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The Story of Hansel and Gretel: Summary, Symbolism, and Interpretations

Updated on February 10, 2017
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Tolovaj is a small publishing house specializing in literature for children. The theory of fairytales is one of our passions.

Hansel and Grethel

Hansel and Gretel (sometimes Grethel) is a famous fairy tale from the collection of brothers Grimm. It has amazing history and offers many astonishing interpretations.

We'll start with short summary and slowly delve into its rich symbolism. Hansel and Gretel is an old story with always fresh messages talking about our deepest fears.

Fill your pockets with some nice white pebbles, take a piece of bread and come with us in the deep deep woods!

(Image credit: Hermann Vogel, all used illustrations are in Public Domain)

Who wrote Hansel and Gretel (not necessary with this title?)

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image by: Albert Weisgerber
image by: Albert Weisgerber

Short Summary

There is a great famine in the country and woodcutter's family is starving. His wife suggests to take their kids (they are his and his late first wife's children) into the woods, so they would have two hungry mouths less to feed.

After some hesitation he agrees and they leave kids in the wood. Hansel and Gretel heard about the plan and return home thanks to the stones Hansel was using to mark the path. But at the next attempt, Hansel can't load his pocket with stones because the doors were locked. Instead of stones he used bread crumbs, but they are eaten by the birds, so the woodcutter and his wife succeeded and children were lost in the woods.

Image: Albert Weisgerber
Image: Albert Weisgerber
Image: Albert Weisgerber
Image: Albert Weisgerber


They find a mysterious hut made of sweets. There is a witch living inside. She is a cannibal and intends to eat them.

But they are too lean, so she decides to feed Hansel first, using Gretel as a slave and for some time children manage to postpone their tragic end. Witch has very poor sight, so she is checking Hansel's fat by pinching his finger. Instead of the finger he gives her a chicken bone, what postpones his death for a few days.

Finally, the witch prepares an oven and plans to bake both kids. Fortunately, Gretel outsmarts her and throws the witch in her oven where she is burned. Kids search the hut, find gold, jewelry and other valuables and with a help of some birds safely return home.

Their stepmother died in the mean time and together with their regretful father they lived happily ever after.

Image: Albert Weisgerber
Image: Albert Weisgerber

You read it right. This was NOT a sanitized politically correct version of Hansel and Grethel where children simply got lost in the woods. They were taken there by their parents and this is important because it addresses one of the primal human fears - to be abandoned by loved ones.

Or: to be forced to abandon somebody you love!

A werewolf in action
A werewolf in action

History and Variations

Although Grimm's version is the most popular one it is far from being the first. Looking at the main theme we can place it in the time of the great famine in 14th century. It was time of despair when people often did terrifying things in order to survive.

Abandoned children and cannibalism were two of the most striking ones. It was time of cannibalism and werewolves. The Children were common victims.

Even in the times of Grimms a child abandonment due extreme poverty was not too rare but they made some important changes through several versions of Grimms' Fairy Tales.

At first their parents were real father and mother and they were equally responsible for their actions. Later mother was transferred into popular role of evil step-mother and father became reluctant at her idea but helpless due circumstances.

Little Thumb by Harry Clarke
Little Thumb by Harry Clarke

Did you know?

Hansel and Gretel didn't have names in the first draft of Grimms' fairy tales. Both names are 'invented' by the writers.

It's also one of rare fairy tales with two major characters where one leads in first and the other in the second part of the story.

Painting by Karl Hartmann: Jenicek a Marenka
Painting by Karl Hartmann: Jenicek a Marenka

We must mention slightly different version of the story of Hansel and Gretel in the collection of Charles Perrault. It's titled Hop O' My Thumb or Little Tom Thumb or Little Thumbling.

There are seven kids (all boys) in this story and we have an ogre instead of the witch, but the plot is essentially the same although the second half of the story starts to resemble the story about the Jack and the Beanstalk.

