene is evidently fictional; mermaids don’t exist, and if they did, then Jordon and the princess wouldn’t be able to stand in the well and converse with the mermaid due to biological impossibilities. Therefore the statement is immediately false, yet the reader may find themselves accepting it as truth in order to move on to the grittiness of the plotline, and discover the significance of the mermaid; her impact can be interpreted in various ways.
Firstly, the mermaid could be seen as the product of rebellion against the conventional ritual of marriage to a husband. Rebellion seems a reasonable suggestion after studying the original story, which Winterson’s tale is arguably a continuation of. The ‘doors that were shut and locked up’ each night exemplify the father’s masculine domination over the freedom of his daughters. Likewise, in the tale the King’s offspring would rather see the soldiers killed than have their freedom limited; that ‘they laughed heartily’ at the sleeping soldier exhibits this.
That the princess had to plunge in ‘deep waters’ in Winterson’s tale exemplifies how she was willing to face the unknown (traditionally in literature the ocean is feared e. g. In the Tempest Ferdinand cries ‘hell is empty and all of the devils are here’ before plummeting into the ocean) in order to search for entertainment aside from her husband. Secondly, the mermaid could represent the princesses’ craving for womanhood – this links on from the rebellion against masculine dominance.
The ‘deep waters’ as a meeting place, followed by the fact that the couple live in the well – envisaging a womb like place due to its round and wet characteristics – may bring to some reader’s minds an obvious yearning for womanly presence and dominance within the princess. It is noticeable that the existence of a mother is lacking in both renditions of the myth and so arguably the princess may be trying to reconnect with the womb of the Motherly figure that appears nonexistent in childhood. Acceptance of nonsense can be further seen on page 55 in a passage where content may be viewed as allegorical.
There is also arguably a sense of intertextuality as it bares reflection to the synoptic bible passage of the demon possessed man (Mathew 8:28-34), which should consequently ring out clear symbolic meaning to the reader. The melodramatic line ‘Out of his (the husband) belly came a herd of cattle and a fleet of pigs ’ can be defined by the reader as an impossible scenario. Consequently the reader will seek the implicit meaning which holds a deeper content. In the Bible passage, the rearing of swine off the cliff enabled the demon possessed man to walk freed from his past torments.
Therefore, the suggestion could be that the husband is better off dead, released from sin, than living alive as an overeater with evil within him – gluttony being a biblical crime. This argument is supported when the door salesman says to the princess ‘you are right to kill him’. The princess’s hate for her husband’s obesity reflects the forced status of their marriage; nowhere in the passage does any form of love or appreciation ring clear, only a sense of endurance – ‘we had been married a few years’ for example suggests that the princess thinks that this is a fair enough trail run before murdering him .
He is presented as unlikeable through firstly the unpleasant verbs that the princess attaches to his actions – ‘gulped’, ‘crashing’, ‘swelled’, ‘complained’ – and secondly through the portrayal of him as the demon. Arguably, the princess finds control and order after the fictional explosion that kills her husband, as Winterson writes in the first person, ‘I rounded them (the herd) up’ – stressing the herd’s obedience to her – contrasting to their disorderly actions to the husband who ‘had always complained about his digestion’ while the herds had been inside of him.
Following on from this, it is arguable that with the ending of her (the princess’s) marriage came her ability to ‘live according’ to her ‘tastes’. Her true satisfaction is exemplified in the final sentence ‘I prefer farming to cooking,’ which, again allegorically, is arguably stating that she prefers her single life – where she farms the cattle- , to her married life – where she cooks the cattle. Therefore, again in this passage, the reader may accept that the content is fanciful to the real world, but for the passage it is necessary as the images created have significant impact on the symbolic meaning that Winterson is creating.
Is Winterson a feminist? This could certainly be argued given the evidence found in the passages. A strong conclusion to her work is that woman have more of a chance of ‘living happily ever after’ by ‘living according to their own tastes’ than through forced marriage – the latter being the favourable traditionally in fairytales. This is mainly because Winterson’s argument represents a changing view of a woman’s place in a more modern society than that of Grimm’s.
Although she retains the same time period as the original tale, the conclusion that woman can find freedom through outwitting their husbands is much different from literature that would have been produced in early decades – (albeit freedom is temporarily found by the daughters in Grimm’s tale when they outwit their father, and the soldiers night after night). Therefore a reader may acknowledge the falsehood in Winterson’s passages, and yet acknowledge it as true in search for the deeper truth underneath.
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