There are a great number of versions of Cinderella. Some are retellings of the story for a modern audience; some are similar stories from different cultures rebranded as a multicultural version of Cinderella. The version I’ll be focusing on is Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a young adult novel that I had loved in my youth. I read a lot of young adult fiction about princesses, but this was a particular favourite.
Although Ella Enchanted is recognizably a fairy tale, its status as a variation on Cinderella is relatively obscured. Most of the Cinderella plot– her father’s remarriage, the ball, and the prince’s search for Ella all occur in the back half of the novel. Instead, the inciting action of the novel is a curse placed on Ella at her birth: a fairy gave her the gift of obedience, and she consequentially cannot disobey any order given to her. She attempts to find the fairy to take this curse back, and encounters and gets to know Prince Charming while she is on this journey.
These changes give Ella more character and make it more of a feminist text than the original fairy tale: giving Ella this curse rationalizes why she acts as servant to her stepmother and stepsisters, as she has no choice but to follow their orders. She is no longer meek and docile, no longer leaving her fate to chance– when she does, it’s because she hasn’t a choice. Meeting Prince Charming and falling in love with him throughout the novel erases a problem many feminists have with fairy tales. Prince Charming does not fall in love merely because Ella is beautiful, but because of her funny and headstrong character.
Other changes do erase some of the hallmarks of the Cinderella story. To explain why a fairy would come to bless Ella– and to explain why she would encounter the prince in her everyday life– Ella’s family is turned to nobility, instead of that of a mere merchant. Because Ella has already gotten to know the prince, the motif of the glass slipper is minimized, but the prince does have to search for Ella as she has gone into hiding after their dance. Much of the remaining motifs do remain in tact, however; for instance, Ella has a fairy godmother who enchants household objects to bring her to the ball.
The rest of the novel that does not concern the core Cinderella story develops Ella’s character, bringing her to boarding school and giving her friends and allies. It also has themes not contained within the original fairy tale– free will and choice, obviously, are ruminated on much more than in Cinderella, and class issues are explored beyond how nice it must be to marry a prince. The primary lesson of Cinderella is still preserved in Ella Enchanted, however– live your life morally and with grace, and you will be rewarded for it ultimately.
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