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If this poem sounds like it's going to be familiar to you, you're right—"Cinderella" is a retelling of the classic fairy tale. Anne Sexton's fifth book of poems, Transformations, consists entirely of all repurposed (remixed) children's tales. Mostly known for her first-person confessional style (she's often compared to Sylvia Plath), Sexton's "Cinderella" might seem totally different in subject matter from a lot of her other work. But never fear. It still has a close, talkative style and darkness of theme that is the hallmark of Sexton's work. "Cinderella" is a retelling of the Grimms' version of the fairy tale—not Disney's. As you'll soon find out, the two are very different.
That's not a bad thing, though. Anne Sexton was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, helping (along with Plath) create a style of poetry that would leave a permanent mark on the genre—the "confessional" style. Her poems resonated with intensely personal (and often feminist) subject matter. They often dealt with depression, emotional turmoil, and death. "Cinderella," as told by Sexton, becomes infused with all of these elements—in true keeping with the twisted original story, but also with new tonal elements, feminist themes, and fresh comparisons that breathe life into what could otherwise be a tired tale.
"Cinderella" takes the Grimm (and grim) tale and modernizes it, comments on it, turns it sarcastic, heartbreaking, gruesome, and charming by turns. So hold on to your seats and prepare to see the glass-slippered princess in a whole new light. This is no ordinary fairy tale, and it's a model for how clichéd stories can come alive through brilliant poetry.
Okay, so you know what a cliché is, right? It's a tired saying, like "you broke my heart," or "her eyes were as blue as the sea." The comparison was kind of cool the first time around—after all, a broken heart is a neat image if you think about it—but it's been used so much that we don't even think of the original, literal image anymore.
We probably don't have to tell you that clichés don't work so well in poetry. Poetry thrives on making the ordinary extraordinary, on taking a tiny little commonplace thing and making it strange and new. That's the exact opposite of cliché. If you want to be a good poet, you must avoid all clichés. And if you want to be a killer analyst of poetry, you'll want to figure out how the author avoids clichés. It's that simple. (Or, it's at least a good starting point.)
So what does any of this have to do with Anne Sexton's "Cinderella"? Well, think about the fact that the moment Disney touches anything, it's kind of an instant cliché. So the story of Cinderella, popularized as it was by Disney in 1950 (it pulled in $4 million that year—more than $438 million in today's dollars!), has become the subject of numerous clichés. We all know the phrase "a Cinderella story," which can sort of stand in for "rags-to-riches" (another cliché), though it usually involves more luck and less hard work. You might have even heard the phrase "turning into a pumpkin" meaning having to go home or obey a curfew. The story, like so many, has infiltrated our language.
So then, how in the world can "Cinderella" by Anne Sexton be anything other than a horrible series of clichés? After all, the subject matter has been so thoroughly integrated into pop culture that it's hard to see how she could possibly make anything original out of the story.
The fact that she does manage to do something new, fresh, and unexpected with the Cinderella story is, in a nutshell, why you should care about this poem. It's a case study of how to take a tired subject and make it new. If you're an aspiring poet, you should really take note of poems like these. The longer we stick around as humans, the more familiar and worn out everything becomes, from literary themes, to movie plotlines, to pop song lyrics. Finding a new idea can be really hard, which makes poetry nearly impossible. But Sexton's poem reminds us that there's something new in everything, even the most clichéd story, if you look hard enough and work hard enough at it. So read on, intrepid Shmoop followers, to see exactly how Sexton manages this dangerous and daring poetic feat.
All Kinds of Cinderella!
The University of Pittsburgh has quite the collection.
Anne Sexton: A Tribute
This contains a good bio, some links, and a good bibliography. See especially the links page.
On Anne Sexton and Transformations
Some interesting info, courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University Gazette.
A wonderful little segment containing clips of Anne Sexton reading and, you know, living her life.
Here's a very non-Sexton, kids' book version of the story.
Anne Sexton at Home
An absolutely fascinating, long clip of Anne Sexton noodling around at home, just doing her thing. Ignore (or enjoy!) the Spanish subtitles.
Sexton, read by… Sexton
Enjoy lots and lots of audio files here (you'll need QuickTime or similar; they're not mp3s).
Sexton reading "The Truth the Dead Know"
Just what it sounds like! (Tip: if you YouTube search "Anne Sexton," lots of audio clips like this come up! Go on, try it!)
Frederick Hall's "Cinderella"
Early 20th century painter's depiction of the birds picking lentils out of the ashes for Cinderella. Very nice of them!
The Anne Sexton Collection at the University of Texas Austin
Not exactly an image, but if you're ever in Austin, you should check out this collection of rare photographs.
Edmund Dulac's "Cinderella"
Here's another early-twentieth-century depiction of the protagonist. (Dulac painted many other fairy tales too, some of which are on this site as well.)
Cinderella, in German
Here's the original Grimms' version of the fairy tale in German.
Cinderella, in Translation
And here's the English translation, just in case you, you know, can't read German. Hey, nobody's perfect.
A lovely, illustrated printing of the French version of the story. (If you want to read the whole thing, though, you'll have to buy the book!)
The Grimms' Household Tales
Yep, it's the whole book, translated by Margaret Hunt. And with notes! A great resource.
Anne Sexton: Self-Portrait in Letters
Anne Sexton, as told by Anne Sexton, and co-edited by her eldest daughter, Linda Gray Sexton.
The Disney Movie
Its IMDB page, filled with facts and stats about the movie and its actors.
This is a link to the IMDB entry for the first movie, though two more were made afterwards and went straight to TV.