Existentialism and Fairy Tales

Patrick Whitehead
Apr 25 · 3 min read

There’s no happily ever after.

Cinderella has a long history that goes back many centuries. Cinder-ella is the young lady of the cinders, or the one who occupies the most lowly position in the household. She is the one who must clean out the ashes from the fireplace. Cinderella is rejected by her family as an outcast and stepchild. It is something that is outside of her control, and it is completely unfair.

The audience can, of course, see how beautiful and important Cinderella actually is. They are invited to join with her in her plight. They are invited to identify with her in their own imponderable importance, and as those who have not received the recognition that they deserve.

To make matters worse, the characters in Cinderella’s life are not nearly as perfect or pure as she is, and it is a great injustice how kind fate has been to them. In the fairy tale, it seems that nobody gets what they deserve in the beginning. Cinderella deserves wealth, beauty, fame, and appreciation, but gets laughed at and spit on. Her step-sisters and step-mother deserve to be laughed at and spit on, but get wealth, beauty, fame, and appreciation.

But then something happens. A prince sees the real Cinderella and is taken by her beauty and grace. Because the royal family receives its power from the Divine, they cannot be mistaken in their perceptions as can you and I. This means that the prince’s perception of Cinderella is pure. She is exalted to the highest place in the entire kingdom to live happily ever after.

The Cinderella Story is popular among children. It is also popular among adults who have held on to their childhood fantasies. Children feel small, powerless, and unimportant in their families. Limited to a basic sense of justice and morality, children cannot help but see events in terms of their fairness. It seems unfair that older siblings have all of the power. It is unfair that mom and dad get to make all of the rules. What about what I want to do?

Children fantasize about being bigger, stronger, and having great authority. They do not realize how terrible it would be to have the responsibility of their parents. They do not realize the disaster that would follow if they were able to change the rules to satisfy their own private fantasies. In their fantasy, they get all that they ever wanted, and there are no downsides. It is heaven. It is happily ever after.

The happily ever after script is conveniently never written. Not even in the Cinderalla fairy tale. Into the Woods was a Broadway musical that finishes many of the popular fairy tales that had ended at happily ever after. Cinderella and Prince Charming get married and struggle with marriage problems — just like any other couple. Eventually “happily ever after” becomes the mundane routine that characterized life before the magic had intervened. Desire does not simply dry up once something good happens. You get married and then someone wants kids, but there isn’t complete agreement about when to have them or how many.

The Cinderella story has become a popular pastime that has been used to lure disinterested students into pursuing variations of the American Dream. Kids are told “You get what you work for,” and that “You deserve to be successful and happy.” Success and happiness are just another paycheck away. They are just another college degree away. They are just another promotion away. They are just another relationship away. Once you get there, your happily ever after will begin.

But there is no happily ever after. That’s just a fairy tale that is popular with children and adults who have held onto their childhood fantasies.

*The psychological insights of the Cinderella story may be found in Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment, although some believe he has stolen them from someone else.*

Patrick Whitehead

doing psychology outside the lines

Patrick Whitehead

Written by

Psychology Professor | Author

Patrick Whitehead

doing psychology outside the lines

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade