Comparative Analysis of the Snow White Novel by Donald Barthelme and its Original Fairy Tale Version


“Snow White” is a novel by Donald Barthelme written in the best traditions of post-modernism. The “Snow White”, at a glance, is a far cry from the famous fairy tale of the same name. The original version tells us a story about an innocent beauty that had to experience grief of being unloved, uncertainty of an escape from her hated stepmother, joy of friendship and celebration of  love as a pinnacle of the story. As much as the Barthelme’s “Snow White” is an anti-fairy tale is it also an anti-novel.

Unparalleled techniques used by the writer to describe the absurdity of his story and to negate the whole existence of a plot line in his creation have shifted the weight of common sense beyond the verbal means of expressions, which are words. He is half mocking, half emphasizing with the humans whose nature constantly subdues them into a search for a common sense, and who, having too many tools at their disposal, fail to identify themselves and, consequently, the world around them; they gradually realize that words cannot helt them to recapture the reality, identify, understand their self, their goals and the void of the Universe that surrounds them.

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Anti-Novel or Anti-Fairy Tale?

Written by a post-modernist writer, the “Snow White” was called to debunk stereotypes of traditional literary styles and to break the seemingly unassailable tie between the language cogruence and the value of the creation produced by an author. Being repeatedly called an anti-novel for the destructive properties of the language used for its creation, “Snow White” has certainly retained features of the original fairy tale story and asked some vital questions through its seemingly incoherent narrative. As an example, the author deemed it necessary to repeatedly paste fragments of phrases and even surveys inside the book; these visual techniques often served as hallmark for post-modernist literature. By innserting a survey inside the novel he was mocking the America’s obsession with gatering of statistical data, although the survey was just as incoherent as other streams of verbal expression in the book. It could be also that the author was actually referring to those phrases written in upper case, bolded and completely alone on an entire page as to illustrations in children’s books that served both for stimulating imagination and giving the imagination ways of acquiring physical shape. Those fragments of phrases and clichés he used as visual embelishment of his story were products of somewhat random association sequences obvious only to Barthelme by means of which he underlines the distortion of language that is meant to underline the discrepancy of the standard context of the classical, innocuous “Snow White” and the characters placed into his own projection of the fairy tale that was unravelling in the sixties. The author distorted the traditional plot through making Snow a cohabitant of the seven dwarves with whom she had sexual relations. Having challenged the standard form of the fairytale, Barthelme also questioned its aspect of pleasure; this was a rather iconoclast move as “the pleasure of fairytales resides in their forms”. Since now the pleasure was unavailable for reader in the standard frame of the fairytale, it was to be sought in any other aspect of this literary creation and Donald Barthelme thoughtfully had prepared a sound cushioning for a reader that could grow disappointed from such an absence of conformities in the book. Sharp puns, good humor and mocking of people’s flaws served as an alternative that has brilliantly substituted the need for the conventional fairy-tale structure and the “happily ever after”. Barthelme’s dwarves still say “heigh-ho” and they spend their days in toil, and they care for Snow. Comic sides of the relations between Snow and them, between Jane, the impersonification of the evil stepmother and Paul, and the sum of relations in this anti-novel leave a happy smile as well as a puzzled look registered on the reader’s face.

In fact, the puzzled look, as well as the reader’s inclination to have many of unanswered  questions ‘why’ are also rather important features of the novel. That is due to the absence of relativity to the reader in Barthelme’s interpretation of the fairy tale. While one is reading the original tale, they have no particular knowledge as to where Snow White lived, which kingdom her prince came from and which forest she escaped to in order to find salvation. This absence of details, according to Cheryl Lee, “is what makes a fairytale so relatable to all kinds of readers”. But one has to remember that a traditional fairy tale can sometimes easily fit in two pages of a large-fonted book. In Barthelme’s “Snow White” one is not comforted by this complete absence of specifications regarding the life of Snow White and the dwarves. Rather, he creates a very special  air of only giving some pieces of the puzzle to the reader, leaving it to them to create a concrete picture of the scenery around the novel’s characters. Those half-hints establish a special atmosphere, and just like half-phrases which the characters utter in turns, they seem to suffice perfectly in order to weave a canvas of the story, surprisingly leaving no voids that are so common in classic fairy tales.

The idea of nothingness as well as an idea of anti-being constantly reiterates throughout the novel which serves a base for its incongruesness and excuses the incoherences and voids omnipresent in the text. One does not know what nothing is but in order to understand what it is one has to create a list of what is not nothing, therefore of what actually is something. It is notable that Barthelme used nothingness as a base for many of his creations, a base, but not a centre; as it was described by Lodge “the center is not the center”. One can sense the ghost of nothingness that is reflected in the phrases uttered by the characters. For example, the dwarves obviously had a father who has left a recipe for baby food behind and nothing else. nothing was known of him and they made no attempt of finding out what he was like and such. This notion of negation of existence proven by nothing but a recipe left behind was reflected in the image of all the Dwarves also who repetedly confused the reader by obfuscating the truths about each character.

