Dr. Karen Elias

Summer 2003

Roses or a Bright Red Cap: Splintering Whiteness in Andersen's "The Snow Queen"

 

     Taking my old collection of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales 1 off the shelf is like doing an archaeological dig. Inside the front cover is a Girl Scout bookplate that I glued in place sometime around 1951, and above that, a declaration of ownership that my ex-husband impressed in the upper left-hand corner many years later in bright purple ink. On the outside, taking up half the front cover--now frayed and dingy from its travels--is the name Rob, a territorial scrawl made in red marker by my then three-year-old son. I hold the collection, with its long history, in my hands and try to remember when I first heard "The Snow Queen," the story that convinced me words could weave a magic spell.

     I think it must have been shortly after we moved to the new house when I was six. At bedtime my mother would open the gold-covered book to a story that traveled like an arrow straight to the place in my heart already wounded by love. Here were two children who lived side by side: "Where the roofs met and where the rain gutter ran between the two houses, their two small windows faced each other" (198). And here were two children who, though not brother and sister, "loved each other just as much as if they had been" (198). I knew instantly that this was a story that could give a name to secrets and hidden things. It could tell about first love, about me and Wally--Wally with his black, curly hair and angelic smile--who for two years had lived next door to each other until my family bought a new house and we had to move away. In the story my mother was reading it was the little boy named Kay who had left. Splinters of glass from the goblin's mirror had flown into his eye and his heart, magnifying the world's blemishes and turning his heart to ice. When the Snow Queen came by in her sleigh and carried him off and kissed him, he belonged to her. He forgot everyone he had ever loved at home.

     I knew this story, this tale of painful separation. What I didn't know was that you could set off in search of the precious thing that you had lost. With little Gerda, you could leave home without a backward glance. You could cast your pretty red shoes into the river, as an offering, to hear what the water spirits might be able to tell you about Kay and where he'd gone. And you could allow yourself to be carried downstream, sailing off in your stocking feet in a boat without oars, into the "great wide world" (204). You would do all of this willingly because here was a way, this story said, to follow your heart.

     My mother read this story a section at a time. Each night, with Gerda, I journeyed farther and farther north in search of the Snow Queen's palace where Kay was being held captive. The river had separated us from our ordinary lives. Now we traveled through a land where dreamshadows flitted by on horseback and where the crows and the wood pigeons knew what humans didn't and could talk. At the heart of the deep and murky forest, waiting for me to arrive, was the strangest thing of all--the robber girl.

     The book had a picture of her. She was brown like a gypsy with tangled black hair, and she rode wrapped in an old blanket on her mother's back. I didn't know what to make of her. Wasn't it a terrible and shocking thing that--in protest against her mother who wanted to eat Gerda for supper--she bit her sharply on the ear?And what about the way she held a pigeon upside down and shook it in Gerda's face and demanded that she kiss it, or the way she took delight in tickling the reindeer with her knife until he kicked up his heels in terror?But there was no turning back now. I was inside this story. All night, with Gerda, I lay awake next to the robber girl who snored rudely in her bed of rags and straw, one hand around her knife. I felt the cold seeping up from the ground and, though I knew my bones were slowly being turned to ice, didn't dare move a muscle. Once we sighed, forgetting the danger, and the robber girl woke up. "Lie still," she said, "or I'll stick my knife in your stomach" (219). Neither of us knew whether we'd make it to morning.

     But the truth is that secretly I liked her. She was headstrong and entirely self-possessed. She knew what she wanted and how to get it. She wanted Gerda's golden carriage and her muff and her pretty velvet dress, gifts from the palace Gerda had just left. Her robber family had never seen such finery; it shone with a charm they were unable to resist. In my family, desire was a sure sign of selfishness, but when I gave myself permission, I had to admit there were things I wanted, things that shone for me with the same clamorous charm. From this point on in the story I led a double life: terrified, like Gerda, of being robbed, and at the same time full of a raw, streamlined animal will. Now part of me wanted to be the one doing the robbing, the one who lived like an outlaw and knew how to be completely, outrageously herself.

     There was something else about the robber girl I liked. After she'd taken exactly what she wanted, a strange kindness appeared in her, a generosity unconnected to self-interest, a large-heartedness that seemed real to me, not fakey or pious like the hand folding I practiced in church. Whatever it was, it seemed to spring from the fire at the center of the robbers' hall, from the animals roasting on the spit, from the singing and the drinking and the somersaults the old woman was turning late into the night. For here, everything turned.

