The story most commonly known today as "Little Red Riding Hood"
(from this point on LRRH), has a far-reaching and controversial history.
One of the most studied and interpreted fairy tales, this story has many
variants, problematizing interpretation, namely, which version is considered
by folklorists as the "authoritative" version of the tale. LRRH is a multi-voiced,
multi-cultural tale that has been told and retold, suffering endless plot
and character morphing and reinterpretation.
I believe that any comprehensive psychoanalytic or interpretive study of
this particular tale, and other tales with several variants, must address
and include as many major variations and contexts surrounding the tale as
possible, disparate as they are. When discussing LRRH it is also necessary
to chart its journey from oral tale clearly connected with cannibalism,
abjection and sexuality, to Perrault's French version whose Royal audience
necessitated serious alteration of content, to the Grimm version which extends
the Perrault alterations and significantly changes the moral point of the
tale by changing the ending (twice).
As many readers are unfamiliar with any oral variant of
LRRH it seems prudent to reproduce one here (the version which, according
to Paul Delarue, was the source material for the Perrault tale). The translation
here is from Delarue via Jack Zipes from his Trials and Tribulations
of Little Red Riding Hood:
There was a woman who had made some bread. She said
to her daughter:
"Go carry this hot loaf and bottle of milk to your granny."
So the little girl departed. At the crossway she met bzou,
the werewolf, who said to her:
"Where are you going?"
"I'm taking this hot loaf and bottle of milk to my granny."
"What path are you taking." said the werewolf, "the path
of needles or the path of pins?"
"The path of needles," the little girl said.
"All right, then I'll take the path of pins."
The little girl entertained herself by gathering needles.
Meanwhile the werewolf arrived at the grandmother's house,
killed her, and put some of her meat in the cupboard and a bottle of her
blood on the shelf. The little girl arrived and knocked at the door.
"Push the door," said the werewolf, "It's barred by a piece
of wet straw."
"Good day, granny. I've brought you a hot loaf of bread and a bottle
"Put it in the cupboard, my child. Take some of the meat
which is inside and the bottle of wine on the shelf."
After she had eaten, there was a little cat which said:
"Phooey!... A slut is she who eats the flesh and drinks the
blood of her granny."
"Undress yourself, my child," the werewolf said, "And come
lie down beside me."
"Where should I put my apron?"
"Throw it into the fire, my child, you won't be needing it
And each time she asked where she should put all her other
Clothes, the bodice, the dress, the petticoat, the long stockings,
the wolf responded:
"Throw them into the fire, my child, you won't be needing
When she laid herself down in the bed, the little girl said:
"Oh granny, how hairy you are!"
"The better to keep myself warm, my child!"
"Oh granny, what big nails you have!"
"The better to scratch me with, my child!"
"Oh granny, what big shoulders you have!"
"The better to carry the firewood, my child!"
"Oh granny, what big ears you have!"
"The better to hear you with, my child!"
"Oh granny, what big nostrils you have!"
"The better to snuff my tobacco with, my child!"
"Oh granny, what a big mouth you have!"
"The better to eat you with, my child!"
"Oh granny, I have to go badly. Let me go outside."
"Do it in the bed, my child!"
"Oh no, granny, I want to go outside."
"All right, but make it quick."
The werewolf attached a woolen rope to her foot and let her
When the little girl was outside, she tied the end of the rope
to a plum tree in the courtyard. The werewolf became impatient and said:
"Are you making a load out there? Are you making a load?"
When he realized that nobody was answering him, he jumped out of bed and
saw that the little girl had escaped. He followed her but arrived at her
house just at the moment she entered (348).
The important elements of this particular variant include its relative purity
(remaining, according to folklorist Zipes, closer to the traditionally told
oral story, he reproduces this version originally from Paul Delarue's "Les
contes merveilleux de perrault et la tradition populaire" Bulletin
folklorique de I'lle-de-France, 1951), its clear cannibalistic element,
and the sexual component. Jack Zipes also calls attention to the change
in representation of the heroine who, in the oral tale, is crafty and able
to save herself from destruction, to the representations in later versions
in which she is eaten in the Perrault tale and saved via male agency in
the Grimm tale (Zipes 1993, 348).
This version of the tale presents a maternal-conflict context
in which the child must successfully navigate her way through a dangerous
situation and avoid death presented by the wolf/grandmother. The context
of the oral variant includes several maternal stand-ins (three): the "woman"
in the opening, who is the mother, but not referred to by that name, the
grandmother, and the wolf dressed as grandmother. In this tale, the "good
mother" is represented by the woman (mother) who sends the child with milk
and bread. The "bad mother" is clearly the wolf who threatens to eat the
child, or tricks her into (unknowingly) eating her grandmother. In this
way, the mother is split as object into good and bad elements, much as
Klein posits the infant splits its own image of the mother into good
and bad: the good mother who gives the food and the bad mother who refuses
and threatens to retaliate and consume the child.
