Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ph.D.

Anne Sexton and the Transformation of Fairy Tales

Fall 2000
Mondays 7-9 pm, 9/11-10/23, 2000
Hugo House

Course Description: Are you a lover or hater of fairy tales? Do you adore the Seven Dwarfs and detest Cinderella?  Do you delight in both?   Do you lament the presentation of stepmothers as wicked? Do you crack up at the Brothers Grimm or is it a challenge to get past the first page of these fantasies that harbor sub-texts of real life?  Whatever the case, here's a chance to add your written voice to the genre.  Using Anne Sexton's poems in Transformations (a take-off on fairy tales) as background reading, class participants will create a fairy tale (in any form) or another piece of work (poems, autobiography, story) to revise throughout the quarter.  Those who wish will present their work in class for critique. Required texts:  Anne Sexton, Transformations, 1971; Grimm's Fairy Tales For further reading on Sexton, try for starters, Sexton's The Complete Poems and Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook, 1991.

     Class participants are encouraged to attend Theater Schmeater's September 28 performance and post-play discussion of Transformations and Other Tales, at Hugo House. To reserve a seat, contact Theater Schmeater at 324-5801.

     *If you are having problems with class dynamics, teaching, writing assignments, me or writing and reading in general, don't hesitate to call or email me or catch me before or after class.

Syllabus (includes in-class and at-home assignments)

9/11   Introduction and Discussion:  Who was Anne Sexton?  What was the context in which Sexton's work developed?  Why is her work important?  Is it?  How does it make you feel? What are the characteristics of fairy tales? List them.  At Home: Read a few poems in Transformations.  Find one that resonates with you. Write whatever comes to mind.  Don't worry about form, punctuation or style.  Don't edit yourself. Just place the emotion you feel after reading the poem at the center of your work.  Read this piece each day.  Add to it.  Play with it.  Know it; change it, or don't. Save everything you write for a portfolio.  Those who wish will organize their writings into chap books to share with the class.

9/18  Read Rapunzel in Grimm's and Sexton; let your hair down.  Comb it in a new way.  If you don't have any hair, pretend.  Remember when you used to have it.  Or, touch your bald head.  Create a story around it.  Either way, study yourself in the mirror.  Watch  your face.  What do you see? What did Snow White's "witch" see?  What did Cinderella's step-mother and step-sisters see?  What did Anne Sexton see?  Write a story about a witch.  Dream her into existence.  Create her voice, her sounds, her spirituality and art.  Record this piece of yourself for you.  Decide on a cover for your chap book.  Perhaps you will want to draw your left hand on the front cover and your right foot on the back.  Create a design, perhaps a collage, that works best for you.

9/25  Cinderella has played a large part in my life, a negative part, like a dark shadow keeping time with every step I have taken.  She has hovered above me.  So has the prince and his parents and the communities in which they have lived.  Is some such story true of your life? Has a fairy tale character played an important role in your experience?  Has he or she or they shadowed your activities? Think about this.  Talk about it.  Write a memoir or a letter to a friend or relative who is in your life now or who is no longer with you.  This may include the fairy tale characters themselves, members of this class or even Anne Sexton.  Gather together your stories or revised story - with  rough drafts - into your chap book.  You are building your portfolio.  Watch it grow.

9/ 28 - Theatre Shmeatre's performance of Transformations

10/2   From Transformations, find a poem that reminds you of a positive aspect of your childhood.  Go back to the Brothers Grimm and find the corresponding tale.  Now write a tale of your own. Create myth.  Create legend.  Create yourself anew. Do this by adding symbols to your tale that weren't found in either Sexton or Grimm.  This is possible. For example: A fourteen year-old patient told her analyst: "'If all the fairy tales in all the world were destroyed tomorrow it would not matter, for in the heart of the child they spring eternal.'"  In other words, if you had never read the Brothers Grimm or Sexton, there would be symbols in your life that would help you create brand new fairy tales.  Write one; start with Once upon a time ...or Twice upon a time or Thrice ... Place more work into your chap book.  You need not type everything out.  Perhaps you are creating a 'zine with drawings along the margins of pages where you work.

