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Symbols in “Hansel & Gretel” by Neil Gaiman: The Forest, Hunger, and the Trickster

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I first heard about this book in an article published by Brain Pickings and knew I would have to read it soon. I am a big fan of Gaiman’s work and I was very interested in discovering how he would rewrite the classic fairy tale. My expectations were high, but I was certainly not disappointed. I was hooked at the opening paragraph.

This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.

(p. 8)

The forest or wilderness is a symbol that has always fascinated me, probably because as a kid I spent a lot of time in the woods near my house. It was a place of mystery, adventure, and danger. As I got older, I began to understand the forest as a symbol for the darker, uncivilized regions of the human consciousness.

When Hansel and Gretel’s parents decide to abandon them because they can no longer feed them, it is very symbolic that the children are abandoned in the forest. They are thrust deep into the woods and left alone. Essentially, this signifies a sort of rite of passage to adulthood, where they are forced to face the shadowy aspects of themselves and human nature, which can be dark and terrifying.

Gretel woke Hansel the next morning. “It is going to be a good day,” she said. “Our father is going to take us into the forest with him, and he will teach us to cut wood.” Their father would not ordinarily take them with him deep into the forest. He said it was too dangerous for children.

(pp. 16 – 17)

After they are abandoned in the woods, they succumb to the darkness which lies hidden in the subconscious. This is represented by shadows which grow and overwhelm the senses.

The day waned and twilight fell, and the shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddle and pooled until the world was one huge shadow.

(p. 20)

Another symbol that figures prominently in the tale is hunger. Hunger is the most basic of instincts and drives the actions of all living things, even more so than sexual desire. Hansel and Gretel’s parents forsake their children because of hunger. It is a primordial need that can overpower all sense of reason and humanity. When the children discover that the breadcrumb trail is gone because the animals of the forest have eaten the crumbs, Gretel comments that “The creatures of the forest are hungry too.” (p. 28) And of course, it is hunger that drives the children to the old woman’s house in the woods.

They walked towards the smell: honey cake, and ginger and spices, a glorious sweetness that stole over them. Now the children ran toward the source of the smell, impelled by hunger, going in a direction they had never been before, unitl, in a clearing, they saw a tiny house, even smaller than their own.

(p. 29)

They are then captured and are faced with the terrible realization that humans, like animals, are meat and can be eaten. Cannibalism is the ultimate symbol of the dark, primordial state. It represents the animal instinct taking complete control of one’s psyche, where hunger overpowers all human reason.

The old woman was stronger than she looked—a sinewy, gristly strength: she picked Hansel up, and carried the sleeping boy into the empty stable at the rear of the little house, where there was a large metal cage with rusty bars. She dropped him onto the straw, for there was only straw on the floor, along with a few ancient and well-chewed bones, and she locked the cage, and she felt her way along the wall, back to her house.

“Meat,” she said, happily.

(p. 36)

The last symbol I would like to look at in this tale is the trickster. Hansel and Gretel embody the archetype of the trickster as symbolized by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are trapped by the Cyclops Polyphemus, who also plans on eating all of them. Odysseus uses trickery to outwit the Cyclops and escape. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel do the same. First, Hansel uses a bone to trick the old woman into thinking he has not gotten fat enough to cook yet.

In truth, Hansel grew fat, but the old woman was too blind to see it. Each day, she reached for his finger, but instead he would hold out a bone he had found in the straw. She felt the bone and, thinking it was the boy’s finger, left him for another day.

(p. 40)

Finally, Gretel also uses trickery to overcome the old woman. She pretends to be stupid and not to understand the woman’s instructions. This leads the old woman to open the oven door and lean inside in an attempt to show Gretel how it is done, providing the opportunity for Gretel to shove her captor inside.

“See if it is hot enough to roast your brother yet,” said the old woman. “Climb inside and tell me.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel, and she stood where she was, making no move to open the oven door.

“It is easy. Simply open the door, and lean in, and feel if it is hot enough yet to roast flesh.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel again.

