The Uses of Enchantment (excerpt)
Bruno Bettelheim

red riding hood

A Charming, "innocent" young girl swallowed by a wolf is an image which impresses itself indelibly on the mind. In "Hansel and Gretel" the witch only planned to devour the children; in "Little Red Riding Hood both grandmother and child are actually swallowed up by the wolf. Like most fairy tales, "Little Red Riding Hood" exists in many different versions. The most popular is the Brothers Grimm's story, in which Little Red Cap and the grandmother are reborn and the wolf is meted out a well-deserved punishment.

But the literary history of this story begins with Perrault. It is by his title, "Little Red Riding Hood," that the tale is best known in English, though the title it was given by the Brothers Grimm, "Little Red Cap," is more appropriate. However, Andrew Lang, one of the most erudite and astute students of fairy tales, remarks that if all variants of "Little Red Riding Hood" ended the way Perrault concluded his, we might as well dismiss it. This would probably have been its fate if the Brothers Grimm's version had not made it into one of the most popular fairy tales. But since this story's known history starts with Perrault, we shall consider--and dismiss--his rendering first.

Perrault's story begins like all other well-known versions, telling how the grandmother had made her granddaughter a little red riding hood (or cap), which led to the girl's being known by that name. One day her mother sent Little Red Riding Hood to take goodies to her grandmother, who was sick. The girl's way led her through a forest, where she met up with the wolf. The wolf did not dare to eat her up then because there were woodcutters in the forest, so he asked Little Red Riding Hood where she was going, and she told him. The wolf asked exactly where Grandmother lived, and the girl gave the information. Then the wolf said that he would go visit Grandmother too, and he took off at great speed, while the girl dallied along the way.

The wolf gained entrance at the grandmother's home by pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood, and immediately swallowed up the old woman. In Perrault's story the wolf does not dress up as Grandmother, but simply lies down in her bed. When Little Red Riding Hood arrived, the wolf asked her to join him in bed. Little Red Riding Hood undressed and got into bed, at which moment, astonished at how Grandmother looked naked, she exclaimed, "Grandmother, what big arms you have!" to which the wolf answered: "To better embrace you!" Then Little Red Riding Hood said: "Grandmother, what big legs you have!" and received the reply: "To be better able to run." These two exchanges, which do not occur in the Brothers Grimm's version, are then followed by the well-known questions about Grandmother's big ears, eyes, and teeth. To the last question the wolf answers, "To better eat you." "And, in saying these words, the bad wolf threw himself on Little Red Riding Hood and ate her up.

There Lang's translation ends, as do many others. But Perrault's original rendering continues with a little poem setting forth the moral to be drawn from the story: that nice girls ought not to listen to all sorts of people. If they do, it is not surprising that the wolf will get them and eat them up. As for wolves, these come in all variations; and among them the gentle wolves are the most dangerous of all, particularly those who follow young girls into the streets, even into their homes. Perrault wanted not only to entertain his audience, but to teach a specific moral lesson with each of his tales. So it is understandable that he changed them accordingly. Unfortunately, in doing so, he robbed his fairy stories of much of their meaning. As he tells the story, nobody warned Little Red Riding Hood not to dally on the way to Grandmother's house, or not to stray off the proper road. Also, in Perrault's version it does not make sense that the grandmother, who has done nothing wrong at all, should end up destroyed.

Perrault's "Little Red Riding Hood" loses much of its appeal because it is so obvious that his wolf is not a rapacious beast but a metaphor, which leaves little to the imagination of the hearer. Such simplifications and a directly stated moral turn this potential fairy tale into a cautionary tale which spells everything out completely. Thus the hearer's imagination cannot become active in giving the story a personal meaning. Captive to a rationalistic interpretation of the story's purpose, Perrault makes everything as explicit as possible. For example, when the girl undresses and joins the wolf in bed and the wolf tells her that his strong arms are for embracing her better, nothing is left to the imagination. Since in response to such direct and obvious seduction Little Red Riding Hood makes no move to escape or fight back, either she is stupid or she wants to be seduced. In neither case is she a suitable figure to identify with. With these details Little Red Riding Hood is changed from a naive, attractive young girl, who is induced to neglect Mother's warnings and enjoy herself in what she consciously believes to be innocent ways, into nothing but a fallen woman.

