In fairy tales, the mother category is traditionally divided into the positive mother figure associated with positive aspects ofmotherhood, in particular giving and creating life, protecting, sheltering, feeding, and nurturing, and a negative type represented by the wicked stepmother or evil witch. Instead of functioning as nurturers and carers, these female villains starve their children and threaten to eat them. Stepmothers remain present and painfully audible and visible, while the child victims’ biological mothers are typically absent, usually dead. In The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar suggests that ‘stepmothers [...] are often thinly disguised substitutes for biological mothers’ (1987, 144) and points out that the Grimms ‘sanitized’ the fairy tales for consumption by children. Marina Warner presents a similar argument that the Grimm Brothers exchanged the mothers for stepmothers to protect the ideal motherhood, to ‘allow
Mother to flourish as symbol of the eternal feminine, the motherland, and the family itself as the highest social desideratum’ (1995, 213). Warner offers perhaps the most detailed categorization of mother figures in fairy tales. She argues that the tales reflect the lived circumstances of the storytellers and their audiences: until the twentieth century, many women died in childbirth, making the absent mother a hard fact of life rather than a convenient plot device. Many widowers remarried, and their poor choices and lily-livered natures made stepmothers a real threat to many orphans. Marina Warner points out that
The absent mother can be read literally as exactly that: a feature of the family before our modern era, when death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality, and surviving orphans would find themselves brought up by their mother’s successor (1995, 213)
Slovak fairy tales typically portray stepmothers as cruel women who obstruct their (step)children’s needs instead of fulfilling them. However, in my analysis, I try to show that the stepmothers’ behavior might have been an expression of the horrible socioeconomic position they were in: even if they tried to act as mothers, their poverty and powerlessness would make it impossible to ensure food and protection.
According to Warner, there are three types of mothers that usually substitute absent biological mothers in fairy tales: the wicked stepmother, the witch, and the mother-in-law, all of them performing the same antagonistic function. The stepmothers are usually very hostile figures: they may be cruel, greedy, jealous, over-working and starving the orphans, even threatening to kill them and eat them. Analogically, mothers-in-law are typically depicted as a source of conflict within a new family: controlling, authoritarian, and even plotting to kill their daughters-in-law and their newborn children. This again, might be seen as a reflection of reality as their security in old age is threatened by their son’s new family. Here, in the depiction of the hostile mother-in-law, the problematic relationships within a family are taken to deadly extremes. Maria Tatar suggests that these figures may even be interchangeable:
[... ] it quickly becomes clear that stepmother, evil cook, witch, and mother- in-law are different names for one villain whose aim is to banish the heroine from hearth and home and to subvert her elevation from humble origins to noble status (1987, 144).
To some degree, the mother figures of fairy tales have an ambiguous identity. As wicked stepmothers, evil nurses/servants, and unfriendly mothers-in-law, they are present in families. These monstrous female figures have frequently been seen as projections of the ‘bad’ mothers. Although it seems that fairy tales displace hostility onto a stepmother as a proxy, she may embody the fears and anxieties of an aging mother.
Psychoanalytically oriented theoreticians, such as Bruno Bettelheim, have explored the idea that the two sorts of mother in fairy tales—the good (and always absent, presumably dead) mother and the wicked stepmother—reflect the split halves of an ambivalent psychological response to mothers and motherhood. In discussing the stepmother, Bettelheim suggests that the transformation of the image of the good mother into its negative displaces a child’s guilt for being angry at their parent figure: ‘The fantasy [of] the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her’ (1979, 68-69). The depiction of split motherhood image provides a guilt-free embodiment of girls’ ambivalent feelings and a potential way to cope with these paradoxical moments of love and hate. While the coping strategy interpretation is compelling, a reading of fairy tales finds that they also show how to resist surrendering to oppressive conditions and how to rebel against the victimizers.
In ‘Feminism and Fairy Tales’, Karen E. Rowe suggests that the stepmothers ‘who appear odious, embody the major obstacles against the passage to womanhood’ (1979, 240). I would add that the stepmother enacts the young girl’s fears of female jealousy, sexuality, and aggression. Having constructed the stepmother as an evil witch, the fairy tale offers images of active rebellion: the little sister tricks her stepmother, and runs away from her murderous intentions. This points not only to cathartic effects of fairy tales but also to an empowering and liberating function.