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DEZUTTER Olivier, « Little Red Riding Hood : a Story of Women at the Crossroads [Le petit Chaperon rouge : une histoire de femmes à la croisée des chemins] », dans Carnets des échanges interdépartementaux / Notebooks of the Interdepartmental Exchange U.C.L.-UMASS, n° 2, Stéréotypie et images de femmes - 2 / Stereotyping of Women, Images of Women - 2, Avril/April 2001, Louvain-la-Neuve/Amherst [USA] : Département d’études romanes/Department of Comparative Literature-Department of French and Italian Studies, p. 7-21.

Olivier Dezutter



Little Red Riding Hood : a Story of Women at the Crossroads

ITTLE Red Riding Hood was my first love. I have the impression that, if I had been able to marry her, I would have known perfect happiness. » (Charles DICKENS)

« In my house, when I was a little boy, it was my grandfather who told me stories. He was wonderful. He told violent, mysterious tales that enchanted me. There were just two or three, always the same, but my favourite one was Little Red Riding Hood. I knew it by heart, but I never stopped asking Grandfather to tell it. I identified with Little Red Riding Hood, I had the same fears as she, I didn’t want to die. I dreaded her death — or what we think death is. I waited anxiously for the hunter to come. » (Luciano PAVAROTTI, Introduction to Little Red Riding Hood)

Traditional fairy-tales are inexhaustibly fertile sources for our imagination to work on. Thus even though more than a century separates Charles Dickens from Luciano Pavarotti, both have been bitten by the Red Riding Hood bug ; they both tell us the same thing, which is that the heroes of these fairy tales exert an extraordinary power of attraction and fascination on us.

Of all the traditional fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood (LRR) is indisputably the one that has existed for the longest period of time and which has spawned the greatest number of likenesses in the field of children’s literature. Written down in French already three centuries ago [1], the story of Red Riding Hood has crossed both time and space until in our days it has left in its track several variations, revivals, and re-inventions. There are innumerable examples of authors and artists from all over the world and during many different generations who — with the aid of their pencils, pens, or paintbrushes — have had the pleasure of illustrating one of the versions dedicated to the fairy tale, or who have modernised, altered, lengthened, or reconstructed the adventure of the famous little girl. [p. 8]

Still today the character of LRR remains a key figure in the imagination of children as well as for adults. To use the expression of Claude de la Genardière, even in this new millennium LRR « is evident everywhere ». Her picture continues to regularly haunt the albums intended for children ; also she is regularly used for other ends by publicity agents who exploit and develop this ‘legendary’ figure as they choose.

Yesterday as today, the character of the little girl with a hood is the focus of our interest and, as the title of the fairy tale already indicates, she is the central figure in this story — a story that we would be mistaken to reduce to simply a kind of peek-a-boo game of seduction in which the curious couple of the LRR and the wolf are involved.

Bruno Bettelheim emphasises the central place of the man in this story ; he considers the maternal characters unimportant [2]. I would like to propose the contrary reading of the fairy-tale by looking rather at the fate of the three female figures, representing the three generations of women which have been put centre stage in this story. The main character LRR doesn’t really exist by herself (both on a physical level and on a figurative level) ; she is intimately connected with the two other women present in the story : the mother and the grandmother. Rather than it being the story of a little girl who is travelling the road of autonomy and who leaves to discover the adult world — of men ? —, the story of Little Red Riding Hood, as I see it, is the story of three women, or better put three stories (three fates) about women who are reference points in the story : They are three women who are at turning points in their lives, three women at a cross-roads.

My objective in this paper is to investigate the stories of each of these three women and of the relationships between them. In order to do so, I will use these three types of research documents :

The Glutton (Red Riding Hood)

The wolf or other monster devours human beings until they are all rescued alive from his belly.
1. Wolf’s feast. (a) By disguising himself as the mother or the grandmother, the wolf deceives and devours (b) a little girl (Red Riding Hood) whom he meets on the way to her grandmother’s house.
11. Rescue. (a) The wolf is cut open and his victims are rescued alive ; (b) his belly is sewn full of stones and he drowns ; (c) he jumps to his death.

