The Story of Hansel and Gretel: Summary, Symbolism, and Interpretations
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?)
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 next attempt woodcutter and his wife succeeded and children were lost in the woods.
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.
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 and other valuables and with a help of some birds safely return home.
Their stepmother died in the mean time and together with their father they lived happily ever after.
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!
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 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 and children were common victims.
Even in the times of Grimms 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Finally a bird (it is a duck in some and a swan in other versions) helped Gretel and Hansel to get home. Birds can symbolize 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).