The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim

Oh Bruno Bettelheim, you silly bunny.  So many things about your book annoyed me until I flipped to your about-the-author and looked at your dates.  Turns out, there is some excuse for your dated Freudian psychology: you were born in 1903!  After I knew that, so many things about you still annoyed me.  I like for writers to use the phrases “oedipal conflict” and “oral incorporative stage” sparingly, if at all.  Your dates are no excuse!  I would have found it even more annoying if I had not suddenly remembered this (warning for language); and then every time Bettelheim said something Freudian, I thought of Robert DeNiro and smiled.

Bruno Bettelheim says very little of value that I haven’t already heard out of Max Lüthi.  Most of the book is intended to persuade modern parents that fairy tales are good for their children because they provide the children with safe outlets for expressing their darkest emotions.  I do not require to be persuaded of this and thus became (unfair of me really) impatient with Bettelheim for continuing to try and persuade me.  I wanted to be all I ALREADY AGREE WITH YOU DUDE!  I wanted him to say new and exciting things that never would have occurred to me otherwise, and he didn’t really do that.

Moreover, I do not know that Bettelheim is right in trying to find one-to-one correspondences between every aspect of the story under discussion and every aspect of a child’s Freudian development.  “The Goose Girl” helps to guide children from the early oedipal stage to the next higher one; “Hansel and Gretel” helps them to overcome and sublimate their primitive incorporative desires, and so on like that.  His notion was that these stories have evolved over many generations in such a way as to reflect children at different stages in their development.  I am not completely convinced.

And then there was this:

Since in response to such direct and obvious seduction [the wolf inviting her into bed] Little Red Riding Hood makes no move to escape or fight back, either she is stupid or she wants to be seduced. In neither case is she a suitable figure to identify with.  With these details Little Red Riding Hood is changed from a naive, attractive young girl, who is induced to neglect Mother’s warnings and enjoy herself in what she consciously believes to be innocent ways, into nothing but a fallen women.

Bruno, Bruno.  I’m sorry, but we can’t be friends.  I’m returning you to the library and reading Marina Warner instead.  I believe that she will not anger me but will indeed have insightful remarks to make about gender, and I further believe that she will not be using the phrase “fallen woman” unironically.  I trust Marina Warner that way.

The Uses of Enchantment was my eighth (if I’ve counted them up right) and final read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, as it ends tomorrow, and I won’t be reading Marina Warner before then because I am too busy with Sea of Poppies.  I was totally successful at this challenge and read more books for it than I anticipated I would.  Some of them surprised me by being wonderful, and some I wanted to love but did not.  You know how that goes.

Other people what read Bruno Bettelheim:

Tales from the Reading Room
books i done read

Did I miss yours?  Tell me and I will add a link!

37 thoughts on “The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim

    • It must be sad to go from being controversial to being quite dated and – not quaint, exactly, because that implies charming, and I didn’t find this book charming, but something like quaint. That’s why I always think it must be rather sad to write nonfiction – even if you are cutting-edge and controversial when you first publish, you’re likely to be out of date within a few years.

  1. I’ll bet he sounds a little dated now. I actually prefer Jack Zipes, who is more interesting on fairy tales, and I agree that Marina Warner is fab (although sometimes I wish she’d slow down and contemplate what she’s saying rather than rush off into further aeons of erudition).

    • I’m looking forward to getting some of Zipes’s stuff, although Warner’s up next for me, just because I have to read these books of hers before they fall due at the library.

  2. I read this thirty-five years ago and had much the same reaction as you did. At the time, I didn’t so much think it sounded dated as that it sounded irretrievably silly, when he was heading down all those Freudian roads.

    • It was SO silly – when he was all like, na na na, Hansel and Gretel resolve their oral incorporative conflicts by not getting eaten by the witch!

  3. I had this on my list a while back, but didn’t ever read it. I can recommend an excellent book on fairy tales:

    Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales

    I loved it and think you would, too. I read it for the 2007 Challenge.

    • Thanks, I will definitely check it out! I like essays where writers say what they like and why – it often says so much to me about what they’re looking to do with their own writing. 🙂

  4. I had to read this book for a class on psychology of religion. Luckily, the teacher decided we could read “The Spiral Staircase” by Karen Armstrong instead. I cannot even begin to express how much I disliked Bettelheim. It is still waiting on my shelves for me to find the courage and denial to pick it up again, but I don’t think it is ever going to happen.

    • It’s not worth the time, honestly. Bookmooch it away or something – your memories of it are not misleading you. But I want to read The Spiral Staircase!

  5. Freud was amazing when he was first, if you catch my drift. He thought it all up! But let’s not be slavish now.

    Darn it, this one was on my list. It doesn’t sound like it would be so much up my alley after all. I might look into that Mirror, Mirror book above.

