The Uses of Enchantment
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The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) won acclaims such as the US National Book Award and the National Book of Critics Circle Award. Its author, Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990), was an Austrian-born psychoanalyst and public intellectual who worked primarily in the United States. Bettelheim wrote The Uses of Enchantment to persuade parents and educators that the European fairy tale, with all its fantastical and violent content, was a greater aid to child development than the more anodyne realistic contemporary children’s literature: While the latter type of literature might reflect a child’s everyday experiences, the fairy tale is more truthful in its presentation of a child’s chaotic inner life and more consoling in its suggestions of creative solutions.
In his New York Times review of Bettelheim’s book, John Updike explains how Bettelheim drew upon the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who used fairy tales to explain psychoanalytic motifs: “[W]hat is new, and exciting, is the warmth, humane and urgent, with which Bettelheim expounds fairy tales as aids to the child's growth […] Bettelheim's readings make sense of much that seems nonsensical” (Updike, John. “The Uses of Enchantment.” The New York Times. 1976). However, Updike speculates that the fairy tales discussed in Bettelheim’s book are “medieval in spirit as well as setting, and saturated in Christian cosmology”; he is skeptical of the fairy tales’ universality and posits that decontextualizing the stories risks misunderstanding their full significance.
Indeed, leading fairy tale scholars American Jack Zipes and British Marina Warner both acknowledge Bettelheim’s academic importance but argue that his scholarship is patchy and incomplete, and, decades after the book’s publication, Bettelheim’s reputation suffered a downturn. In a 1991 article titled “Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment and Abuses of Scholarship,” UC Berkeley anthropologist Alan Dundes demonstrates how Bettelheim plagiarized Julius Heuscher’s 1963 work A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales: Their Origin, Meaning, and Usefulness alongside other texts. This has destroyed the myth of the originality of Bettelheim’s arguments and undermined his scholarly authority.
This guide uses the 1991 British Penguin Edition.
The Uses of Enchantment begins with Bettelheim’s argument that fairy tales are far more useful than contemporary realistic children’s literature in helping a child find meaning in themselves and the world. He emphasizes that literature must meet the child at their stage in development rather than prematurely trying to impose a rational, adult view on them. The fairy tale, with its violent and fantastic scenes, parallels the child’s inner turmoil. At the same time, it encourages the child to identify with noble but relatable protagonists to psychologically access the next developmental stage and work towards their own happy conclusion.
In studies of famous, largely European fairy tales, Bettelheim argues that the stories’ components encourage children at different developmental stages to find a more mature, independent approach to the world. For example, the author asserts, some fairy tales’ polarizing dual parental personas—the original, dead good mother versus the demanding, withholding stepmother—enables the child to hold onto the supportive image of a nurturer who loves them and believes in their future, even as they seek to defeat and surpass the woman who inhibits them. Bettelheim argues that fairy tales negotiate the oedipal drama of the child’s wish to destroy the same-sex parent in order to be first with the opposite-sex parent. Here, the stories employ symbols and images to show children that they recognize their predicament and then offer healthier alternatives to their immature, destructive wishes. Bettelheim also claims that fairy tales can help the reader achieve psychoanalytic personality integration, where the animalistic id is given full rein before it is brought under the control of the superego and ego. In the animal groom cycle of tales, where a heroine gives up her repression of sexuality in order to have a happy marriage, Bettelheim says that love is the means through which the violent, antisocial aspects of the id can be redeemed. Thus, what seemed dangerous and uncontrollable is revealed for its true beauty and naturalness.
Bettelheim believes the best fairy tales promote a happy ending and that they show how, after overcoming serious obstacles, the hero can look forward to a future of autonomy from their parents and a union with an opposite-sex partner onto whom they can healthily transfer their earlier oedipal attachment (the “Oedipus complex” is a radically heteronormative Freudian concept of psychosexual development, and the author centers this concept throughout the text). Bettelheim posits that all tales are relevant to different types of children, regardless of their age or gender. Thus, the child would derive meaning from the tale according to their circumstances and stage of development. He advocates repeated exposure to the same tale so that its motifs have the maximum opportunity to developmentally aid the child’s unconscious.