It destroys the value of a fairy tale for the child if someone details its meaning for him; Perrault does worse--he belabors it. All good fairy tales have meaning on many levels; only the child can know which meanings are of significance to him at the moment. As he grows up, the child discovers new aspects of these well-known tales, and this gives him the conviction that he has indeed matured in understanding, since the same story now reveals so much more to him. This can happen only if the child has not been told didactically what the story is supposed to be about. Only when discovery of the previously hidden meanings of a fairy tale is the child's spontaneous and intuitive achievement does it attain full significance for him. This discovery changes a story from something the child is being given into something he partially creates for himself.

The Brothers Grimm recount two versions of this story, which is very unusual for them. In both, the story and the heroine are called "Little Red Cap" because of the "little cap of red velvet which suited her so well that she would not wear anything else."

The threat of being devoured is the central theme of "Little Red Riding Hood," as it is of "Hansel and Gretel." The same basic psychological constellations which recur in every person's development can lead to the most diverse human fates and personalities, depending on what the individual's other experiences are and how he interprets them to himself. Similarly, a limited number of basic themes depict in fairy stories quite different aspects of the human experience; all depends on how such a motif is elaborated and in what context events happen. "Hansel and Gretel" deals with the difficulties and anxieties of the child who is forced to give up his dependent attachment to the mother and free himself of his oral fixation. "Little Red Cap" takes up some crucial problems the school-age girl has to solve if oedipal attachments linger on in the unconscious, which may drive her to expose herself dangerously to the possibility of seduction.

In both these fairy tales the house in the woods and the parental home are the same place, experienced quite differently because of a change in the psychological situation. In her own home Little Red Cap, protected by her parents, is the untroubled pubertal child who is quite competent to cope. At the home of her grandmother, who is herself infirm, the same girl is helplessly incapacitated by the consequences of her encounter with the wolf.

Hansel and Gretel, subjects of their oral fixation, think nothing of eating the house that symbolically stands for the bad mother who has deserted them (forced them to leave home), and they do not hesitate to burn the witch to death in an oven as if she were food to be cooked for eating. Little Red Cap, who has outgrown her oral fixation, no longer has any destructive oral desires. Psychologically, the distance is enormous between oral fixation symbolically turned into cannibalism, which is the central theme of "Hansel and Gretel," and how Little Red Cap punishes the wolf. The wolf in "Little Red Cap" is the seducer, but as far as the overt content of the story goes, the wolf doesn't do anything that does not come naturally--narnely, it devours to feed itself. And it is common for man to kill a wolf, although the method used in this story is unusual.

Little Red Cap's home is one of abundance, which, since she is way beyond oral anxiety, she gladly shares with her grandmother by bringing her food. To Little Red Cap the world beyond the parental home is not a threatening wilderness through which the child cannot find a path. Outside Red Cap's home there is a well-known road, from which, her mother warns, one must not stray.

While Hansel and Gretel have to be pushed out into the world, Little Red Cap leaves her home willingly. She is not afraid of the outside world, but recognizes its beauty, and therein lies a danger. If this world beyond home and duty becomes too attractive, it may induce a return to proceeding according to the pleasure principle which, we assume, Little Red Cap had relinquished due to her parents' teachings in favor of the reality principle--and then destructive encounters may occur.

This quandary of standing between reality principle and pleasure principle is explicitly stated when the wolf says to Little Red Cap: "See how pretty the flowers are which are all around you. Why don't you look about? I believe you don't even hear how beautifully the little birds are singing. You walk along with singlemindedness and concentration as if you were going to school, while everything out here in the woods is merry." This is the same conflict between doing what one likes to do and what one ought to do which Red Cap's mother had warned her about at the outset, as she admonished her daughter to "walk properly and don't run off the road.... And when you come to Grandmother's place, do not forget to wish her a 'Good morning,' and don't look into all the corners as soon as you arrive." So her mother is aware of Little Red Cap's proclivity for straying off the beaten path, and for spying into corners to discover the secrets of adults.