In Russia, for instance, we have a variation where the girl is sent to step-mother's sister which is really Baba Yaga.

We can easily find more variations all across the Europe with different number of children and even a Devil instead of the witch.

Vignette by Arthur Rackham
Vignette by Arthur Rackham

Where can you buy the book about Hansel and Gretel?

Hansel and Gretel
Hansel and Gretel

This classic fairy tale is still charming and breath-taking as it was more than two centuries ago. While we all know what happens in the story, it's still enjoyable to explore all the small yet important details, especially with astonishing illustrations by Anthony Browne.

Browne is one of the most prominent illustrators in the field of children literature of the world. Among other prestigious rewards, he go international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2000 and two Kate Greenaway Medals.

 
Image by Carl Offterdinger
Image by Carl Offterdinger

Symbolism in Hansel and Gretel

The story about Hansel and Grethel is full of symbols and they offer numerous explanations. We'll try to briefly explain only few of them to give you the clue about the impressive depth in this famous fairy tale. Some other symbols, like the foret setting, are explained in this analysis of Red Riding Hood.

Bread - its representation of life is clear. The scarcity of bread is direct threat of death. Bread crumbles in Hansel and Gretel show how fragile and insecure is our position.

But looking at the connection of bread with wheat and its life cycle bread can also be understood as a symbol of resurrection.

White stones - they represent innocence. Ancient Greeks used the at anonymous voting and the meaning was: not guilty. Analytical psychologists interpret them as children's denial to be changed. They went into the woods to be transformed but white pebbles help them to come back.

When they lost the access to them (step-mother locks the door), there is no way back anymore.

Oven - it is a representation of a womb. It offers a possibility of birth (or in this case rebirth), but also death if an already born person gets back in (refuses to grow up).

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Illustration by Carl Offterdinger
Illustration by Carl Offterdinger

Birds - there are numerous mentions of the birds in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel.

Boy lies he is looking at the pigeon (can represent home) when they are leaving home, birds eat the crumbs to prevent kids returning home for the second time and a bird leads them to the witch's hut.

A bird's bone is important element helping the kids surviving a few days in captivity.

Finally a bird (it is a duck in some and a swan in other versions) helped Gretel and Hansel to get home. Birds can symbolise freedom, prophecy, joy, immortality and human spirit. This story has all of these.

Needless to add birds have white color (if the color is mentioned) to emphasize their spiritual mission.

Water - after the transformation (Hansel and Gretel actually grow up in the witch's house) kids must pass the water if they want to get home. This alludes death (think about Hades in Greek mythology) but also rebirth (think about baptism in Christianity).

Did you learn something?


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Do you identify with Hansel or Gretel? Or maybe a witch?

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    • Mix Mafra profile image

      Michelle Mafra 3 years ago from Corona CA

      Great lens. Love the symbolism.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Mix Mafra: Makes two of us!

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      anonymous 3 years ago

      I like the entire story. Pretty sure I don't identify with the witch :)

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Great to hear that;)

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @LiteraryMind: Great to hear that:)

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 3 years ago

      You give people much to think about.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Certainly hope so:)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I used to love this story when I was a child. It scared me.

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      Aunt-Mollie 3 years ago

      Another great article! I really enjoyed your insight on the classic tale.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @aesta1: It can be scary, I suppose.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Aunt-Mollie: Great to hear that!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @OneSavvyMama: Well, life is never really simple and great stories are always reflection of life, right? Thanks for your comment!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 3 years ago

      Pinned!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: :)

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      othellos 3 years ago

      Another excellent analysis of a fairy tale. Now I understand why I liked Hansel & Gretel so much. I bookmarked it to send it later to a couple of teachers that I know. It's the least I can do. Thanks a lot:=)

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @othellos: I appreciate that!

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      webmavern 3 years ago

      Thanks for an interesting and informative lens!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @webmavern: My pleasure!

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