In his critical essay on the Brothers Grimm version of “Hansel and Gretel”, Bruno Bettelheim explains to readers that this story, like many fairy tales, is one about coming of age. Bettelheim provides a complete and thorough analysis, tracking the children’s development in the story. Through the clarity of his analysis and the evidence presented in the text, readers are able to grasp the Grimm’s message; children must not regress, but should be encouraged to fulfill their capacity for a greater psychological and intellectual existence.
The children are first thrust out into the wild and unknown forest just beyond the comfort of their home, “where they had never been before in their lives” (186) by their seemingly selfish mother. Bettelheim points to this as a representation of the children being forced into their independence by both the world and the family, since they did not decide to choose independence for themselves and would have preferred to continue their dependency. Bettelheim also suggests that the portrayal of the mother in Hansel and Gretel is actually a projection of the children’s frustration with their former nurturer for withdrawing her care and support. Bettelheim rightfully claims that, “Mother is all-important, in both her benign and her threatening aspects.” (274) The mother figure is more central than the father because, especially in the Grimm’s era, the mother of the household was held responsible for raising the children. For this reason, the mother poses a greater threat to the children because they are more vulnerable to her influence.
Despite the knowledge of their mother’s evil plan for them, the children still wish to return home. However, since they do not have much experience relying on themselves, they fail to reach their goal. Bettelheim cites Hansel’s attempt to use bread crumbs as an obvious example: “he, who lived close to a big forest, should have known that birds would eat the bread crumbs.” (274) Next Bettelheim points out the symbolism associated with the white bird. This is a Christian symbol and the Grimm’s promote the Christian faith through Hansel and Gretel in select dialogue. Some examples include “God will not forsake us.” (185); “The Lord will protect us.” (186); and the description of the wicked witch as “godless” (189). The white birds lead the children to encounter different circumstance that force them to develop and use their intellect and practical skills. With this symbol the Grimm brothers send a fairly significant message about the importance of faith and God’s guidance in life’s most difficult and uncertain times.
After following a white bird to the bread house, Hansel and Gretel learn their first lesson in reality. They naively begin to indulge themselves without consideration or question. After learning that, “The old woman had only pretended to be so friendly.” (188) the children realize the importance of trust and truth. They are exposed on their own for the first time to life’s harsh realities and, also for the first time, must personally deal with the consequences.
During the period that Hansel and Gretel stay at the witch’s house, they experience growing pains. The witch’s coldness and impatience- “and be quick about it”; “Spare me your blubbering!” (188)- coupled with the loneliness of their separation strengthens each child’s mentally and emotionally. Hansel tricks the witch to delay his death. Gretel finally shows some mental substantiality when she acts on the initiative that Bettelheim describes as a development in the children by figuring out a way to kill the witch. After they have proven to be quick-witted and to have perseverance and determination, all necessary life skills to acquire and put to use in order to be successful in the real world, the children begin their return home. Hansel and Gretel were able to conquer themselves and overcome their obstacles. As Bettelheim states in his argument, the experience was necessary to help the children become “more mature children, ready to rely on their own intelligence and initiative to solve life’s problems.” (278)
The children return home, where their mother has inexplicably died. This probably represents the discontinuation of the children’s view of their home as their comfort zone. The children are no longer supported in their home. Only the (classically less paternal) father character waits for them. The structure they return to is described as “their father’s house” (189). The children’s whole attitude and perspective on their home and their role in the home has changed.
Finally Bettelheim argues that the jewels that Hansel and Gretel return with are yet another representation of the transition Hansel and Gretel have made from dependence to independence. They do not greedily horde their treasures, but make them common property to the whole family. Hansel and Gretel prove themselves to be resources by producing the jewelry so that “Their worries were over” (190). Bettelheim’s argument is supported by countless pieces of textual evidence. His insights into the Grimm’s fairy tale provide readers with the deeper meaning that fairy tales, both unedited and edited versions, are meant to present to readers. For these reasons, I support Bettelheim’s opinions on the tale of Hansel and Gretel.