The two parts of this structure correspond to the two contradictory versions of the story, one attributed to Perrault and the other to the Grimm Brothers. In Perrault’s version the story involves only the first part of the structure. It finishes badly for the grandmother as well as for Red Riding Hood, since both of them are eaten up by a triumphant wolf. In Grimm’s version, on the other hand, the story does not stop there. It continues and finishes well for the two female characters concerned : the heroine and her grandmother are removed from the belly of the wolf by a hunter. The transgressing wolf is punished and put to death.

Depending on whether they are drawn to Perrault’s tragic version or the positive version of Grimm, critics interpret the story to be either a warning or a tale of initiation. [p. 10]

1.1. Perrault’s Version

In the introduction to his Contes en vers of 1697, Perrault claims to have the double objective of entertaining and instructing. His stories can not be considered as « little trifles » for they contain a « useful moral. » All the collected stories tend :
 »to show the advantage of being honest, patient, sensible, hard working, obedient, and to simultaneously show the misfortune that comes to those who lack these characteristics...soon those children who have properly obeyed their father and mother will become important members of their society, while the others, having been nasty or disobedient, will experience terrible misfortunes. However frivolous or strange might be the adventures that take place in these fables, their intention is to inspire children to resemble those whom they identify as being the happy people, while at the same time children will fear the misfortune brought about by naughty ones who fall into the habit of performing evil deeds. » [4]
If Perrault is to be believed, Little Red Riding Hood is no more than a nasty, vicious child punished as the consequence of her disobedience. However, a closer examination of Perrault’s text, such as the ones made by Bernadette Bricout or Claude de la Genardière, reveals that in Perrault’s text &mdsh; contrary to the Grimm version — the mother of LRR gives neither a warning nor a recommendation to her young child. The little girl isn’t a victim of disobedience but rather of ignorance : « she did not know that it is dangerous to stop and listen to a wolf » [5], or else she is the victim of the carelessness of her mother. A warning is as important for the parents, and in particular for the mother, as it is for the children. According to Claude de la Genardière, morality can also ask questions without taking the form of self-punishment that comes about by unconsciously seeking out all the young ladies who let themselves get eaten by wolves.

1.2. Grimm’s Version

The version of Little Red Riding Hood proposed more than a century later by the Grimm brothers is characterised by a positive end, which is why Bruno Bettelheim favours this version. From his point of view, the fairy tale always has the objective of reassuring the child and of giving him hope for the future. According to this famous child psychiatrist « the characters and the events in fairy tales personify and illustrate interior conflicts but also they suggest, with great subtlety, how to resolve these conflicts » [6] Thus [p. 11] Grimm’s version of LRR can be re-classified as a story of initiation [7]. A close reading of Grimm’s text, however, suggests that the story combines the characteristics of both a story of warning and a story of initiation.

Surprisingly, Grimm’s version of LRR has a double ending. The ending that is most often retained and is the best known involves the arrival of the hunter who functions as the little girl’s saviour. This ending closes a story in which Red Riding Hood doesn’t seem to play a very active role in relation to the events she is submitted to. However, it leads to a condensed re-telling of the story, as if the tale repeated itself another time : « It is said that on another occasion when LRR again brought a cake to her old grandmother, another wolf tried to distract her attention and make her stray from her path » [8]. Being tempted a second time, LRR shows that she has learned her lesson well. She is neither distracted nor slowed-up by this other wolf, and she arrives at her grandmother’s house in time to warn of the imminent arrival of the animal. This time it is the grandmother who plays the most important role in the story by resolving the problem of the wolf. She revenges both herself and her grandchild by effecting a strategy that fools and successfully eliminates him. This strategy requires LRR’s help ; manifesting enthusiastic co-operation she fills the stone pot in which the wolf will eventually drown with the water that her grandmother had used to boil sausages.

