Once upon a time, a young girl's father took on a new wife after the death of her mother. Along with the stepmother came two daughters. The three of them together had a strong disgust for the young girl. They took away her beautiful clothes, replaced them with old dirty ones, and put her to work. She was repeatedly covered in cinder dust from cleaning the hearth; this led to the stepmother and stepsisters naming her Cinderella. Upon an invitation to a royal three-day feast, the stepmother made it clear that Cinderella was not clean or presentable enough to attend. Cinderella prayed at her dead mother's grave to be blessed with "silver and gold". Before the royal feast, Cinderella prayed once more at her mother's grave. As she prayed, a bird bestowed Cinderella a dress of "silver and gold" and gold slippers. In her new attire, Cinderella preceded to the royal feast where the charming young prince was wooed by her beauty and grace for all three nights. However, each night before the prince had the chance to get her name, Cinderella would disappear. As Cinderella was running away on the last night of the feast, her slipper became stuck on a staircase and her slipper was left behind (Grimm 98-102).
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This may not be the introduction of Cinderella that you have encountered before and you may think that it is missing the fairy godmother and the infamous pumpkin carriage. It is actually an introduction from the real tale of Cinderella, written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 1800's. Most individuals have been acquainted with the Disney "light and happy" versions of Grimm's Folk Tales. This has transformed reader's expectations for a fairy tale. As you read the next part of the true tale of Cinderella, you will begin to see the changes made in the Disney versions.
After he realizes that Cinderella has left her shoe, the prince proclaims he will have no other bride than the one whose foot fits in the slipper. The first stepsister tries the shoe on and it does not fit. Therefore, to make it fit she cuts off her big toe and goes away with the prince to be his bride. As the prince discovers the blood dripping from the shoe, he returns the stepsister and reopens his search for a bride. Next, the second stepsister tries on the shoe and the shoe does not fit. To make the shoe fit, she cuts off part of her heel and goes away with the prince. As he discovers the blood, he returns to searching for his bride. After requesting to see all of the daughters in stepsister's family and against the wishes of the stepmother, the prince insists that the "dirty and not fit to be seen" daughter also has a chance to try on the shoe. Happily, the shoe fits Cinderella and she rides away with the prince. At the time of the wedding between the prince and Cinderella, the stepsisters enter and leave the church only for their eyes to be plucked out by birds. One eye each was plucked out upon their entrance and their other eyes were plucked out as they left the wedding. The stepsisters were "punished with blindness for the rest of their lives" (Grimm 104-106).
In this Grimm's tale, the reader is left with stepsisters missing parts of their limbs and eventually missing their eyes. Disney broadcasts the stepsisters struggle to make the shoe fit in a more child-approved presentation. The transformation between Grimm's tales and Disney stories are based on a viewing audience and more importantly a time period, and a difference between traditional and modern. In Neil Gaiman's Coraline, he returns to a more grotesque and gothic appeal for his modern fairy tale and in doing so he blends elements that should be perceived as normal, those that align with modern fairy tales, and other elements that read as grim, unsettling, and in the same way align with Grimm's tales.
In Coraline, written in 2002, Neil Gaiman introduces Coraline as a young girl who is striving for more attention from her parents. Although it is not apparent, a reader envisions that Coraline is disappointed with her parents and she is possibly wishing for better parents. She is at home (in her flat) and her parents are always working. Also, in this house (two more flats) live a crazy old man, who believes that his mice have the ability to talk, and two old long-forgotten actresses. Bored, Coraline finds a door in the drawing room that when opened leads to a wall of red bricks during the day and at night to her "other" house. Once through the door, a corridor leads her to a house and parents that look just like hers. "The carpet beneath her feet was the same carpet they had in her flat. The wallpaper was the same wallpaper they had. The picture hanging in the hall was the same that they had hanging in their hallway at home," (Gaiman 27).
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Convinced she was still in her home and that the corridor led her nowhere except back to where she started, Coraline began to pay close attention to those things that were different. Describing a picture that shows a boy staring at bubbles, Coraline defines something uncanny. "But now the expression on his face was different-he was looking at the bubbles as if she was planning to do something very nasty indeed to them. And there was something peculiar about his eyes" (Gaiman 27). Aside from the boy's expression, the uncanny also rests in that the parents in this other house want her, in an unsettling way. They want to spend time with her, play games with her, give her whatever food she wants, and want her to stay with them forever. They want to completely indulge her. Coraline is alarmed by the new mother's strange behaviors, especially since they are so different from her real mother's.
As the story progresses, Coraline learns that her parents are missing and this other mother is responsible for their absence. Coraline begins a game with the other mother to find her real parents and other lost souls she encounters along the way. If Coraline wins, she is to get her parents back. If the other mother wins, Coraline must stay with her forever. She resents thinking that this other set of parents were in any way similar to hers and Coraline enters a struggle to outwit the other mother and win her parents back.