In the first written version of the oral tale, Perrault's, several major
changes occur. The first and most obvious is the title which becomes "Little
Red Riding Hood." Much has been made of the famous red cloak, but few
address the fact that this detail was fabricated by Perrault himself and
was not, apparently part of the oral source. The written tale is longer
and more detailed. The "girl" in the oral tale becomes "the prettiest
creature that ever was seen." Her mother is mentioned explicitly in
Perrault's version, where only a "woman" existed in the oral tale. It begins:
a time there lived in a certain village a little country girl, the prettiest
creature that ever was seen. Her mother was very fond of her, and her
her still more. This good woman made for her a little red riding-hood,
which became the girl so well that everyone called her Little Red Riding
Hood (Griffith 10).
The child is to bring custards and butter to the grandmother who is believed
to be ill. On the way she meets the wolf, who wants to eat her right there,
but fears the wood cutters near by. She answers, "not knowing that
it was dangerous to stay and hear a wolf talk" (Griffith 10). Here
the story returns to the oral format except that the paths of needles and
pins are omitted. Instead, the wolf chooses the fastest path while the child
dallies picking flowers. The wolf eats the grandmother and dons her clothing.
When LRRH enters, she is told to leave her clothes and come to bed with
the wolf. At this point there is much talk of hair, claws and the like,
and then the story takes an entirely new twist. Missing in the written variant
is the girl child's pressing need "to go," and she is not allowed to trick
the wolf and escape. Instead, she is simply eaten by the "wicked"
This version above is taken from Classics of Children's Literature,
and different details change in other versions. The version reprinted in
Zipes' "Trials and Tribulations..." includes the following
changes: custard becomes biscuits, and the Zipes edition includes the moral
Perrault adds to the tale, which follows:
The implication, by those
readers and interpreters who choose one version of the tale to discuss,
that the tales remain the same in content through the revisions they may
suffer is put to the test here. The fact that several major changes are
apparent which definitively change the content, characterization, action
and plot is undeniable.
One sees here that young children
Especially young girls,
Pretty, well brought-up and gentle,
Should never listen to anyone who happens by,
And if this occurs, it is not so strange
When the wolf should eat them.
I say the wolf, for all wolves
Are not of the same kind.
There are some with winning ways,
Not loud nor bitter, nor angry,
Who are tame, good-natured and pleasant
And follow young ladies
Right into their homes, right into their alcoves.
But alas for those who do not know that of all the wolves
the docile ones are those who are the most dangerous
(Zipes 1993, 93).
Some scholars, most notably Iona and Peter Opie, have failed to take into
account the pre-Perrault variations on the tale, stating that "the
tale of Little Red Ridinghood is remarkable both for its extraordinary popularity,
and for the fact that no version of the story has been found prior to Perrault's
manuscript of 1695" (119).
The changes made in the Perrault version have been discussed by scholars
like Alan Dundes, John Ellis and Jack Zipes, but little has been expanded
upon about the curious deletion of the child's overt cannibalism of the
grandmother, the most clear link in the tale to more deeply hidden infantile
psychic impulses. Jack Zipes mentions the cannibalism in the oral tale,
but attributes it simply to Little Red symbolically replacing her grandmother
by eating her flesh and drinking her blood (Zipes 1993, 12). Alan Dundes
has pointed out that "Perrault left out such 'crude' elements as the
cannibalistic eating of the grandmother's flesh, the ritualistic striptease,
and the ploy of going outside to defecate to escape the wolf's clutches"
It is clear that the audience for Perrault's tale (the French Royal Court)
influenced some of his revisions. But I would argue about the deletion of
cannibalism as falling under the rubric of "crude" or in bad taste. Cannibalism
exists in many fairy and folk tales, as will be apparent during this investigation.
So, I would argue, it is not the cannibalism per se, that causes the difficulty
in this tale, but rather the context in which the cannibalism occurs.
This is one of the few (if not the only) places in the
most popular European tales (featuring female cannibalism) in which cannibalism
is perpetrated by a child and by a "good" character. To foist cannibalistic
impulses (even though effected through trickery, and without intent on the
part of the child) onto a "pure" female character endangers the clearly
set boundaries of expected and appropriate behavior, in the sense of Kristeva's
"clean and proper body." The very mythic and "historical" nature of cannibalism
and how it was perceived assigns it to a specific area: that of Otherness
The cannibal figure or meatphor is that which threatens the system and attempts
to "eat away" at whatever borders are constructed. The well-loved and pretty
(desirable) Little Red should not count cannibalism among her charms; it
would make her too dangerous (and empowered). Thus, it is possible to see
that it is a dis-empowering of Little Red that occurs in the Perrault tale.
