Art courtesy of
Janet Preslar, FrActivity

Symbolism Expounded

Fairy tales and fables are cautionary tales geared towards children and adults alike, passing on important truths and observations about human nature. One way the authors keep the attention of the audience while imparting meaning is through extensive use of symbols. Symbolism is an object or action that has both literal and figurative meaning. It is often a concrete object (tree) that represents a concept (life). Many of the traditional stories have recurring symbols designed to quickly and clearly share messages and morals to a wide audience. Recurrent symbols are a good-hearted but weak father figure, an evil non-mother figure, one or several weak, defenseless children, woods, and even predatory talking animals. Common themes are avoidance of temptation, avoidance of dangerous strangers, the dangers of adults not one's parents, and, in a positive vein, that perseverance, ingenuity, faith and hard work will be rewarded.

Grimms' Hansel and Gretel is one such tale. The characters, actions, and other physical aspects of the story are geared toward reflecting what is good and what is evil about life and human nature: Don't take candy from strangers; gifts come with a price; keep your wits about you. Below are listed some symbols in the you read the tale you realize our understanding of these symbols is in many ways subconscious, yet makes the story more relevant.

  • Children: innocence, victim; intelligence from inspiration instead of experience; inherently good
  • Stepmother: woman without child; cold, heartless; able to kill innocents without remorse; conniving; manipulative, especially of men; inherently bad
  • Father: leadership; strength; able to be manipulated by trusted woman; weak in spirit but inherently good
  • Witch/hag: embodiment of pure evil; preys on physically and mentally weak, exploits weaknesses; although sometimes disguised, evil is so strong, so complete, it shows on outside; animalism (refers to pagan nature, as opposed to god-fearing nature preferred by society)
  • Candy/sweets/jewels: temptation; good things in over abundance...good in small quantities and as just reward, bad if ill-gotten or undeserved.
  • Bread crumbs: insignificant nothings; lacking substance or any lasting quality
  • Forest: danger; uncertainty, especially obscured future or choices
  • Forest path: life paths; fate
  • Famine/drought/pestilence: difficult times, especially designed to test virtues of patience and unselfishness
  • Sleep: lack of attentiveness

Text is translated as follows (with variations):
Selfish, childless woman convinces weak, addled man that his children should be sacrificed so they may live during a time of famine. In other words, she and her husband fail a test of their spiritual and moral strength. (Notice the girl cries...the boy plans.) They take them into the woods, where, symbolically, things (including moral paths) are unclear. Eventually the plan to get rid of the kids works, and the children stumble upon a candy house. Out of dire hunger, they eat some of the house, again succumbing to temptation. Getting caught results in the punishment: imprisonment. The kids figure out they are dinner soon. The evil hag is blind, representing her inability to see clearly the immorality of her ways, as well as her animalistic nature, exhibited by strong sense of smell. They survive by stalling (ingenuity pays off, as does exploiting enemy's weaknesses). When given the opportunity, they kill her by the means of their intended destruction, a justifiable turning of tables. They are also rewarded by stealing the ill-gotten jewels and wealth of the hag.

© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: March 30, 2000