Comparing to a traditional fairy tale such as Cinderella, both Coraline and Cinderella are in distressed situation. Instead of having an evil stepmother and stepsisters, Coraline has parents that appear to ignore her. However, the fairy tale element prevails when Coraline and Cinderella are both presented with an opportunity to fix their situation. Cinderella is given new attire and Coraline is given a passageway to a new life. Typical of a fairy tale, the main character is exposed to a struggle and to have a happy ending must overcome the situation.
To start off with a struggle, both Cinderella and Coraline are assigned seemingly bad parental influence in their lives. Cinderella has a dead mother, an absent father, and a wicked stepmother. Coraline has both a mother and father but they read as very absent in regards to that they ignore her and pay very little attention to her needs and wants. To overcome the struggle in this other life, Coraline finds a creature that is somewhat willing to lend a hand. She finds a black cat, who insists that he does not have a name nor does he need one, and he attempts to help Coraline win the game against her other mother. His most courageous efforts are displayed when he distracts and attacks the other mother as Coraline runs through the corridor to escape back to her real house. The black cat in Coraline is symbolic of the help that Cinderella receives in order to meet the prince. Without her fairy godmother in the Disney version or the prayers and birds in Grimm's version, Cinderella would have never made it to the royal feast and or eventually ended up with prince.
Gaiman details several elements of modern fairy tales in Coraline. The first element that comes to mind is the child aspect found in several other Grimm's tales. Coraline is presented as a young girl slowly gaining her intelligence and independence. By reading her dialogue and actions, she appears to be very bright and witty for her age. At the end of the story, this aspect gives more credit to the main character for surviving their given struggle. In Cinderella, the main character is presented as a young girl, however, she seems powerless in her decision not to stand up or rebel against her stepmother and stepsisters. Through her actions, Coraline appears to be very brave for her age. Also in need of mention, Cinderella appears to be brave when she decides to attend the royal feast against her stepmother's wishes. This entails the aspect of courageous efforts of young children in fairy tales.
The second element includes the aspect of characters being put to a test. Coraline is setup with a game against her other mother and she must outwit her in order to see her parents again. Looking at the Disney version of Cinderella, Cinderella must make it back before midnight and if she does not her carriage will turn into a pumpkin and the prince will discover her real identity.
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The third element is the result of characters living happily ever after. Not to ruin the ending if you have not read Coraline, but Coraline eventually gets to sleep in her real bed in her real house with real parents. The most important aspect of this element is that the main character, the protagonist, is given the happy ending and that antagonist character is in some way punished or left unhappy. In Coraline, the other mother is left "Coraline-less" and loses the game. In the Disney version of Cinderella, the stepmother is left without a connection to royalty and the stepsisters are left "prince-less".
While Gaiman includes elements of modern fairy tales, he also includes several elements of Grimm's tales. He explicitly includes these elements in Coraline. The first element, which is somewhat unsettling, is the association with pale or white skin. "This wife brought two daughters into the house with her. They were white and fair of face but wicked and black at the heart" (Grimm 98). This is Grimm's first description of Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters. This shows an arbitrary association with the idea of pureness and the color white. An outside appearance of pure does not imply pure at heart. "A woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline's mother. Onlyâ€¦ Only her skin was white as paper" (Gaiman 27). Here, Gaiman allows the first description of the other mother to be of her very white skin color. Evilness is presented with a white appearance in both Cinderella and Coraline.
The second element is the aspect of blindness. As Coraline, enters the other house she walks into the kitchen and is presented with her other mother. "And then she turned around. Her eyes were big black buttons" (Gaiman 28). Coraline sees this other mother for the first time with no eyes. Through reading Coraline, a reader can perceive that the other mother can physically see but the black buttons are symbolic of blindness. "On a china plate on the kitchen table was a spool of black cotton, and long silver needle, and beside them two large black buttons," (Gaiman 45). When Coraline is asked about her eyes being sewn over with buttons, she immediately refuses and does not the like the dark and intense glows from her other parents. In Cinderella, the stepsisters are punished for their evil actions toward Cinderella as they are leaving the wedding. "Afterwards when they were coming out, the eldest on the left and the youngest on the right, the birds came and pecked out both their other yes: so for their wickedness and falsehood they were punished with blindness for the rest of their lives" (Grimm 106).
Neil Gaiman's takes on Coraline with an additional element of individuality in a gothic approach. This is not a typical element of neither traditional nor modern fairy tales. The most grotesque element in Coraline is the idea of sewing one's eyes over with a black button. With this idea, Gaiman takes the element of blindness one-step further. When Coraline first sees her other mother, she believes she looks just like her real mother but is stunned by her black button eyes. When Coraline sees the black thread and black button on the table in her other house, she is very disturbed. Moreover, while she is locked up in a mirror cabinet, Coraline encounters three children who have lost their souls. It is too dark where she is locked up to see their eyes but a reader could assume their eyes have been replaced with black buttons as well. Here, Gaiman may have wanted to encourage readers to draw a parallel with "eyes are the windows to the soul." Symbolically, by threading buttons for eyes, ones soul is taken away. This is a deeper parallel for a reader to notice. It is also something that is a little advanced for a fairy tale.
