The Gothic and the Fairy Tale: The Unified Genre


Fairy tales are often viewed as harmless stories that people read to their children at bedtime every night. “The fairy tale proceeds in a manner which conforms to the way a child thinks and experiences the world; this is why the fairy tale is so convincing to him” (Bettelheim 45). Is one to assume then, when looking at gothic novels in the context of the many timeless fairy tales in literary history, that gothic novels are the grown up version of the fairy tale?  That they are stories that affect adults the way that fairy tales affect children, scaring them and teaching them moral lessons?  Gothic novels are not exactly bedtime reading material.  But if one looks closely at fairy tales throughout the centuries, one can find that the two genres are really quite like one another in a number of ways.  The Grimm Brothers compiled and rewrote several volumes of fairy tales in the early nineteenth century, many of their stories containing gothic elements that could be found in several famous novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Aschenputtel (the story of Cinderella) and both of the Grimm Brothers’ Bluebeard tales, The Robber Bridegroom and Fitcher’s Bird, can clearly be seen as shorter versions of the gothic novel.  And as interesting as it is to look at these stories in a gothic and kind of horrifying context, one can also look at many gothic novels in a sort of fairy tale context.  Specifically, a worthy example of this kind of skirting of genres is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a story full of the fairy tale elements that Emily and her siblings used in their collaborative stories as children. As a novel that has been looked at in a gothic context repeatedly over the years, readers seem to be used to the idea that Wuthering Heights, aside from being one of the most famous love stories of all time, is a ghost story in its own way.  When looking at Grimm’s works and Bronte’s novel, side by side, one can see that the categorizations that they have been placed in over the years can be interchanged with one another, seeing Grimm’s works as gothic pieces with underlying allegorical lessons, and Wuthering Heights as a fairy tale of more mammoth proportions, including the happy ending, never-ending love, and the vengeance of the wronged. 

            The fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers are ironic fairy tales in that they are actually quite grim and violent.  Although they include the obvious fairy tale elements of vengeance for the wronged, true love, and of course, the underlying lesson always reminiscent of Aesop, they are gory, dark and just plain scary at times.  They read like horror stories with happy endings.  And a horror story is exactly what many gothic novels are – grim and violent.  “The stories collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 1800s serve up life as generations of central Europeans knew it—capricious and often cruel” (“Grimm,” National Geographic).  Born in 1785 and 1786, the Grimm brothers were said to have loved a good story and compiled collections of folk tales drawn mostly from oral narratives told to them over the years.  One can assume that many of the stories were told to children to teach them morals, as Aesop’s fables did.  But these tales offer a much more convincing motivation for good behavior – evil is punished with pain, violence, dismemberment and even death. 

            The gothic novel is defined as “dealing with horror, despair, the grotesque and other "dark" subjects,” also including elements such as “their love of the imaginary over the logical” (“Glossary,” UNCP) and remote, isolated places harboring grotesque actions and frightening allusions. Often in gothic works, the female characters are under the rule of a controlling, male figure who forces them to do things they do not want to do.  Many gothic works have a solid “acceptance of the cruel as normal” (Moers 99), and a number of Grimm’s fairy tales also fit this description.  The majority of fairy tales are stories with several gothic elements embedded into their plotlines, reminding the reader of the many gothic novels that came before and after the Grimm brothers wrote their grotesque tales. Fairy tales today are often seen as harmless children’s stories with happy endings. 

Charles Perrault, a French lawyer and writer, originally compiled many of these fairy tales in 1697, with the publication of his book, Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose.  In Perrault’s versions, the tales were a little less grisly, as in the tale of Cinderella, but his Bluebeard tale was frightening and bloody. When the Grimm brothers got hold of the tales more than a century later, they were even further transformed into mini-horror stories, keeping the lessons and the main plotlines in place.   Perrault’s version of “Bluebeard” inspired two of Grimm’s tales, and to this day, literary scholars use the idea of  “Bluebeard” characters to dissect characters in other works. 