     Now, unexpectedly, the robber girl was willing to untie the reindeer and let Gerda have a little pillow so she could sit comfortably on his back. She was willing to give Gerda two loaves of bread and a ham to eat on her travels. And though she insisted on keeping the pretty muff, she gave her in exchange a pair of warm mittens so big they came right up to the elbows. "`I don't do things half way,` she said" (220).

     By the end, Gerda and Kay were able to find their way back home. Her tears had melted the ice in his heart, and now the barren earth too was showing signs of spring. As they walked through town hand in hand, all the church bells rang in celebration. But though Andersen never let on, I knew Gerda had changed. She sat once again on her little stool under the roses, in the place "where everything was just as it was when they left it" (228), but the truth was that, like me, she could not forget what she had seen: the cracks in the robbers' castle through which the ravens flew, back and forth, the old woman's shameless acrobatics, the reindeer's tether severed by the flashing knife--and the robber girl appearing at the end of the journey astride a magnificent horse, her long black hair streaming behind her in the wind: "The girl wore a bright red cap on her head, and a pair of pistols in her belt. She was the robber girl, who had grown tired of staying at home, and who was setting out on a journey to the North country. If she didn't like it there, why, the world was wide, and there were many other places where she could go" (226 - 7). The story my mother was reading went on for another page, but my attention was fixed on something else. What had begun as a tale of childhood romance had turned for me into something much more complex and intriguing (though I couldn't yet put it into words): an adventure whose heroine was divided, as I was, into two parts.

 

     Fragment 1: Fall/Winter 1946 . Several years ago my mother gave me an envelope with clippings and drawings from my childhood, things she'd been saving for years that she now wanted me to have. In the packet was an old green-tinged photograph of my first-grade class. Here at the blackboard is Henry Hamburger, the math genius, and here sitting at their desks are Barbara Kirkham and Leslie Torkelson and Virginia Wulf, who would be my best friend for awhile later on. Here is Alan Pease at the easel and behind him, below the clock, are paintings we have done of butterflies.

     I remember the morning this picture was taken. My mother, knowing the photographer will be there that day, has brushed my hair with extra care, has shaped my braids into Margaret O'Briens that loop up sweetly behind my ears. She has sent me to school with roses from her garden. In the picture I stand at the back of the room next to the teacher, Miss Doris Morse. I am putting the roses into a vase. There is a flowery, beatific smile on my face.

     Winter, 1946. The first grade. Against the blustery, twelve-block walk to school, I have been bundled into a new snowsuit whose snaps and zippers are still awkward and unmanageable. I am clumsy with these fastenings and unfastenings. Having taken it off once, I now have to put it back on because we are going outside for gym. I am in the cloakroom for a long time. When I walk out into the classroom again, it is empty. The room I have come to love has become strange, as in a game of hide and seek where those you are seeking have all mysteriously gone home. I can hear my heart as I walk to the door. The knob refuses to turn.

     I look for rescue. There in its narrow recess by the window hangs a long pole with a hook. Balancing it just right, I fit it to its proper notch, and pull. The window opens. I scurry to drag the teacher's chair over to the window-ledge, step up, call out before it's too late: Miss Morse! Miss Morse!But she is out of hearing. I see her strict back, ruthless in its refusal, and the line of children behind her, all lost in the habitual pull of mid-morning routine.

     Then it happens. A voice comes out of my mouth that belongs to something nameless that makes me afraid. Something sealed up in the belly of an animal that kicks against its iron trap. Hoarse, uncivilized wailing cries far beyond my years, far below my feet, that call out from the vast center of things for acknowledgment, for help.

     It is almost beside the point when help arrives. The teacher in the next room hears me crying and gets the master key to let me out. I pretend to become myself once again. No one notices as I join the class out on the playground. When gym is over and we get back to the classroom, though, Miss Morse glances at the disarray--her chair, a potted plant, the window pole, all out of place. Her room has been robbed of its order. She turns to face us wearing the pitiless look of the underworld. Who is responsible for this? she asks. My face flares with sudden fire. The good girl has been turned upside down, shaken until her stuffing flies out of her in all directions.

     I am recognized.

