Anne Sexton’s Cinderella

Out of all of the Cinderella readings of this week I was most intrigued by poet Anne Sexton’s Cinderella. It offers a much darker view of this pervasive fairytale and mocks it’s simplistic ending. In class we talked about how one of the attributes of the fairytale or the folk tale is that they  usually use sparse language, are non-descriptive and offer no psychology behind it’s characters motivations.  Good is good and evil is evil and how each character came to be good or evil is never questioned or discussed. In Transformations, a set of poem’s based off of Grimm’s fairytales, Anne Sexton casts a shade of grey over the characters and offers alternate interpretations and endings of the tales.  As a poet she doesn’t shy away from visceral descriptive language either. Snow White is beautiful but stupid, repeatedly not learning to accept deadly gifts from strangers.  Briar Rose, is depressed and suffering from the trauma of sexual abuse .

Cinderella is more of a lesson on the irrationality of happily ever after. Cinderella starts off with an introduction addressing our new ideations of “happily ever after” winning the lottery, marrying rich or making it big.  Then we get the known Grimm Cinderella story.  Cinderella is emotionally abused by her step-mother and her step-sisters.  However her father remains living in this version and completely neglects Cinderella allowing her to become the maid.  He showers the others with gifts and gives Cinderella a twig.  Cinderella makes it to the ball with the help of her magic tree and it’s birds. She captivates her prince who embarks on a quest to match her left gold shoe to it’s owner.  Again for him the only thing that matters is the size of his dream woman’s feet.  He’s excited by the “lovely feet” of Cinderella’s two sisters and happily departs with both of them before realizing they mutilated their feet to fit in the shoe.  Cinderella’s is a perfect fit.  Then they live “they say” happily ever after.  Sexton uses language to denote the superficiality and improbability of this.  Cinderella and the prince “like two dolls in a museum case” never deal with all of the unpleasantness of life.  They never fight. They never age. They never get bored.


I’ve read the poetry of Anne Sexton before and I’m a fan of her confessional style and her poetry (also why I chose this Cinderella story). I know that she struggled with depression for years and began writing after she was first institutionalized.  She supposedly first began writing poetry as a form of therapy.  Transformations turns fairytales on their heads introducing taboo topics like incest and suicide and it is interesting to approach them knowing Sexton’s background (she was said to have dealt with sexual abuse herself).  She was beautiful and intelligent.  She was a model before eloping with her husband. She suffered from multiple mental breakdowns and eventually took her own life. There was no happily ever after for her, not even close.  I can imagine her reading Grimm’s fairytales through her own disillusionment and taking it into her own hand’s to create a more “realistic” version of them.

In some of our other reading’s different scholars talk about the flexibility of fairytales and how they could adapt to address issues of a time or in a community.  Sexton took this to the extreme and used them as an outlet to express her dark world.  Hailed as a feminist poet maybe she also made them as a warning to other women.  Unrealistic expectations are said tp contribute to depression.  To me Cinderella, at least the Disney version that is most prevalent in today’s culture, is the epitome of unrealistic expectations.