Considering the Use of Fairy Tales to Heal Trauma: Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment

*The following is an assignment written as part of my MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University for module ‘Critical and Theoretical Perspectives’.

In Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 book ‘The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales’, Bettelheim applies a Freudian psychoanalytical lens onto several classic children’s fairy tales. Bettelheim’s analysis claims that the primary use of children reading or being read fairy tales is as a form of therapy, a means of exploring and understanding emotions, and working through present childhood problems in order to become a more mature version of themselves. This core notion at the centre of Bettleheim’s work is one which certainly has limitations. One could argue that fairy tales provide children with the exact opposite of what Bettelheim suggests; rather, fairy tales tend to serve as a means of escape, offering children limitless possibilities about the world and those who may inhabit it. Bettleheim’s theory exists in the mundane everyday and not in the fantastical, which is surely the realm fairy tales are intended to take place in.

I do tend to agree that fairy tales enable children to interact with frightening scenarios in a safe place, such as encountering dangerous strangers in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, or even confronting or escaping an unhappy home life such as in the tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’. However, Bettelheim’s suggestion that fairy tales serve as therapy heavily suggests that all children must, through association, have been subjected to trauma or possess deep seated inner conflict. This then therefore depends on how far reaching the term “trauma” is. Perhaps we could consider the act of a baby teething or a small child going to school for the first time as traumatic incidents, at least to a young child with limited life experience. The act of childbirth itself, although not a tangible memory to a child, is surely a traumatic formative experience nonetheless. Although trivial or seen as a “right of passage”, to a child these enormous milestones could indeed leave them seeking therapy and reassurance from tales of heroes and heroines who have overcome similar obstacles.

Considering Bettelheim’s static view on children’s development, other critics have suggested that child development is neither predictable nor universal. According to Steig (1990) Bettelheim’s view of child development “is fraught with values that can be called political and moralistic, a fixed set of ideas about how children should develop”. Lesnik-Oberstein, 2000, reiterates that definitive sequences of child development are a myth, as each child experiences life differently according to their class, gender, ethnicity, culture, age, and personal experiences.

Dundes (1991) states that Bettelheim failed to do enough research, both into folklore and other psychoanalytic studies on fairy tales, which suggests a “blinkered” and stubborn method of research that refuses to acknowledge the opinions, facts, and findings recorded by others. As such, Dundes (1991) reports that Bettelheim repeats information which has already been previously written about.

Bettelheim’s work certainly has many points of merit and provides a unique viewpoint that inspires and underpins further discussions and research. However, it cannot be relied upon as a standalone piece of research without comparing the findings and studies of other psychoanalytical and literary professionals.

Bibliography

Bettelheim, B 1989, The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. Vintage Books, New York.

Dundes, A 1991, ‘Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment and Abuses of Scholarship’, The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 104, no. 411, pp. 74-83.

Lesnik-Oberstein, K 2000, ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism’, Cultural Critique, vol. 25, pp. 222-242.Steig, M 1990, ‘Why Bettelheim? A Comment on the Use of Psychological Theories in Criticism’, Children’s Literature, vol. 18, pp. 125-126.

Published by Alice Shuttleworth

I am a freelance content and creative writer studying a Postgraduate MA in Children's Literature.

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