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Mothers, monsters and midwives : the evolution of motherhood in European fairy tales

posted on 22.02.2017, 01:51 by Calderone, Belinda
Fairy tales have long attracted a high level of scholarly attention. However, in the scholarship to date, this attention has been largely focused on examining the role of young heroines in the genre prior to marriage and children. Though mothers appear frequently in the genre, the amount of academic attention they have received in comparison to the childless young heroine is startlingly low. Almost all of the studies that do exist focus on canonical fairy tales, usually those of the Grimms, in which mothers are frequently othered and oversimplified as either wholly good, but often deceased or absent, or wholly bad, present and terrifying. There is a need for further research outside of these texts. In literary fairy-tale history in Europe, there have been three pivotal points in the authorship of the genre, beginning with the origins of the literary fairy tale in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, moving through to the fairy-tale vogue of late-seventeenth-century France and finally to the renewed interest in fairy tales in nineteenth-century Germany. This thesis argues that only by looking at all three fairy-tale eras can we see that images of motherhood have been subjected to a process of censorship and exclusion over time, culminating in the sanitised Grimms’ tales in nineteenth-century Germany. Indeed, in many of these earlier sixteenth- and seventeenth-century tales, motherhood is centralised and the details of conception, pregnancy, childbirth and mothering are emphasised. However, over time, as the fairy-tale genre transitioned from adult to children’s literature, and as certain authors were excluded from the fairy-tale canon, many of these kinds of tales were left by the wayside. This thesis maps the evolution of motherhood in the fairy-tale genre against the three key sociohistorical contexts in European fairy-tale history and seeks to illuminate the process of loss and reveal the ongoing marginalisation of motherhood in the genre. Given that a study which compares images of motherhood in all three key fairy-tale eras has yet to be attempted, this thesis then fills two gaps in fairy-tale studies. First, it contributes to the much-needed research on motherhood in long-neglected fairy tales. Second, it is the first academic study to systematically and comprehensively compare representations of motherhood across all three periods.


Principal supervisor

Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Literary Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts