Ella Enchanted is a popular re-telling of the Cinderella story by updating it for the modern age. Levine’s story explores the concept of female independence through the alienation that underlies the convention of romantic folklore. This sample essay by one of our diverse and talented writers examines Ella Enchanted as a modernized fairy tale where gender roles are revised and updated, portraying both sexes in a more appealing light.
Ella Enchanted: Female Independence in Literature
In her novel, Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine revisits the traditional Cinderella story by adding a twist to the typical handsome-prince-rescues-damsel-in-distress trope. Though the characters of Ella Enchanted are more realistic, modern, and complex than those in most classic fairy tales, the novel maintains the fantasy setting and narrative structure congruent with long-standing folktale tradition. The novel takes place in a world occupied by ogres, giants, elves, and other mythical creatures, and Ella’s personal world is occupied by the familiar wicked stepmother, stepsisters, fairy godmother, and—of course—a handsome prince. In these ways, Levine keeps the magical allure of the Cinderella tale alive, but in most every other sense, she breaks down and lays bare the societal pressures that have continued to be placed upon young women since the very conception of fairy tales. At its core, Ella Enchanted is a novel that champions female independence; Levine expresses this by granting her main character the gift of agency, exposing the patriarchal alienation that underlies the convention of romantic folklore, and by changing the standard of what it really means to live “happily ever after.”
Plot and twist
Ella Enchanted is the story of protagonist Eleanor (Ella) from Frell who, at birth, is given a “gift” in the form of a magic spell by an amusingly misguided fairy named Lucinda. The spell dictates that Ella obeys every direct command she is given, and that she must also keep this condition a secret.
It is in this way that Levine addresses the ‘burden of obedience’ suffered by many of the women in similar tales before Ella (Carbone 1).
The difference is that Ella’s predecessors don’t seem to have a problem with their own acquiescent nature. Ella attempts to overcome in many ways throughout the novel. This is seen most notably in her interactions with Mandy, the family cook who is also revealed to be Ella’s fairy godmother. Ella plays little games of defiance with Mandy; when asked to hold a bowl, for example, so Mandy can beat the eggs within it, Ella holds the bowl but does not stand still forcing Mandy to “follow her around the kitchen” (Connelly 33).
Following the untimely death of her mother, Lady Eleanor, Mandy becomes the sole person with whom Ella feels safe. She trusts Mandy to understand her minor attempts at rebellion better than her cold, impatient, and demanding father Sir Peter of Frell. Unlike Sir Peter, Mandy does not encourage Ella to behave as her forerunners do in the classics:
“weak, submissive, dependent, self-sacrificing,” and alarmingly passive (Goldberg 29; Kuykendall & Sturn 39; Parsons 137).
Rather than laying back and merely allowing things to happen to her, Ella wishes to be an “agent of [her] own destiny” (Kuykendall & Sturn 39).
When Ella’s father announces that he is sending her to finishing school, Ella is forced to leave her home accompanied by two descriptively rude and annoying girls she met at her mother’s funeral, Hattie and Olive. Soon the curse begins to plague her life in new ways, as Hattie finds out about Ella’s curse and commands her about whenever possible. The relationship between Ella, Hattie, and Olive is an important component in the exposure of the original Cinderella’s patriarchal undertones. As the antagonists, the stepsisters are deliciously comic figures. They are such nasty bullies to Ella throughout the novel that it is, perhaps difficult not to cheer Ella’s refusal to forgive them at the end. Still, the social and educational systems that have acculturated Hattie and Olive cannot be fully divorced from Ella’s fate, despite her seemingly magical transcendence of their constraints. (Reimer 36).
Parsons points out that male protagonists are generally characterized by “strength, knowledge, or courage,” while female protagonists are simply attractive (137). This argument is hardly a case of girl power, and has permeated literature throughout history with Shakespeare often drawing the most feminist ire for his perceived marginalization of women. Ella, however, is a deviation from the typical female fairy tale protagonist in that her appearance is not given nearly the same amount of page time as her other strong, smart, and courageous attributes. Despite the many fantastic qualities that unquestionably make Ella a positive female role model, her choice not to extend forgiveness to her stepsisters is where she falls short.
