Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella” Analysis


Many people take pleasure from reading fairy tales, whose endings are normally happy and which depict the triumph of “the good” over “the evil”. Anne Sexton is among the writers, who have a non-traditional vision of fairy-tales, as she creates her own interpretations of fantasy narratives. As Sexton is a contemporary writer, she incorporates the components of modern reality into her works. Moreover, in her interpretation of “Cinderella”, Sexton deconstructs the true meaning of the fairy tales, boldly mocking the conventional patterns of marriage and family and challenging with her sarcasm the commonly shared belief in the possibility of interclass marriage. Her “Cinderella” also valuable in the social context, due to the fact that the author actually reviews and updates social values so that they are more similar to the current situation in society. In the historical context, the differences between the classical “Cinderella” and her interpretation reflect the discrepancies between the pre-industrial and industrial society.

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As the literary work can be described through a number of perspectives, it is possible to identify many characteristics of Sexton’s “Cinderella”. The present paper focuses on three qualities: first, the use of humor and irony for the purpose of adjusting the tale to the present-day society; secondly, the de-construction of conventions, associated with the magical world and thirdly, negative transformation of feminine life patterns and family values.

Humor appears to be a powerful tool of breaking the final hope that the fantastic plot of “Cinderella” applies to the modern realities. Since the very beginning, the author shows the implausibility of the events of the fantasy narrative: “You always read about it:/ the plumber with the twelve children/ who wins the Irish Sweepstakes./ From toilets to riches./That story” (Sexton, lines 1-5). By putting this and similar newspaper stories in the introduction, the author disclaims the “credibility” of the fairy tale, reducing the plot ad absurdum. Furthermore, when portraying Cinderella’s family, she notes: “The man took another wife, who had/ two daughters, pretty enough/ but with hearts like blackjack” (Sexton, lines 27-29). This comparison is quite funny and unexpected by itself, as human heart and personality are barely comparable to the primitive arm; moreover, it doesn’t actually fit into the tragic moment in the protagonist’s life: several lines above, Saxton states that she has just lost her mother and, further, discusses the ways she is mistreated. In this case, humor indicates that her fate should not be taken seriously, as the happy ending is guaranteed anyway. Furthermore, Sexton refers to the royal balls as “marriage market” (Sexton, line 42). S. Attardo is also consistent with the view that irony is used destroy the “fairy reality” and adds that the actual tool Sexton uses is contrasts. In fact, the writer obviously juxtaposes “toilets” to “riches” and “diapers” to “Dior”: “In the real world, diapers and toilets are a necessary, if often unpleasant, reality. In the world of the fairy tale, however, there is rarely any mention of bodily functions” (Attardo, p.135). A.Ostriker also underlines that humor is used to show the absurd of the conventional happy ending, as it is barely possible to eliminate all physiological aspects like diapers and familial strains like conflicts and misunderstandings, Cinderella, who seems to have a “bad luck” at the beginning, nevertheless manages to create a “vacuum family” fully protected from all external influences including death (Ostriker, p.269).

The second distinguishable quality of the literary work is avoidance of magical conventions. For instance, when the dove gives the protagonist the royal ball clothes, it is noted that the package is too heavy as for a bird (Sexton, line 62). Moreover, the prince, tired of searching for the strange girl he was dancing with and trying Cinderella’s shoe on the girls of the town, begins to “feel like a show salesman” (Sexton, line 91). It is also important to note that Sexton does not include such vital components of the fairy tale as the pumpkin, the mice and the disappearance of Cinderella’s outfit and servants at midnight. Sexton also traces the prince’s behavior after the disappearance of her new acquaintance, Cinderella: “The prince walked her home/ and she disappeared into the pigeon house/ and although the prince took an axe and broke/ it open she was gone” (Sexton, lines 69-72). Thus, instead of showing the prince inconsolable and desperate to find his lover, she metaphorically compares him to a maniac, who persecutes the poor girl with an axe in his hands. Thus, the Prince is actually portrayed as an ordinary person, who can get obsessed by a new love r get tired of monotonous work. Again, by distracting from the magical components and introducing such interesting parallels, Sexton actually adds new real-life components. In this sense, Wormser and Cappella observe that the author is developing the plot “from the high to the low” (Wormser and Cappella, p.135), as the removal of the magical moiré reveals the characters’ true instincts and desires: Cinderella is so interested in finding a wealthy husband that she yells at her guardian bird, demanding a new dress, whereas the prince is probably sexually attracted to the mysterious stranger and thus tries to reach her at home.

Thirdly, the author apparently challenges the femininity and family patterns, communicated in the original version of “Cinderella”. She severely tortures Cinderella’s stepsisters, writing that they amputate their fingers in order to make them fit into the shoe. Moreover, closer towards the happy ending, it is stated that the dove picks out the two sisters’ eyes (Sexton, lines 98-99). Thus Cinderella opts for maiming her relatives in order to revenge, as the bird is described as the protagonist’s “wish-granter”. What has happened to the tender, feminine girl, who carefully observed her silly stepmother’s orders at the beginning and accepted her life just as it was? The passage about Cinderella’s vengeance reveals that her initial femininity, devotion and passiveness are merely a mask which she puts on in order to attract the wealthy and noble man. Once she is engaged to the prince, she doesn’t need to remain kind and submissive any longer. It also needs to be admitted that marriage in Sexton’s interpretations is excessively idealistic and dull: “Cinderella and the prince/lived, they say, happily ever after,/like two dolls in a museum case/ never bothered by diapers or dust,/never arguing over the timing of an egg,/never telling the same story twice,/never getting a middle-aged spread,/their darling smiles pasted on for eternity” (Sexton, lines 100-107). In her perspective on this quality of Sexton’s tale, Harries notes that the artificial ending makes “Cinderella” similar to “that stories”, presented in the very beginning as faked newspaper sensations (Harries, p.129).


As one can conclude, the literary interpretation by Sexton successfully reveals the truth about the historical differences in societal mores and patterns. Moreover, the work allows modern readers to get rid of the unrealistic belief in wonders, which suddenly emerge in the lives of passive people. By deconstructing the social and magical dimensions of the fantasy world by means of humor, Sexton also teaches to approach fairy tales and similar narratives as they, to identify the boundary between fantasy and reality and avoid self-deception and unnecessary hopes for achieving a better future without undertaking a true effort to improve the life.

Works cited

  1. Sexton, A. “Cinderella”. 2008. Web.
  2. Attardo, S. Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis. Walter de Gruyter, 2001. Web.
  3. Wormser, B and David Cappella. Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000. Web.
  4. Ostriker, A. “That Story: The Changes of Anne Sexton”. In Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale, edited by E.Colburn. University of Michigan Press, 1988. 255-287. Web.
  5. Harries, E. Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale. Princeton University Press, 2003. Web.
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