(Jack Zipes also sees a dis-empowering of Red, but more clearly in terms
of her as a victim of sexual assault). She is no longer clever enough to
outsmart the beast, and is eaten. She is associated with neither cannibalistic
power, nor intellectual power, nor common sense. She has, in fact, become
a cautionary tale.
Perrault created a very different character for his readers in the "new"
tale, and many would argue that she no longer stands for purity. Zipes argues
that she becomes a kind of rape fantasy, in the sense that she "asks" to
be "eaten," and is punished for her behavior. (Zipes 1993, 349). But if, in fact,
Perrault wanted to make an example out of her, it still doesn't reason that
he would eliminate the eating of the grandmother. Something else is at work
In another move that complicates a clear or singular interpretation, noted
by Dundes, it has been erroneously assumed that either the tale originated
with Perrault and had no oral source, or there are no other cultural variants
(21). Both assertions are proven false by Dundes who unearths many variations
on the LRRH theme. The cannibalistic child also appears in the Northern
Italian version of the tale in which the child consumes the grandmother
who is presented in the guise of a mouth-watering array of traditional Italian
dishes: tortellini, lasagne, and manfettini (Dundes 21). Aside from the
Italian version, Dundes locates other versions of this type of tale found
in Japan, Korea and China. In these versions, the cannibalistic child remains,
but instead of eating the grandmother, portions of the siblings are consumed
by the child.
Interpretations of this tale (originating almost exclusively
from the Perrault or Grimm version) run an astounding gamut. The mythic/ritual,
is seen in Bettleheim's Uses of Enchantment, which finds such things
as: "night devouring the day, of the moon eclipsing the sun, of winter
replacing the warm seasons, of the god swallowing the sacrificial victims,
and so on" (13). Other interpretations range from a focus on the idea
that it is a simple cautionary tale, to a plethora of psychoanalytically
based interpretations which generally radiate from a sexual / initiation
source, but for the most part exclude the object relations/abjection reading
I am attempting.
The "final" major reworking of the tale I will discuss is performed by the
brothers Grimm in their Kinder-und Hausmarchen. Once again, in the re-telling
of the tale there are some changes. These changes are not only of details
(the Grimm version is a longer version with many added specifics), but also
serious alterations in the plot. The tale opens:
a time there was a sweet little maiden. Whoever laid eyes upon her could
not help but love her. But it was her grand-mother who loved her most.
She could never give the child enough.One time she made her a present,
a small, red velvet cap, and since it was so becoming and the maiden insisted
on always wearing it, she was called Little Red Cap.
Some seemingly insignificant
changes have occurred already, notably, the shift from the mother to the
grandmother as a primary character. In the oral version and in Perrault's
version, it is the mother who is mentioned first. In a typical Grimm twist,
the mother is absent in the first paragraph and doesn't appear until the
second paragraph. From the start, it is a mother "substitute" who is discussed.
The mother then appears and asks Little Red to deliver (again a change)
cake and wine to the ailing grandmother. Both cake and wine seem to be symbolic
of the Christian communion/cannibalistic rite. This represents a curious
shift from the oral variant in which the child brings bread and milk, which
I would code as symbolic of the feminine/mother figure to the cake and wine,
which may symbolize a patriarchal/religious context. This is followed by
a list of warnings given to the child about not straying from the path,
and being courteous when entering the cottage.
Another curious twist is in the dialogue between the
wolf and the girl. Even though illustrations clearly demonstrate that Little
Red carries a basket with her into the forest, the wolf asks her what she
carries under her apron, alluding to the food, but sexually suggestive.
The wolf does not eat Little Red on the spot, not because he fears woodcutters
as in the Perrault version, but because in a specifically greedy twist,
he wants to devour both the grandmother and the child. The wolf suggests
the girl look about her and enjoy the scenery and then makes a hasty exit
for the grandmother's house. She complies and becomes distracted by picking
flowers. The tale remains true to Perrault's telling, and then the wolf
gobbles up the child when she approaches the bed.