Hattie and Olive
Conversely, Hattie and Olive fail the test of supportive sisterhood by bullying Ella to begin with. Furthermore, Hattie and Olive are characterized largely by their eating habits, and their associated lack of femininity. Their appetites for food and wealth are linked through calculations of the construction of Ella’s manor and the fifty quail eggs that have been counted and cannily sized up as costing “[t]en brass KJs apiece.” They wish to consume everything immediately but restrain momentarily with coy protestations before gorging on
half a leg of deer plus a huge mound of wild rice and eight of the fifty quail eggs, then go[ing] back for dessert(Reimer 37).
The evil stepsisters remain the same, aligning with the idea that a lack of beauty indicates a lack of virtue (Parsons 137).Despite being a progressive retelling of Cinderella, Levine’s choice to personify the stepsisters in this way furthers the point that, traditionally, a lack of grace, beauty, and femininity is viewed as somewhat of crime. Levine retains this element of the original Cinderella story, not merely as a careless oversight, but to emphasize the overwhelming occurrence of female solitude in the folktale institution.
The isolated female
Mendelson notes that out of approximately two hundred stories by the Brothers Grimm that feature collaborative efforts among characters to achieve big goals…
the benefits of collective action are not extended to women (111), adding beyond a handful of problematic instances, female heroines in Grimms’ are on their own… isolated and abandoned in a way similar to such tragic heroines as Medea, Dido, or Desdemona (112).
After Sir Peter weds Hattie and Olive’s mother, Dame Olga, Ella is subjugated into servitude. This mimics the structure of Cinderella, the main character is abused and alone. It is important to note here though, that Hattie and Olive—apart from each other—are also abused and alone. They are abused by the harsh criticisms of the reader, and boxed away in their own villainy. Ella’s remaining weakness at the end, when she denies Hattie and Olive forgiveness, is that she is punishing them with the same isolation that she has struggled to overcome. This screams patriarchy; it is the subtle statement that women are so weak that they can neither handle themselves, nor each other. As such, they are doomed to solitude unless they are beautiful enough to be rescued by a man.
Dame Olga, Hattie, and Olive collectively represent one of the only types of female collaboration seen in fairy tales, which Mendelson refers to as an “evil women’s group” (115). Mendelson notes:
The absence of a strong male figure within the family leaves room to shed considerably more light on inter-female conflicts (115).
As is generally the case, the most beautiful (and therefore most virtuous) female in the household falls victim to the forces of the “evil women’s group” (Mendelson 115). Still, even this example of negative female collaboration is marked by the positive presence of a father figure.
Ella Enchanted is not devoid of positive male figures. The man for whom Ella pines is Prince Charmont. He is different from his folkloric male counterparts in that he is remarkably sensitive and non-patronizing. A great example of this is when Ella first meets him by the willow tree, as he has also…
escaped the crowd to mourn her mother’s death more privately (Parsons 147).
He is opinionated about Sir Peter’s choice to send Ella to finishing school where she is meant to gain “competence in the domestic arena”—the traditional test of feminine fitness (Mendelson 120). Historically, this is something to be excited about, as possession of these skills is what makes a woman more desirable (Rowe 211). However, Prince Charmont dismisses these domestic trifles as “paltry tricks” that will make Ella “less admirable” (Levine 84). This shows that he does not conform to the normal standards of what a man is meant to desire in a woman and, like Ella, acts upon his own natural instincts.
The uniqueness of Prince Charmont is equally important to that of Ella’s. While it is incredibly crucial that young women be given an example of what a real heroine should look like—a women with agency and ambition—it is also of the essence that they are shown what it means to be an exceptional man. Male protagonists are just as pigeonholed as female protagonists, albeit, pigeonholed as compassionate heroes (Kuykendall & Sturn 39; Mendelson 120). Still, the male figures of classic fairy tales are put under the same amount of pressure to conform to the standards laid out for their own sex. Levine’s portrayal of a perceptive and feeling male character is perhaps her most astute move toward exposing the oppressive patriarchy that lurks behind the classics.