Bluebeard archetypes come primarily from two Grimm's tales, "Fitcher's Bird" and "The Robber Bridegroom." The essential Grimm's characters are three: the Bluebeard serial killer, who compels or lures maidens to his isolated dwelling; the dismembered victim maidens; and the surviving clever bride who by daring, trickery, lies and storytelling saves herself and ruins Bluebeard.  (McCombs 2)


This description is filled with gothic elements, complete with a controlling man, much like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, an isolated setting, like Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, and the most obvious – dismemberment – which denotes a kind of horrific violence and gore. 

In each of these stories, the villain is a man who takes control over young female characters in order to force them into submission.  Fitcher’s Bird is deeply rooted in the man’s control over women.  This is the most gothic of Grimm’s fairy tales, in that it includes trickery, revenge, kidnapping and murder.  In this story, the villain takes the form of a wizard, “who used to take the form of a poor man.  He went to houses and begged, and caught pretty girls.”  (Grimm 1) He uses his powers to steal them away and then he takes them to his isolated house, making them play a deadly game and then when each of them ultimately fails, she is dismembered, killed and left for the next girl to find.  The heroine in this story seems to relate mostly to Cathy Linton, the young girl in Wuthering Heights who is forced into marriage by Heathcliff.  The girl is taken by magic (against her will) to a man’s home and then forced to play his mind games in order to save her own life and to possibly bring her murdered sisters back to life.  The girl is able to finally take her revenge on the wizard at the end of the story, when she outwits him and burns his house to the ground with him inside of it.

The game that the wizard forces the maidens that he kidnaps to play could also denote some kind of gothic rendering of the man taking control of the woman, and of keeping the woman in her right place.  Judith McCombs states, “Grimm’s Bluebeard tales are often read as warnings to women to beware rapacious men and to keep their eggs clean, by remaining virgins or faithful, obedient wives.” (3) By killing the maidens if he sees blood on the eggs he has given them to look after while he’s gone, it seems that he is not only warning them to remain pure, but also testing their maternal abilities by punishing them with death when the egg is shown to be unclean. 

And finally, Fitcher’s Bird is tale of forbidden secrets and curiosity.  Many gothic stories include hidden staircases or locked doors that often pique the curiosity of the heroine of the novel, which is very much exemplified in Radcliffe’s works and even in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a parody of the gothic novel.  The fact that the girl is forbidden from the door in her groom’s house only makes her want to go inside of it more, curiosity being what she will ultimately get in trouble for if her groom finds out that she went in. 

Once the heroine commits what has been interpreted as the cardinal sin of curiosity, she becomes enmeshed in a sequence of events so dreadful that they bear virtually no relation to her original offense. To be sure, fairy tales tend to speak in hyperbolic terms, to inflate the hazards of a single false step, and to overstate the consequences of missed opportunities; but the heroine surely does not merit the monstrous fate that attends her act of opening the forbidden door. The bloodbath is simply too sensational a spectacle for so minor a transgression.                                                                           (Tatar 164)

The horrible scene that the girl witnesses when she finally enters the forbidden door is one of gore and dismemberment, made even worse by the fact that it is her sisters’ bodies that she finds.  This scene is reminiscent of the gothic novel, Frankenstein, in that the people close to the girl are killed by a monstrous being that the girl has no control over. 

In many gothic novels, there exists a heroine who overcomes adversity and obstacles in order to achieve the happy ending.  The girl in Fitcher’s Bird also overcomes the oppression of the patriarchal male figure and “after deceiving the wizard, the heroine resurrects her slaughtered sisters by deftly reassembling their dismembered parts. She subsequently engineers the downfall and death of her betrothed  (Tatar 157).  She is able to outsmart the villain and does not fall for the same tricks that her sisters did, hiding her egg so that it does not get dirty.  She is the strong woman in the story, the fairy tale heroine , and not only does her quick thinking and courage allow her to exact her revenge upon the wizard, she is also able to bring her sisters back to life, thus succeeding in the happy ending.  In Wuthering Heights, Cathy Linton overcomes the abuse and trickery of the gothic villain, Heathcliff, to marry Hareton and have the happy ending that she deserves.  In Aschenputtel, the title character beats the odds to escape her abusive family and marry the man that she loves.  And in The Robber Bridegroom, “the clever, daring bride has the trickster-hero role.” (McCombs 3-4) She tells her story at the end, ultimately sentencing the bridegroom to execution and saving herself and the old woman who is in his control, which we learn at the start of the story when she says, “I have been waiting a long time for an opportunity to save me from [his] power.” (Grimm 32)

It is often said that, “fairy tales deal with issues of power”(Wilson 33), just as the power of impetuous male figures is a main theme in gothic fiction.  This is undoubtedly so in The Robber Bridegroom.  In the very beginning of the story, the girl is under her father’s power. 

