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Cinderella’s Stepsisters As Saviors

The story of Cinderella has been told in most cultures but the European version is the best known, partly because that version has been modified as times changed. It is mostly read as a rags-to-riches story of a virtuous girl who gets her just reward in this life rather than the next. The stepsisters are background figures who personified undesirable female traits and tormented Cinderella simply because they were jealous and resentful of their beautiful stepsister.

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Their role in Charles Perrault’s version is very different. Perrault, a devout Catholic, rewrote this well-known and beloved fairy tale as a Christian allegory in which Cinderella evolves from a simple, goodhearted girl into a woman fit to be a king’s consort. The stepmother initially, and the stepsisters after that, provide Cinderella with the spiritual training she needs to realize her destiny. I will argue that the sisters embody the seven deadly sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Cinderella, already blessed with her mother’s character, must develop the opposite qualities of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Cinderella is a gentleman’s daughter which, according to the annotations to the Perrault story, makes her an acceptable choice for a prince’s bride. In those days, however, it would be unusual for a prince to choose a commoner, a woman from the middle class rather than the aristocracy unless there were exceptional circumstances in effect. In Cinderella’s case, she must either make a powerful impression on the prince and his family, or her quest will fail.

Even though Cinderella’s biological mother “was the best creature in the world,” and she takes after her, she must develop her character to match her late mother’s if she is to have the inner beauty to enhance her outer beauty to make her irresistible to a prince. To achieve her goals, Cinderella must be tutored. Her father hardly rates a mention in this story and is therefore not the one to help her; but if he had not remarried, it is possible that the young girl would have grown without any guidance at all, and would therefore not have been able to develop her splendid qualities to their full potential.

In the absence of a mother or a father to guide her, then, Cinderella has been provided with what might be called “negative guidance” in the form of her stepmother. This is what Heidi Ann Heiner, in “Annotations for Cinderella,” means when she says that “the stepmother figure is two-sided, in that while she has destructive intentions, her actions often lead the protagonist into situations that identify and strengthen his or her best qualities.” No sooner does her father remarry than his second wife “shows her true colors.” She is conscious of Cinderella’s superior character, which is not only an affront to herself as a mother but also puts her daughters in a bad light.

To remove this threat, and thereby improve her daughters’ prospects of making a good match, she makes Cinderella do the “meanest work” (Perrault) in the house. In this way, she unwittingly teaches the beautiful young girl humility, a necessary counterbalance to the pride she might otherwise have taken in her beauty.

The stepmother takes care to dress Cinderella in rags but her daughters wear beautiful dresses and expensive jewelry, and while they sleep in beds “of the newest fashion” (Perrault), Cinderella must make do with a straw bed. The stepmother’s attempt at breaking her stepdaughter’s spirit fails; in fact, she is unintentionally teaching her that no amount of money or luxury can conceal the ugliness within. In other words, had Cinderella’s stepsisters been better people, she might have envied them their clothes and adornments but she understands that even though she might be more deserving of such luxuries, those same items are wasted on two girls whose characters have not been improved by their upbringing.

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The stepmother plays no further part in the story but her two daughters “who were exactly like her in all things,” continue to teach Cinderella by their example the value of Christian virtues. Even though lust does not play a great part in this children’s story it is implied in the sisters’ being “mightily delighted” (Perrault) by the invitation to attend the ball and in their choice of clothing and make-up: the red dress and the rouge and patches from Madame de la Poche, which not only suggest decadence and seductiveness but also hellfire, or at least an inclination toward the illicit passions that lead to perdition. A stomacher is a highly suggestive garment meant to draw attention to a woman’s sexual parts in the way it supports the breasts and draws the eyes down to the pubic region, especially a stomacher richly decorated with diamonds.

Gluttony is indicated by the fact that the sisters had to fast for two days and still broke a dozen laces trying to fit themselves into their dresses. This is contrasted by the prince’s inability to eat a morsel of the collation served during the ball because of his love for Cinderella, the implication being that a love of self leads to gluttony.

