The Face in the Cloth

by Jane Yolen

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Themes and Characters

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"The Face in the Cloth" is written in graceful language and tells a simple tale, and it may be enjoyed for those reasons alone. But if one is to understand what the tale is about, one must recognize that it is almost entirely a story of symbols, with the action existing primarily to move the symbols from one place to another.

Yolen writes of the Princess:

There was never a time that the bloom of health sat on her cheeks. She remained the color of skimmed milk, the color of ocean foam, the color of second-day snow. She was always cold, sitting huddled for warmth inside her picture cloak even on the hottest days, and nothing could part her from it.

The Princess was not brought to this state by cruelty or hatred, but by love. Instead of a cruel domineering mother, she had one who wanted to love her and who loved her father. Her father had the magical portrait of her mother sewn into her cloak out of grief and out of love for both mother and daughter. She wears her cloak out of love for a mother she has known only through the portrait. It is important to the development of the story's unifying theme that the suffering of the characters was not motivated out of hate, cruelty, or bitterness, but out of enduring love. The Princess bears a burden no one actually meant for her to have; she bears it because she must.

What is the unifying theme? This is summed up in the image on the cloth but is not so easily explained. One of the reasons that fairy tales endure in popularity for authors and their audiences is their ability to sum up significant ideas in symbols, a kind of shorthand that renders an abstract idea concrete, enabling people to visualize it. The theme, to borrow from Yolen's own words, is "daughters carrying their mothers' images through their lives." Yolen explains that she sees this as an issue in her own life, with her carrying her mother with her, and her own daughter carrying her image.

In the context of the story, the carrying of the mother's image can be a great burden, especially if the mother was much loved and esteemed, as the Queen was. When the Princess was born, the mother died, and "no one in the kingdom knew whether to laugh or cry except the babe, who did both." Innocent of her mother's premature death, the baby is oblivious to the loss, but as she grows up the Princess cannot escape the presence of her mother. Even without the magical image, she would find her mother in her father's grief and in the kingdom's remembrance of her. Joy and sorrow all at once is a difficult burden indeed to bear.

The idea of carrying the mother's image is enriched by the sewing motif:

Needles and scissors, Scissors and pins, Where one life ends, Another begins.

This refrain, repeated through most of the story, captures nicely the notion of death and birth: the Mother's death—the daughter's birth; and it is echoed in the daughter's journey to the forest hut: life at court ends— life at the hut begins; and it is echoed again at the story's ending: the life carrying the image is over—a new life for the Princess begins. It also indicates a unifying factor in the story, the stitching of lives together. The stitches in the cloth appear as the Queen's life ebbs: "As he [the King] looked at it [the cloth], his wife's likeness began to appear on it...

(This entire section contains 1272 words.)

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slowly, as if being stitched in with a crimson thread." Crimson thread, life's blood, the daughter and mother are linked at the moment of birth and death. The second sister insists upon the image: "Our lives have been sewn together by a queen's desire," she declares. The stitching includes not only mother and daughter, but mother and husband, father and daughter, and those whose lives have touched theirs, including the three sisters.

In "The Face in the Cloth," the task facing the Princess is a solitary one. Her father "thought of his daughter asleep like a waning moon, and wept," but he cannot be the instrument of her freedom. When he leaves his daughter at the hut "Behind him the briars closed over the path, and the forest was still." He is cut off from his daughter. Although the hut seems to be the same one where the Queen found the sisters, they are not there. The Princess "wondered that she was not more afraid, and tried out different emotions: first fear, then bewilderment, then loneliness; but none of them seemed quite real to her."

In this state of isolation and emotional uncertainty, the daughter finally faces the issue of her mother, whose image has been her constant companion throughout her life. As in the refrain, she has "needle, scissors, and pin," and with these, without at first realizing it, she begins to remake her life, one that is better proportioned, where country, home, and family share her attention. Her first effort brings an unconscious sigh of relief from her. Gradually unstitching her mother's image, she sews new ones of home and countryside, and "Beneath the hut, as she sewed, letters appeared, though she did not touch them"—the refrain appears, a reminder of the interconnections, and the cutting of them.

In sewing, scissors are an important tool; thread never uncut would unravel through cloth, tying pieces together and perhaps making it impossible for people to move about. The scissors are also a necessary part of the daughter's coming to terms with her relationship to her mother. "She had to use up the rest of her mother's thread before she was free"; the Princess must remake her life, must take her mother's image into her hands and refashion it into a life of her own. Her doing this in solitude may represent the psychological aspect of her freeing herself from her burden; this is, the story implies, something a daughter must do for herself, others cannot do it for her.

Another motif of the story, one that binds the ending to the beginning, is that of having to give up what one least wishes to part with in order to get what one most wishes to receive. What that would have been had the three sisters been allowed to wait on the Queen during childbirth—"Beware, O King, of promises given," a warning intended more for the audience than the King, who has no idea what it means. In any case, the consequences of the birth of the daughter— that which the Queen most desired—results in the Queen's death—perhaps her own life was what she least wished to give. In order to make his daughter healthy— that which he most desires—the King must give her up, which he does. In order to free herself, at the end the daughter must surrender that which she least wishes to part with, the burden, symbolized by the cloak, that she has wrapped herself in for all her life, which has given her comfort: "she would give them the cloak. She knew that once it was given, she could go." She cherished her mother's image, but had to free herself from its dominance of her life in order to be independent, to be her own person and not a sickly reflection of another. Carried to its logical conclusion, the story indicates that for a woman to be healthy, she must free herself of the burden of trying to be someone else.