“You are a slattern and a dolt!” exclaimed the old woman. “Idiot child. I will show you.” The old woman hobbled over to the oven, leaning on her stick. “Learn from me.” The old woman opened the oven door.

(p. 41)

There is a bit of irony here. Gretel learned the art of trickery from the old woman, who tricked Hansel and Gretel into entering her house.

I’d like to close with a little bit about the artwork in this book. All the illustrations are done by Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti and seem like they have been carved out of the darkest reaches of the mind. The black and white prints are so dark and shadowy, just looking at them gives you anxiety. It is the perfect visual representation of exploring the darker regions of the subconscious, of getting lost in the forest of shadows that symbolizes our hidden animalistic urges.

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“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Exposing the Hidden

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We are all familiar with the story, even if we have not read it. The image of Dr. Jekyll drinking a potion and transforming into the hideous Hyde has become part of our collective psyches. I confess that this was the first time I had actually read Stevenson’s novella, and even though I was familiar with the general story, I found the text itself to be enlightening.

While I noticed quite a lot of interesting symbolism in the text, I figured I would focus on the one that really stood out for me: the hidden part of the human psyche. This is symbolized by Hyde. I do not think it is a coincidence that Hyde is pronounced “Hide.” He represents that part of our consciousness that we want to hide from others, and which we would also like to hide from ourselves. He is the primal part of our being that drives our urges. Try as we may to suppress that part of ourselves, it is always there, just below the surface, waiting for its chance to surge upwards and wrest control.

Early in the story, Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, senses that there is something that Jekyll is hiding something.

And the lawyer set out homeward with a very heavy heart. “Poor Harry Jekyll,” he thought, “my mind misgives me he is in deep waters! He was wild when he was young; a long time ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, PEDE CLAUDO, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault.”

(p. 19)

In our youth, we have less control over our primal instincts. We are more likely to succumb to our urges and desires, whereas in our later years, most of us have learned how to control that part of our consciousness.

After Hyde commits murder, Utterson confronts Jekyll and asks whether he is concealing Hyde.

“One word,” said the lawyer. “Carew was my client, but so are you, and I want to know what I am doing. You have not been mad enough to hide this fellow?”

(p. 31)

I love this passage because it is essentially a triple entendre. There is the obvious meaning of hide as concealment. Then there is the homonym connection between hide and Hyde. Finally, there is the alternate definition of hide as skin. Jekyll’s skin, or hide, conceals the darker aspects of his consciousness as embodied in Hyde. Considering all the interpretations, it’s a brilliant metaphor.

The transformative potion which Jekyll drinks is referred to as “transcendental medicine.” As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking that this was some form of psychotropic or hallucinogenic drug. Hallucinogens are believed to unlock the hidden parts of our consciousness, or as Blake would have said, open the doors of perception. I suspect that Jekyll’s potion was intended to represent a mind-altering drug that allows the hidden aspects of our consciousness to rise to the forefront.

“It is well,” replied my visitor. “Lanyon, you remember your vows: what follows is under the seal of your profession. And now, you who have so long been bound to the most narrow and material views, you who have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine, you who have derided your superiors—behold!”

(p. 68)

As the dualistic aspects of human consciousness are explored, the assertion seems to be that the primal subconscious is essentially evil and should be subjugated by reason.

…all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

(p. 75)

The following passage incorporates two of my favorite symbols: the crossroads and the doors. Here, the crossroads represent the intersection between the conscious and the subconscious mind, as well as the intersection between good and evil, the two contradictions that are embodied within us. The doors represent the passageway to that hidden part of our psyches, where the darker regions of our consciousness exist.

That night I had come to the fatal cross-roads. Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth, I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend. The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition, and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth.

(pp. 75 – 76)

I think the scariest thing about this story is it forces us to recognize that the potential for evil exists within all of us. We like to deny it is there and hide it away, but it is always waiting for the doors to open, to surge up from the depths of our psyches and overthrow our reason. Sanity is fragile, and once it cracks, the hidden crawls forth.

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