 

     When Andersen describes the little robber girl for the first time, he makes it clear that she is Gerda's 'twin' and her opposite: "The little robber girl was no taller than Gerda, but she was stronger and much broader in the shoulders" (217). And while Gerda had a face that "was as round and blooming as a rose" (206), the robber girl's skin "was brown and her eyes coalblack almost sad in their expression" (217). As they exchange clothesGerda's muff for the oversized mittenswe understand that the borderland between these two opposing, yet connected identities has not yet been closed. But at the story's end, as Gerda moves toward home and the robber girl out into the larger world, it becomes obvious that their connection was only momentary. From now on, they will travel on separate continents. In the context of a story that depends so fully on the contrast of opposites, these two characters ultimately stand for two very different modes of being, two aspects of my own divided self.

     The sole force that motivates Gerda throughout the story is her desired reunion with Kay. With everyone she meets, whether human being, animal, or flower, she can only ask one question: "Do you know where little Kay is?"This single-mindedness translates in the story into selflessness and purity of heart and comes to be associated with a timeless, Edenic world of childhood, which for Andersen is at once both prelapsarian and redeemed by the virtual presence of Christ. Whenever Gerda finds herself in need of help on her adventure, she is reminded of her summer garden, where "the children held each other by the hand, kissed the roses, looked up at the Lord's clear sunshine, and spoke to it as if the Christ Child were there" (200). Her ability to maintain this state of innocence throughout her journey is responsible for her final victory over the Snow Queen. 2 When asked to give Gerda a potion that will allow her to free little Kay, the wise Finn woman replies, "'No power that I could give her could be as great as that which she already has.

. . . Strength lies in her heart, because she is such a sweet, innocent child'" (222). And indeed, Gerda succeeds in passing over the threshold of the icy palace and through the gate guarded by "a knife-edged wind" (225) because she repeats her evening prayer and the wind is calmed. Kay, whose heart, under the Snow Queen's spell, has become almost entirely unfeeling, can only sit immobile as Gerda approaches. But her warm tears melt the ice in his heart, and when she sings the hymn that has become the story's refrain ("Where roses bloom so sweetly in the vale, / There shall you find the Christ Child, without fail"), he too begins to cry, and the splinter of glass that has lodged in his eye is washed away. Andersen lets us know on the final page of the story that the two have grown up. But the world they return to is that of their childhood. Gerda has defeated the forces of winter and death because she (and now Kay too since he has been redeemed) is still a child at heart: "And they sat there, grown-up, but children still--children at heart. And it was summer, warm, glorious summer" (228).

     The robber girl exists on the other side of this equation. The robbers' stronghold is cold and drafty; crows and ravens--bird-spirits that understand the mysteries of night and the underworld--fly in and out through the cracks in its walls. Unlike Gerda, whose unwavering faith surrounds and protects her, the robbers live without benefit of an all-encompassing, moralistic paradigm and thus must count on their wits to survive. Because Andersen's description of the robbers is broad enough to include physical things--grit, the body, animals, sexuality, material goods--their world takes on reality and palpability, a sensuousness that seems missing as Gerda floats through her adventures virtually untouched. 3 At the same time, while Gerda seems driven by a desire for connection and wholeness, the robbers--whose very name signals a kind of severing--are seen wielding "dreadful, flashing" knives (216), instruments that connote danger and potential destruction. The association of the robbers with the Snow Queen herself is made through this imagery, as Gerda, entering the Snow Queen's palace, must find her way through the gate guarded by "a knife-edged wind. "But the little robber girl, who seems just as adept as her mother at using her knife to threaten and intimidate, also uses it to cut the reindeer's tether, freeing Gerda to set off on the final leg of her journey. It is this association of the robber girl with freedom that becomes especially attractive. She lives with a kind of unabashed abandon (perhaps bolstered by an essential good-heartedness), and it is this independence of spirit that permits her at the end to break the ties with home and set out on a journey of her own. In light of this daring, Gerda's return to her grandmother's house, to "the room where everything was just as it was when they left it," and where the clock is still ticking off the dusty minutes, seems a safe, even fearful, rather than a courageous, choice.

 

     As a white girl growing up mid-century in middle-class America, I was able for a long time to look into the mirror of the larger culture and discover there only cause for self-congratulation, a kind of cultural endorsement of myself and my life. It has taken me many years to understand the divided self that "The Snow Queen" presented so vividly: the good girl's sense of constraint, her fascination with her forbidden other half, and the societal conditions that created and enforced that split. Like a shaman or poet or lover, the robber girl has continued to call out to me from the borders of even my safest dreams. My fascination with this gypsy renegade--my guide, doppelganger and psychopomp--led me over the years on a journey of my own into the depths of mythology and the collective unconscious.

