Cinderella Stories and Inheritance in Pre-20th Century

Cinderella Stories and Inheritance in Pre-20th Century


As illustrated by Zipes (p.24), fairy tales tend to offer a powerful discourse in shaping or destabilizing a society’s behaviors and attitudes within its culture. Stories like Cinderella tales have been used as a way of passing common knowledge and wisdom from one generation to another. Such tales usually stress the importance of values and manners at a particular era in time. For this paper, the intention is to analyze the social aspect of inheritance as represented in different versions of the Cinderella stories.

The different Cinderella versions include “The Little Glass Slipper” by French writer Charles Perrault’s, which was published in 1634. The second version is “Cinderella” by the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimms, which was published in 1812. The third version is “Vasilisa the Beautiful” by the Russian Alexander Afanasyev, which first appeared as a film in 1939. The paper also analyzes the Disney’s version of Cinderella, which was first filmed in 1950 and rebooted in 2015. Therefore, in analyzing the different versions of Cinderella, the objective is to examine inheritance tensions that surrounded families before the 20th Century.

Background of the Three Cinderella Versions

Regarding “The Little Glass Slipper,” the tale is mainly emotional compared to the other version. The story was first published in 1634 by a French author, Charles Perrault, whose influences at the time can be described as being emotional and less hardcore. For instance, although Cinderella undergoes torture, she still helps her sisters in preparing for the ball at the palace. The text writes, “Cinderella has the opportunity to make their hairs awry, instead, she dressed them well” (par.9).

At the same time, unlike in other versions, Perrault’s’ story describes the younger stepsister as “less rude and uncivil” (par.3), thus representing an era of politeness and friendliness. Moreover, when Cinderella gets married to the king’s son, she forgives her stepsisters and offers them lodgings at the palace as a sign of kindness. The author intended to indicate a loving society that should show love and forgiveness towards one another.

With the Grimms brothers, their version was less “soft,” and instead, they made the two stepsisters pay for their ill deeds by becoming blind. The story was first published in 1812, which was about two centuries since Perrault’s first publishing of the tale. At the time, society was different, and therefore, the influences to make changes to the story were imminent. As reiterated by (Joosen p.13), the Grimms brothers’ intentions to rewrite the Cinderella story were to question the roles of fairy tales, mainly targeting the socially conservative.

As authors, the Grimms brothers focus on the manner at which the Cinderella tale indoctrinates children into their traditional values of the bourgeois class. For instance, instead of using a fairy godmother, the authors chose to use tamed pigeons to make the story more realistic. At the same time, instead of retaining the “glass slipper,” the authors opted to replace it completely and use normal shoes. When the stepsisters tried fitting the shoes, the authors decided to make the story more vivid by writing, “the girl cut a piece of her heel” (par.18).

As for Afanasyev’s “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” the text changed very completely and included aspects that were relatable to the Russian audience. The author included the “Baba-Yaga” (par.8), who was meant to eat Cinderella. Instead, the same Baba-Yaga helped Cinderella to get rid of the stepmother and her daughters. As concurred by Zipes (p.28), the purpose of storytelling is to emphasize instructive tools with the objective to offer models of societal behaviors and implicit rules for rearing children.

Once a writer has compared a folk tale to its original text, its authenticity usually comes into question. However, Afanasyev had the intent to make the Cinderella story relatable to Russian audiences. Besides, the author retains the thematic representation of inheritance tension between the stepmother and Cinderella. Like the Grimms brothers, Afanasyev changes the story such that the stepmother and her daughters do not live long to witness Cinderella’s fortunes.

Overview of the Stepmother’s Abuse in Each Variant

The three texts vary in the manner at which the stepmother harasses and mistreats Cinderella. For starters, Perrault’s “The Little Glass Slipper” mentions that the stepmother took very little time to start showing her true colors by “employing Cinderella in the meanest work” (Perrault par.3). The reason for the stepmothers loathe towards Cinderella was that she could not stand her beauty and kindness, which were much better than her daughters’ were, and thus attracted men into admiring Cinderella’s good qualities.

At the same time, the fact Cinderella was the only offspring to her dad; it offered threats to a possible inheritance, thus causing tension. In essence, the stepmother’s cruelty is only seen at the beginning of the story, whereby “no sooner had the wedding ceremony ended than the stepmother began showing her cruel side” (par.2). Nonetheless, while the story goes on, spitefulness ensued mainly through the older stepsister, who was more “rude and uncivil” (par.3) than her younger sister.