    • Yes, exactly! I remember reading The Chosen, which talks about Freud quite a bit, and how this one psychology teacher explains the problems with Freud and how the next people can take his work and build on it to make it better. So yeah, I agree with you.

    • Marina Warner! I’m so excited about reading her books I’m afraid they will end up being a letdown just because I’ve built them up so much in my mind. :p

  6. Ooh, I recognized the name Bruno Bettelheim right away. *shudder* He’s the guy who tried to blame autism on “refrigerator mothers.” I’m not sure if I could take anything he had to say seriously, after that, you know?

    • I saw that! I was feeling a bit guilty for calling him a silly bunny, and thinking how I wouldn’t like someone to call me a silly bunny if I had been a Serious Scholar; but then I saw on Wikipedia how he blamed autism on the mothers. What a silly bunny.

    • Absolutely the right call! Whenever I swap away books without reading them first, I try to forget them instantly. That way even if I see a positive review of them, I don’t regret my swapping decisions.

    • Indeed I would say most overtly Freudian phrases are no good anymore. Plus “Oedipal” sounds a lot like “edible” if you don’t say it distinctly. Every time I hear someone talking about those “edible playgrounds” that are all the rage these days, I definitely think they are saying “Oedipal playgrounds”.

  7. Dude, I had to read Bettelheim for an adolescent literature course, and it was indeed totally ridiculous, dated Freudian stuff. I’m glad to hear you agree. Just like having my opinions affirmed. Miss you!

  8. I’ll be curious to read what you think of Warner. Bettelheim and I are not friends either, but I can’t say Warner and I get along much better!

  9. Somehow I ended up reading this when I was thirteen or fourteen. I hadn’t read many academic books; I just thought they were all supposed to be like that one, and so didn’t really form an opinion one way or another about it. The main thing it impressed on me was that if you were highly educated you could appropriate *anything* to make your point, and still have credibility.

    Then I sat down and wrote a long fantasy story on a roll of adding machine tape under the tree in my grandparents’ back yard.

    • I would not think adding machine taping would make for very satisfying writing paper. I am always craving larger and larger spaces on which to write. Like walls. But you cannot write on the walls (at least not when you’re renting).

  10. I am sorry this book fell so flat for you. It sounds like this guy had some really crazy ideas, and I am not sure I would have liked them one bit! I hope that your next read on this subject is a more pleasant one, and congratulations on finishing the challenge!!

    • Thanks! I meant to start my next read on this subject a while ago and kept getting distracted by shiny new books – but tonight’s the night! As soon as I finish responding to comments, I’m putting on iTunes and curling up with Marina Warner!

  11. Yeah, I read this one back in high school, and even then it sounded, well, often ridiculous. It was a really useful thing for me to read then, though, because it introduced me to new ways of thinking about folklore, which hadn’t ever come up in any of my classes.

    I do love his name, though. It’s just fun to say.

    • I’m surprised at how many people have read this for various reasons over the years. I know it’s a classic and all but it’s so dull and dated and silly! Must be the name.

      *says Bruno Bettelheim a number of times in a row*

      (I’d like it even better if he spelled his last name Bettleheim)

  12. I have dim, unpleasant memories of having to read this as a student. I really struggled with Freudian theory and its application to literature. I admire Freud for the ground-breaking work he did; at least he got people thinking and talking. But, the inherent gender-biased slant in Bettelheim’s analysis is totally outdated. His work was once cutting-edge stuff, but I think we’ve moved on from the concept of “fallen women”, etc.

  13. Ouch…that point about Little Red Riding Hood was brutal…my daughter loves her story, and I don’t think she is any the worse for them

    • I always liked the story of Little Red Riding Hood too – her red cloak with the red hood sounded so pretty. Bettelheim went on and on about how the cloak was red, scarlet, the color of sin, etc, etc. So silly.

  14. I liked Bettleheim when I first read him, I think because he was the first fairy tale scholar I read–the first one who said “Yes, fairy tales are real and important, and something you can study.”

    Warner–still pretty Freudian, If I’m remembering correctly, though obviously less likely to condemn someone as a “fallen woman” (I don’t remember that bit, but then, I don’t remember Bettleheim very well at this point).

    Zipes is more fun–he varies his theory base more. And I like Propp; structuralists are fun!

    • Darn, is she? I was pinning my hopes on her being fun, I guess just because she’d done a book about women in fairy tales. And I’d never heard of Propp – I will add him to my reading list!

  15. Years ago I decided I *should* read this, being a student of children’s lit and all, but I didn’t make it very far before I started clutching my head and muttering 😉 Gold star to you for reading it!

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