     I discovered there the female-centered stories, among them the myth of Demeter and Persephone, a tale designed to explain the cyclical rotation of the seasons, that might easily have had a counterpart in the Danish folklore Andersen absorbed as a child. While the character of the Snow Queen may have been based on the Norse goddess Hel, ruler of the realm of the dead that was said to exist "far to the north" (Hamilton 312), at the same time it seems hard to believe that the somber, almost tragic tone characterizing much of Norse mythology would have appealed to Andersen's sensibilities. As a child he had the good fortune to be surrounded by crones--his grandmother, the inmates of the nearby poorhouse--who regaled him with more fanciful tales (Lederer 14 - 15), and it was this folklore that Andersen undoubtedly appropriated to help him structure "The Snow Queen. " Though he may not have been consciously aware of it, the myth of Demeter and Persephone--with its light/dark, summer/winter, barrenness/fertility oppositions--seems to provide a foundation for his story. As a way to provide the catalyst of heterosexual attraction that undergirds the plot, Andersen personalized the myth and changed the gender of at least one important character (here Kay plays the part of Persephone). But at heart, the myth's poignant themes--Demeter's defeat of the forces of death and winter as well as the reunion with Persephone that releases the earth's fertility once again--clearly inform Andersen's narrative.

     The Sumerian myth of Inanna's Descent to the Underworld, an archetypal shamanic account of death and rebirth which arises from an even deeper layer of the collective unconscious (the myth was recorded around 1750 BCE) (Wolkstein and Kramer 127), also seems to inform Andersen's story. In "The Snow Queen," which is sub-titled a "tale in seven stories," Gerda's essential innocence can be said to gather strength with each additional episode. Inanna, in her descent, must also travel through seven gates although, unlike Gerda, she is required give up an emblem of one of her worldly accomplishments at each post until she finally arrives at the depths of the underworld, naked and entirely vulnerable. Here Inanna encounters Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, who casts upon her the eye of death and hangs her on a hook from which, for three days and nights, she is suspended, a corpse of rotting meat. The vulnerability that seems, according to such stories, a necessary prelude to rebirth is present in "The Snow Queen" at one salient place--the encounter with the robber girl. 4 Like Inanna, Gerda too must suffer through a dark night of the soul, suspended at the edge of a knifeblade. And in each story, it is this "death" that becomes the essential turning point, the catalyst for transformation that impels the story to its proper, and fortunate, resolution.

     This is the moment that continues to reverberate, that holds for me the mystery still in need of exploration and discovery. So once again I choose the robber girl, this figure who came to life for me inside my childhood reading, as a guide to the depths, to those places, not in culture this time but in both personal and collective history, where we are not invited to go. In that spirit, I continue these explorations into what has become for me today the story's major theme: the decentering of female virtue and respectability, those qualities I was being taught to embody as a member of the white middle class.

 

     For girls coming of age in the 50s, the lesson was clear. It was the lesson lurking just below the surface of Andersen's story: neither purity of heart nor freedom of choice could be had without paying a price. To be good meant accepting limitation and restricted freedom; refusing such limitation meant risking the loss of love. Female respectability required finding meaning through (selfless) relationship with others, not through direct, unmediated (selfish) apprehension of experience. You could be virtuous and tame, or you could set off on grand adventures and give up all hope of ever earning the rewards of home, the sweet delights it promised for the heart.

     You could have roses or a bright red cap. Choose one.

     The history of the war years explains something of this dilemma. We know now that in the aftermath of the Second World War when America's white GIs returned to the factory line, the women who had been performing those jobs had to be encouraged to return home. We also know that in response to this need, the women's magazines of the time launched a propaganda campaign designed to convince white women that their true calling lay in domestic pursuits. What came later to be called, in the pages of Betty Friedan's book, "the feminine mystique," with its emphasis on female passivity and selflessness, informed many of the assumptions on which life in the 1950s was based. In her sociological study Young, White and Miserable: Growing up Female in the Fifties, Wini Breines comments,

We tried . . . to find solutions to what it meant to be a woman in such a time. One of our strategies was dissemblance, required in a culture so committed to conventional femininity. We, along with many Americans, were keeping up appearances. Like those accused of communist or leftist sympathies during the cold war, many of us led double lives, hiding feelings, thoughts, and behavior that were unacceptable. Except for the most rebellious, it was only years later that the hidden parts of ourselves that had been generated, and denied, by the culture could be explored. (199)