Quests for Answers

It is remarkable that at the first glance the novel does not bear any resemblance to the classical story about Snow White. However, when one goes on with reading, they will certainly notice one interesting feature of this novel. Fairy-tale symbolism offered to the reader is not reflected merely in commonalities with the traditional Snow White story; there are also commonalities and details referring to other tales. Such were fragments when Snow White was sitting next to the window in her room, and she let the crowds downstairs see her wonderful dark long hair, that she let fall out of the window. One doubtlessly will be prone to think about Rapunzel and her letting the hair fall down to the ground in order to let the prince inside her lone and inexpugnable tower, her prison. This moment is surprising: the reader might feel a tinge of an internded dissonance, because they are sure that it is a ”Snow White” novel that they are holding in their hands. Another reference to a fairy tale is Snow White’s contemplations about Paul, whom she is idolizing at first, but then proceeds to describe him as a frog. Her thoughts then were surprisingly coherent, if compare their course to the rest of the novel: “PAUL is frog. He is frog through and through. I thought he would, at some point, cast off his mottled wettish green-and-brown integument to reappear washed in the hundred glistering hues of princeliness. But he is pure frog. So. I am disappointed.”. Barthleme creates a pun from Snow White’s disappointment: she has been desperately trying to see a genuine prince in Paul, but now, failing to do so, she is simply identifying him with his traditional alter-ego, which is a frog, an unconscious being. It is commonly known that in fairy tales a frog turns into a prince or a princess; witnessing this situation of a retardation of a content of a human being, who attracts Snow White physically and resembles a man, but inside he still remained a frog which causes Snow White a great pain and another disappointment.

Creating an elegant parallel between moments of his novel and typical for fairy tales naïve and trivial symbols he is referring good-humoredly to humans’ attempts to explain existence, find themselves, create an identity. Elements of Freudian psyschoanalysis or popular back in Barthelme’s time structural analysis occasionally come out of the mouths of either Snow White or one of the other characters of the book. It is reflected in, once again, speculations of Snow White about Paul: “Paul? Is there a Paul, or have I only projected him in the shape of my longing, boredom, ennui and pain?”. Therefore, both Freudian ideas and ingenuousness of fairy tales are at disposal of humanity. In particular, they are at Snow White’s disposal who blindly uses these seemingly sophisticated tools for deciphering existence just as willingly as humans would use fairy tales as their logical explanation of the illogical. Unable to use them properly, humans would run into contradictions and eventually would simply operate incoherent phrases that have been developed by sages who were supposed to explain existence but only made it over-complicated.

Self and Personality

Snow White being on quest for the final happily ever after of her own personal fairy tale does not seem to ever reach the end of her struggle for finding her prince: a reader might also notice that time and space in the novel are devoid of their traditional dimentionality, dynamics, predictable movement forward. They are not used to develop a plot and give the characters some air of constant strive of progressing, but they are scattered incoherently, just as as the words uttered by the characters are incongruous and sometimes confusing. This way one may assume that it is the words, their meanings that define personalities and help the characters to identify themselves. And this is a common belief of humans: they make attempts to identify reality and themselves with words sometimes experiencing what Snow White experienced at some point: the fatigue of all the old and overused words that have been brought to serve people. She is so burdened with an idea of hearing the same words over and over again that she calls herself a ‘horsewife’; the language is overly absorbed and used trivially, which upsets Snow White.

When it comes to identities and appearances in this novel, they become surprisingly only reserved for some characters but not for the others. For example, the identity of the dwarves is never overtly described and a reader has absolutely no idea about how they look. However, their characters are used as tools to demonstrate the nothingness and tools through which one is able to feel, see, explore and assess. The identity of each of the dwarves is as if mixed with one another, even the Snow White herself insists that these seven men only make up two  real men, whereas it is questionable what the definition of the real man is and whether her much admired potential prince Paul conforms to the definition of the real man. Barthelme himself, in one of the interviews, claimed that this question was left open as one of the purposes of the novel. One does not even expect the dwarves to actually have drarfism, so it is actually the spiritual, the mental side of their being that makes them incomplete as men.


One may or may not admire the creation of Barthelme which has certainly become the pinnacle of post-modernist literature, unique in its nature. It is indeed not an easy piece for reading which makes it seemingly even more distant from a traditional fairy tale with its simple plots and celebration of love, joy and defiance of all evils. However, by offering this not-so-easy to digest material to readers Barthelme’s shows some of the common human tendencies towards self-analysis and search for common answers. By showing the society as it was in the 1960s, he questions the traditional images of happiness, love, and most importantly the possibility of the happily ever after. It could be so, he suggests, that it is not just unattainable, but also not necessary. His anti-novel, or perhaps an anti-fairy tale has questioned some common beliefs and uncontested truths doing it in a very light-hearted manner abundantly ornated with good humor.