4 Chapter 4: Sleeping Beauties

“The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”

“Briar Rose”

Maleficent (found in Canvas Module 4)

Note: The two links will take you to the versions of the stories in this e-book. You must read these versions. If you read other versions, some of the lecture and discussion may not make sense to you as there can be great differences among different storytellers’ versions of these tales.


The purpose of this module is to study the various ways in which a single fairy tale figure, Sleeping Beauty, along with her story, has been imagined by different storytellers, and as with animal grooms and animal brides, attempts to instill in readers the demands that their culture seeks to impose on them.

We’ll use similar techniques to those in previous modules to analyze our three Sleeping Beauty tales. However, instead of discussing each story distinctly, we’ll discuss them all together in terms of how they respond to the idea of a Sleeping Beauty, their meanings, what they are attempting to teach, what might be problematic about those teachings, and what those meanings say about the cultures from which the tales came and our culture too, since we still pay attention to these stories.

Remember: Plot, Setting, Characters, Dialogue, and the main event: Theme. As usual, theme is our goal—to understand the various possible meanings.

Though we’re no longer dealing with animal brides or animal grooms, we are still considering beauty. Also beastliness still shows up in some ways, as in the earlier stories we’ve studied.

Remember that we’re considering possible meanings that relate to cultural expectations. So what might it mean to tell a story in which the bride must sleep for 100 years and then be waked up by a prince (who may or may not have to kiss her to wake her up)?

We begin with a close consideration of the title. This is sometimes a good place to start thinking about meaning.

So let’s mine this title a bit—dig into it to see how it gives us a place to begin understanding.

“Sleeping Beauty”

Though the titles of the texts are different, each one features a Sleeping Beauty character. Let’s consider the two terms of this title: 1. Sleeping and 2. Beauty.

Key Takeaways

1. The princess is sleeping. That’s the first thing the story tells us about her, right there in the title. So we must pay attention to it.

But she doesn’t start off sleeping, does she?

  • She starts off being adventurous—HOW do we know this?
  • Don’t we also see this in Maleficent, the movie? What does the toddler Aurora do that suggests an adventurous nature?

But then, adventure and exploration give way to what? Now, she can only do what?

In this way, the story dramatizes the before-puberty and after-puberty life of girls.

(Is it possible that this is what the blood is about? The blood spilled when Beauty pricks her finger on the spindle: possibly illustrating the onset of puberty, when activity (and hormones) begin to change?

This transformation signals a change in the lives of girls: Beauty is active and adventurous before this change, but she is passive afterwards, as girls were expected to behave.

Consider how you feel about this way of thinking of young women as moving into a passive phase of life. If you’re a young woman, do you feel passive? If you’re a young man, do you see young women as passive? If you have a different gender identity, what does this reading of the story say to you?

However you respond to those questions, remember that these stories are meant to dramatize how men and women are expected to behave and to think of themselves:

  • Men: active/forthcoming/bestowing
  • Women: passive/retiring/receiving
  • Other gender or identity possibilities: Do these even appear in any of the Sleeping Beauty stories?

Beauty does wake up, which suggests another transition. It might seem like a transition from passive back to active. So what do we do with that? Again, let’s think about what the culture would be trying to teach.

That is, if the life she wakes up to is a life in which

  • she accepts the prince who’s just kissed her—without her permission!—
  • is that waking to an active or a passive life?
    • Does that bring us back to girls being taught passivity?
    • Is there a subject/object relationship here?


Key Takeaways

2. She is not just Sleeping, but Sleeping Beauty.


  • What does beauty, the word, mean—something that people enjoy looking at.
  • Being looked at: active or passive?
  • Maybe inspiring others to certain thoughts or behaviors,
  • But not necessarily doing anything in terms of action or even thought for itself/herself.

So we’re back to the subject/object concept:

If we have a story that that teaches young women that their role is to just sit (or sleep) and wait, what is that story teaching them to know themselves as: subjects or objects?


Other Characters

Notice how we’ve put a lot of pressure on the title, but again that’s a valid way to begin thinking about meaning, about theme. In this case, it’s already given us some insight into the main character, the “Beauty.” Now, with this grounding in the title and its meanings, we can begin to explore the other characters more closely.

In addition to the beautiful and active-then-passive young woman, who else is there?

  • Prince’s Ogre Mother (in the Perrault tale “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”)
    • Mother-in-law as Beast: Difficult relationships between wives and their mothers-in-law.
    • What about grandmothers, and husbands in relation to their mothers?
      • Do grandmothers compete with parents for grandchildren’s attention?
      • Does a grandparent ever try to control a grandchild’s time and love?
      • What does an overbearing mother-in-law say about her son as a husband?
        • Will he or won’t he defend his wife against his mother?
        • Will he or won’t he always be around to protect his wife from threats, like his beastly mother?
    • So one way of thinking about theme in the story might involve how it illustrates beastliness as a family issue.
  • The Prince: A prince is found in most versions of the story. We’ve discussed the prince in relation to his mother and to Beauty, but what else can we notice about the prince that relates to meaning?
    • What happens to the other princes—those who are not meant for Beauty?
    • What does this suggest about cultural demands on young men?
    • Has their culture planted a certain drive in them? A drive to do what?
    • And is that good for the prince or dangerous? Or some of both?
  • Evil Fairy: This character doesn’t appear in every version, but she’s a significant player in the Charles Perrault version.
    • Is she evil, or just vengeful?
    • At the very least, what does the king’s treatment of the “extra” fairy teach us?
    • What does the Evil Fairy suggest about threats to children? What kind of cultural message might there be in the inability or indifference of parents, for whatever reason, to teach their children the demands of their culture? Is there a cultural drive to teach these demands even beyond the ability or even the wishes of parents?
  • Let’s consider beauty itself—not the character but the quality of being beautiful. I’m including beauty as a character because it plays such an essential role in the stories. In life?
    • What’s the saying? Beauty is in the eye of what?
    • What does that mean? What I see as beautiful may not be beautiful to you.
    • If that’s true, then what is it that conditions and controls our ideas of beauty?
    • Something determines what we see as beautiful or not beautiful?
    • What is it?

To help us begin to answer those questions, consider the following:


As little as a hundred years ago, fat bodies were considered the most beautiful. Even in the United States, in the early 20th century, fat men were considered appealing and powerful—I mean really fat men. Some historians now call the period “the banquet years” because huge meals were quite the thing among wealthy politicians and leaders of industry. Another hundred years from now, who knows? We might have swung back to another banquet period or something altogether different.

Key Takeaways

So what causes these differences in our perception of what beauty is?


In class, we’ll consider this question in relation to the stories and to the movie Maleficent, and think about what arguable themes might be created from this discussion.


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