     Given the power of these beliefs, it made sense to me that Gerda would always choose the humble happiness awaiting her at home. This was, after all, the proper expression of female virtue. But for me something more than personal respectability seemed to be at stake. Soon after hearing "The Snow Queen" for the first time, I saw a production of Peter Pan where, alarmingly, the life in the very theatre where we were sitting suddenly hung by the thinnest of threads--the lights dimming to nothing at the threat of Tinker Belle's death. This was no small thing. If that little light could go out, wasn't it possible that every heart in the world might come to a sudden halt?"The Snow Queen" had conveyed a similar lesson: the life-blood coursing through our veins could be stopped cold, and it was up to Gerda, the little girl, to set things right. The world itself seemed to depend for its very well being on the proper exercise and expression of female virtue. Without this selflessness, this purity of spirit, the trees and flowers could languish and the heart could freeze. For me, this was no mere abstraction. These stories were warnings. Though it was never said out loud, somehow I knew I was one of those little girls required, by profound family need, to perform an act of redemption. So many expectations were riding on my compliance that any departure could bring on a kind of death. Disobedience, then, was more, much more, than an isolated act of self-assertion. It was an act of betrayal. The world could fall from grace, its lights could sputter out. And it would be my fault.

 

     A short family history is in order here. My grandparents on my father's side immigrated to the United States from Lithuania at the end of the nineteenth century. Because they came from an agrarian culture and were without property of their own, they were considered peasants, labeled "Hunkies," "Polanders," or "Bohunks," and kept from performing any but the dirtiest and most menial jobs. As members of an immigrant group that David Roediger characterizes as "not-quite-white ethnics" (181 - 194), my grandparents gradually understood that one way to shed all remnants of their peasant heritage would be to shape themselves as thoroughly American. This would be tantamount--though they didn't have these words for it--to being able to position themselves in the culture as 'white. '

     They rushed to assimilate. Perhaps to distinguish themselves from their fellow Lithuanians, who had brought to America only their muscles and their Catholic faith, they began by embracing the German Protestantism of the Lutheran church. Their last name, Pasetskas, which had already been shortened at Ellis Island to Pasetsk, was now anglicized even further, becoming Pass. My father was sent to the public (rather than the parochial) school where over the years his first name, Adolph, became Arthur, and then simply Art. Along the way, he substituted for his birth certificate a card on which was printed his new American name, and it was this 'pass card' that he used whenever he was asked for identification. By 1940 when I was born, my father had succeeded in repressing his family's shameful secret, its Lithuanian roots. As we were growing up, he would tell us stories not only about his German heritage but also about the fact that our family name, Pass, had been engraved on the Liberty Bell, 5 a sign--according to my father--that we were quintessentially American. He never acknowledged the fact that white skin privilege had allowed him, in one generation, to move from poverty to a managerial position at the American Oil Company. And he was never aware of the sly cosmic joke surely at work when, after being invited by the company to transfer to its head office in New York City, he moved his family to the Westchester suburb of White Plains.

 

     Fragment 2: Summer 1987. I’m sitting at the table eating lunch with my parents. I’ve just finished teaching an Elderhostel course called “Telling Your Own Story” and have brought with me the list of life-questions my students (most of them grandparents) and I have drawn up to spark the memory: Describe your most vivid childhood experience; name the steppingstones that carried you from your beginnings to the present time; imagine yourself at a crossroads and describe the road not taken. Though neither of my parents seems especially interested in the past, my mother has entered into the spirit of the game I’m proposing and begins talking about what it was like walking to school in New Haven in the winter cold--and then, more deeply into the telling, she remembers picking blueberries with her mother one summer on the Hamden farm. Her mother was not a warm person, she tells me. The blueberry picking was something special. I try to imagine my mother, much younger, daughter of the dour woman I would later know as my grandmother who always dressed in black and rarely smiled. I try to imagine this scene: the ends of their fingers staining blue as they bend and pick, lulled by the low hum of the afternoon, their two bodies never touching but close in a way that must have pleased my mother who didn’t know until this moment how much she wanted this.

     Meanwhile my father has lined up his knife and fork on the placemat and is studying their precise geometric configurations. For the past forty minutes he has said nothing.

     After lunch I follow my mother into her room.

     What’s going on with Dad? I say.

     She looks at me strangely, takes my arm. If I tell you something, she says, you must promise not to repeat it. It’s a family secret.

     O. K. , I say. I want to sound reassuring so I say it again. O. K.

     Not even your sisters. You can’t tell a soul. Promise?

     I promise.

     He’d kill me, you know. If he found out I was telling you this. Her fingers are digging into my arm.

     I wait, making my breathing small so she won’t change her mind.

