Anne Sexton’s Fairy Tale Poems & their Brothers Grimm Counterparts

Despite being laced with magical elements, Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems create a world not so very different from our own.

Jun 30, 2022By Thea Baldrick, BS Biology w/ Molecular & Cellular Biology Concentration, BA Comparative Literature
anne sexton 70s dress cigarette
Anne Sexton, via Houston Chronicle


When Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems were published in the 1971 volume titled Transformations, Anne Sexton was already well-established as a forerunner of confessional poetry. She had won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1967 and regularly performed her work at poetry readings. Many other poets would have stayed with this new genre in which they were so successful. Anne Sexton did not. She had two young daughters and a personal fascination with fairy tales during her own childhood. With characteristic courage, she entered the forests in the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, twisted the trees to resemble ones familiar to contemporary readers, and presented the result bedecked with satire and dark humor.


The Gold Key

transformations cover 1971 anne sexton
Cover of Transformation by Anne Sexton, 1971, Houghton-Mifflin, via the Internet Archive


The first poem, “The Gold Key,” from a Brothers’ Grimm tale of the same name, functions as an introduction to the rest of the poems. Anne Sexton introduces herself, “a middle-aged witch, me,” and her audience, all adults of various ages. The scenario indicates that the following stories will not be children’s stories, although they will summon the tales that had affected them as children, “the ten P.M. dreams.”


She accuses them of having forgotten the stories, making their lives shadowy. “Are you comatose? / Are you undersea?” The process of becoming adults has created a deadening, hazy consciousness. By the clever manipulation, Sexton shows that the world she is about to narrate is more real, more alive than the daily lives of adults.


Prefaces in Anne Sexton’s Fairy Tale Poems

little red riding hood ny public library
Little Red Riding Hood by Arpad Schmidhammer, 1857-1921 via digital collections New York Public Library


Every poem opens with a preface containing a more modern viewpoint than the traditional stories themselves, allowing the narrator to lay a roadmap for reading the upcoming tale. Rich with satire, the preface is where much of the “transformation” occurs. In contrast, the story that follows the preface closely resembles the original Grimm version.

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The modern view of the stories allows for reflection on sexuality, desire, the psyche, the role of women, mental illness, death, disability, social hierarchies, abuse, and love in many forms.


“One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes” opens like this:


“Even in the pink crib

the somehow deficient,

the somehow maimed,

are thought to have

a special pipeline to the mystical,”


Rapunzel” leads with the line:


“A woman

who loves a woman

Is forever young.”


Rumpelstiltskin” begins with:


“Inside many of us

is a small old man

who wants to get out.”


Indeed, Sexton lays bare, with cutting humor and a panoply of voices, most of the ills of the modern world.


The Inhabitants of Sexton’s Fairytale Landscape

snow white postcard from jack zipes collection
Snow White postcard from the collection of Jack Zipes, via the Italian Cultural Center


Transformations is inhabited by a wide variety of characters and situations: old, young, rich, poor, good, bad, and everything in between. The treatment of men and older women is particularly interesting.


Although she didn’t explicitly claim the title, Anne Sexton is often considered a feminist. Many of her poems, such as “Self in 1958,” “Housewife,” and “Her Kind,” were banners for the second-wave feminism movement. Her poetry satirized the traditional role of women during her time as stultifying while simultaneously bringing an intimate awareness to the issues unique to a woman’s body. She continues her critique of women and their roles in Transformations.


“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” presents the cultural vision of womanhood as a beautiful object:


“The virgin is a lovely number:

cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,

arms and legs made of Limoges,”


Many of the men are portrayed as dangerous or shallow; however, there are exceptions. In “Godfather Death,” the physician behaves in a traditionally heroic manner, risking and finally losing his life to save the princess. “Iron Hans” is largely about a male friendship that leads to wish fulfillment for both men.


In Sexton’s fairy tales, marriage often fares poorly as she satirizes the ‘happily ever after” ending. For example, as in the last lines of “The White Snake”:


“Living happily ever after –

A kind of coffin,

A kind of blue funk.

Is it not?”


girl without hands fairy tale brothers grimm 19th century
The Girl Without Hands by Philipp Grot Johann (1841-1892), via Wikipedia


On the other hand, there is a story of a seasoned, if complicated, married relationship in “The Maiden Without Hands.” In the Grimm tales, the older woman vs. the innocent young virgin is a recurring theme. Without changing the story, Sexton rebels at this with little criticisms of Snow White, the spotless, passive princess. Some of the women in the poems are undeniably evil, but they receive such vicious punishments that it seems especially cruel and unworthy of “good protagonists.” Snow White’s stepmother goes to the wedding and is forced to dance in red-hot shoes until she dies. The prelude states:


“Beauty is a simple passion,

but, oh my friends, in the end

you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.”


