Fairy Tales

The Three Temptations of Snow White

Snow White, Emily Dickinson quote
A line from a poem by Emily Dickinson. Snow White is a confused and melancholy character, and this poem is used by Regina Doman in her retelling “Black as Night.”

Most people are familiar with Snow White—she takes a bite of apple, falls down dead(ish), and wakes up when the prince kisses her, right?

Wrong. In the original story, Snow White is poisoned not just once but three times. That’s right, the evil queen disguises herself as three different peasant women and tricks Snow White into taking poisoned objects three different times. You think, “When is this girl going to learn? Don’t Take Things from Suspicious Old Women! They are trying to kill you!” But she takes the stuff anyway, because shiny.

The first thing Snow White takes is a red sash. When the evil queen ties it too tightly around her ribcage, she falls down in a faint. This trick was too obvious to cause death, though, because when the dwarfs come home, they simply untie the sash and she wakes up gasping. The second thing she takes is a hair comb dipped in poison. Again the dwarves find and remove it, and all is well with Snow White. The third thing she takes is the infamous apple. This time when she takes a bite and falls down dead(ish), the dwarfs can’t find what’s wrong with her, so they assume she’s dead for real this time and put her in a nice glass coffin on top of a mountain for everybody to look at.

She remains dead until a prince sees her in the glass coffin and begs the dwarfs to let him take her home with him, so he can look at her all day. (We’ll skip this ultra-creepy prince behavior for now.) The dwarfs say yes (creep alert! creep alert!) and the princes’ servants carry Snow White’s coffin down the mountain. To everyone’s joy, however, they trip and jolt the coffin, and Snow White coughs up the piece of apple which had lodged in her throat, proving that she is not dead yet. Then she promptly gets enagaged to the guy who had been abducting her dead body (very very creepy, assuming they had never met before), and they live happily ever after, after planning the gruesome death of the evil queen at their own wedding reception.

Most modern retellings make Prince Creep less creepy by having the young couple meet before she is dead(ish), and the Disney film makes Snow White less gullible by eliminating the first two poisoned objects. While I wholeheartedly agree with de-creepifying the prince, I actually think all three poisoned objects are important to the story. Here’s why.

The three poisoned objects symbolize three different kinds of temptations: temptation of the flesh, temptation of the mind, and temptation of the soul. Each targets a specific weakness in Snow White’s character. The first temptation, the red sash, is a temptation to value the body over the soul and mind. In most versions of the story, Snow White has gotten older while staying with the dwarfs, although she (apparently) still wears the same childish kind of clothing she arrived in. A red sash, tied to emphasize her waist, would significantly change her appearance, and make her look “sexy” and be valued more for her body than as a complete person.

Wanting to viewed as beautiful is a timeless trap for humanity–we see examples of people going too far to make themselves physically attractive everyday, both through their appearance and their actions. Nose jobs on perfectly fine noses, enhancement of various (unnamed) body parts, dangerous skin bleaching or tanning, and starvation diets are just a few examples of how you can abuse your body for cosmetic reasons.  Then we see celebrities posing nude or “twerking” just so they can remain in the spotlight a bit longer. Using her body to get what she wanted (she became queen because she was a hot babe, after all), and an obsession with staying young forever is the story of the evil queen. Taken too far, this is her downfall—her jealousy of Snow White’s youthful beauty finally drives her to attempted murder.

The temptation of the second poisoned object, the hair comb, is the complete opposite of the first: it is the temptation to reject the body as evil, and completely detach yourself from the world. After Snow White recovers from temptation of the flesh, the queen guesses that she is not her rival (having the same flaws), but her nemesis (having the opposite flaws). Viewing the body as evil is essentially a perversion of the purity of the Virgin Mary (and it’s total heresy—see Gnosticism). Human beings are body and soul, not a body with a soul, or a soul hampered with a body. Thinking that the material world is bad can lead to a Buddha-style rejection of the world, substituting it with a search for nothing. Instead of fulfilling the human craving for infinity with the infinite God (therefore not lacking anything), you warp your desires until you actually want nothing. This is like Enlightenment, in which one seeks to dissolve oneself into the universe and essentially become nothing. On the flip side, in Christian ideology the self does not seek to be destroyed or separated from the body (remember death is a consequence of original sin), but rather be united in God while preserving individuality.

The third temptation, the apple, symbolizes the deadliest sin of the soul—despair. Freedom from life’s problems, and freedom from life itself. Like the sin of Eve, it causes total separation from God. Despair is something that no one else can save you from. The dwarfs couldn’t help Snow White. The prince couldn’t help Snow White. She chose to bite into that apple, and she had to choose to reject despair and wake up on her own. This is why “true love’s kiss” just doesn’t work in this story.

Anyway (what a long-winded explanation!) I got an idea for a triptych of pictures symbolizing these three temptations. Here is my painting of the third temptation—The Dark Night.

Rebecca Górzyńska--delphina rose

Painted in Photoshop from an earlier colored pencil drawing.

It is largely inspired by Regina Doman’s retelling of Snow White, Black as Night. In this book, Ms. Doman uses heavy symbolism, including mirrors, stained glass, and chess, and parallels Blanche (Snow White)-Mary/Eve and Elaine (the evil queen)-the serpent.

In the picture, Snow White is standing on a chess board, framed by leafless stained-glass trees and poppies. The golden serpent twisted around her body is telling her that escape from the world—death—is better than pointless existence. Her decision has yet to be made.

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