     You’re Lithuanian.

     What?

     Lithuanian, on Dad’s side. His parents came here from Lithuania.

     I’m stunned and confused. I don’t get it. This is the family secret?I make a vow to tell my sisters as soon as I can get to the phone.

     Lots of things about this revelation are confusing. The first surprise is Lithuania. Our father told us many times as we were growing up that his ancestry was German. Over the years we studied German in high school, joined the German club, learned all the verses to “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. ”On our visits to New Haven, we never questioned the fact that the grandmother who lived by herself above our Uncle Ed and who wore men's slippers and a ubiquitous flowered apron and spoke a strange, incomprehensible language–was our German grandmother. Now we don’t know what to think. We look Lithuania up in the atlas. It’s a tiny country squeezed between the Baltic Sea and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. On the map both countries are part of a huge white expanse that looks blank, as though the schoolchild responsible for this part of the world has not yet decided on the right crayon to color it in. Only a hazy green line separates Lithuania from the USSR.

     Why, I ask my mother. Why was this such a family secret?

     Because, she says. They were ashamed.

 

     My father's made-up story, the founding myth of our family, is central to an understanding of the personal dynamics that informed our lives. It is also central to an understanding of the larger context within which we were embedded. Exploring the way white identities have historically been constructed in America can help to clarify what otherwise might seem a merely idiosyncratic phenomenon. As Toni Morrison points out in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, white identity has been shaped in America not by an act of self-definition but by the realities of race relations. From the start of our nation’s history, she says, whites have been faced with “the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment” (48). Though European Americans may speak eloquently of freedom and equality, the realities of subjection and bondage embodied in America's slave population have intruded persistently on the national consciousness. In response, white America fashioned–out of its collective need to assuage its anxieties and offer to itself an explanation of its own brutality--what Morrison calls an “Africanist presence,” “a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American" (38). This persona functioned to contain, and manage, all that white America wanted to believe it was not, becoming an embodiment of “reined-in, bound, suppressed, and repressed darkness” (38 -39). It was in relation to this persona that white America came to know itself as white. Projecting onto the Other everything that was considered unacceptable, white America freed itself to engage in what Emerson believed was the quintessential American project: “the architecture of a new white man” (15). It was "Africanism" that became the vehicle through which this transformation would be effected. It is no wonder that Morrison speaks of “the parasitical nature of white freedom” (57). White identity has been dependent from the first on what it attempted, in vain, to erase.

     In many ways, "the architecture of a new white man" was the narrative of my father's life: the death of his ethnic identity and his subsequent resurrection as a white American. It is also the story of how whiteness took root and was practiced and perpetuated in my family. I need to remember, as I tell this story, that my parents were--as we all are--subject to the sweeping historical forces of their times, and that it takes a certain kind of pain--often arising from alienation and disaffection--to be able to see through those forces to the more brutal, often hidden dynamics at their center. So when I talk about the denial at the heart of the American Dream–the refusal to recognize the way white privilege is made possible only through its intimate connection to a system of racial oppression–and when I say that it took up residence, like a squatter, in our suburban house, I recognize at the same time that denial may be too strong a word. In a post-war culture that appeared to value everything my parents stood for, it was easy to continue unaware.

     From my own much later vantage point, I understand myself as driven by different needs: to staunch the flood of careless optimism that I allowed to carry me forward; to 'frame' my own history so that I can see, and take responsibility for, the assumptions that governed it; and to reveal, in all their dailiness, the unspoken dynamics that fueled what I realize now was an arrogance and falsification at the heart of our white life. From this perspective, the beliefs of my family, the principles on which we stood, stood themselves on a lie, the illusory idea that we could, through our own acts of self-definition, live as perfectly free agents. And the acts of social oppression upon which our whiteness was founded had their counterparts in the smaller, almost invisible acts of psychological repression my sisters and I were expected to reproduce. Because of its light/dark oppositions, cultural assumptions about race clearly informed the shaping of my personal identity. Everything dark would be shut out in an effort to attain a purified whiteness. Here, waiting for me to step into it, was a ready-made system of what has been called “emotional apartheid,”6 a system that demanded grotesque self-division, a splitting off of an essential humanity: white mastery achieved at terrible expense.

