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Snow White and the Red Shoes: Visions of Retributive and Restorative Justice

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

There is a powerful connection to be drawn between Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Red Shoes, and the Grimm Brothers retelling of Snow White. Both texts feature female characters who put on shoes that “wouldn’t come off” (Andersen, 312) and force them to dance against their will. In both cases, this is framed as retribution for a past misdeed stemming from the character’s vanity. While the similarity in the mechanical details of these scenes is truly striking, what makes them such an interesting point of comparison is how heavily they differ in their attitudes toward the event. In The Red Shoes Hans Christian Andersen invites sympathy with Karen while she receives her punishment, while the Grimm Brothers do no such thing for the Queen in Snow White. I would argue that this difference in portrayal points toward two different visions of the role of punishment in justice. The Grimm Brothers’ harsh attitude toward the Queen conveys a belief that punishment is a good in and of itself, and an entirely necessary step in righting wrongs, while Andersen’s deep sympathy for Karen points toward an understanding of punishment as an evil unto itself, and at best as incidental in a picture of restorative justice.

In The Red Shoes punishment falls upon the protagonist Karen when she draws attention to herself at church by wearing red shoes to her confirmation, and later when she abandons her duty to “take care of . . . and nurse” the old woman who had adopted her and “didn’t . . . have much time to live” by putting on these same red shoes and going to the ball (Andersen 312). In these scenes the reader's gaze is drawn toward how much Karen enjoys the fact that just about everyone has “their eyes fixed on her red shoes” (Andersen 311). With these gestures, the narrative makes clear that underlying Karen’s frivolous, showy, and selfish behavior is her real fault, vanity.

When the point in the story that Karen receives punishment for her misdeeds rolls around, Andersen paints quite a vivid picture of her distress and agony. We follow Karen as she “is horrified and trie[s] to take the shoes off”, and we share in her despair when she “[tears] off her stockings, but the shoes had grown onto her feet” (Andersen 312). Andersen also exposes us to her exhaustion, as she dances “over hill and dale, rain or shine, night and day” and as she longs to “sit down on a pauper’s grave, where bitter tansy weed grows but there [is] no peace for her there” (Andersen 312). Later, we see her sorrow, loneliness, and regret for her mistakes when she passes the funeral of the old woman who had taken care of her, and realizes that “she [is] all alone in the world and cursed by the angel of God” (Andersen 312). In these passages, Andersen creates a sense of pathos for the character receiving punishment, and invites the reader to sympathize with this character’s suffering, both physical and mental.

Compare this to the Queen’s punishment at the end of the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White, where she is “forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance till she [falls] to the floor dead”, as a consequence of her various schemes to murder or incapacitate her step-daughter Snow White and remain the “fairest in the land” (Grimm 101, 107). Throughout the story, we are provided with very little information about the Queen’s internal life, and this feature of the story places the scene of her punishment in stark contrast to Karen’s punishment in The Red Shoes. During the sparse occasions where we are given a glimpse of the Queen’s thought-process and emotional state, it is used to accentuate her villainized traits, and specifically her jealousy. She is “horror-stricken” that Snow White is labeled “a thousand times more fair” by the mirror, and when “she recognized Snow White, she was so terrified that she just stood there and couldn’t move” (Grimm 107). Both of these descriptions focus on the Queen’s response to physical appearances, which does little to ingratiate her with readers, but does much to accentuate her character’s vanity. However, even this level of sympathy is rare. The vast majority of this section consists of neutral descriptions of the physical process of her punishment. While it can be inferred that the Queen’s punishment is ordered by Snow White, or perhaps the prince, the story goes out of its way to obscure this. The story describes that:

Two iron slippers had already been put into glowing coals. Someone took them out with a pair of tongs, and set them down in front of her. She was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance till she fell to the floor dead (Grimm 107).

Note the use of “someone” in the above passage (Grimm 107). This wording avoids placing onus on any specific actor in the execution of the Queen. Note too how the story phrases it that “She was forced to step into the red-hot shoes”, and not that, for example, Snow White forced her to “step into the red-hot shoes” (Grimm 107). These features of the text serve two main purposes. First they solidify the reader’s distance from the Queen, allowing them to more easily observe her punishment in a dispassionate and unsympathetic manner. Second, they avoid framing her punishment as the decision of a specific actor in the narrative, who’s judgment or motiviations a reader might be able to question. Instead, when the punishment is carried out by a nebulous “someone” as it is in this narrative, the impression that the Queen’s punishment is a natural outgrowth of moral reality is created, and signals that it shouldn’t be questioned as such.