The idea that "Little Red Cap" deals with the child's ambivalence about whether to live by the pleasure principle or the reality principle is borne out by the fact that Red Cap stops gathering flowers only "when she had collected so many that she could not carry any more." At that moment Little Red Cap "once more remembered Grandmother and set out on the way to her." That is, only when picking flowers is no longer enjoyable does the pleasure-seeking id recede and Red Cap become aware of her obligations.

Little Red Cap is very much a child already struggling with pubertal problems for which she is not yet ready emotionally because she has not mastered her oedipal conflicts. That Little Red Cap is more mature than Hansel and Gretel is shown by her questioning attitude toward what she encounters in the world. Hansel and Gretel do not wonder about the gingerbread house, or explore what the witch is all about. Little Red Cap wishes to find out things, as her mother's cautioning her not to peek indicates. She observes that something is wrong when she finds her grandmother "looking very strange," but is confused by the wolf's having disguised himself in the old woman's attire. Little Red Cap tries to understand, when she asks Grand-mother about her big ears, observes the big eyes, wonders about the large hands, the horrible mouth. Here is an enumeration of the four senses: hearing, seeing, touching, and tasting; the pubertal child uses them all to comprehend the world.

"Little Red Cap" in symbolic form projects the girl into the dangers of her oedipal conflicts during puberty, and then saves her from them, so that she will be able to mature conflict-free. The maternal figures of mother and witch which were all-important in "Hansel and Gretel" have shrunk to insignificance in "Little Red Cap," where neither mother nor grandmother can do anything--neither threaten nor protect. The male, by contrast, is all-important, split into two opposite forms: the dangerous seducer who, if given in to, turns into the destroyer of the good grandmother and the girl; and the hunter, the responsible, strong, and rescuing father figure.

It is as if Little Red Cap is trying to understand the contradictory nature of the male by experiencing all aspects of his personality: the selfish, asocial, violent, potentially destructive tendencies of the id (the wolf); the unselfish, social, thoughtful, and protective propensities of the ego (the hunter).

Little Red Cap is universally loved because, although she is virtuous, she is tempted; and because her fate tells us that trusting every-body's good intentions, which seems so nice, is really leaving oneself open to pitfalls. If there were not something in us that likes the big bad wolf, he would have no power over us. Therefore, it is important to understand his nature, but even more important to learn what makes him attractive to us. Appealing as naivete is, it is dangerous to remain naive all one's life.

But the wolf is not just the male seducer, he also represents all the asocial, animalistic tendencies within ourselves. By giving up the school-age child's virtues of "walking singlemindedly," as her task demands, Little Red Cap reverts to the pleasure-seeking oedipal child. By falling in with the wolf's suggestions, she has also given the wolf the opportunity to devour her grandmother. Here the story speaks to some of the oedipal difficulties which remained unresolved in the girl, and the wolf's swallowing Little Red Cap is the merited punishment for her arranging things so that the wolf can do away with a mother figure. Even a four-year-old cannot help wondering what little Red Cap is up to when, answering the wolf's question, she gives the wolf specific directions on how to get to her grandmother's house. What is the purpose of such detailed information, the child wonders to himself, if not to make sure that the wolf will find the way? Only adults who are convinced that fairy tales do not make sense can fail to see that little Red Cap's unconscious is working overtime to give Grandmother away.

Grandmother, too, is not free of blame. A young girl needs a strong mother figure for her own protection, and as a model to imitate. But Red Cap's grandmother is carried away by her own needs beyond what is good for the child, as we are told: "There was nothing she would not have given the child." It would not have been the first or last time that a child so spoiled by a grandmother runs into trouble in real life. Whether it is Mother or Grandmother--this mother once removed--it is fatal for the young girl if this older woman abdicates her own attractiveness to males and transfers it to the daughter by giving her a too attractive red cloak.

All through "Little Red Cap," in the title as in the girl's name, the emphasis is on the color red, which she openly wears. Red is the color symbolizing violent emotions, very much including sexual ones. The red velvet cap given by Grandmother to Little Red Cap thus can be viewed as a symbol of a premature transfer of sexual attractiveness, which is further accentuated by the grandmother's being old and sick, too weak even to open a door. The name "Little Red Cap" indicates the key importance of this feature of the heroine in the story. It suggests that not only is the red cap little, but also the girl. She is too little, not for wearing the cap, but for managing what this red cap symbolizes, and what her wearing it invites.