Grimm's major change in the story is the addition of a male character who
comes in, divines the problem, and rescues the two women from the wolf's
belly. With a pair of scissors, the hunter cuts the belly open and out pop
Red Ridinghood and Grandmother in a male-effected birth. The Grimms here
illustrate a movement from a primarily female identified (oral) story to
a tale ending with two insertions of male power: first in the rescue and
then in the male birth. The hunter then kills the wolf by stuffing his open
cavity with stones which causes him to fall down dead. The hunter gets the
wolf pelt for his troubles and the women go home happy. Perrault's moral
is summed up in the Grimm version as Red's last thought to herself "
Never again will you stray from the path by yourself and go into the forest
when your mother has forbidden it" (Zipes 1988, 113).
The Grimm version changes in interesting ways to include
both mythic and religious references more explicitly than other versions.
First, myth is evoked as rocks are placed in the wolf to replace the bodies
that are reclaimed in the "birth" which has, as Bettleheim pointed
out, a clear connection to the Cronos myth in which Cronos swallows his
children to prevent his usurpation, and is tricked by a rock enclosed in
a blanket which he eats. (Zipes 1993, 168). And second in the change from
butter and custards to cake (or bread) and wine, closely connecting it to
a kind of religious communion, which may have muted the cannibalistic overtones
and moved them into a more acceptable realm (away from the terrifying idea
of maternal incorporation).
In some Grimm versions of the tale there is an added section in which the
women meet another wolf and are able to demonstrate what they have learned.
The wolf waits on the roof to gain entrance to the cottage and is lured
into falling in a cooking pot by the smell of sausage water that emanates
Adding to the interpretive difficulty is the fact that around the time of
the Grimm publication of the tales, there was a developing concern that
the fairy tale as a literature be constructed for the (moral) education
of children. This idea emerged during the one hundred year span between
the Perrault version and the Grimm conception of the same story. Thus we
find the additions of religious and social morals and cautions. Although
a reading can be (and has been) made of the Grimm version, and despite the
creeping urge I may harbor to delve into the implications of a male-oriented
birth scenario, the implications of the cooking of the second wolf, or what
lies behind the implication that Little Red has something to eat under her
dress, I firmly believe this does little to illuminate the true infantile
aggressive and abject meanings inherent in the earlier versions of the tale.
It is Geza Roheim's interpretation that served as the
jumping off point for this study; Roheim reads the tales as representing
"oral aggression on the part of the infant" (33). Roheim's appears
to be the only critical interpretation that addresses the cannibalism present
in the oral tale. Dundes elaborates on Roheim's thesis in a particularly
breast-feed eventually learn that when their teeth are in place, they
possess their first real weapon. Any mother or wet nurse can testify to
the pain that such little teeth can inflict when a nursing baby becomes
satiated or unhappy during nursing. Through the principle of lex talionis,
a guilty act is punished by the same means as those employed in the commission
of the original crime. Hence biting or eating the mother's breast would
be punishable by the mother's (or father's) biting or eating the naughty
Roheim points out that "hunger or otherwise unsatisfied cravings mobilize
body destruction fantasies. The wolf is a condensation of the child's oral
fantasies of destroying the mother's body and the talion punishment for
these fantasies" (Roheim, 165). While this thesis pushes the analysis
into the realm of object relations (Klein), it still does not fully complete
what it begins, nor does it attempt to discuss the abject elements present
in the tale as I do here.
Only in Dundes and Roheim do we see the beginnings of
a reading that includes infantile themes. Dundes states, "the tale
of Little Red Riding Hood is full of infantile fantasy. I believe that the
evidence of the infantile nature of LRRH has been available for centuries,
but folklorists and literary scholars have chosen not to consider such evidence"
(Dundes 43). It is perhaps the very elements that have been neglected and
cast aside that offer the real keys into unlocking a new psychoanalytic
reading of the tale. For example, the eating function remains in the tale
variations, but changes to include more acceptable contexts. Instead of
the child eating the grandmother, the girl is eaten by the wolf. The cannibalism
is thus removed from a system in which it more clearly signifies an infantile
psychological urge to one in which it simply represents a "natural"
urge: that of the wolf's survival.
In its "oral" manifestation (here I mean spoken
rather than written text) the story is steeped in infantile abjection and
revolves around important issues for the infant: defining borders, testing
independence, oral aggression, and the threat of retaliation by the stand-in
mother in the figure of the wolf. The defecatory element (also "abject"
-- in Kristevan terms) is another factor removed in later versions. The
child's choice to "go" outside (appropriate behavior in growing children)
is countered by the wolf's directive to soil the bed. The wolf then can
be seen as clearly connected to the primitive urges, and the desire to remain
locked in an abject state. The wolf also wants to eat the child, thus incorporating
her into its body.