There was once a miller who had a beautiful daughter, and when she was grown up, he became anxious that she should be well married and taken care of.  So he thought: ‘If a decent suitor comes and asks for her in marriage, I will give her to him.’         (Grimm 30)


As it was the custom for fathers to marry off their daughters at the time the Grimm brothers were publishing their books, the girl had no choice but to heed her father’s wishes.  It is the usual tale of power in a patriarchal society:  the woman is passes straight from the ownership of her father to the ownership of whichever husband he deems right for her.  In fact, it could even be said that the Grimm brothers were displaying a kind of protest against the patriarchal society in which they lived.  Although the girl is “owned” by her father and her new husband, she is able to redeem herself by the end of the story. 

Several forms of narrative in the nineteenth century seem to have registered protest against a society that was so restrictive for women.  Ultimately, most of these narratives outwardly reinforced patriarchal structures, thereby undercutting the subversive message or making it hard to detect.  (Aliaga-Buchenau 64)


This kind of social protest is found within a number of gothic novels, and can also be seen as one of the underlying themes of Wuthering Heights, especially when the one considers the situation that Cathy Linton is placed into by the powerful, male character, Heathcliff.

When the girl in The Robber Bridegroom finally takes the journey to meet her groom, she sees that she has come to “the darkest wood, where it was darkest, and there stood a house, not pleasant in her eyes, for it was dark and sinister” (Grimm 30).  The description itself is very gothic and foreboding, and the reader begins to realize that something is not quite right with this engagement.  The groom’s total power over women is exemplified by an act of great power – cannibalism.  How much more power can you get than actually consuming another human being, as the groom consumes his future brides?  And, as Maria Tatar asks, “Is it any wonder, then, that the heroines perceive their grooms and husbands as beasts and monsters?”  (170) 

            There are gothic characters in The Robber Bridegroom who echo the characters presented in a number of definitions of gothic literature.  “There is always the protagonist, usually isolated either voluntarily or involuntarily. Then there is the villain, who is the epitome of evil, either by his (usually a man) own fall from grace, or by some implicit malevolence” (“Gothic Novel” ucdavis).  Obviously, the protagonist of the tale is the girl, who is involuntarily isolated when her father offers her hand in marriage to the groom and she has to go to his house, far away in the woods.  The villain is the Bluebeard character, chopping up and eating young girls with his male companions.  This act of malevolence marks the kind of evil that exists in gothic novels, especially in Wuthering Heights, starting and ending with the character of Heathcliff and his oppressive and abusive behavior toward the women in his life. 

In gothic novels, there is often a sense of danger that comes with some kind of warning or instinctual feeling.  They include foreshadowing, “omens … and dream visions.” (“Glossary,” Virtual Salt) In Wuthering Heights, Lockwood feels a strange sense of fright when he says he has seen Catherine’s ghost.  This not only causes the reader to feel scared and almost forewarned, but it brings the theme of supernatural occurrences to the forefront of the novel, which happens to be the case in many gothic novels.  There is also “an atmosphere of brooding gloom” which Dr. K. Wheeler includes in his description of the gothic novel. (“Literary Terms,”  In The Robber Bridegroom, we learn right in the beginning of the story that the girl “had no trust in him.  As often as she looked at him or thought about him, she felt a chill in her heart”  (Grimm 30).  And later, when the girl is nearing her bridegroom’s house, a bird sings to her “Turn back, turn back, thou pretty bride,/Within this house thou must not abide./For here do evil things betide”  (32)  The voice of obvious warning here adds a gothic element that fills the reader with a sense of darkness and foreboding. 

             One of the most famous fairy tales is Aschenputtel, or, the story of Cinderella.

If you asked any child today what happens in “Cinderella,” he or she would most likely say that a young girl is abused by her stepmother and stepsisters after the death of her father, and is saved by a fairy godmother and Prince Charming, leaving her life of rags for one ripe with riches and happiness.  However, this is not so in the Grimm’s version.  The basic elements of the story are the same, but there are a few significant differences that paint Aschenputtel as a gothic story.The first, and most important difference between the version of “Cinderellla” that the world is currently familiar with and Grimm’s Aschenputtel is that in the Grimm version, Aschenputtel’s father does not die.  He just basically becomes nonexistent soon after the stepmother enters the picture.  This allows for the evil stepmother to take precedence in the parental situation in the young girl’s life.  The Grimm version [of Cinderella] contains neither a fairy godmother nor a glass slipper; instead, it features a zealous stepmother who mutilates her daughters' oversized feet so that they will fit into a slipper made of embroidered silk.”  (Cashdan 7)  And more than that, until Aschenputtel finds that the doves near her mother’s tree will grant her wishes, it seems that no one cares for her. 

Prior to this point in the story, there has been no indication that anyone, living or dead, is particularly concerned about Cinderella's welfare. Her father, the one person who might shelter her from harm, is blind to her situation--or simply self-absorbed. He is either off hunting, attending to business, or engaged in other pursuits.   (Cashdan 94)

The obvious missing element of a patriarchal male figure separates this fairy tale from others in that the heroine is not oppressed by a man, but by women – her stepmother and stepsisters.  The loss of her real parents denotes a kind of loss that is prevalent in gothic novels.  In Wuthering Heights, the non-existence of Heathcliff’s birth parents is one of the factors that leads to his being treated like a servant in the first place.  With Aschenputtel’s mother dead and her father off busy somewhere else, it allows the evil stepmother to abuse and ostracized her stepdaughter. Aschenputtel is forced, as Heathcliff was, to become a servant in her own home.  After having to endure the death of her mother, she then has to endure the behavior of her stepmother and stepsisters, even when they call her “stupid” and say things like, “Out with the kitchen maid!”  (Grimm 64)  In order to be allowed to attend the royal feast, she is made to perform even more menial tasks than she was before, and then she is not even permitted to attend when her stepmother tells her, “You cannot come with us, for you have no clothes and cannot dance; we would have to be ashamed of you.” (68) Living with shame often breeds violent children, and as it does not in this case, it certainly does in the case of Heathcliff.  Also, if Aschenputtel had not been in the proximity of magic and good fortune, she might have grown to be as vengeful and evil as Heathcliff herself.  Physically, the violence in this story is not only gothic, but also graphic.  Each stepsister, when attempting to fit her foot into the golden slipper, cuts off a part of her foot, and the blood gushing from the shoe is what shows the Prince that she is not the woman he is supposed to marry.  These scenes give the underlying impression of a kind of horror story, complete with severed limbs and flowing blood.  The stepsisters do this to themselves in the hopes of landing a good and respectable husband, which is yet another common thread between the two works.  Heathcliff also uses violence and abuse with the end goal of marriage running through his mind.

            Although Aschenputtel does not try to get revenge on those that have done her wrong personally, the birds that assist her throughout the story do.  Here, we see that the method of revenge is especially graphic, in that the birds pluck out the stepsisters’ eyes at the end. 

            …by enduring injustice patiently and returning ill-usage with love and benevolence…

            [Cinderella] transforms her passive innocence and suffering into a saving power,

            which earns her a ‘happily ever after’ ending and converts her world from a house of

            petty cruelty into a harmonious, merry court.

                                                                                                            (Mei 3)


Instead of  Aschenputtel taking her own revenge, as Heathcliff does, the Grimm brothers have shifted the blame onto someone, or something else, still keeping the moral fiber of their main character in tact and allowing for that fairy tale happy ending. The pecking of the stepsisters’ eyes, especially, is a gothic element, not just because is reeks of the revenge that the main character so obviously deserves, but because this representation of retribution is very gothic and exactly the opposite of Perrault’s version of the story.  Where Perrault’s Bluebeard story is gory and frightening, his version of Cinderella is noticeably less grotesque.  It lacks the gothic elements that the Grimm brothers embed in their tale.  As Maria Tatar says,

Perrault's Cinderella makes amends to her stepsisters after they throw themselves at her feet and beg her forgiveness. The Grimms tell it differently: ‘On the day of Aschenputtel's wedding, the two stepsisters came and tried to ingratiate themselves and share in her happiness.’ They join the wedding procession, but on the way to the church and back, doves peck out their eyes. The contrast between compassion and retribution could not be more pronounced.  (188-89)


Retribution is a significant part of many gothic novels, and in Grimm’s fairy tales, the heroine usually gets a chance to get back at her tormentors and/or oppressors, just as Aschenputtel is able to watch her sisters get their payback. 