Little Red Cap's danger is her budding sexuality, for which she is not yet emotionally mature enough. The person who is psychologically ready to have sexual experiences can master them, and grow because of it. But a premature sexuality is a regressive experience, arousing all that is still primitive within us and that threatens to swallow us up. The immature person who is not yet ready for sex but is exposed to an experience which arouses strong sexual feelings falls back on oedipal ways for dealing with it. The only way such a person believes he can win out in sex is by getting rid of the more experienced competitor--hence Little Red Cap's giving specific instructions to the wolf on how to get to Grandmother's house. In doing this, however, she also shows her ambivalence. In directing the wolf to Grandmother, she acts as if she were telling the wolf, "leave me alone; go to Grandmother, who is a mature woman; she should be able to cope with what you represent; I am not."

This struggle between her conscious desire to do the right thing and the unconscious wish to win out over her (grand)mother is what endears the girl and the story to us and makes her so supremely human. Like many of us when we were children and caught in inner ambivalences that, despite our best efforts, we could not master, she tries to push the problem onto somebody else: an older person, a parent or parent substitute. But by thus trying to evade a threatening situation, she nearly gets destroyed by it.

As mentioned before, the Brothers Grimm also present an important variation of "Little Red Riding Hood," which essentially consists of only an addition to the basic story. In the variation, we are told that at a later time, when Little Red Cap is again taking cakes to her grandmother, another wolf tries to entice her to stray from the direct path (of virtue). This time the girl hurries to Grandmother and tells her all about it. Together they secure the door so that the wolf cannot enter. In the end, the wolf slips from the roof into a trough tilled with water and drowns. The story ends, "But Little Red Cap went gaily home, and nobody did any harm to her."

This variation elaborates on what the hearer of the story feels convinced of--that after her bad experience the girl realizes that she is by no means mature enough to deal with the wolf (the seducer), and she is ready to settle down to a good working alliance with her mother. This is symbolically expressed by her rushing to Grandmother as soon as danger threatens, rather than her thinking nothing of it, as she did in her first encounter with the wolf. Little Red Cap works with her (grand)mother and follows her advice--in the continuation, Grandmother tells Red Cap to fill the trough with water that smells of sausages which had been cooked in it, and the smell attracts the wolf so that he falls into the water--and together the two easily overcome the wolf. The child thus needs to form a strong working alliance with the parent of the same sex, so that through identification with the parent and conscious learning from him, the child will grow successfully into an adult.

Many adults today tend to take literally the things said in fairy tales, whereas they should be viewed as symbolic renderings of crucial life experiences. The child understands this intuitively, though he does not "know" it explicitly. An adult's reassurance to a child that Little Red Cap did not "really" die when the wolf swallowed her is experienced by the child as a condescending talking down. This is just the same as if a person is told that in the Bible story Jonah's being swallowed by the big fish was not "really" his end. Everybody who hears this story knows intuitively that Jonah's stay in the fish's belly was for a purpose--namely, so that he would return to life a better man.

The child knows intuitively that Little Red Cap's being swallowed by the wolf--much like the various deaths other fairy-tale heroes experience for a time-is by no means the end of the story, but a necessary part of it. The child also understands that Little Red Cap really "died" as the girl who permitted herself to be tempted by the wolf; and that when the story says "the little girl sprang out" of the wolfs belly, she came to life a different person. This device is necessary because, while the child can readily understand one thing being replaced by another (the good mother by the evil stepmother), he cannot yet comprehend inner transformations. So among the great merits of fairy tales is that through hearing them, the child comes to believe that such transformations are possible.

Little Red Riding Hood lost her childish innocence as she encountered the dangers residing in herself and the world, and exchanged it for wisdom that only the "twice born" can possess: those who not only master an existential crisis, but also become conscious that it was their own nature which projected them into it. Little Red Riding Hood's childish innocence dies as the wolf reveals itself as such and swallows her. When she is cut out of the wolf's belly, she is reborn on a higher plane of existence; relating positively to both her parents, no longer a child, she returns to life a young maiden.