Eating is the overall theme and clear motif in the oral
tale. And correct "eating" may very well be the "moral"
of the story -- more specifically, the correct choice in advancing out of
the infantile "paranoid-schizoid" and "depressive" positions (as described
by Klein) and continuing a path of psychic development. Reading this as
a narrative of the child's psychic journey shows the girl as first splitting,
then introjecting, the "mother" and progressing to the point where she is
able to refuse the (imagined/projected) yearnings of the mother to return
to a state of unity.
The child comes offering the "appropriate" food choice (bread and milk)
, taking over as provider of food rather than consumer. She is then tricked
into an abject and regressive eating of the grandmother by the wolf (clearly
symbolizing the imaginary mother) who seems to want to keep her in a more
primitive stage in her development. Twice the wolf entreats the girl to
"give in" to infantile occupations: eating of the (grand)mother, and defecating
in the bed, and once tries to incorporate the child into itself. This interpretation
is also associated with Kristeva's abjection , and the ejection of the abject,
which occurs in the death of the wolf. Throughout, the girl's conscious
choices represent appropriate developmental decisions and illustrate proper
movement away from the "primitive" instincts.
The wolf asking her to remove her clothing, while seen as a moment of seduction
for some, also signifies a return to the infantile status. Naked as a babe
she enters the primitive bed, is asked to defecate there and is threatened
with incorporation by the maternal stand- in. The child's challenge then,
is to realize the dangers inherent in such an endeavor and to refuse such
a movement back into the primitive; refuse to confuse her borders and boundaries.
When the "correct" choice is made by the girl, she escapes from the wolf.
All of the wolf's motivations are a movement back to the primal state between
mother and infant, representing the "perverse pleasure" and urge to be at
one with the mother again-an urge that must be rejected in favor of an autonomous
existence. The child is offered a meal of blood and meat from her relative,
much in the same way a fetus and mother share nourishment in the maternal
body. Her defecatory impulses are directed to the maternal bed as well,
recalling the same fetal/mother connection. When the child refuses, the
wolf has no choice but to attempt to physically incorporate the child into
its body, playing out the retaliatory fear of the infant about the mother
from whom it receives its earliest nourishment.
Other evidence to support this object relations/abject interpretation comes
from transgender position of the wolf (trans-species as well). The wolf
is coded as male, yet presents itself as female to the child. Symbolically
the wolf then is both genders, a conflation of male and female. This troubling
of gender represents a blurring of boundaries which Creed identifies as
representative of the abject (Creed 11). The young child beginning to grasp
its position in relation to its mother and possible dangers inherent in
their relationship does not differentiate father from mother; in fact, according
to Klein, it sees the father as an extension of the mother. Thus the child
sees only a female (grandmother) not a male wolf: she is unable to see through
Other evidence to support the object relations/abjection reading of this
text also revolves around the understanding of the wolf as representative
of a type of female monster (via Creed), specifically as representing the
vagina dentata. The wolf may be "male" in the text, but an understanding
of the deeper fear and fantasies surrounding its actions and desires requires
that the reader see it as a manifestation of the female.
In her chapter "Medusa's Head: the Vagina Dentata and Freudian Theory,"
Creed first explores the rich mythic history of the vagina dentata, and
discusses its appearance in horror film. In these manifestations, the vagina
represents (to men) a terrifying "black hole which threatens to swallow
them up and cut them into pieces" (106). Seen by Creed as a manifestation
of male castration fears and fears of female sexuality in film, in the case
of the tales, the vagina dentata specifically represents fears of reincorporation
connected with the mother. It is important to understand that as far back
as Freud, the teeth and appearance of teeth (in dreams for example) have
been theorized to represent female genitals: "the lower part of the
body is frequently transposed to the upper; it is most likely that the mouth
refers to the vagina and the rows of teeth which open and close to a phantasy
about castrating vaginal teeth" (Creed 118). Thus the (male) wolf figure
whose teeth are its most prominent feature can be connected with the female
as it represents female genitalia.
Creed discuss the symbolic appearance of the vagina dentata in such images
as "close up shots of gaping jaws, sharp teeth and bloodied lips [which]
play on the spectator's fears of bloody incorporation" (107).The wolf
as character is most clearly identified with elongated (phallic) snout,
hair, and rows of sharp teeth. This connects it with the fantasized image
of the toothed vagina. The "gender" of the wolf as male/female can be analyzed
in several ways. I see it most clearly as a representation of the fear of
the woman as castrator/incorporator, which often leads to an image of woman
When analyzed in this light the narrative is replete with images of abjection
and can be read as a progression of development which describes the child's
early fears and fantasies about its mother, and in which the child must
navigate its way symbolically through object relations "positions."