Gender and Fairy Tales

From Courtly Love to Snow White

by Baiqing Zheng, University of International Business and Economics, China

1In chivalric romances, courtly love embodies a whole philosophy of love and represents an elaborate code of behavior which governs the relations between ‘aristocratic’ lovers, turning the more bodily and erotic aspects of love into a spiritual experience and the most elevated form of passions. The courtly lover both idealizes and is idealized by his beloved and subjects himself entirely to her desires. However, there is an inherent impossibility, an obstacle to the fulfillment of love, in the very structure of courtly love. As it develops, courtly love often entails the love between a single knight and a married woman. This love cannot be consummated in a physical sense and, if it is, disaster and death ensue. Courtly love therefore involves the agonies of unfulfilled love, but the lover remains true to his beloved, manifesting his honor and steadfastness in an unswerving adherence to the code of behavior. What Lacan finds of interest in these chivalric romances is its symbolic aspect. Courtly love is “a poetic exercise, a way of playing with a number of conventional, idealizing themes, which couldn’t have any real concrete equivalent” (148). This poetic exercise of courtly love raised by Lacan has various manifestations in Robert Coover’s “The Dead Queen”, Anne Sexton’s “Snow White” and Angela Carter’s “The Snow Child”, three contemporary revisions of the classical fairy tale “Snow White”, where the conventional utopia ending of “Prince and Princess live happily ever after” is rarely seen. Instead, twists, suspension, revelation, confusion and subversion often accompany the plots, and complicate the relations between heroes and heroines, which can find equivalents of idealizing themes in courtly love. It draws a parallel between women in love and women in language. In both cases their role is metaphoric. These three revisions of “Snow White” acknowledge the power that such a metaphor has had, while on the other hand is committed to disenchant the constructed feminine myth.

The Lady of Inaccessibility

2Just as Hélène Cixous claims that all mystery emanates from women being beautiful, but passive, hence desirable, “sublimation” is the word to describe the mystic lady in courtly love. In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan’s fundamental definition of Sublimation is a process which “elevates an object to the dignity of the Thing (la Chose)” (152). Lacan later claims that la Chose has the character of an au-dela du sacre. From this point of view, the exemplary form or paradigm of Sublimation would be courtly love, which is dependent upon the very inaccessibility of its object. However, the first trap to be avoided apropos of courtly love is the erroneous notion of sublimation, of the Lady as the sublime object: as a rule, one evokes here spiritualization, a shift from the object of raw sensual coveting to elevated spiritual longing—the Lady is thus perceived as a kind of spiritual guide into the higher sphere of religious ecstasy, somehow in the sense of Dante’s Beatrice. However, Lacan emphasizes a series of features which belie such spiritualization. Lacan admits that the inaccessible lady itself is actually anything but sublime: “By means of a form of sublimation specific to art, poetic creation consists in positing an object I can only describe as terrifying, an inhuman partner” (150). That means this abstract character of the Lady has nothing to do with spiritual purification; it rather points towards the abstraction that pertains to a cold, distanced, inhuman partner.

3In “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing,” Slavoj Žižek pushes forward Lacan’s statement: “This surface functions as a kind of ‘black hole’ in reality, as a limit whose Beyond is inaccessible” (91). The Lady is an impossibly idealized figure. “The object involved, the feminine object, is introduced oddly enough through the door of privation or of inaccessibility. Whatever the social position of him who functions in the role, the inaccessibility of the object is posited as a point of departure” (149). “The lady as a mirror fulfills a crucial role, a role as limit. It is that which cannot be crossed” (151). Human is perpetually in a state of desire, the desire to perpetually delay, distance and defer the signifier. That is, the object of desire cannot be possibly got, otherwise it cannot be desired. Courtly love inscribes the inaccessibility as the proper form of relation between man and woman. Žižek also points out the erroneous notion of sublimation, of the Lady as the sublime object apropos of courtly love. It should be clear in what precisely consists the difference from the usual dialectic of desire and prohibition: the aim of the prohibition is not to ‘raise the price’ of an object by rendering its access more difficult, but to raise this object itself to the level of the Thing, the ‘black hole’ around which desire is organized. (Žižek 92) It is the necessity of perpetually sustaining desire at the cost of fulfillment. The history of reading is the history of desire. It is human compulsion to read obscure object of desire, the empty center. Thus the inaccessibility makes the object sublime. It is never the happy ending in courtly love when the pursued lady condescends to the knight’s courtship. Once desire is fulfilled, void and loss follow.

4Robert Coover’s short novel “The Dead Queen”, a contemporary revision of the classical fairy tale “Snow White”, is a vivid illustration of the concept of courtly love raised by Lacan and Žižek. It is a story about desire and perpetual diffêrance (to use the word from Derrida), and Snow White therein acts as a lady of inaccessibility. The prince who has just married Snow White the day before and now is gazing speculatively at her dead stepmother in the glass coffin, which once contained his wife, retells the novel in flashbacks. In a quasi-existentialist and reflective mode, the prince supplements the tale, as we know it with unexpected details from his magic wedding night and with a new episode at the gravesite. In this retelling, the most traumatic moment comes in the prince’s wedding night, which is a perfect variation of the theme of “courtly love”: After having an overwhelmingly ecstatic night with Snow White on the wedding night, the prince waked to find “the bed unmussed and unbloodied, her hymen intact” (Coover 312). She is a representation of Bakhtin’s classical body: a “smooth” and “impenetrable surface” that situates itself as “a separate and completed phenomenon” in terms of both image and the story that is intertextually invoked by the image (318). Paradoxically, the prince has the desire fulfilled and meanwhile it does not violate the law of the inaccessibility of the object, the limit and the “black hole.” He finds a perfect balance in this seeming oxymoron or rather a utopian vision. Since it is the nature of unconsciousness to feed on desire, on lack, the chance is that after sexual ecstasy all is void and nothingness, and therefore men are eager for the original stage of irreversible wholeness and intactness. Men are fascinated by the myth of virginity, the virgin land no one has ever reached, accessed or explored:

A virgin body has the freshness of secret springs, the morning sheen of an unbroken flower, the orient lustre of a pearl on which the sun has never shone. Grotto, temple, sanctuary, secret garden—man, like the child, is fascinated by enclosed and shadowy places not yet animated by any consciousness, which wait to be given a soul: what he alone to take and to penetrate seems to be in truth created by him. (Beauvoir 311)

5Virginity is one of the secrets that men find most exciting in that the girl’s purity allows hope for every kind of licence, and no one knows what perversities are concealed in her innocence. Women’s ambiguity is just that of the concept of the Other. The Other is evil, yet necessary to the Good. Is Snow White Angel or Demon? Her uncertainty makes her a Sphinx in the Prince’s eyes, and Sphinx is also commonly represented as a woman. We find this fascinating combination and magic resolution in Snow White in Coover’s version. The magic, unbreakable hymen makes Snow White a limit, the Thing whose Beyond is inaccessible despite the real or fantasized intercourse. Beauvoir thus concludes: “She is everlasting deception, the very deception of that existence which is never successfully attained nor fully reconciled with the totality of existents” (323).