1.3. Certain Popular Versions

The two-part structure established by Aarne and Thompson for the fairy-tale type 333 does not take into account a third scenario which is favoured in certain popular oral versions in circulation before Perrault wrote the story down. According to this ancient scenario, Red Riding Hood is the complete master of her destiny, which differs — as is logical — from that of her grandmother. Therefore while the grandmother is devoured by the wolf with no reprisals, Little Red Riding Hood manages to escape from the animal’s clutches, not without having first tasted — without knowing what she is eating — the flesh and blood of her forebearer and after « playing with the wolf » to the point of providing him with an astonishing striptease before slipping away. [p. 12]

The popular oral versions of the LRR tale present a scenario that encompasses the initiational aim of the story and gives it even more coherence. This scenario gives rise to a third point of view and invites a re-consideration of the relationship between the three women who span three generations, in particular the relationship between LRR and her mother. Switching the focus from one woman to the other there is an exchange of confidence, even of roles. Here then the female characters are truly at a cross-roads, at a moment in their lives where everything is in precarious balance.

By having the disappearance of the grandmother coincide with Little Red Riding Hood’s entry into the state of sexual maturity, the popular versions offer a scenario which is based on the natural order of things. The old generation can disappear at the moment when the new generation becomes, in its turn, capable of continuing the cycle of life. In eating the remains of her grandmother and drinking her blood, LRR incorporates the force of her ancestor and in particular the force that allows her to have children. Rich in this new knowledge, LRR is also apparently rich with her new knowledge. In confrontation with the wolf, it is she who leads the game, who excites his appetite with a dazzling striptease before leaving him rooted to the spot and herself escaping under the pretext of a pressing need.

It is now apparent that the scenario established in certain popular versions turns the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood into a story meant to elaborate the theme of genuine women’s business. This intra-feminine relationship is also treated, in their own ways, by Grimm and Perrault. It is from this perspective that I now propose an examination of the images of these women and of their relationships ass they have been portrayed through time by different illustrators of the Perrault and the Grimm versions of this fairy tale.

2. The Illustrations Accompanying The Texts

Now entering into the world of illustration, it is important to point our that the original manuscript of the Tales of Perrault contained water-colours and a frontispiece that has been attributed to either Perrault the father or the son. Michel Mélot considers these artworks to be an integral part of the composition of the Tales. The illustration that refers to LRR represents the bed scene in which LRR is face to face and side by side with the wolf. Claude de la Genardière communicates how astonished he was when he saw the orig-[p. 12]inal water-colour and discovered that this scene takes place within a luxuriously decorated interior. The female character who shares the couch upon which the wolf lies is a splendid young lady, richly dressed, her red hood formal and elaborate, and appearing to caress the wolf. « The minimum that one can say, » writes Claude de la Genardière, « is that Perrault played with the ambiguity between the text and the image, as much as concerns the age of the heroine as the nature of her relationship with the wolf, and this with even more pleasure, one can imagine &mdash ; this manuscript being intended for the grown-up Mademoiselle » [9].

In the 1697 edition, the original water-colours were replaced by etchings signed Clouzier. Even though Clouzier apparently copied the illustrations of the manuscript, the etching of the bed scene is less precise and less rich in details (illustration n° 1). With this etching, here is uncertainty over who exactly is the female figure in the bed. Certain persons immediately recognise the heroine of the tale, others see the grandmother.

Illustration n° 1

During the eighteenth century, the fairy tale was embellished with a second illustration which showed the scene of the initial encounter between LRR and the wolf, deep in the forest. As time goes by, other key scenes are illustrated. As far as the present paper is concerned, while keeping our attention on the texts of Perrault and Grimm, we will now look at some of the ways illustrators chose to portray the following four scenes :

Interchanging the beginning of Perrault’s tale with Grimm’s in the French translation of Armel Guerne, the story that interests us begins in a most curious way. We are shown « a little village girl, the prettiest that was ever seen » [10] on whom the mother dotes. The grandmother who is just as fond of the child, if not even fonder, searching for a way to demonstrate her affection offers her the gift of a little red riding cap. « The child found it so pretty and that it fit it her so well. She wanted to wear nothing else on her head but the riding hood, and so she was called Little Red Riding Hood... » [11]

The story opens, then, on this portrait of the three different generations of women. Let us linger a moment over the first image provided for each of these women, beginning with the oldest and progressing on to the youngest.

