The world of fairy tales is a world of black and white, good and evil, where the villain is perceptibly malevolent, his actions mirroring his wicked soul and he is eventually punished, righteously so in the end. Simultaneously, heroines are the ones who enjoy the symbolic protection of the fairy tale universe and it is this that proves to be their salvation, and not their own survival skills. However, one heroine rises above all of these passive damsels in distress and takes her fate into her own hands. At first, Gretel is obedient and passive, listening to her brother’s ideas, believing he will know how to rescue them. When his ideas fail, she does not sit down, crying and waiting for a godmother to appear, to save her from imminent death with the flick of her magic wand; rather she actively pursues a course of action that is bound to save not only her, but her brother as well. By doing so, she proves that she is one of the rare Grimm heroines, conscious and active enough to defeat a villain, who does not rely on her beauty, patience, obedience and blind belief that fate will rescue her, but takes her fate into her own hands, firmly and categorically.
At the beginning of the story, Gretel is like all other heroines, passive and frightened, relying on someone from the outside world to save her from the predicament she has found herself in. Unlike Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and others who are, right from the very start of the story, presented as first and foremost more beautiful than any other girl in the land, the stories does not touch upon Gretel’s outside appearance. This is due to the fact that Gretel is a mere child, but it is relevant to mention that these other heroines are revered for their beauty from early childhood. Thus, these other heroines become used to the fact that their beauty, in combination with proper behavior, will be their ticket to a happily ever after, and they are conditioned to rely on everyone else, a man preferably, on the protection of the universe and fate, instead of themselves. Gretel, on the other hand, is not conditioned to rely on her beauty, since her family life was one of hardship and poverty, where her beauty, even an extraordinary one, would be of little, if any, use and thus, not worth mentioning. Consequently, by perpetually repeating how beautiful they are and to behave properly, the fairy tale heroines are conditioned to believe that this will save them from any predicament. Gretel is forced to rely first on her brother, and then on her own skills if she wants to survive the candy house from hell. Thus, like all the other male heroes from fairy tales, she as a character is judged not based on her outer appearance, but rather her skill to act when circumstances demand unyielding action, her ability to overcome obstacles which might initially appear insurmountable.
Her brother, Hansel, does offer unconditional love and support, but eventually, the story reaches a point where his help is unavailable, and unless Gretel decides to act, they are both doomed to be eaten by the wicked witch. In typical fairy tales of this kind featuring a female protagonist, there exists a formulaic conflict between the sheltered, inert, beautiful, wronged heroine and the highly aggressive, ugly opposing feminine force, usually embodied in the image of the wicked stepmother or a witch. The result of these is the slaying of the wicked force by a wandering prince, who wins the beautiful heroine as his prize. The deviation from this stereotypical plot in “Hansel and Gretel” is more than apparent. Hansel is not the one who slays the evil witch, saving the day, and Gretel is not the beautiful, frail, passive heroine, accepting the world as it is, without the smallest intent of trying to save her own life, instead waiting for the magical protection of the fairy tale universe.
Consequently, rather than accepting the tragic demise of her brother in the witch’s furnace as his inevitable faith and hoping that somehow, she will be saved, Gretel devises a plan. She utilizes not her beauty, not her good nature, but her intelligence, into tricking the witch to look into the furnace herself first. She appears a strike contrast to heroines such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, who are passive up to such an extent that they must be reanimated by the prince’s kiss. Gretel needs no reanimation to be alive and to act in the interest of staying alive.
Also, in these other fairy tales, violence is usually perpetrated by men, and slaying of the villain is a man’s job. Gretel, however, redefines the role of the female protagonist in fairy tales and takes matters into her own hands. She does as instructed by the witch, but manages to push her into the furnace and overtakes the role that the helpless Hansel was supposed to fulfill. She acts violently and decidedly, like a man, and thus, she becomes the savior. In this sense, Gretel is the proto-feminist image of subsequent female writers and fighters for women’s rights. By taking away the man’s role, she has usurped his power and has become powerful herself, in a time of female subordination and silence.
As a result, Gretel becomes the destroyer of witches, the savior of the weak, who are embodied in the image of her caged brother, and the liberator of female oppression. Her decided action in a time of need marks her as a young woman with the bravery of a man, who is responsible for her own, as well as her brother’s happily ever after. She resoundingly differs from other heroines, though her ending is equal to theirs. However, Gretel possesses the privilege of boasting being the creator of her own fate, instead of being a helpless heroine who waits for her prince charming to come and rescue her, and then bows down to his will, in a domesticated happily ever after.