Bruno Bettelheim and the Fairy Tales

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Author: James W. Heisig
Editors: James P. Draper and Jennifer Allison Brostrom
Date: 1994
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,657 words

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[(essay date 1977) In the following excerpt, Heisig disputes many of Bettelheim's conclusions in The Uses of Enchantment but notes that Bettelheim “probably does more for the respectability of the fairy tale as an interpretative tool than has anyone before him.”]

[For those who know him] and are familiar with his work at the University of Chicago's Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, Bettelheim's name has become synonymous with intelligent and devoted respect for the mysterious world of the child. In this latest book [The Uses of Enchantment] he carries on these same concerns by turning his attention to the function of the fairy tale in the development of the consciousness of the child. This is not the first time that Bettelheim has ventured beyond the psychologist's accustomed boundaries. Over twenty years ago he attempted a psychoanalytic study of puberty rites among preliterate cultures. The mixture of excitement and professional criticism which his theories aroused in that work has no doubt prepared him for similar reactions to the conclusions he arrives at in this full-length study of the fairy tale. Fortunately, it has not deterred him from setting forth his point of view boldly and without compromise—a fact which is all the more to be admired in a man in his seventies, a patriarch among child psychologists who refuses to rest comfortably on his considerable achievements.

Bettelheim is not the first, of course, to apply the principles of psychoanalysis to the fairy tale. Freud himself had suggested in his Traumdeutung (1900) that there is an unbroken line to be found between the origins and functions of dreams and of folklore in the psyche; and many since him, from a wide range of psychological persuasions, have carried the suggestion further. But the study of folklore in the past fifty years has become so specialized and so vastly documented a discipline and the distrust of psychological methods so widespread among orthodox ethnologists that it has become exceedingly risky to continue on with such investigations.

On the other hand, we cannot forget the inevitable popular outrage still so easily incited by psychoanalytical ideas. Freud's interpretations of the polymorphous sexual perversity of the child is only beginning to settle into the modern mind, as Bettelheim himself, one of those who has done most to establish and refine the approach, must know only too well. Yet now we find him ordering such dear friends of imagination as Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel onto the analyst's couch—and the very idea sends a shudder down the spine in spite of ourselves. Surely this is the height of irreverence, the one sacrilege against memory for which psychoanalysis cannot be forgiven!

Indeed, left in the hands of a less sensitive observer of the human personality and a less skillful analyst, the worst might rightly be expected of such a project. Bettelheim's results however are impressive and generally hard to fault, given his stated intentions. Briefly put, the thesis he experiments with in the book is this:...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100002067