     There would be the dark part and the white part, and the locked door in between. Only after discovering Lillian Smith, years later, would I understand, in her words, that the lock was the bolt on a crippling frame:

I knew, though I would not for years confess it aloud, that in trying to shut the
Negro race away from us, we have shut ourselves away from so many good,
creative, honest, deeply human things in life. I began to understand. . . . that
the warped, distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth
is around every white child also. Each is on a different side of the frame but
each is pinioned there. And I knew that what cruelly shapes and cripples the
personality of one is as cruelly shaping and crippling the personality of the
other. I began to see that though we may . . . gain the strength to tear the frame
from us, yet we are stunted and warped and in our lifetime cannot grow straight
again any more than can a tree, put in a steel-like twisting frame when young,
grow tall and straight when the frame is torn away at maturity. (39)

 

     But now I want to return to "The Snow Queen" and the deep imprint it made on my life. In his groundbreaking exploration of the complex and often hidden meanings of whiteness, Richard Dyer uncovers a phenomenon that brings us back to our story and its representation of the white feminine ideal. Here Dyer examines the connection between white male enterprise and imperialism by looking closely at Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Through her male characters, Stowe reveals a certain ambivalence toward a trait typically associated with white men from the time of the Enlightenment: the desire to impose one's will on others in the name of human progress. As representatives of white agency, males have been expected--regardless of either personal or societal repercussions--to exercise freedom of will in pursuit of transcendence. While admiring this adventuresome spirit, Dyer says, Stowe nevertheless laments the effects of its "unrestrained exercise (and gives to women the task of such restraint)" (31). We begin to see here the way the system of emotional apartheid has been structured according to gender. The willfulness considered essential to masculine self-assertion includes what might be called an allowable darkness. The white male can be forgiven his disregard for the potentially harmful consequences of his aggressive (and sometimes excessive) actions because he is being driven by the demands of white enterprise. It is up to women to perform the necessary redemption.

     This set of assumptions is figured quite neatly in "The Snow Queen," which was probably written sometime between 1830 and 1840 and is thus itself a product of the enterprising Victorian Age. 7 Here white thirst for transcendence is carried to its logical conclusion as little Kay, who has been seduced by the Snow Queen and has subsequently rejected all human connection, is discovered held captive and immobile "in that endless, empty, frigid hall" where he puzzles out a game of "ice-cold reason" whose solution, the Snow Queen tells him, can earn him the whole world (225). The icy palace, as embodiment of unabated white enterprise, is unmistakably associated with the frozen absence, the paralysis, the "impasse and non-sequitur" that Morrison equates with the condition of whiteness when drawn to its logical 'transcendent' conclusion (33). Gerda's task, then, is not only to enact whiteness in her own person by shutting out the dark, but also, through her properly feminine self-sacrifice, to prevent its most destructive manifestations. Although she was shaped by the Victorian imagination, Gerda continued to offer, even into the 1950s and my growing up, a compelling representation of these ideas.

     The consolidation of whiteness, then, for white girls growing up in middle class 1950s America, required two different, though related, acts of sacrifice. First, because this project depended on appearances, we were expected to become two-dimensional, to erase any hint of shadow from face or body. Indeed, we were expected to eradicate the shadowed body itself, to live as though we were without substance or complexity. Having died to the world and all its messiness, the white subject, embodied in my own 'quintessentially American' family, would be reborn into a transcendent state, one that could redeem our imperfections and, more importantly, our darkness. Darkness for us included heavy, dangerous forces--made all the more heavy and dangerous because they were unacknowledged: forces of sexuality, sadness, illness, and the vagaries of the body with its entire host of unmanageable passions and betrayals.

     The second sacrifice entailed forgoing one's own experience in order to act on behalf of supposedly more important masculine designs, thereby lending moral weight to projects whose purpose was (supposedly) to civilize the world. The robber girl carried in her person all the knowledge we denied ourselves, all our forbidden desires. Riding out into the wide, wide world on her magnificent horse suggested a (perversely masculine) willfulness, an intention to follow dangerous inner passions and a willingness to risk whatever might follow from such reckless disregard. This possibility could never, ever, be entertained.

     As a child, I agreed to these terms. I believed it would require something enormous to become the rider, rather than the uncomplaining vehicle, to become the robber, rather than the one in training to give her most precious things away. The purity of heart needed to keep our family world and its still-tenuous whiteness alive was, I believed, already more than I could hope to have. Because my own heart had been infected by willfulness, infested with ambiguous glass splinters, I would have to continue vigilant at living a sanctimonious life. Like Gerda, I decided, I would stay at home where I was needed and keep the world from cracking in half.

     But there were those things neither of us could forget. The robber girl, dispatching missives from the outposts, knew what she wanted and would wait her turn. And when the time was right, we would see. The call of the great wide world, with its promised journey toward self-discovery, might turn out to be more compelling after all than the sweetness and safety and simple innocence of home.

