Bettelheim, Fairy Tales, and Psychoanalysis

Fairy tales and folklores have been told since man first learned how to talk. The first stories were passed down orally before they were ever written, starting out from old wives’ tales or war stories from men in battle, and eventually evolved into written stories like Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings. In contemporary literature and film, fairy tales are mostly written for a young audience, involving princes and princesses, a heroic journey, and a moral lesson. Bruno Bettelheim, an Austrian psychologist, expresses his beliefs in his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment that fairy tales are a way for children to cope with the psychological problems of growing up such as “narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries, becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies, gaining a feeling of selfhood and self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation,” (6).

I believe that Bettelheim has a more accurate understanding of fairy tales and their purpose compared to Tolkein because of the psychological analysis that Bettelheim utilizes when looking at the relationship between children and fairy tales. While fairy tales may simply appear to be a form of entertainment and escape into a fantasy world, they tell intricate stories about real world problems such as love, death, and doing the right thing, in a way that children can understand, relate with, and learn from, when dealing with their own psychological problems that they have never encountered before.

Many contemporary fairy tales avoid these types of stories now, trying to be “safe” and divert children’s attention away from our own human flaws and problems in society. If we as parents try to constantly protect our children from the evils of the world, they will not know how to deal with them when they eventually, and indefinitely, encounter them. Bettelheim explains that Freud’s psychoanalytic answer to life was, “That only be struggling courageously against what seem like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of his existence.” He then goes on to explain that the message fairy tales send to children is, “That a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence – but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious,” (8). Fairy tales are some of the only ways these children learn about the difficulties in life and how to cope with them, and if we as writers begin to shy away from more existential topics or as parents hide these books from our children, they may experience severe psychological trauma when faced with a difficult situation that they do not know how to approach.

The strong polarity between good and evil in fairy tales helps the child understand the difference between the two, creating a sense of morality, as well as sympathy. As children, we generally learn what is “right” and what is “wrong” at a young age, and fairy tales make this idea even more concrete in our minds. Good and evil is clearly defined in fairy tales through virtues, appearances, and characteristics; for example, the good princess is beautiful, and the evil queen is ugly. Bettelheim says “The child has a basis for understanding that there are great differences between people, and that therefore one has to make choices about who one wants to be. This basic decision, on which all later personality development will build, is facilitated by the polarizations of the fairy tale,” (9). This personality development begins when the child identifies with the good hero of the story because of the positive things that happen to the hero, and in turn wants to be like the him.

While other fairy tales such as “Puss in Boots” don’t focus on the choice between good and evil, they show the child that they don’t have to be rich, or handsome, or powerful to succeed. These kinds of stories build up a child’s confidence, as well as feelings of selfhood and self-worth. If children read these stories at a young age and gain a concrete sense of self, they will (in theory) be better prepared for the unfortunate but inevitable encounters later in life where people belittle them, and as a result of these stories creating a sense of self-worth, are able to recover faster than children who maybe have not read as many stories about positive self-image.

Fairy tales are vessels that teach children how to cope with psychological problems and existential fears.  From a young age, we learn about the world of fairy tales, whether through literature or film, and are taught the valuable lessons of morality, good and evil, sympathy, and self-worth.  Bettelheim explains how crucial these fairy tales are to psychological development in children and how parents sheltering their children from these real problems children face can be more harmful than helpful. Fairy tales simplify these problems in a way that children can understand and make it easier for them to go through their childhood knowing that other people (while fictional) face similar situations. Fairy tales give children morally good role models to look up to when they may not have their own at home, and put these children on the “right” path to grow up as a good and moral adult. Using Freud, Bettelheim explains that the problems in fairy tales mirror the unavoidable and inevitable problems that every person faces, but show that the conflicts presented can be overcome and met with solutions. Without fairy tales that exemplify these kinds of psychological and existential situations that children are put in, the conscious and unconscious in a child’s mind is going to suffer much more trauma than a child who has read these stories and feels like they are not alone.

 

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. “Introduction: The Struggle For Meaning.” The Uses of Enchantment. PDF ed. N.p., 1976. 6-11. Print.

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