In the Perrault and Grimm texts, the grandmother is important from the very beginning of the story. It is she who has offered the gift of the hood that characterises, even names, the little girl. Her falling ill provokes the action of Red Riding Hood coming to her immediate aid.

Most illustrators opt for a first passive image of the grandmother, showing her lying on her bed waiting for the visit. There are others, Hélène Prince or Beni Montresor for example [12], who begin by showing the grandmother at the height of her vitality, busy with the little girl and concentrated on sewing the famous riding hood. [p. 15]

This first « scene of a couple » which shows Little Red Riding Hood in the hands of the grandmother is succeeded by a second « scene of a couple, » unavoidable this time, that places the mother and her daughter around a table (in the cases of the illustrators Jack Kent, Tony Ross, S. Heilporn [13]), preparing the basket with provisions intended for the grandmother (illustration n° 2). It is impossible to not notice that the mother is suggesting that her daughter assumes, in part, the role of the provider, asking the child to be her substitute in bringing victuals to the older person.

Illustration n° 2

Whether she appears for the first time « in the hands of the grandmother » (as in Tony Ross’s illustration) or beside her mother in the family home, little Red Riding Hood accepts without resistance the dress and the role that have been given to her. Furthermore, caught between a mother and a grandmother who adore her, the little girl — in Grimm’s version — returns the affection bestowed on her by refusing to wear anything other than the cap she was given by her grandmother.

The story continues by informing us that the road which connects (or separates ?) the mother from the grandmother is the one that little Red Riding Hood chooses to « take at her own pace » and to thereby disobey her mother who had made it clear, in Grimm’s version, that it was wise to go about her task without wasting time.

2.2. The Stroll through the Forest

Finally left on her own, Little Red Riding Hood sets off on her way across the forest. At this point in the story most of the illustrators choose to draw their subject as a lively, care-free girl who is evidently enjoying her liberty. She takes centre stage in the fore-[p. 16]ground with the forest relegated to the background. However, Estrada illustrates the reverse situation where the child is diminished and engulfed by the surrounding forest ; the trees with their grey trunks and roots that remind one of the claws of the wolf obviously foreshadow what is to occur in the narrative (illustration n° 3) [14].

Illustration n° 3

2.3. The First Encounter with the Wolf

Grimm’s text is explicit about the impression the wolf makes on the little girl during their first encounter : she feels no fear whatsoever but rather surprise, even curiosity. Jack Zipes confirms that « the encounter with the wolf is usually portrayed as a simple conversation rather than as something fraught with danger » [15]. Doré’s portrayal of the conversation is suggestive of even more intimacy given that the two protagonists are so close that their bodies touch (illustration n° 4) [16].

Illustration n° 4

[p. 17]

In numerous illustrations, during this encounter here again everything is a question of proportion and power relations. The relative physical strength of the child and the wolf must be sized up in order to ascertain which of the two will dominate. At this moment in the story, the wolf is evidently superior to the little girl. Since he is at this time preparing to trick her, he is placed in a position of superiority (illustration n° 5). The wolf is drawn in certain cases from his backside and in others frontally, either standing on all four legs or reared and balanced on his hind legs. This last position gives him a humanoid look which the illustrator Beni Montresor pushes to an extreme by dressing the wolf in a well-tailored suit, holding his cane by its knob and wearing a hat on his head. Once he has disguised himself as a man, his next metamorphosis will be into a woman — the grandmother.