     As I watch, the robber girl leans in my direction and flashes me her brazen smile.


Works Cited

 

Andersen, Hans Christian. Andersen's Fairy Tales. Trans. Jean Hersholt. New York: Heritage,

1942.

Breines, Wini. Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. Boston: Beacon,

1992.

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 2001.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: New American Library, 1940.

Lederer, Wolfgang. The Kiss of the Snow Queen: Hans Christian Andersen and Man's

Redemption by Woman. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York:

Random House, 1992.

Roediger, David R. Towards The Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working

Class History. London: Verso, 1994.

Smith, Lillian. Killers of the Dream. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories

And Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

 


1 Andersen, Hans Christian. Andersen's Fairy Tales. Trans. Jean Hersholt. New York: Heritage Press, 1942. Internal citations for "The Snow Queen" used in the body of my paper refer to this volume. (click the "back" button on your browser to go back to the place you were reading)

2 In his astute psychological study The Kiss of the Snow Queen, Wolfgang Lederer tells us that Andersen, who considered himself a child throughout his life (101), did indeed affirm Christian, specifically Pauline teachings in "the Snow Queen. ""To speak, understand, and think as a child -- this is, to Andersen, the blessed state" (65). Elsewhere, however, Lederer comments that Andersen's use of Christian teachings is merely a superficially conscious endorsement (47) and that we need to pay especial attention to the pre-Christian elements underlying this layer, which are continually breaking through. "The narrator [of the First Story] appears to be piously Christian, but the 'heathen' characters and practices put us on notice that the matters here dealt with far transcend any single dogmatic frame, and that we are to hear of general verities valid at any time and for any faith" (6). (click the "back" button on your browser to go back to the place you were reading)

3 See Lederer. "Gerda manages not to get trapped, but she also manages not to learn anything. She goes through all her adventures essentially untouched and unimpaired, but also unenriched; she has, in fact, a veritable aversion to learning" (175 - 6). (click the "back" button on your browser to go back to the place you were reading)

4 Lederer seems to identify as the nadir of Gerda's journey her approach to the Snow Queen's palace: "Having left her shoes behind and her gloves . . . , she has left her ego behind altogether. Not just the red shoes, but all shoes are now gone. She goes into the Arctic as the Church Fathers went into the desert, stripped of all ego, of all self, naked and humble before God, placing their lives and their souls in God's hand in blind and unquestioning faith" (63). It's important to note here, however, that as Gerda approaches the palace, she remembers to say the Lord's Prayer and, as she does so, the "Snow Queen's advance guard" -- the snowflakes that seem for a moment "monstrous and terrifying" (223) -- are shattered to pieces as Gerda's breath takes the shape of an avenging "legion of angels" (224). Andersen states: "Little Gerda walked on, unmolested and cheerful" (224). It makes more sense, then, that Gerda's most vulnerable moment should be identified as the time she felt most fearful: the night spent in the company of the robber girl. (click the "back" button on your browser to go back to the place you were reading)

5 Apparently, the man who forged the Liberty Bell was named Pass, though of course no relation to our family. He signed his name to his work. (click the "back" button on your browser to go back to the place you were reading)

6 I first heard this term from John L. Johnson who facilitated a workshop on race relations in Philadelphia in the late 90s. Behind white supremacy, he said, lurks the system of "emotional apartheid," the disavowal by whites of an emotional life: "Let's get the emotions out into the ghetto where we can come visit them on Saturday night. "(click the "back" button on your browser to go back to the place you were reading)

7 Dyer comments: "Edward Said [in Culture and Imperialism] has shown how profoundly imperialism structures Western literary culture, to the point that many canonical works with no apparent interest in imperialism none the less assume and depend on the existence of empire for the life style of the characters, the assumptions they make, for plot reversals and resolutions. The same is more widely true of the way space and time are imagined in white culture" (31). (click the "back" button on your browser to go back to the place you were reading)


About the Author:
Karen Elias writes and teaches in the rolling hills of Northcentral Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals. Most recently, an essay called "Two Voices From the Front Lines," co-authored with Dr. Judith Jones, was published in the anthology Race in the College Classroom (Rutgers, 2002). She is at work on a memoir about growing up white and middle class in fifties America, for which she received a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Inspired by this autotheoretical project, she was moved to explore her early memories of "The Snow Queen" and is now incorporating a version of this essay into her autobiography.

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