One relatively simple explanation for the differences between these two portrayals, are the different roles that Karen and the Queen play in their respective stories. Karen is the protagonist of The Red Shoes, so it isn’t necessarily surprising that her inner life is given more attention than the Queen’s is, considering her antagonistic role in Snow White. However, while this difference in perspective is certainly important for explaining how these two scenes create different reactions in their readers, to claim that it explains the differences in attitude toward the punishment, would simply be begging the question. Why has Hans Christian Andersen decided to make a female character punished for her vanity the protagonist of his story, casting her in a more sympathetic light? On the flip side of this, why have the Grimm brothers cast a female character matching this same description as their antagonist? I would contend that my thesis in this essay, that Snow White views punishment as a necessary component of justice while The Red Shoes views punishment as incidental to justice, can explain this discrepancy.

The narrative arcs of both Snow White and The Red Shoes focus on the restoration of moral order, after it has been disrupted by vanity. The Red Shoes begins when Karen is brought up from poverty into relative luxury, and through this social transformation, is enticed and tempted by the beauty and attention brought by wearing the red shoes. This temptation is soon turned to action, as Karen wears the shoes to her confirmation, abandons the old women to go to the ball, and is subsequently carried off by the red shoes to dance forever. At this point, the story shifts attention, away from detailing the disruptions caused by Karen’s vanity, and toward mending their results. First, Karen repents her sins, and has the executioner “chop the red shoes off [her] feet” so that her punishment might end (Andersen 313). In this scene, Karen’s spiritual decoupling from her vanity is emphasized through her physical separation from the source of her vanity, the red shoes. This regret alone isn’t enough to restore what has been broken however. Karen must also appeal to God for mercy and forgiveness, and when she does this, she is magically transported to the church “by the grace of God” (Andersen 314). The story ends with a final reconciliation. After Karen’s heart is so filled with “peace and joy, that it burst” her soul rises “up on the rays of the sun up to God, and noone there asked her about the red shoes” (Andersen 314).

Structurally, Snow White follows a similar narrative arc to The Red Shoes. The disruption and conflict in this story stems entirely from the Queen’s vain fear that “anyone might be more beautiful than she,” and the resulting jealousy when the mirror says that “Snow White is a thousand times more fair” (Grimm 101-102). Like in the Red Shoes, this is followed by a series of serious moral offenses, as the Queen orders the Huntsman, who does not complete his task, to kill Snow White, tries but fails to poison her using magical lace and a magical comb, and finally succeeds in her plot using a poisoned apple. After a significant amount of time has passed, the poisoned apple is dislodged from Snow White’s throat, which results in her subsequent marriage to the prince. However, this happy ending for Snow White isn’t the end of the tale, and before it comes to an end, the Queen must be punished for her evil, and is forced to dance to death in heated iron shoes.

In the most basic aspects of their narrative structure, these two stories are incredibly similar. The moral world is disrupted by the sudden emergence of vanity, this vanity then spreads its corruption, resulting in a wide range of evils, and then the moral world is restored when the source of these evils, vanity, is eliminated. However, while both stories have similar punishments and have similar narrative structures, these punishments are situated within very different parts of their respective narratives. In Snow White, the Queen’s punishment is the last thing that happens, while in The Red Shoes, Karen begins to dance around the story’s midpoint. This means that punishment slots in at two very different parts of each story. While the Grimm brothers have established punishment as an integral piece in restoring moral order, Andersen counts it among the evils stemming from Karen’s vanity that have to be undone by the story's end.

This, in conjunction with the differences in perspective mentioned earlier, point to fundamentally different attitudes toward punishment in the two tales. Snow White, by placing the Queen’s punishment at the end of the story, and by withholding any information about her internal state during it, leaves no room for sympathy with the Queen. The emotional distance this creates from the Queen, creates space for her punishment to be understood as a just reinstallation of moral order, by barring potential readings of the Queen as pathetic subject during her punishment. The Red Shoes by contrast, invites sympathy for Karen by providing a detailed account of her internal experience, and frames her punishment as an evil stemming from her vanity. In The Red Shoes, moral restoration does not stem from Karen’s punishment. Rather, it emerges when she takes steps to remove the source of her past misdeeds, and dedicates herself fully to God. Snow White reinforces contemporary systems of punitive justice, providing justification for them by constructing a cartoonishly evil villain, and then uses this cartoonish evil as a smokescreen later when they depict harsh punitive violence as a necessary aspect of justice. The Red Shoes by contrast, critiques this same ideology of punitive justice, exposing its cruelty by giving a detailed account of Karen’s suffering throughout the process, and then providing an alternative system of mercy-based restorative justice, inspired by a radical interpretation of the christian religious tradition.

Works Cited

Christian Andersen, Hans. “The red shoes.” The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, Norton, 2017, pp. 309-314.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Snow White.” Folk and Fairy Tales, 5th edition, edited by Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek, Broadview Press, 2018, pp. 101-107.

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