Love is a very important theme in Ella Enchanted. The love that Ella receives from her mother enables her to grow up to be a strong willed, independent woman who will fight for love at all costs. It is Mandy’s love and not her magic, that helps Ella survive the loss of her mother. Ella’s father doesn’t appear to love her and he makes this very apparent when he does not keep Ella’s stepmother and stepsisters from abusing her. Ultimately, a final act of love is what eventually breaks the curse of obedience for Ella.
Breaks with convention
Ella’s love for Prince Charmont and her kingdom of Kyrria makes her determined to save both. Ella cannot bring herself to marry Charmont if it puts him in danger. She struggles against the curse by adamantly refusing to marry him and defying any order from Hattie. Her strong will, love, and devotion towards Prince Charmont and his kingdom are what finally resolve her struggle. She is not choosing to marry Prince Charmont because he is handsome, or because he can offer her riches and worldly comforts, or because he can save her. Ella proposes to Charmont because she loves him, and she wants to marry him. Ella and Prince Charmont’s free spirited and independent nature is exemplified most beautifully through her proposal, resulting in a conclusion that is far more emotionally complex than those of its predecessors.
Ella Enchanted is more than just a quirky homage to the many versions of the Cinderella story that has permeated popular culture for centuries. It is a complete overhaul of an antiquated tale for modern audiences, that sticks its tongue out at the outdated philosophies through its loose handling of gender roles and overturning of stereotypes. Levine makes Ella’s obedience a curse, because the expectation to fall in line as straight as the Cinderellas of the past is no longer realistic, and no longer something to which young women should aspire. Further, not only should young women refrain from struggling to meet the standards of femininity in a male-dominated society, they should look to each other for support. Levine’s portrayal of Hattie and Olive accentuates the problem of inter-female hatred and mistrust. First, Ella is oppressed by her sisters, and when Ella doesn’t forgive them for it, they are oppressed by her. While this is not the most admirable moment for Ella, it is something that Levine knew was essential to convey. Most importantly, Ella Enchanted expresses that the only love worth fighting for is a love with substance—a love that is not based on whether one’s object of affection succeeds in meeting traditional gender requirements. Love is something to be felt and consciously acted upon. In the end, Ella gets her happy ending because she obeys the only authority that she should never question–her heart.
Like what you read? Check out this critical analysis on stories by two prominent female writers.
Carbone, Emma, “Ella Enchanted: Reclaiming Fairy Tales / Perpetuating Hollywood Standards” (2008). Excellence in Research Awards. Paper 1. http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/research_awards/1
Connelly, Irene. A reading guide to Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. New York: Scholastic Reference, 2004. Print.
Goldberg, Christine. “The Donkey Skin Folktale Cycle (AT 510B).” Journal of American folklore (1997): 28-46.
Levine, Gail Carson. Ella Enchanted. Harper Trophy, 2006, c1997.
Kuykendall, Leslee Farish, and Brian W. Sturn. “We Said Feminist Fairy Tales, Not Fractured Fairy Tales!.” Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children 5.3 (2007): 38-41. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
Mendelson, Michael. “Forever Acting Alone: The Absence Of Female Collaboration In Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” Children’s Literature In Education 28.3 (1997): 111-125. Humanities International Complete. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
Parsons, Linda T.. “Ella Evolving: Cinderella Stories And The Construction Of Gender-Appropriate Behavior.”Children’s Literature in Education 35.2 (2004): 135-154. Print.
Reimer, Elizabeth. “Consumption, Femininity, and Girl Power in Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted.” The Lion and the Unicorn 36.1 (2012): 35-55.
Rowe, Karen E. “Feminism and fairy tales.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6.3 (1979): 237-257.