Whether mother or stepmother, the murderous queen remains one of the most vivid villains in folkloric history. She orders the death of an innocent girl, demands her heart (or liver, or tongue), then boils, salts, and eats the tender organ with a gourmand's pleasure. "The term 'narcissism' seems altogether too slippery to be the only one we want here," writes Roger Sale (in Fairy Tales and After). "There is, for instance, no suggestion that the queen's absorption in her beauty ever gives her pleasure, or that the desire for power through sexual attractiveness is itself a sexual feeling. What is stressed is the anger and fear that attend the queen's realization that as she and Snow White both get older, she must lose. That is why the major feeling invoked is not jealousy but envy: to make beauty that important is to reduce the world to one in which only two people count."
Snow White's father, the king, is notable only by his absence, his apparent indifference, and his failure to protect his own child. Yet, as Angela Carter once pointed out in a comment about Cinderella's father, the king in Snow White is also "the unmoved mover, the unseen organizing principle. Without the absent father, there would have been no story because there would have been no conflict."
The queen's actions are attributed to vanity–run–amok, but perhaps also fear and self–preservation. She's a woman whose power is derived from her beauty; it is this, the tale implies, that provides her place in the castle's hierarchy. If the king's attention turns from his wife to another (or even his daughter, as it does in stories like Allerleirauh), what power is left to an aging woman? Witchcraft, the tale answers. Potions, poisons, and self–protection. In the Grimms' tale, an enchanted mirror serves not only as a clever plot device and a useful agent of information, but as a symbolic representation of the queen's insecurity, solipsism, and growing madness. Snow White, too, is a mirror — a reversed mirror of the queen, reflecting all she is not. Each day she becomes more lovely, more good — as the queen becomes the opposite.
Blood is a recurrent image in this story, warm red blood against virgin white snow. Three drops of blood symbolize Snow White's conception. And the death of the (good) mother in childbirth. And menstruation: the beginning of both sexual maturation and the (bad) mother's hatred. The queen demands blood on the knife of the hunter as proof that her daughter is dead, as instructed. The bloody meal she then makes of the heart carries the echo of ancient pagan beliefs in which ingesting an enemy's flesh is a method of claiming their strength and their magic. Fairy tale writer Carrie Miner reflects that as children come forth from a mother's womb, "it seems as though some women feel they 'own' their child — that it's nothing but an extension of them. This theme is beautifully wrought in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. The consumption of the apple by Snow White seems to mirror the stepmother's desire to consume her daughter — to take Snow White's very essence into herself."
The queen in Anne Sexton's poem "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (from her brilliant collection Transformations) cries: "'Bring me her heart. . .and I will salt it and eat it.' The hunter, however, let his prisoner go and brought a boar's heart back to the castle. The queen chewed it up like a cube steak. 'Now I am the fairest,' she said, lapping her slim white fingers."
Driven out of her home, out of her past, away from all that is harsh but familiar, Snow White makes her way through the wilderness to an unknown destination. This, as novelist Midori Snyder has pointed out, is often the fate of heroines in the arc of traditional folk narratives. Unlike sons who set off to win their fortune, who are journeying toward adventure, the daughters are outcasts, running away. The princes usually return at the end of the story, bringing treasure and magical brides. Princesses do not return; they must forge new lives, new alliances. Snow White's journey begins with the huntsman — who is the queen's henchman, in Grimms, and the queen's lover in other versions of the tale. He defies his mistress and does not slay the girl, but he is no true ally, merely a coward. He declares that Snow White is too beautiful to kill, but note that he does not lead her to safety; he abandons her in the forest, aware that wolves will soon finish his job.
Yet even here, the girl's blossoming beauty, the agent of all of her troubles at home, begins to assert itself as a form of power in the world of men. Beauty aids her once again when she finds the house of the dwarfs and falls asleep in one of their little beds. Anger toward the unknown intruder turns to wonder as they watch her sleep; enchanted by physical perfection, the dwarfs decide she may stay with them. This was later revised by the Grimms, and Snow White must consent to a long list of household duties before they'll agree to let her stay. (The Disney version takes this one step further, and Snow White does the work unasked.) The change not only emphasizes the virtues of a proper work ethic, but it leads attention away from the sheer peculiarity of a ripe young girl keeping house with seven burly, earthy, and clearly unmarried men. Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, who looked at fairy tales through a Freudian lens, claimed the dwarfs "were not men in any sexual sense — their way of life, their interest in material goods to the exclusion of love, suggest a pre–oedipal existence." This reading of the tale ignores the fact that the dwarfs take the place of robbers or human miners found in older renditions of the story. Some of the older narratives assure us that the robbers "loved the girl as they would a sister," while others are mute on the subject, or else intriguingly ambiguous.
