At first glance, the story of Cinderella reads like a true “happily ever after” tale about a girl who rises from oppression and the underclass to become a princess and have everything she could have ever wanted. She gets the man of her dreams, who just happens to also be a prince, and rich, and apparently extremely good looking too. What are the odds? But let’s dig a little deeper and see what we find in this tale.
First off, the one we hear Disney tell is not the original from Grimm’s Faerie Tales. Instead it has been prettied up to avoid most of the gruesome nature of that tale, and to make it more suitable as reading material for the young and young at heart. The infamous glass slipper was not in fact glass (it was golden), there was no fairy godmother (it was a pair of magical birds instead), and we get some mutilation as part of the original tale that does not factor into the Disney version.
But I think children would learn a lot more from the original tale, even if it frightens them at first. And maybe adults would learn a lot more as well.
First off, Cinderella’s mother dies, but instead of mourning she spends all of her time being kind and overly optimistic in the face of hard times and a lack of appreciation from the people who were supposed to be closest to her. Her father completely ignores her, preferring to call her the serving wench instead of his daughter, and he marries a woman who is by all accounts horrid to the girl. He much prefers his two stepdaughters, who aren’t ugly at all on the outside, but who are completely black and evil on the inside.
Which is when the real story begins, or at least when the real begging begins. There is apparently a wedding celebration at the castle and the royal family has sent invitations to the family to attend. Cinderella is seen in her own household as lower than dirt, and yet she is looked to as a sort of support system, even though the evil woman says she cannot go. But she begs and begs, giving the woman more than enough opportunities to humiliate her. And humiliate her she does. In fact, I have absolutely no idea how Cinderella didn’t turn into a demon and murder the woman. But no, she remains kind and optimistic.
That’s where the story falls apart for me, honestly, because of the steadfast one-dimensional nature of our protagonist. The spirit of her dead mother decides to reward the girl for having pure intentions, and these two birds assist her in getting a dress (two dresses really) and a pair of slippers (two pairs of slippers really) to wear to the celebration. Her dead mother’s spirit also seems to disguise her facial features too, apparently, because no one recognizes her at the dance.
Then Cinderella beguiles the prince and raises the ire of every other eligible female in the place. Her worth is determined by the people in attendance based on a falsehood supported by the clothes and slippers she wears. Should she set the record straight or carry on pretending to be a princess in order to get the man? She carries on. So, her stepsisters pretend to be good girls while she pretends to be of a higher class, all to hook the prince. Is she better than them despite this? The fairy tale would have you believe so.
But then she runs, either out of guilt or a sense of duty. In some versions of the story it is because her father possibly recognizes her, and yet says nothing. Maybe that’s his way of atoning for only seeing her as a serving wench, not telling on her. Or perhaps he doesn’t care after all, not even remotely thinking that the prince might like Cinderella enough for it to matter. I tend to think it is the latter reasoning, if he really did recognize her in the first place. So, she runs, leaving her golden slipper behind in her haste.
In the search for the girl whose foot fits the slipper perfectly, the prince goes on a long journey throughout the kingdom. Here also you must suspend your belief, as there had to be others in the kingdom with the same shoe size as Cinderella. This is when the self-mutilation begins as well, and I would rather leave that behind, but it shows what the stepmother and stepsisters will go through in order to gain in status.
None of it is to any avail, however, because the birds don’t let the ruse work. They point out the blood in the slipper each time, and Cinderella finally gets what she always wanted — positive recognition. Is it a happy ending? I would venture to say it is, to a degree. If it is indeed truly love at first sight, then maybe the young couple will live happily ever after, or perhaps the money and the position will corrupt Cinderella. We honestly don’t know, but they do ride off into the sunset, with Cinderella as happy as a clam. And wearing the bloody slipper, which hints at revenge. Maybe not quite so happy after all.