The end of Hansel and Gretel’s witch was equally horrific:


“The witch turned as red

as the Jap flag.

Her blood began to boil up

like Coca-Cola.

Her eyes began to melt.”


The graphic accounts of the witches’ fate incite sympathy despite their own evil deeds, recalling our modern injunctions against cruel and unusual punishments. A thread of morality runs through Sexton’s poems that are not in the original Grimm’s Tales, thereby reducing the horror and preventing the humor from plummeting into irretrievable darkness.


Ultimately, the people in Transformations cannot be easily characterized. Every gender, age, and social, economic, and moral group is represented, breathing a range and depth to this reimagined fairy tale world that rivals the reader’s own modern society.


Vonnegut Humor In Sexton’s Fairy Tales

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Kurt Vonnegut in 1972, via Wikipedia


As clarified in a recent paper, Sexton used several techniques culled from Vonnegut’s work. She had read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night just before working on her fairy tale poems. After meeting him at a party, she asked him to write the introduction to her new book of poetry. He agreed.


Like Vonnegut, Sexton uses black humor to illustrate traumatic experiences. She uses incongruous images, criticizes the genre she’s working from, and decorates it with modern references.


From “Iron Hans”:


“Three days running the boy,

thanks to Iron Hans,

performed like Joe Dimaggio”


Like Vonnegut, she uses multiple voices and jumps around in time, similar to Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five. She even uses a signature Vonnegut phrase, “so it goes,” as a verbal shrug in “Twelve Dancing Princesses”:


“If he failed, he would pay with his life./Well, so it goes.”


Tragic circumstances and casual understatement impel laughter, perhaps tinged with embarrassment for the reaction, a hallmark of dark humor.


Magical Thinking

cinderella 1899 prinsep manchester museum art
Cinderella 1899 by Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838–1904), via Art UK and Manchester Art Gallery


As an almost compulsory element, magical thinking is rife throughout fairy tales. Magic words have immense power in the fairy tale realm. Say the name of Rumpelstiltskin or be able to talk to animals like in “The White Snake,” or question a mirror and receive a reply. Words that have the power to lead to change are at the heart of magical thinking, and a child soon learns that “abracadabra” doesn’t work.


Nevertheless, words do have a more subtle strength. Mental health therapy often uses dialogue to work through emotional trauma. Indeed, the first step in many recovery groups is to name the issue. “My name is Larry, and I am an alcoholic.” Owning the issue by putting a name to it is powerful. Likewise, confessional poetry carries with it an element of hope; perhaps, through the purgative effect of the words, healing is possible.


Words, and by extension, stories, can heal. By highlighting a trauma and exposing it to the light of a moral code, there’s a possibility of a cleansing that could not transpire in the shadows. Transformations, although different in style and less personal, is not very far from the genre Sexton helped establish in the 1960s.


Once Upon a Time

sleeping beauty southall 1902 lute
Sleeping Beauty painting by Joseph Edward Southall, 1902 tempera, via Birmingham Museum


After the preface in a poem, Sexton usually flags the beginning of the story with a time reference: “long ago,” “once there was,” and, of course, “once upon a time.” The indefinite time element is crucial to the fairy tale. Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “for fairy-tale heroes and heroines are children and the fairy tale derives from the childhood of the race.”


Traditional fairy tales are plot-driven with static social structures, full of magical thinking. In addition, they are timeless, not easily oriented to a particular time or place. By keeping the traditional form and grounding the story in timelessness, Sexton can transform it through the preface while the tale itself usually retains its original integrity. The transformation results in a purely adult awareness and appreciation.


The juxtaposition of the two time periods, one indeterminate in the fairy tale and the other the specific modernity of Sexton’s own time, is especially striking in the last poem when the original integrity is breached. “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” is the poem where the present time most fully intrudes into the fairy tale, resulting in an uncomfortable disorientation, similar to the border between waking and sleeping or life and death:


“What voyage this, little girl?

This coming out of prison?

God help –

this life after death?”


Thus ends the final fairy tale. The reader, too, likely feels disorientation laced with discomfort as they close the book and reenters the everyday world after reading Transformations.

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By Thea BaldrickBS Biology w/ Molecular & Cellular Biology Concentration, BA Comparative LiteratureD. Thea is a contributing science writer with a B.S. Biology with a Concentration in Molecular and Cellular Biology and a B.A. Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati. For fun, she spends time inhabiting the world of dinosaurs with family members. She prefers to be the Brachiosaurus.