The second element, one that is a little arbitrary, is the idea of removing one's limbs. Disney protects the minds of children by representing the stepsisters struggle to fit the shoe as a simple "squeezing real hard to make it fit". Whereas in Grimm's version, "The girl cut off her toe, forced her foot into the shoe, stifled the pain, and went out again to the prince" (Grimm 104). For the second stepsister trying on the shoe, "The girl cut off her heel, forced into the shoe, stifled her pain, and went out to the prince" (Grimm 105). Disney has placed a child-filter on the tale. When Coraline successfully closes the heavy door to the corridor, she is relieved that she has escaped from her other mother. However, she is woken up on her first night back at her real house by noises outside her room. These noises are so disturbing that they draw her from her bed. As she gets up and looks in the hallway, it becomes clear to her what was making the noises. "It was the other mother's right hand" (Gaiman 147). However, there is not much correlation between the removing of the limbs in Cinderella and Coraline, its' more of the grotesque aspect of it appearing in a children's story. A toe, a heel, and a hand all being removed from a person's body. Gaiman removed himself from the "appropriate for the viewing of small children" and resorted to Grimm's nature of scaring children. Gaiman removed a typical Disney-filter.
Neil Gaiman also uses additional describing elements to add to Coraline's grim nature. In a 2010 Coraline classroom study guide entitled "Identity and the Uncanny", author Peter Gutierrez described Gaiman's work as a dark, intensely psychological, modern fairy tale. Coraline's other mother eats beetles and wants her to play with rats, two activities that can easily be described as unsettling. In addition, Gaiman removes the Disney castle aspect. Coraline's parents do not even own a whole house; they live in a flat of a house, particularly a creepy one. "First, the gothic appearance of Coraline's house should be notes, with its outside staircase, its cellar and attic, its dark corridors and, most strangely, the door in the drawing-room that seemingly leads nowhere: behind it there is a brick wall" (Rudd 160).
In most Disney fairy tales, the main character is perceived as beautiful, charming, and sometimes enchanting. Neil Gaiman strays away from these perceptions and portrays Coraline as a loner. School is not in session and none of her friends live around or near her. She enjoys tea with the old women that live above her flat and likes to explore by herself. She does not appear to be social and loved by everyone. Coraline's loneliness is exhibited in her action of writing for her mother "MST" on the first line of a paper and on the second line writes "I". The "I" has clearly been dropped or lowered from the word "MIST". In an essay written for Children's Literature in Education, author David Rudd comments on Gaiman's portrayal of Coraline's seclusion, "Coraline is clearly the lonely "I" which, punning on the word above, is not missed (i.e. she is overlooked). But is she refusing to be contained by the mist or would she like to be part of it, having the mist descent and embrace, or envelop her?" (160). Gaiman does not describe Coraline as beautiful, intelligent, nice, or loving. She only appears to love her parents when they are taken away from her. Her character is simply read as lonely and somewhat annoying to her parents. This is not a typical main character for modern fairy tales. However, this is what classifies Coraline as an even more modern fairy tale because it reaches out to children that are lonely and that are not as blessed as some other children.
Gaiman attempts small advances at creating a new genre of fairy tales. "A recurrent theme in Neil Gaiman's work, from Sandman to Stardust, is the way in which the magical, archetypal and mythological rub shoulders with our everyday reality. In fantasy stories there are often physical portals or membranes through which a protagonist must travel to reach an alternate world," (Gutierrez 5).
Neil Gaiman has experience is morphing stories to have a grotesque appeal. For example, Neil Gaiman wrote a book titled "The Graveyard Book", a modern spin on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Instead of a young boy left in the jungle to be raised by animals, a young boy is left parentless and is raised by the inhabitants of a graveyard. Mrs. Owens, a ghost in the graveyard exclaims, "Of course it's a baby and the question is what is to be done with it?" (Gaiman and McKean 4). Here, Gaiman just removes the aspect of a jungle and replaces it with a haunted graveyard. He has swapped talking animals for ghosts and other non-real beings. After Mrs. Owens agrees to look after the baby, another inhabitant of the graveyard responds with his opinion, "I do. For good or for evil-and I firmly believe for good-Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple good-hearted souls to raise the child. It will take a graveyard" (Gaiman and McKean 15).
Aside from creating unique and grotesque fairy tales, Gaiman does not stray too far off the beaten path with the way the story ends. Coraline has a very happy ending, and she survives her struggle. David Rudd also writes "Neil Gaiman's Coraline fits centrally within this tradition, invoking the fairy tale at the outset with its epigraph from G.K. Chesterton: Fairly tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten".
In both Coraline and Cinderella, we get a happy ending regardless of any association of if the story is true or not. To explain the epigraph, these stories tell us that fairy tales are not intended for us to believe in fire-breathing dragons, fairy godmothers, or other realms but they are intended to teach readers that we can overcome anything if we try hard enough. Aside from the grim and unsettling, Gaiman includes this epigraph to suggest a moral to the story. Gaiman wrote Coraline to be grotesque and gothic, to have traditional and modern fairy tale elements, and to teach readers triumph. Gaiman could easily write his own epigraph: Look to Cinderella to teach you that wishes can come true and look to Coraline to teach you to be careful what you wish for.