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Cinderella in America

Page history last edited by Abigail Heiniger 7 years, 9 months ago

Go to Course


The Making of an American Mythos



  • Conferences next week (no in-class meetings)
  • Time limits are going to be VERY important (at conferences and during class presentations).  
    • Show up early for conferences so we can start on time because we must finish on time.
    • Time your presentation! You can NOT run over!



Group 16 Yolen



Jane Yolen, "America's Cinderella." Children's Literature in Education (1977): 8. 21-29. 

In the article "America's Cinderella," Jane Yolen makes two central claims:

  • Cinderella has been integrated into the American creed through children's fiction since the middle of the nineteenth-century. 
    • "(Cinderella) is part of the American creed, recited sub vocally along with the pledge of allegiance in each classroom, that even a poor boy can grow up to become president…. This rags-to-riches formula was immortalized in American children's fiction by the Horatio Alger stories of the 1860s and by the Plcuk and Luck nickel novels of the 1920s. It is little wonder, then, that Cinderella should be a perennial favorite in the American folktale pantheon." (21) 
  • The American Cinderella is a water-down version of European and Asian 510 tales with a helpless, sentimentalized girl.
    • "Endings were changed, innards cleaned up, and good triumphed with very loud huzzahs. Cinderella is the weepy, sentimentalized pretty girl incapable of helping herself…. Hardy, helpful, inventive, that was the Cinderella of the old tales but not of the mass market in the nineteenth century." (28)



"A Modern Cinderella."  The Atlantic Monthly. (1860): 6.36. n.p. 


In this story, the hard-working and self-less Nan merits the love of the charming John. 

  • Nan's romance with John may be contrasted with her sisters: Diana and Laura.
  • Nan is characterized by her self-less attention to the domestic sphere while her sisters Diana and Laura are characterized by their scholarship and arts.
    • Diana: scholar (reading German philosophers)
    • Laura: artist (painting Classical subjects)
  • Nan's final statement is that John's love inspires her with the strength to continue working tirelessly in the domestic sphere for her Prince Charming.  
  • Nan - is the Angel in House. 


A Working-Girl. "A New Cinderella." Harper's New Monthly Magazine. (1883): 66.395. n.p. 


In this story, the materialistic Susie is the Cinderella who lands the flawed-but-lovable Abbot, who promises to care for her for the rest of her life.

  • Susie's happy ending may be contrasted with the spiritual and self-less Effie hemorrhages and bleeds to death in the hallway. 
  • Organized war against the authority figure in the dormitory.  
    • Strong class tensions.
    • Is this a fairy tale for Abbot (is he feminized).
    • Effie's wealth would have been inherited (Old World) but she dies before it becomes available. 


Materialism and Middle-Class Domesticity

  • Both of these mid-nineteenth-century American Cinderella tales celebrate the middle-class domestic sphere (which is supported by the educated, white-collared American man).
  • Both the materialistic Susie and the self-less Nan are concerned with attaining middle-class domestic bliss. Nan does it through domestic work and Susie does it through being a pleasant, beautiful person.     
    • The rise tale inherent in the American Cinderella tale (like the rise tale in Horatio Alger's work) is focused upon attaining the materialism of the middle-class.
    • UNLIKE Alger's rags-to-riches tales that feature an enterprising boy-heroes, the Cinderella heroine is NOT active. She is the passive recipient of the middle-class domestic sphere.
      • These Cinderella tales justify the materialism of the middle class, a materialism that is at odds with the Protestant ethics inherent in the sentimental narrative tradition.
      • This fairy tale elides the tension between Christian values and the capitalism of the American Dream.
  • Dormitories were REGULATED (see Paradise by Masterpiece Theater - Happiness for Women) for department store working girls.  


An American Mythos:

Cinderella is more than simply a "part" of the American creed, it is a narrative that enables Americans to elide religious values to embrace nationalistic, socioeconomic "values": life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (through material possessions).


However, the American Cinderella DOES modify these nationalistic ideals to fit in a (nineteenth-century) gender hierarchy. The self-made, work ethic inherent in the American Dream is at odds with ideals of feminine passivity. Cinderella merges these ideals in a fairy-tale heroine, assuring the American public that all their preconceived notions of identity (nationalistic, sexist...) can be achieved! 


What remains submerged in texts are the racists assumptions (and racist exploitation) which enables that "dream". The good, passive, white girl can be magically rewarded with material happiness and rise to the pinnacle of American society. Fugitive slave Hannah Crafts addresses this specifically in her novel The Bondwoman's Narrative (1850) in a scene where the slave Hannah is enjoying the spectacle of a ball at the plantation. The narrative turns from describing the scene and directly addresses the reader with the spectacle of exploitation: "It never occurred to us to question whose unpaid labor supported all this finery." Hannah realizes that, in the absence of fairy godmothers who can magically create beautiful dresses, the American Cinderella story depends upon silent exploitation. Furthermore, she knows (living in 1850) that she cannot ever be the princess at the ball. That position is exclusively reserved for white women (or women who "pass" as white).


In my book project, The Lost Slipper, I explore the way Brontë (and her American progeny) are incorporated into this Cinderella narrative tradition. In fact, Brontë is anchored at the center of this narrative tradition. 


The Fairy Tale: Discussions in Genre

Group Activity:


Based on the fairy tales we have read so far, how would you define the genre "literary fairy tale"? Specifically, think about the role of the fantastic or feelings of "wonder" that fairy tales typically produce. What is wonder? What is the fantastic? How are they created? What is their function?


Consider the readings from today? Are these "fairy tales" or something else? How do these tales shape our discussions of genre?


Spend a few minutes discussing it with your group and right the criteria you develop on the board.


We began the semester with THIS definition:

  • A working definition for the genre of fairy tale might be: a short narrative with a identifiable hero or heroine and a plot that revolves around (expectations of) the fantastic.


We've added:


  • The fairy tale builds upon an established literary/oral tradition but each literary tale is the product of a specific time and place. 
  • The fairy tale articulates/celebrates some cultural value (often reinforcing gender expectations). 
  • The fairy tale often depicts moral extremes (good vs. evil).
  • The fairy tale is relatively simple (narrative structure, character development...). 





















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