“Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.”
–from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
There are several reasons that I am fond of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. First, it was one of the first books I read in the wake of my father’s death. Reading was a major way I was able to cope with the loss. The protagonist, Ella, was especially comforting because she knew how it felt to lose a parent; the catalyst of her story is the death of her mother. Disappearing from reality and delving into a good story helped me focus on something other than my grief.
Second, the story is a retelling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. I don’t know if this type of narrative is a genre, per se, but I adore literary retellings. The process of taking characters and plot lines we’ve known our entire lives, turning them on their head and making them modern and relatable is brilliant. Ella’s curse of obedience is a hell of a lot more intriguing than the damsel in distress-and-rags act that the traditional Cinderella has going on.
Finally, I love this story and find it enjoyable even as an adult because it is an example of the hidden depths children’s literature provides. Yes, Ella’s adventures are an entertaining story for a little girl in the midst of bereavement. But they are also critiques of gender roles, patriarchy and personal autonomy. Not exactly child’s play, is it?
Unlike the Disney version of the fairy tale, Ella is not compliant or accepting of her misfortune. And she damn sure is not sweet in the face of adversity. Instead, baby Ella receives the “gift “of obedience from the fairy Lucinda. As anyone with half a brain would realize, this is not gift at all; it is a terrible curse. Ella has to do as she is told, no matter how humiliating, unethical, silly or just plain evil the command. She has no real free will, choice or personal autonomy. Even her thoughts can be controlled. If someone tells her to be happy, her mood automatically brightens.
Tellingly, Levine often depicts Ella’s forced obedience and actions in terms of gendered behavior and social institutions. For example, after her mother’s funeral, Ella’s father decides that she will attend finishing school. Thanks to the curse, Ella excels in etiquette, because she is literally educated against her will. As Ella recounts, “My progress in all my subjects astounded the mistresses. In my first month I did little right. In my second I did little wrong. And gradually, it all became natural: light steps, small stitches, quiet voice, ramrod-straight back, deep curtsies without creaking knees, no yawns, soup tilted away from me, and no slurping.”
Yes, on the surface this is a tale about hardship, perseverance and magic. However, if you compare Ella’s newfound skills with the contents of a Women’s Studies textbook, you will discover the real world themes throughout the narrative. Ella is learning to be a lady, learning how to perform her femininity. In her essay “The Social Construction of Gender,” Judith Lorber argues that gender is learned and “creates the social differences that define ‘woman’ and ‘man’.” She further describes how “gendered norms and expectations are enforced through informal sanctions of gender-inappropriate behavior by peers and by formal punishment or threat of punishment by those in authority…”
In this case, Ella’s punishment for deviating from the mistresses’ wishes would be nausea, migraines, dizziness and the inability to breathe. She is physically obligated to obey every command; if she doesn’t, the curse provides consequences. Acting like a socially acceptable “lady” is not something that comes to her naturally; it is something that she is forced to learn. If her story lacked a curse and took place in our world instead of the land of Frell, then Ella would probably shunned, mocked or verbally abused for rejecting the standard gender norms.
Just as the curse of obedience trains Ella to be someone she is not (and has no wish to be), it also takes away the little power she has under the patriarchal thumb of her father. When Sir Peter makes a bad investment and is forced to auction off all of his belongings, he sees his most valuable asset in his daughter. He tells Ella, “I shall have to sell you, in a manner of speaking. You must marry so that we can be rich again.” Even if this story is meant for children and takes place in a fantasy land, this scenario is completely reality-based. Throughout history–and even in contemporary times–daughters have, in effect, been traded for cash. This is disturbing enough in and of itself, but Sir Peter’s plan is even more sinister because Ella cannot resist. Of course, all the daughters that have been sold have little choice in the matter. If they run away, they could face a life of poverty, social ostracism and violence. Unfortunately, Ella does not even have that dismal option. The curse gives the patriarchy even more influence over her life.
This is all a really in-depth way of saying that children’s books are not without their own metaphors, messages, social commentary and complexity. Ella Enchanted is a delightful spin on a fairy tale that everyone in the Western world knows by heart. It’s funny, interesting and upbeat. But Gail Carson Levine’s writing style provides so much more than a story about magic, fairies and the power of love. Her prose is also an astute analysis and indictment of the way we train girls to act a certain way and how the institution of marriage still has the potential to be an economical, patriarchal ritual cloaked in the charade of romantic love. After reading between the lines of this particular interpretation of the classic fairy tale, one thing is definitely clear: It puts Disney and that Anne Hathaway piece of crap to shame.
(Image #1 courtesy of goodreads.com; #2 courtesy of gailcarsonlevine.com ; #3 courtesy of paperdollromance.blogspot.com; #4 courtesy of jaime-morrow.com)