            As a child, Emily Bronte and her siblings collaborated on volumes of poems and tales about a fictional place, “Gondal.” 

The writing career of the Brontës began, when they were children in the composition of miniature “books”: volumes of tales and adventures closely transcribed in tiny handwriting so as to be illegible to their aunt and father. It was only Emily who maintained this script into her adult years… “Gondal” was the imaginary realm of desire, adventure and struggle that Emily invented as a child with her sister Anne, and that she preserved as a narrative and poetic framework into her adult work.  (“Literary Encyclopedia,” litencyc)


It can easily be observed that this fantastical world that she created during her childhood, and into later years, ran over into her single published novel, Wuthering Heights.  The elements of a fairy tale are visible:  an isolated setting, a villain who controls others, parental loss, the supernatural and of course, the happy ending. 


A fairy tale is defined as:

            …a tale about … fantastic magical beings set vaguely in the distant past.  Fairy tales

            include shape-shifting spirits with mischievous temperaments, superhuman knowledge,

            and far-reaching power… Other conventions include magic, charms…and a hero or

            heroine who overcomes obstacles to ‘live happily ever after’…many critics note that fairy

            tales often contain psychological depth, especially in terms of childhood anxiety.




What is interesting about this definition is that some of these elements, such as psychological depth, superhuman powers and spirits, are also the staples of most gothic novels.  Virtual saddles the gothic novel with conventions like “mystery and suspense…high emotion [and] terror…supernatural events…women threatened by [a] powerful, impetuous male…[and] dream visions.”  ( Looking just at the surface of each work, one can see that they have certain elements in common.  The spirit of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights haunts Heathcliff throughout the novel, and in Fitcher’s Bird, dead people come back to life.  In all of the fairy tales mentioned and also in Wuthering Heights, the main character(s) overcomes a certain kind of obstacle, whether it be the death of siblings, becoming a paragon in one’s own home, or growing up without the luxury of a high social class or respect. 

            Grimm’s fairy tales were first published in 1812, about twenty years or so after the publication of Ann Radcliffe’s first gothic novel in 1789.  Wuthering Heights was published in 1847.  In this way, Bronte had time to be influenced by the gothic novels of Radcliffe and the fairy tales that have graced the pages of literature.  Fairy tales are usually quite short – Aschenputtel weighing in at a measly seven pages – and yet, the Grimm brothers were able to squeeze in a large amount of gothic elements in such small spaces. In contrast, Wuthering Heights is around 273 pages, accomplishing the feat of the inclusion of gothic elements, fairy tale elements and the obvious trappings of a love story that transcends the normal boundaries of time.

For the purpose of comparing three shorter tales with one longer novel, it seems to be most prudent to look at Wuthering Heights first.  The theme of revenge, which is one that is present in every fairy tale to be examined here, runs rampant throughout the novel. “If moralizing recriminations are inappropriate, actual revenge is of course even more inappropriate. Even self-inflicted suffering cannot atone for guilt or assuage grief. No new suffering, however great, can compensate for past suffering. ” (Cole 27) It seems that nothing can make up for the suffering that Heathcliff has endured at the hands of others. Like Aschenputtel, Heathcliff is treated unfairly as a child and at a young age, Hindley, procuring revenge for himself against Heathcliff, the gypsy boy whole stole his father’s affection, “drove him from their company to the servants, deprived him of the instructions of the curate, and insisted that he should labour out of doors instead.”  (Bronte 59)  When Heathcliff is old enough, he leaves Wuthering Heights, telling no one where has gone, and returns with money, the air of a gentleman and the yearning to gain his own revenge against Hindley and against Edgar, who has married his true love.  Heathcliff’s true and most significant revenge comes in the form of marriage, an aspect of romance that is also especially prevalent in Grimm’s fairy tales.  He marries Edgar’s younger sister, enslaving her in his own way.  Years later, Heathcliff kidnaps Edgar and Catherine’s daughter, Cathy, and forces her to marry his son, gaining, for himself, Edgar’s fortune.  Hareton, Hindley’s son, is the one character in the novel that never personally treats Heathcliff badly, and yet, he is punished for his father’s wrongs.  Heathcliff forces Hareton to become a servant at Wuthering Heights as well, just as he was as a child.  His overpowering and seemingly evil need for revenge leads him to enforce the unfair punishment he was assailed with as a child, on another child, the defenseless Hareton. 