Soon, the queen learns that Snow White still lives. She determines to kill her young rival herself. Here the queen stands revealed as a full–fledged witch, sorceress, or alchemist, creating potions in a "secret, lonely room where no one ever came." Disguised as an old peddler woman, she sells the girl poisoned bodice laces, then combs her hair with a poisoned comb. After each of her visits, the dwarfs return home to find their young housekeeper dead. "Why couldn't she heed our warnings?" asked "The Seventh Dwarf" in a poem by Gwen Strauss (from Trail of Stones). "Time and again we told her to stay inside the house, to do her tasks away from the door. We urged her daily, but she was a flitting butterfly. . . .She was driven by something."
In imagery old as Adam and Eve, the disguised queen comes one last time to tempt Snow White with a crisp, red apple. "Do you think I did not know her? . . ." writes Delia Sherman, explaining the princess's point of view in her heart–breaking poem "Snow White to the Prince." "Of course I took her poisoned gifts. I wanted to feel her hands coming out of my hair, to let her lace me up, to take an apple from her hand, a smile from her lips, as when I was a child." In Sherman's poem, Snow White is every abused child who ever longed for a parent's love.
"Don't curse me, Mother," echoes Olga Broumas in her poem "Snow White" (in Beginning With O). ". . .No salve, no ointment in a doctor's tube, no brew in a witch's kettle, no lover's mouth, no friend or god could heal me if your heart turned in anathema, grew stone against me."
In other versions of the story, taking on local coloration as it travels around the world, the princess is slain through poisoned flowers, cake, wine, pomegranate seeds, a golden ring, a corset, shoes, coins, or the ink of a letter. The dwarfs (robbers, miners, or monks) can revive her once, and even twice; but with the third act of poisoning, she seems indisputably dead. Her body (too beautiful to bury, and strangely incorruptible) is then carefully, almost fetishistically displayed in a clear glass casket — or else on a woodland bier, or a four–poster bed, or a shrine surrounded by candles. (In other variants, she is thrown into the sea, abandoned on a doorstep or windowsill, sent to the fairies, stolen by gypsies, even carried on a reindeer's antlers.)
There are various ways Snow White's spell of death/sleep is broken, but generally not with a kiss. (That seems to be a modern addition.) The poisoned item must be removed, usually by pure accident. In the chaste Grimms' version of the tale, where the necrophiliac imagery is strictly toned down, Snow White's body is handed over to a prince who happens to be passing by. Struck, as all men in this tale are struck, by the girl's extraordinary beauty, he swears he can't live without her. The dwarfs consent. (He's a prince, after all.) "I will prize her as my dearest possession," the prince promises the sad little men. As his servants bear the casket away, one stumbles and the fatal piece of poisoned apple flies from her mouth. "Oh heavens, where am I?" she cries as she wakes. "You're with me," he quickly assures the girl. (He is, remember, a stranger to her. Only in the Disney film do they meet at the onset of the tale.) He declares his love, offers marriage, and promptly spirits the beautiful maiden away.
One dwarf protests this end to the story in Gerald Locklin's poem "The Dwarf" (in Disenchantments): "She went away from us upon a snow–white steed, the forest virgin scented with the rain of evergreen, to while the mythic hours in a prince's castle. Was it right of her to take away her apple innocence from seven dappled dwarfs, to arbitrarily absent us from felicity?"
Even Snow White protests in Delia Sherman's Snow White to the Prince, " saying: ". . .you woke me, or your horses did, stumbling as they bore me down the path, shaking the poisoned apple from my throat. And now you say you love me, and would wed me for my beauty's sake. My cursed beauty. Will you hear now why I curse it? It should have been my mother's — it had been, until I took it from her."
The prince responds to her in Polly Peterson's poem "The Prince to Snow White": "Did you think that I found you by chance, Maiden? Did you believe I was drawn to your crystal casket, like a hummingbird to its nectar, by the allure of ruby lips, the gaze of azure eyes? . . .You are beautiful, sublime, yet not so lovely as our daughter will be: your mother's daughter's child — her immortality."
In the final scene of the Grimms' version, the queen is invited to Snow White's wedding, then forced to dance in red–hot shoes. "First your toes will smoke," writes Anne Sexton (in Transformations), "and then your heels will turn black and you will fry upward like a frog, she was told. And so she danced until she was dead, a subterranean figure, her tongue flicking in and out like a gas jet." It's a scene left out of the Disney film and most modern children's renditions.