Maria Tatar has searched out parallel didactic trends in early children's literature and European folktales. With great ease she crosses centuries and national boundaries in tracing recurring patterns of virtues and vices in educational tracts, folktales, fantasies, classical mythology, and the Bible, as well as in the works of Shakespeare, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Working on the premise that the history of children's literature has suffered from an unusually cruel streak, one that especially affects women and children, she singles out "moral correctives" in selected works of James Janeway, John Bunyan, Jane and Anne Taylor, Mrs. Sherwood, Carlo Collodi, Heinrich Hoffmann, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll and then looks for corresponding trends in contemporaneous folktales.
Didactic patterns in folktales have become more prominent in recent centuries, Tatar claims, because the oral tradition has been supplanted by printed texts intended for children. Individual folktale collectors supposedly also rewrote folktales in accordance with prevailing social and educational concepts, as well as their personal likes or dislikes, thereby not only eliminating coarse, bawdy, erotic, and incestuous scenes to protect children, according to Tatar, but also emphasizing acts of cruelty, violence, brutal intimidation, bigotry, and coercion, mainly to utilize the tales as "lessons" (64–65). An increasing concern with productive socialization led collectors to intensify an already existing gender bias. Male protagonists usually reaped rewards for such virtues as humility, compassion, and faithfulness, yet they often escaped punishment for crimes committed in the course of adventurous actions. Female protagonists, in contrast, were not rewarded for the same virtues, though these were often taken for granted as preconditions for marriage, which was usually their only chance to move to a higher class. Self-willed or adventure-some actions by women were condemned. If women failed in obedience, humility, diligence, or endurance, they were chastised, often having to sacrifice their self-esteem by assuming a servile attitude, like Catskin or Allerleirauh. In contemplating the "seven sins" of female protagonists and their gruesome consequences, Tatar traces this gender bias in such works as a tale of Boccaccio, Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, and an eighteenth-century manual on how to subdue unruly wives. In European folktale variants she examines similar patterns of punishment associated with female disobedience, pride, selfishness, greed, gluttony, and unfaithfulness. After establishing some common sociocultural attitudes toward stubborn and self-willed women through the ages, she concludes that women were treated cruelly and coercively because men considered them to be "children" and inferiors (105–7, 135).
In a chapter entitled "Beauties and Beasts," Tatar pays special attention to the themes of female obedience and self-denial. She uses the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius's version and a number of folktale variants on this theme as a testing ground, observing that de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast," the Grimms' "Singing, Spring Lark," and the Norwegian "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" show a shift in emphasis toward didacticism. Whereas the myth dwells on the theme of female jealousy, the folktale variants emphasize the sin of female curiosity and state more explicitly a demand for modesty, obedience, endurance, compassion, and complete subordination. Here Tatar employs feminist and sociocultural interpretations of the theme by Carol Gilligan, Torberg Lundell, Jack Zipes, and others (260).
According to Tatar, adulterous women are punished with special cruelty in folktales. To illustrate her point, she refers to two passages describing the death penalty for adulterous females, one from "The Three Snake Leaves" in the collection of the Brothers Grimm and one from "The Lion's Grass" in Italo Calvino's anthology of Italian folktales. In the first tale, the unfaithful woman is "sent out to sea with her accomplice in a boat filled with holes," and in the second the woman is condemned in the following terms: "Hang her first, then burn her, and then throw her ashes to the wind" (118). Even the most skeptical reader might lean toward accepting Tatar's thesis that folktales are biased against women, for hardly a folktale in the world depicts an equally cruel punishment for an adulterous male. What she does not mention, however, is that in both cases the women committed not...