In Grimms’ version, Cinderella’s painful inflictions were worse than in Perrault version whereby the stepmother did more than influencing her daughters to hate Cinderella. While Perrault version only shows the stepmother as the initial hater, the Grimms added the stepmother’s hatred when she kept assigning Cinderella with more work so she could not attend the festival. The stepmother kept on adding more work despite Cinderella completing the tasks on time, but with assistance from the pigeons.

On the first instance, the stepmother tells Cinderella to pick lentils from a bowl of ash with the promise of letting her attend the festival. However, once Cinderella was done picking the lentils, the stepmother turned against her initial promise. Instead, the stepmother doubled the task and told Cinderella to pick two bowls of lentils from the ashes, which she managed to complete within an hour. Unluckily, she still turned Cinderella down and never allowed her to attend the festival. This shows the stepmother’s cruelty. She did not intend to let Cinderella go with them to the festival.

Concerning “Vasilisa the Beautify,” the author makes the stepmother’s envy to be about Cinderella’s beauty, which kept on “harboring ill-will” (par.5) towards Cinderella. Just as concurred by (Joosen p.19), a writer’s exceptional role is to communicate in a language that relates to his/her audience. Therefore, it was important for Afanasyev to introduce new characters in the text, which is Baba-Yaga, who appears in many other Russian tales. This way, the message is easy to pass across the audience, most of whom are children.

Better yet, since the tale first appeared in 1939 as a film, “Vasilisa the Beauty” had an appropriate portrayal of the stepmother’s intentions. She waited when Cinderella’s father had to go to a fair and was not expected to come back soon. The stepmother took advantage of the opportunity and moved the girls deep into the forest, where the malicious Baba-Yaga lived.

The depiction of Inheritance Tension in the Three Texts

The Cinderella stories represent the pre-20th Century era, whereby laws on inheritance were not clear enough to guarantee equal sharing of wealth between family members. For that reason, in all the stories, despite their differences, retain the issue of inheritance tensions between the stepmother and Cinderella. That is, although Perrault published the original tale, the Grimms brothers skewed the story to fit their era, thus making it less emotional. For instance, in Perrault’s “The Little Glass Slipper,” Cinderella allows her sisters to live with her at the palace. On the other hand, in Grimms “Cinderella,” the sisters are blinded despite seeking favor from Cinderella. As for Afanasyev’s “Vasilisa,” the stepmother and the stepsisters do not live to see Cinderella’s fortunes.

Hence, from the stories, it is noticeable of inheritance tensions within the family, which is enhanced by the stepmother’s fears of Cinderella’s ever-growing beauty. Cinderella faces torture and severe mistreatment from her stepmother and stepsisters merely because they envy her beauty, which has made men to admire her gorgeousness. The stepsisters and the stepmother were fearful that Cinderella would probably get married to someone richer, which would lead to a better life for her. Therefore, the only way to drag her possible fortunes was to inflict pain and suffering on her. They did not want Cinderella to have clean, better clothes, which would perhaps drive men away from her.

From the Grimms’ version, the story begins by stating, “A rich man’s wife became sick,” thereby indicating that Cinderella’s father was wealthy. For that reason, the stepmother and her daughters were fearful of Cinderella’s possible inheritance as the only offspring. Hence, they had to make her suffer, and inflict painful suffering through insults. This way, she would feel worthless. Luckily, despite their attempts at getting rid of Cinderella, the three versions conclude by praising Cinderella’s eventual great fortunes by marrying the King’s son and living at the palace.

Apart from the stepmother’s dread of losing her husband’s wealth to Cinderella, the tale also describes aspects of inheritance from the King’s perspective. As the king’s son, it was guaranteed that the kingdom and wealth from the king would belong to him. Therefore, when the stepdaughters heard of the king’s son looking to marry, they did everything they could to impress him. The intention was not only to marry the king’s son but also to become royalty and probably inherit the kingdom’s wealth.

Historical Resources on Inheritance

Historically, familial inheritance has evolved over the centuries such that people are now considered to be equal (Library of Congress, par.7). In the Pre-20th Century era, inheritance was dominantly patrilineal whereby only male children had the right to take up after their dead parents. In modern times, and past the 20th Century, things have changed to an extent that even female children get the chance to acquire some wealth or belongings from their parents. The Pre-20th Century is evidenced in the Cinderella stories.

