Heroine’s Journey: Temptations and Trials

I was so busy last week that I didn’t have time to write a blog post. At the moment I’m trying to finish putting together a new short story collection, and also preparing for the Stonecoast residency, where I will be teaching for ten days. I’ve found that unless I sit down, first thing on Saturday morning, and write a blog post, I just won’t get it done. So here goes . . .

This week, I’m going to write about the temptations and trials of the fairy tale heroine. Just as a reminder, here are the steps on the fairy tale heroine’s journey:

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine enters the dark forest.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine finds friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.
10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home.
12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

You can see these steps in a variety of fairy tales focused on a heroine’s journey from childhood to adulthood — a distinct subset of tales. Obviously, not all tales about heroines follow this pattern — some are not journey tales at all. I’m talking about a specific type of fairy tale, which I’ve discussed before in my posts on this subject.

The temptations and trials are a distinct phase of the fairy tale heroine’s journey, and they are two separate things: temptations, trials. Cinderella undergoes a trial when she has to become a servant in her own home. Snow White gives in to temptation when she lets the old pedlar woman in, tempted by the stay laces, comb, and apple. Trials happen to you, and must be endured. Temptations are offered to you, and must be resisted.

I’m particularly interested in the temptations in “Snow White”: as a number of scholars have pointed out, they represent the sort of mature beauty that the Wicked Queen has and Snow White is just coming into. Stay laces will make her waist smaller, accentuating her womanly figure. A comb will make her hair, in the 19th century called a woman’s crowning glory, straighter, neater. It will also allow her to dress her hair. These items will allow Snow White to become what her society considers a woman. They are temptations to feminine vanity, but also the natural desire to grow up. The apple is an important symbol in Western art and literature in two ways: it’s the apple of Eve, but also the apple of Discord with the words “to the fairest” written on it. It’s the apple fought over by Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, the apple that led to the Judgement of Paris and the Trojan War — which was of course about who gets the most beautiful woman in the world.

So Snow White’s temptations are important and symbolically freighted. The real temptation isn’t a set of laces, or a comb, or even an apple. The real temptation is becoming the Wicked Queen, with her desires and values. The fairy tale makes us wonder: how do you become a mature woman without being tempted by the image society wants you to fit, the role it wants you to fulfill? How does Snow White grow up without becoming the Wicked Queen? In her poem on the fairy tale, Anne Sexton implies that she really can’t — her world doesn’t offer her enough possibilities. She will always be trapped in the mirror, subject to its judgments. Two of my favorite scholars, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who have written an important essay on this fairy tale, say the same thing: the tale is circular, with Snow White inevitably becoming either the Dead Queen (her own mother) or the Wicked Queen. Is there another way? The fairy tale implies there is, but at least in the Grimm version, it doesn’t give us a sense of what that other way might be.

There is another type of tale in which temptation becomes particularly important: the “lost husband” tale, such as “Cupid and Psyche,” said to be the origin of “Beauty and the Beast.” In tales of that type, the heroine is tempted to see her husband’s true form, for during the day he appears as snake or bear, or some other loathsome beast, but during the night he is a man. She gives in to temptation, and that is when her trials begin: the husband disappears, and she must go on a quest to find him again.

Trials appear even more frequently in fairy tales than temptations. There is the trial of endurance: Cinderella, Donkeyskin, and Vasilisa must all endure being treated like servants. Sleeping Beauty, after giving in to the temptation of touching the spindle, endures her long sleep. The heroine of “Six Swans” endures the trial of making shirts for her swan brothers, while resisting the temptation of speaking to save herself. And there are trials that are quests: in “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” the heroine must go on a quest to save her bear-husband from trolls. Heroines must wear out pairs of iron shoes, walk up glass mountains, outwit ogres . . . Gerda’s temptation is staying in the old woman’s flower garden, and one of her trials is facing the robbers, including the fierce little robber girl. She walks all the the way to the Snow Queen’s castle to save Kai. We can call what Andersen was writing fairy tales, even when his tales have no oral predecessor, because they honor these old templates, these paths of story. They do not always follow them, but they are always cognizant of them.

So what does this mean for us, heroines of our own fairy tales? It means that we will endure temptations and trials. I think that’s a useful acknowledgement to make. First, it allows us to anticipate them: yes, this is a temptation; yes, now I am undergoing a trial. It’s not that the universe has gone off its rails, it’s not that everything is wrong at its core. Temptations and trials are part of the pattern. It allows us to identify them: yes, I’m tempted to buy a new dress, but I need to save money; yes, I’m not happy at work, but at least for now I’ll need to endure it, because it’s helping me through school . . . that sort of thing. It allows us to formulate responses: why am I enduring temptations and trials? Well, because I’m the heroine of my own tale, and this is what happens to heroines.

Just remember that the temptations and trials are integral to the story. They are also integral to your growth. Your temptations can teach you a lot about yourself: what particularly tempts you? And why? Remember that Snow White’s temptations were also warnings: something in you wants to be like the Wicked Queen. I should point out here that temptations are not always wrong. Snow White wants and needs to grow up: her temptations are at least partly about that process of growth. Only after biting the apple can she become an adult. Sleeping Beauty is tempted by the spindle, and giving in to that temptation leads to her long sleep, necessary to her maturation. Rapunzel is tempted by the prince, and gives in rather easily! She is punished, but her punishment is also her liberation. She needs to be banished from the tower of childhood, to make her own way in the world.

And trials . . . it’s useful to remember that trials make you stronger, and smarter. Sometimes you have to endure, but sometimes you have to act, and it’s important to know the difference. Cinderella can endure, but Donkeyskin must leave her situation — her father’s incestuous desires make her home uninhabitable. Beauty must live with the Beast before she can meet her prince. During trials, you learn skills and principles that can serve you well in both fairy tales and life. The Goose Girl learns to herd geese, but more importantly learns what it’s like to be a servant. Hopefully, that will make her a better queen. Fairy tale heroines on quests learn to follow directions, be kind, keep going. These are all useful principles. And you can only really learn them the hard way . . .

The Faery Prince by Adolf Adolf Münzer

(This illustration is “The Faery Prince” by Adolf Adolf Münzer.)

Here are my previous posts on the fairy tale heroine’s journey:

The Heroine’s Journey
Heroine’s Journey: Snow White
Heroine’s Journey: Sleeping Beauty
Heroine’s Journey: Receiving Gifts
Heroine’s Journey: The Goose-Girl
The Heroine’s Journey II
Heroine’s Journey: The Dark Forest
Heroine’s Journey: Learning to Work
Heroine’s Journey: A Temporary Home
Heroine’s Journey: Leaving Home

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2 Responses to Heroine’s Journey: Temptations and Trials

  1. Phyllis Holliday says:

    Once more, fairy tale and real life comparison. When I was seventeen, ready to graduate and go to college, my stepmother (of course, really!) informed me the money for that was gone and we were in deep debt, so I could not go to college. I took this in, and had a sudden realization. I was on my own now. I had to find my own money and take care of my own needs. I ended up dropping some
    classes, got a job in dentist’s office, applied for scholarships, and spoke to anybody who might know how to manage all this. I got to be an au paire for a ten year old boy and thirteen year old girl in a wealthy family’s large home near my chosen college. Though a few years later, money dried up and: brief despair…but I ended up with more adventures than I could imagine. And all the fairy god folk showed up at just the right times.

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