A close relative to gluttony is greed, another of the sisters’ failings which shows in the delight the sisters take in dressing up and the fact that “they talked all day long of nothing but how they should be dressed” (Perrault), possibly imagining the sensation they would create at the ball. This need for admiration is also symbolized by their full-length mirrors in which they can admire themselves from head to toe. In their greed, they go to excess, but Cinderella takes it upon herself to make them look more stylish by giving them fashion advice and dressing their hair.

Sloth is indicated by the sisters’ luxurious beds and the fact that Cinderella does all the housework. The sisters in this version of the story are less wrathful than in others and they have little to be envious of until Cinderella puts on the lost slipper, but their pride is one of their strongest characteristics. It shows in the way they dress and in their treatment of their stepsister; but in whatever they are and in what they do, they are instructing Cinderella in how to become a better Christian.

Cinderella knows her stepsisters’ shortcomings but she never criticizes them, nor does she protest against her place in the household. She is diligent in doing her household chores and doing them well. She bears all the indignities of her position patiently and with humility, and “when she had done her work, she used to go into the chimney-corner, and sit down among cinders and ashes,” as a sign of her acceptance of her lot in this life. She even agrees with the stepsisters’ cruel taunts, saying “it is not for such as I am to go thither” (Perrault), but when they leave the house she breaks down in tears as for a moment her burden becomes too great for her to bear.

This is the turning point in the story. Cinderella knows that this ball could be her last chance to realize her dreams of a life in which she is loved and appreciated, and her tears might be interpreted as a form of prayer for mercy. Her chastity, or purity of soul, is proved by how promptly her prayers are answered. Earlier versions have Cinderella’s deceased mother coming back to help prepare her for the ball but in Perrault’s Christian version that would be heretical. Assuming her mother is in heaven, she cannot return to earth. Accordingly, the ghost of her mother has been replaced by a fairy godmother who makes her first appearance the moment Cinderella first loses her self-control.

When Cinderella arrives at the ball she demonstrates how well she has learned her lessons because the sudden and dramatic change in surroundings does not turn her head. She makes a spectacular entrance, striking everyone dumb with admiration, and even “the King himself, old as he was, could not help watching her, and telling the Queen softly that it was a long time since he had seen so beautiful and lovely a creature.” Yet she immediately goes over to sit with her stepsisters – who do not recognize her — to show them “a thousand civilities” (Perrault), share exotic fruits with them, and otherwise amuse them until it is time for her to return to her cinders and ashes.

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All her virtues are put to the test when the sisters return from the ball to tell her about the beautiful woman they had met there. She is tested again during the second day of the ball when the prince monopolizes her time and ceaselessly pays her compliments because the pleasure she takes in his courtship makes her forget the time. Again she loses her self-control, this time by staying at the ball a minute past midnight, but she flees with the speed and grace of a deer, leaving behind one glass slipper. From that moment on, Cinderella awaits her fate. Her foot will fit the slipper and she has the other one in her pocket as additional proof.

She is fully prepared to assume her duties as the prince’s bride and as his queen once the old King dies. There is no mention of her feelings for the prince, only her awareness of her elevation to the highest echelon of society, and her confident acceptance of her new life.

Her first act as the prince’s wife is to forgive her sisters — and presumably her stepmother later – and to find them wealthy, aristocratic husbands. This is the ultimate act of Christian charity, to love the women who had made her life miserable and to show them the charity they never showed her. In previous versions of the story, the sisters became wrathful and were punished, or even had their eyes pecked out by birds, but in Perrault’s story, Cinderella’s lovingkindness redeems her sisters. The act of forgiveness and the sisters’ reconciliation show that Cinderella’s character is now fully developed, and that she will retain her Christian virtues even though she is now the most adored woman in the land and surrounded with all earthly temptations to stray from the path of righteousness.

Works Cited

Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella.” Ed. Andrew Lang. The Blue Fairy Book. New York: Dover, 1965.

Heiner, Heidi Anne. “Annotations for Cinderella.” SurLaLunefairytales. 2007.

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