This is the first of a two part piece. Little Red Stethoscope follows. More on the current post can be found in Images of Trauma.
A grimm tale
The development of psychoanalysis depended heavily on Freud’s approach to the interpretation of dreams and myths. Key to these interpretations were his claims about the symbolic nature of certain elements of dreams, myths or conversations. Interpreting the symbol revealed what the dreamer, myth-maker or patient really meant.
Following Freud a number of prominent psychoanalysts analyzed various fairy tales and claimed to offer their timeless and true meaning. Chief among these analysts were Bruno Bettleheim and Erich Fromm.
At the centerpiece of most of these interpretive efforts was Little Red Riding Hood.
In recent years Angela Carter’s short story made into a marvelous movie by Neil Jordan, The Company of Wolves, hinged on this true meaning revealed by the analysts.
Briefly, the Red Riding Hood indicates a young girl on the verge of puberty. The Bottle she carries in her basket symbolizes her virginity. Her mother’s Warning not to stray from the path is an injunction against sexual intercourse. Visiting her grandmother is an Oedipal abolition of her mother. The Wolf represents her Id and her Father. The saving huntsman is her rational ego.
A grimmer tale
The analytic claim that interpreting this fairy story in these terms reveals the correct and timeless significance of the story offers a wonderful and beautiful tale in its own right. But it’s a fiction. These interpretations cannot be correct. They are based on a fundamental inaccuracy, which is that the text used for these interpretations comes from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, which is a corruption of the version that came down through the oral traditions of French peasants.
The original version is as follows:
Once a little girl was told by her mother to bring some bread and milk to her grandmother. As the girl was walking through the forest, a wolf came up to her and asked where she was going.
“To grandmother’s house“, she replied.
“Which path are you taking, the path of the pins or the path of the needles?”
“The path of the needles“.
So the wolf took the path of the pins and arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her night clothes and waited in bed.
“Come in, my dear”.
“Hello, grandmother. I’ve brought you some bread and milk.”
“Have something yourself, my dear. There is meat and wine in the pantry”.
So the little girl ate what was offered. As she did, a little cat said:
“Slut to eat the flesh and drink the blood or your grandmother !”
Then the wolf said,
“Undress and get into bed with me”.
“Where shall I put my apron ?”
“Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it any more“.
For each garment ‑ bodice, skirt, petticoat and stockings ‑ the girl asked the same question; and each time the wolf answered,
“Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.”
When the girl got into bed, she said,
“Oh, grandmother ! How hairy you are!”
“Its to keep me warmer, my dear.”
“Oh, grandmother ! What big shoulders you have !”
“Its for better carrying firewood, my dear“.
“Oh grandmother ! What long nails you have ?“
“Its for scratching myself better, my dear !“
“Oh grandmother ! What big teeth you have !“
“Its for eating you better, my dear.“
And he ate her.
There are no red hoods, bottles, admonitions to stay on the narrow path or saving hunters in the original. The interpretation of elements of a story in terms of its symbolic qualities may be justified but if this is to be undertaken it would seem necessary to establish beforehand the correct version of the story to be interpreted – or you can make up what you want.