In the Brothers Grimm’s story, “Hansel and Gretel”, the patriarchal beliefs of German culture in the age of Romanticism become apparent by using feminist, historical and archetypal lenses.
When viewed through a feminist lens “Hansel and Gretel” is a sexist text that misrepresents women and depicts them according to the common prejudices in German society during the 19th century. Specifically, during the 1800’s, women were generally dutiful house workers and caring mothers who did not have jobs and were expected to take care of all the housework. Women were also considered to be less intelligent than men as well as less capable overall. Men, on the other hand, were considered the intelligent sex, capable of planning and thinking complexly, hence they held jobs and ran most of society.
In the story, Gretel is depicted as a young innocent girl who is in constant need of her brother’s assistance to solve her problems. The other two female characters in the story are the stepmother and the witch. All of these females are depicted as being weak, Gretel is a damsel in distress, the witch is evil and the stepmother is a madwoman.
A close examination of the stepmother reveals an unreasonable individual who inhumanly forces her husband to get rid of his children. The stepmother, using her role as matriarch of her household, illustrates to the readers in German society, that if women are given equality or an upper hand they will this corrupt this power and create chaos. Similarly, the witch lures and traps Hansel and Gretel in her gingerbread house only to eat them afterward. The witch’s dreadful actions only reinforce female stereotypes that refer to women as often conniving, and sneaky. Both women’s greed and vile intentions lead them to their inescapable demise and thereby confirm the common gender stereotypes that women are unable to make rational decisions. The clear misrepresentation of women as weak, evil, crazy and unreasonable in the Grimm Brothers folktales reflect the common viewpoints of German society in the 19th century.
During the age known as Romanticism (approximately. 1800 - 1850) new attitudes formed in the which began to influence society. Responding to these changes in German society, The Grimm Brothers who were scholars decided to create stories taken from old folktales to create a new literature which reflected a more purified sense of German history and culture. Unfortunately, despite their success at creating memorable cultural touchstones for the German culture, their stories continued to reflect powerful prejudices towards women. To further understand the motivations and inspirations for these folktales, one must understand the history and social movements that took place in Germany during the 18th century. As mentioned, the brothers were influenced by the Romanticism period; a movement in the literature and arts which emphasized subjectivity, inspiration, and the power of individualism. More specifically, Romanticism focused societies attention to ideas like nature and old folk traditions that mostly consisted of legends and fairytales; therefore, as the movement developed, writers began shifting their stories to the newly formed ideas. Unfortunately, the distribution of power in society was extremely unbalanced, and males mostly had control over all affairs; therefore, stories written within the 18th century were specifically written in styles that appealed to men, and which continued to reflect the previously misogynistic German culture. For instance, writers would include stereotypes that depict men as the strong, brave, and intelligent males in their stories because these types of beliefs had been commonly accepted by society for millennia.
Furthermore, since the Romanticism period empowered the people, the Grimm brothers decided to write stories and folktales that would be most popular amongst the ordinary workers. In order to achieve successful results, the brothers wrote about common obstacles like famine, which was a common occurrence amongst the German population. Moreover, stories were written during the movement often involved ancient mythologies which played the antagonist roles within the stories. The purpose of an antagonist in the folktale was to pose as an obstacle that the champions and heroes, often males, had to overcome. In fact, heroes and champions often attracted the attention of German readers because protagonists displayed to the population that no matter the number of problems they endured, the people, like the heroes will be able to overcome them. The Grimm brothers use archetypes and symbols to add greater depth to the story. In particular, the madwoman archetype repeatedly appears while the symbol of feminine evil, the witch powerfully enhances the storyline, especially when the sorceress traps the two innocent children for her own selfish desires. Once, again, here the reader is meant to understand that women cannot be trusted and are evil. Despite the negative depictions of females, the skillful use of these literary devices still intensifies the impact of the story, while also clearly indicating, for the discerning reader using a feminist lens, that the story is riddled with both deep fear and loathing of women. To be clear, from a feminist’s perspective, the character of the witch works as a representation of all women as being ugly, untrustworthy and ultimately evil. “Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but they have a keen scent like the beasts, and are aware when human beings draw near.”
The character of the stepmother further reinforces this understanding of women. And, while Gretel is "innocent" she is still in need of rescuing from other decrepit women. These representations of women reinforce the belief in German society at the time that men are superior and good. Examining history through a feminist’s lens contextualizes the roles of women in this story as weak and wicked, which has the effect of solidifying men's power over women.
Furthermore, a great influence on 18th-century misogynistic German culture was the bible as they were a very religious society. Hence the representation of women as evil also reflects the biblical story of Eve, who disobeys God by eating the forbidden fruit, and as a result, is viewed as the cause of humanities expulsion from the garden of Eden because she gave in to the temptation of the devil. Similarly, the witch represents the commonly held belief that women are evil. Eve’s foolishness results in the loss of immortality for all of humanity which directly sparked beliefs that women are duplicitous, hence they cannot be trusted, a trope reflected in the story by both the witch and the stepmother. In the case of the wicked stepmother, the only other antagonist in “Hansel and Gretel”, she is portrayed as a jealous, shallow and revenge seeking woman who turns her husband on his children. Moreover, the common stereotypes that depict stepmothers as cruel people, is considered as a tool of the patriarchal system which reveals male prejudices of women’s true intentions.