Illustration n° 5

2.4. The bed scene

The first scene of encounter cedes to another even deeper in the forest — the one more familiar to LRR, it being the house and in particular the bed of her grandmother. After having met in the forest, they now meet around the wood of a bed-frame. Surprisingly, in the illustrations of certain artists, the proportions which appeared to give the advantage of size only to the wolf when they met out in the forest are, this time, virtually identical. The little girl is no longer dominated by the imposing figure of the wolf as was the case in the very first encounter ; now she is nearly his equal. It would appear that the child has grown up during the progression of the story. Isn’t that, thought, the principal function of the traditional fairy-tale : to help children grow up ? [p. 18]

The balance has changed between these two protagonists. The girl has taken off her hood and now it is the wolf who « wears a hat » (illustration n° 6) [17].

Illustration n° 6

With one of the characters in a bed hidden by sheets, we see little difference of size and physical appearance between these two characters...this would appear to underscore the coming drama. Some illustrators establish an equilibrium between the two characters. All the same the bed is an incontestable scene of confusion because LRR finds herself unable to see what is staring her in the face, that it is not her grandmother she is standing beside, nor is she partaking in an interaction that implies fusion and union between the generations.

It would be impossible to stop the story at this point. Such an incredible and unnerving scene is by its nature in dis-equillibrium. The wolf doesn’t take long to reveal who he is ; sooner or later he will display his paws and show his teeth, at the very least so that Little Red Riding Hood leaves the bed fully aware of what has taken place. From this point of view it is sometimes difficult to know &mdash ; after examining certain of the accompanying illustrations (Montresor’s for instance) — if the picture is showing the moment when the little girl gets into the bed or tries to get out of it.

We have seen that in some popular versions of this particular scenario Red Riding Hood escapes the wolf and assumes a new womanly role while her grandmother is sacrificed. The little girl, having consciously or unconsciously caused the death of her ancestor, is now ready to create new life and become herself a parent. The story ends here. Nothing tells us if Little Red Riding Hood gets married one day, nor if she exercises her right to have lots of children. The sequel to this story is to be found in those contem-[p. 19]porary interpretations of the ancient tale. How have they altered the story of the little girl to conform to present-day ideas ?

3. Little Red Riding Hood’s Latest Images

Little Red Riding Hood’s fictional descendants are numerous, and the numbers swell year after year. The makers of colouring books and story books for children do not stop using her image — interpreted as they wish — in their work. According to their imagination, they combine Red Riding Hood with other famous fairy-tale characters and mix her into either different time periods or different localities (there is even a Red Riding Hood in Manhattan) ; she is occasionally re-named, for example as « Little Green Riding Hood » or « Navy Blue Riding Hood », or even « Mina », « Carmen », or « Lola » [18].

A large part of today’s red riding hoods, fed on Perrault’s version of the tale, don’t want to resemble their predecessor. They have well remembered the warning given by Mother Goose ; following the example of the heroine of popular versions they don’t let themselves be « taken in » by the wolf. Among these is Little Miss Save Yourself (Mademoiselle Sauve-qui-peut) by Philippe Corentin [19] where the heroine ingeniously pays back the wolf and brings him to such a desperate point that he begs to be forgiven and promises never to frighten young girls again (illustration n° 7). In contrast to today’s wilful, decided, business-like to the point of aggressive and, often, independent young girls, Jean Claverie’s imagined heroine seems but a pale shadow [20]. Calling upon the mother to deliver the young girl and the grandmother, doesn’t this author prevent the young girl from growing up ? [p. 20]

Illustration n° 7

This returns us to the question of the three generations of women present in the fairy tale. It isn’t always an easy thing for a grandmother or a mother to cede her place to the next generation.

[1] Bernadette Bricout traces the first appearance of the motif of LRR to a Latin text of the 11th century. She cites De puella a lupellis servata of Egbert de Liège (around 1023). See Bernadette BRICOUT, « Heurs et malheurs d’un chaperon rouge » in Dire, n°8, hiver 1989.

[2] Bruno BETTELHEIM, Psychanalyse des contes de fées, Paris, Laffont, 1976.

[3] The Types of Folktale, Helsinki, Folklore Fellow Communications, 1964.

[4] Charles PERRAULT, Contes, textes établis et présentés par Marc Soriano, Paris, Flammarion, 1989, p. 181. All the English translations of the French quotations are mine.

