Snow White and the Red Shoes: Different Visions of Punishment and the Restoration of Good
There is a powerful connection to be drawn between Hans Christian Anderson’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” and force them to dance against their will (Anderson, 312). In both cases, this is framed as retribution for a past misdeed stemming from the character’s vanity. In the case of The Red Shoes, this 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 (Anderson 312). In Snow White the queen is “forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance till she [falls] to the floor dead”, as consequence for her various schemes to murder or incapacitate her step-daughter Snow White and remain the “fairest in the land.” (Grimm 101, 107) While the similarity in the mechanical details of these scenes is truly striking, what makes them such an interesting point of comparison is the differences in their attitude toward these two similar events, and what these differences say about the two stories’ very different understandings of the relationship between justice and punishment.
In The Red Shoes, Anderson paints quite a vivid picture of the heroine, Karen’s, distress and agony during her punishment. 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.” (Anderson 312) Anderson 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.” (Anderson 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.” (Anderson 312) In these passages, Anderson 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. We are provided with very little information about the queen’s internal life during this sequence. In the sparse occasions where it is offered, it is used to accentuate her villainized traits, namely 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 descriptions of the queen’s internal state focus on her response to physical appearances, which serves 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. It details how “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) These features of the text solidify the reader’s distance from the queen, allowing them to more easily observe her punishment in a dispassionate and unsympathetic manner.
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 Anderson 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 created a female character matching this same description as their antagonist? I would contend that Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers have two very different things to say about what it takes to reestablish a just world after it has been disrupted by evil.
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 with Karen brought up from poverty into relative luxury, and once there, 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 has the executioner “chop the red shoes off [her] feet”, physically separating her from the source of her vanity. (Anderson 313) Following this, Karen fully repents for her former misdeeds, and as a consequence, is magically transported to the church “by the grace of God.” (Anderson 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.” (Anderson 314)
Snow White follows a fairly similar narrative arc. 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. The moral order is then restored when a piece of this poisoned apple is dislodged from Snow White’s throat, she marries the prince, and the Queen is punished for her evil, being 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, Anderson 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, asks the reader to avoid sympathy with the Queen, and to view her punishment as a necessary step in righting her wrongs. 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 comes about when she overcomes a negative internal trait, and genuinely and meaningfully regrets and repents for its consequences.
Christian Anderson, 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.