Study Guide

Snow White's Stepmother in Grimms' Fairy Tales

By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Snow White's Stepmother

Meet Mommy Dearest

You may be wondering, who tries to kill their step-kid and is sick enough to want to eat her lungs and liver? If you think the answer is Snow White's stepmother, the wicked queen in the Grimm brothers' fairy tales, well, we have news for you. In early versions of the tale, such as the one from 1812, it was actually Snow White's real mother who tried to kill her. The Grimm brothers changed it to her stepmother in the 1819 edition of their fairy tales because killing your own kid is a little too disturbing, even for the Grimms.

This might be a good moment to take a step back and think about the social context in which the tales were being told and collected. In early modern Europe, women were property and didn't have a right to an education. On top of that, women were likely to die or be disfigured in childbirth, and men were often absent due to wars or work.

Either way you slice it, Snow White's mother is in a bad social position. She's got her beauty (which is fading as she gets older) and her brains, but oh wait, society's not going to give her any recognition for being smart, but instead probably tell her to shut up and have more babies. Her real daughter or her step-daughter is going to surpass her in beauty—and what else does she have going for her?—which will deprive her of her only real bargaining tool in life.

Brains (Tasty Brains)

Sure, she may be all about her looks, but the queen is hardly dumb. She sets out to dispose of her rival, asking the huntsman to do away with her. Yeah, the lung and liver thing is kind of creepy (the huntsman spares Snow White's life, substituting a deer's organs), but to be fair, nobody got enough to eat back then, so those must've been some tasty organ-meat nutrients. The queen is smart enough to keep tabs on Snow White once she figures out that the hunter lied, and then she decides to take matters into her own hands. We're talking about one capable and ruthless lady (possibly a relative of Lady Macbeth?).

Snow White isn't the brightest apple in the bunch, so her (step)mother is able to track her down at the dwarves' place and trick her three times in a row with deadly gifts: corset stays that stop her breath, a hair comb that poisons her, and finally, the famous poisoned apple. What the queen hadn't counted on, though, is that her naïve daughter's stint as a housekeeper for the dwarves actually resulted in them caring about her. Caring wins out over cunning, and twice the dwarves rescue Snow White, but the poisoned apple is beyond their capabilities. Luckily a prince comes along—and unlike in the Disney version, it's the jolting of her coffin by a clumsy servant that removes the poisoned apple from her throat.

Are Just Desserts Truly Just?

Maybe the queen's greatest crime was not accounting for Snow White's adorable helplessness that seemed to persuade people to like her and help her. Or maybe the queen underestimated the power of love, since her own life seems utterly devoid of it (there's hardly a mention of her husband, the king, throughout the tale).

We imagine the queen as having mad charisma, but somehow Snow White, like a mirror in her absence of personality and drive, reflects the queen's obsession back at her. The queen is compelled to show up at Snow White and the prince's wedding, and then forced to dance to death in hot iron shoes, which is no way to go.

What stinks even more is that the fairy tale makes this all seem inevitable and natural. The desire to be beautiful is a force that ensnares and even kills women in this tale. How much cooler would it be to read about a world where women can use their magic mirrors to chat with and support each other rather than competitively try to destroy each other?

But that's just wishful thinking, and trust Shmoop—wishes often go awry in fairyland.

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