[5] Ibid., p. 254.

[6] Bruno BETTELHEIM, op. cit., p. 258.

[7] It is common knowledge — and furthermore Wladimir Troubetzkoy states it clearly, that « In traditional societies, fairy-tales often accompanied rituals of initiation and described the transition from one time to another (e.g. Saintyves), one age to another, by describing a hero who is either a child or just emerging from childhood and who successfully accomplishes a new level of mastery : the child listening to this tale is invited to put itself in the place of the hero so as to willingly enter a new stage of development ». See Wladimir TROUBETZKOY, « De l’art d’accommoder les grands-mères : la Belle et le Chaperon » in Littératures, n° 24, printemps 1991, p. 30.

[8] Jacob and Wilhelm GRIMM, Le petit Chaperon rouge, traduction d’Armel Guerne, Paris, Flammarion, 1967, p. 163.

[9] Claude de la GENARDIÈRE, Encore un conte ?, Nancy, Presses universitaires de Nancy, 1993, p. 82.

[10] Charles PERRAULT, op. cit., p. 254.

[11] Jacob and Wilhelm GRIMM, op. cit., p. 161.

[12] Jacob and Wilhelm GRIMM, Hélène PRINCE (ill.), Le petit Chaperon rouge, Paris, Hachette jeunesse, 1993 ; Beni MONTRESOR (ill.), Little Red Riding Hood, New York-London-Toronto-Sydney-Auckand, Doubleday, 1991.

[13] Jack KENT (ill.), M. GILARD (adapt.), Le petit Chaperon rouge, Paris, Éditions du Sorbier, 1983 ; Tony ROSS, M.-R. FARÉ (trad.), Le petit Chaperon rouge, Paris, Gallimard, 1980, coll. Folio Benjamin ; S. HEILPORN (ill.), E. LALLEMAND (adapt.), Le petit Chaperon rouge, Paris, Hachette jeunesse, 1993.

[14] P. ESTRADA (ill.), F. BOADA (adapt.), Le petit Chaperon rouge, Paris, Épigones, 1995.

[15] Jack ZIPES, Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, New York, Routledge, 1993, p. 21

[16] See Charles PERRAULT, Gustave DORÉ (ill.), Contes de ma mère l’Oye, Paris, Gallimard, 1988, coll. Folio Junior.

[17] The expression « to wear the hat » has the meaning, in French, of « to be the guilty one ».

[18] See C. MARTIN GAITE, Le petit Chaperon rouge à Manhattan, Paris, Flammarion, 1998, coll. Castor Poche ; G. SOLOTAREFF, NADJA (ill.), Le petit Chaperon vert, Paris, l’École des loisirs, 1989, coll. Mouche de Poche ; P. JOIRET, X. BRUYERE (ill.), Mina je t’aime, Paris, l’École des loisirs, 1991, coll. Pastel ; H. ORAM, T. Ross (ill.), M.-F. de PALOMERA (trad.), Carmen, Paris, Seuil, 1992 ; A.-M. POL, I. BONHOMME (ill.), Lola et les loups, Paris, Hachette, 1988, coll. Le Livre de Poche.

[19] Philippe CORENTIN, Mademoiselle Sauve-qui-peut, Paris, l’École des loisirs, 1996.

[20] Jean CLAVERIE, Le petit Chaperon rouge, Paris, Albin Michel Jeunesse, 1994.

Référence : DEZUTTER Olivier, « Little Red Riding Hood : a Story of Women at the Crossroads [Le petit Chaperon rouge : une histoire de femmes à la croisée des chemins] », dans Carnets des échanges interdépartementaux / Notebooks of the Interdepartmental Exchange U.C.L.-UMASS, n° 2, Stéréotypie et images de femmes - 2 / Stereotyping of Women, Images of Women - 2, Avril/April 2001, Louvain-la-Neuve/Amherst [USA] : Département d’études romanes/Department of Comparative Literature-Department of French and Italian Studies, p. 7-21.
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