All three authors wrote their tales in accordance to their community and the time era. For instance, in “The Little Glass Slipper,” the stepmother waited until the wedding had been officiated to show “her true colors” (par.2). The stepmothers’ wait indicates a period when marrying into a new home was to be officiated through weddings. Therefore, the fact Cinderella’s father had no son; it meant that the inheritance was an open-ended issue. It meant that either Cinderella or the stepmother (as the new wife) was entitled for an inheritance. Because of this, the stepmother decided to get rid of Cinderella, which was only possible if Cinderella dies or if she stays as a dirty, unattractive, and less beauty.

Since a French writer authored “The Little Glass Slipper”, the text was a representation of the 17th Century in France. However, France’s inheritance law in the 19th and 20th Century experienced changes due to the French Revolution era. As per the Library of Congress (par.12), succession laws were incredibly diverse, inequitable and complicated – just as evidenced in the Cinderella stories. The revolutionaries at the time created an egalitarian inheritance system, which was meant to reaffirm equality of shared properties. At the same time, the Napoleonic Code came with reforms that further changed the revolutionary laws. The Napoleonic Codes were meant to an inheritance balance between the rights of an individual and that of his/her family.

Therefore, if Perrault’s “The Little Glass Slipper” was documented after both the Revolutionary and Napoleonic reforms, the stepmother’s attitude towards Cinderella would have been different. A perfect example is on the Grimms’ version, which became more realistic because the laws were disintegrated into different territorial regimes. Unlike in Perrault’s version, the stepmother tortured Cinderella repeatedly by continuously sending her to pick lentils from ashes. This kind of torture was not evidenced in “The Little Glass Slipper” mainly because, at the time, the patrilineal inheritance law had not been challenged. However, with the presence of reforms at the beginning of the 19th Century, succession regimes in Germany allowed for equality in inheritance.

The new laws upheld the principle of close relatives benefiting more than distant relatives; however, some German states allowed for relatives of a similar degree of relationships would inherit wealth on an equal level (Library of Congress, par.14). Due to such changes, it was expected for stepmothers to take inheritance very seriously. Therefore, when the Grimms brothers wrote their version, Cinderella’s stepmother was determined to make sure Cinderella was out of the picture, and thus leave an inheritance to the stepsisters. Hence, the difference in Perrault’s and the Grimms versions is evidenced in the kind of ill-treatment Cinderella receives. During the Grimms’ era, inheritance was a serious issue, and thus the stepmother had to be tougher than during the Perrault’s era.


The aforementioned inheritance tensions are a true depiction of the different eras the texts were authored. For instance, during Charles Perrault’s time, inheritance was mainly patrilineal, whereby a male offspring was entitled to inherit from their parents. This is evidenced through the king’s son, who was expected to take over the kingdom after the king, and thus the need to look for a wife. At the same time, the patrilineal inheritance is evidenced in Cinderella’s family, whereby she is the only offspring in her father’s immediate lineage. It meant that Cinderella was expected to inherit the wealth, but through the whoever husband, she was to marry. However, the stepmother noticed this scenario, and thus decided to torture Cinderella so men would not see her for her beauty and kindness. Luckily, Cinderella ends up become heir to the ultimate inheritance by marrying the king’s son.

Nonetheless, despite differences in the three texts, the tales retain the aspect of inheritance tensions. While Perrault’s story was characteristic of emotions, the Grimms brothers altered the story to suits their target audience – the Germans. The Grimms’ “Cinderella” was published about two centuries after Perrault’s “The Little Glass Slipper,” thus indicative of different perspectives on inheritance tensions. Similar sentiments and style are reflected in Afanasyev’s “Vasilisa the Beautiful” whereby the stepmother becomes more malicious and want to Cinderella to die from being eaten by Baba-Yaga. The evolution of inheritance laws is well depicted through the three texts.

Works Cited

Afanasyev, Alexander. Vasilisa The Beautiful. 6th ed., Macmillan Co, 1970. Accessible at

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Cinderella. 4th ed., Publisher Unknown, 1812, pp. 22-23. Accessible at

Joosen, Vanessa. Critical And Creative Perspectives On Fairy Tales. 3rd ed., Wayne State University Press, 2011, pp. 12-23. Accessible at

Library of Congress. “Inheritance Laws In The 19Th And 20Th Centuries”. Loc.Gov, 2019, Accessible at

Perrault, Charles. Fairy Tales Of Charles Perrault. 5th ed., Publisher Unknown, 1634, pp. 34-35. Accessible at

Zipes, Jack. “Fairy Tales And The Art Of Subversion.” Researchgate, vol 3, no. 2, 2007, pp. 23-31. Routledge, doi:10.4324/9780203959824. Accessible at