Punishment of spouses in Grimms’ tales

Clever Else

In Grimms’ tales, the perceived incompetence of a spouse is punished with a loss of identity and abandonment. This recurring theme indicates the concerns of a contemporary readership.

In ‘Clever Else’ and ‘Fred and Kate’, the husband’s worldview predominates. Both stories begin with the expectations of the new husband. Hans is assured that Else ‘does not want for brains’ but insists that she must also be ‘careful’; Fred entrusts Kate with specific tasks in readiness for his return.

The perceived failing of both wives is to approach life imaginatively rather than practically. Else’s forebodings about potential injuries to a hypothetical child at first impress others. Kate’s misfortunes are also a result of foresight, as she tries to perform multiple tasks at once.

Both stories end in the same way: after sleeping in a field the wild imagination of both Else and Kate lead each to mistrust her own identity. Hans and Fred each insist that their wife is already at home and so the true wives are abandoned, having lost their identities.

Grimm FishermanSimilarly, ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ depicts a wife whose ambition opposes her husband’s practicality. Her granted wishes come with new identities of king, emperor and pope. These identities are ultimately stripped from her as punishment for imaginative greed, and she is returned to her original identity.

The stories suggest differing moral lessons to apply to different contemporary readers. While women are expected to aspire to be supportive wives, contemporary male readers would recognise a perceived need to reward a wife’s practicality and to prevent imaginative approaches that may lead to disaster. The stripping of identity and the abandonment of both Else and Kate may be seen as male wish-fulfilment fantasies, punishing wayward spouses. While the fisherman’s wife is not physically abandoned, the husband’s expression in Walter Crane’s tailpiece illustration makes clear that she has been shunned.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 01 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

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