Heathcliff is both the hero and the villain in Wuthering Heights.  In this way, he fits into the mold of the common fairy tale, but in more of a strange duality than in any normal sense.  “In the traditional fairy tale, the hero is rewarded and the evil person meets his well-deserved fate, thus satisfying the child’s deep need for justice to prevail.”  (Bettelheim 144)  Because Heathcliff is Catherine’s soul mate, he is automatically thrust into the role of the hero.  In the back of the reader’s mind, Heathcliff can be seen as a distorted Prince Charming.  As Catherine’s true love, it would seem that her happy ending would occur when her prince swept her off of her feet and brought him away from any pain and degradation she might have felt in her previous existence.  As Heathcliff is, in many ways, her prince, it seems fitting when the two of them are reunited in death at the end of the novel.  However, Heathcliff is also the gothic villain of the novel, controlling the women in his life and plotting revenge against his enemies at a constant pace.  It would seem that he does meet his “well-deserved fate,” in dying alone next to an open window, the rain soaking his still corpse.  He looks evil in those last moments, as Nelly Dean says, with a “frightful, life-like gaze of exultation.”  (Bronte 285)  So, the hero gets his happy ending as Heathcliff and Catherine’s spirits wander the Heights together, and the villain meets his end in Heathcliff’s rain-soaked demise.

Fairy tales are well known as stories that include an underlying moral lesson, much like Aesop’s fables.  Aschenputtel teaches children not to be mean to their siblings and not to be greedy and selfish. The two Bluebeard tales, The Robber Bridegroom and Fitcher’s Bird, teach children not to talk to strangers and not to let curiosity get the best of them.  In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s morality is in question for much of the novel, as one has to wonder whether or not he is in league with the devil himself.  He seems inherently evil, and becomes even more so after he returns from his long absence, during which Catherine is married to Edgar.  Incest, a trait that is looked down upon morally in most cultures, is treated as normal in the novel, as Cathy marries two different first cousins by the end.  And finally, while Heathcliff is seeking revenge upon those who have done him wrong in the past, he uses his son’s weaknesses and affection for his cousin to his own advantage. 

This again circles back to Heathcliff as the evil villain in the story, much like the wizard who lures girls to his home and murders them when they don’t pass the test of his choosing in Fitcher’s Bird.  Heathcliff uses Linton’s weaknesses to make Cathy feel bad for him, ultimately forcing the female into submission under the control of the impetuous male.  Not only is Heathcliff’s morality questionable in terms of his behavior toward those who are close to him, but also, and most importantly, in terms of luring a young woman into his home and forcing her to commit an act that takes her away from her father in his time of need.

When talking about literature, critics do not call fairy tales “gothic” and they do not include them in said gothic category.  Fairy tales give children hope and teach them moral lessons that they can take with them into the real world, such as treating others as you would like to be treated.  But when a novel is found that can be seen as a fairy tale, like Wuthering Heights, one has to wonder if the elements of each genre can be interchanged to look at the fairy tales as gothic writings as well.  They can.  Each fairy tale that has been studied in this paper has all of the telltale elements of a gothic novel:  isolation, revenge, violence and abuse.  And yet, Wuthering Heights, a famous gothic novel and romance, has all of the signs of fairy tale:  the happy ending, the villain who is forcing his own ideas on the women around him, and the moral lessons that have graced the pages of fairy tales for ages.  If the Grimm brothers had taken the time, they may have been able to write the most magical gothic novel of all time. and maybe Emily Bronte could have tried her hand at fairy tales. 




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