Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales Essay - Critical Context

Alison Lurie

Critical Context

Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales was praised in some reviews and criticized in others. Some critics pointed out that while Alison Lurie challenged the passivity of female characters and tried to show them as actively heroic (unless they were the evil contrasts to the other, good girls and women), she did not go far enough to portray their possible rejection of other stereotypes, such as marriage. Their fulfillment was still dependent on the choice and whim of the male characters, usually princes or other nobles. These critics wondered why Lurie was content with reforming the perceptions and portrayals of the female characters but letting the old images of noble and warlike male characters go unchallenged. In addition, they expressed the desire for a less dogmatic feminist view that did not ignore the possibilities for wise behavior from a male character as well.

Other critics noted that Lurie did not succeed in bridging the gap between important writing for juvenile and adult readers but rather privileged the former and mistakenly assumed that adult writing might not have the same important “subversive” potentials. Moreover, while some critics paid much attention to Lurie’s obvious feminism, others noted that many of the tales were not “forgotten” at all and that many of them had long been accessible and available in other sources. The Horn Book magazine of April, 1980, in particular, documented in detail the common sources of many stories in Lurie’s book, including Womenfolk and Fairy Tales (1975), edited by Rosemary Minard, a third of which are the same tales.

The growing importance of feminist literary criticism in the years since Lurie’s book appeared would indicate that she was among the first to work toward a reevaluation of the portrayal of both children and female characters in some of the most lasting and influential stories that continue to be passed on from generation to generation.