10/16.  Read Snow White in both Transformations and Grimm.  Write a rendition of Snow White (using a different title) with characters representing a traditional nuclear family: father, mother, siblings.  Include representations of the dwarfs -- in reality or with personified emotion. Also include, if you will, the golden key that introduces this volume of Sexton's poems. We will discuss aspects of the key in class. Is there a sexual nature to it?  Are fairy tales about sexual dynamics and politics?  Does Sexton think so?

10/23  You're in a room full of sleepy people.  In order to keep them awake you must spin them a tale.  Include descriptions of their surroundings and reference to natural forces.  Be wild in your thinking.  Pretend that your life depends on it; and who knows, maybe it does.  Be angry and humorous and sad.  After all, you are Sleeping Beauty, and don't you know, you refuse to fall asleep.  Your writing and story-telling assure your  success.  So does your drive.  Show and Tell:  Those of you who wish will share chap books with class.  Give yourselves a hand.  If you've come this far, you've worked hard and deserve it.   Thank you for a job well done!

Selected Bibliography

Aries, Philippe.  Centuries of Childhood:  A Social History of Family Life.  New York:

      Vintage, 1962

Bettelheim, Bruno.  The Uses of Enchantment:  The Meaning and Importance of Fairy

      Tales.  New York: Vintage, 1977

Bernheimer, Kate, ed. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall:  Women Writers Explore Their

      Favorite Fairy Tales.  New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Bixler, Frances, ed. Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton. Conway: University

      of Central Arkansas Press, 1988

Colburn, Stephen E., ed.  No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose. Ann

      Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985

_________, ed. Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,


Donoghue, Emma.  Kissing the Witch:  Old Tales in New Skins. New York: Joanna Cutler Books, 


Franz, Marie-Louise von.  Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 1995

Freud, Sigmund.  The Occurrence in Dreams of Material From Fairy Tales, James

      Strachey, ed. Standard Edition, London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of

      Psychoanalysis, 1958, vol. 12, pp. 281-287

Gould, Jean. Modern American Women Poets.  New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1984

Kevles, Barbara. "The Art of Poetry XV: Anne Sexton." Paris Review 13 (Summer

      1971): 15991

Lifshin, Lyn, ed.  Ariadne's Thread:  A Collection of Contemporary Women's Journals. 

      New York: Harper and Row, 1982

Maguire, Gregory.  Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.  New York: Regan Books, 1999

Marx, Patricia. "Interview with Anne Sexton." Hudson Review 18 (Winter 1965-66):


McClatchy, J. D., ed. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Bloomington: Indiana

      University Press, 1978

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. "Poet of Weird Abundance."  Parnassus: Poetry in Review: A

      Celebration of Women in Poetry. Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter, 1985, pp. 293-315

_________. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1991

Montefiore, Jan. Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience, Identity in Women's

      Writing.  London: Pandora, 1987

Sexton, Linda Gray and Lois Ames, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters.

      Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979

_________Sexton, Linda Gray, ed. Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems.  Boston: Houghton     

      Mifflin, 1981

_________Sexton, Linda Gray. Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My

      Mother, Anne Sexton. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1994

Sharpe, Ella Freeman.  Dream Analysis. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1978; reprint of

      1937 Hogarth Press edition

Showalter, Elaine, and Carol Smith. "A Nurturing Relationship: A Conversation with

      Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, April 15, 1974." Women's Studies 4, no. 1 (1976):


Wagner-Martin, Linda W., ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989

Warner, Marina.  From the Beast to the Blonde:  On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers.  New York: 

       Noonday Press, 1994

Zipes, Jack, Trans. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  Toronto: Bantam,


In addition to the strong feelings Anne's work aroused, there was the undeniable fact of her physical beauty.  her presence on the platform dazzled with its staginess, its props of water glasses, cigarettes, and ashtray.  she used pregnant pauses, husky whispers, pseudo-shouts to calculated effect.  A Sexton audience might hiss its displeasure or deliver a standing ovation.  It did not doze off during a reading.

Anne basked in the attention she attracted, partly because it was antithetical to an earlier generation's view of the woman writer as 'poetess,' and partly because she was flattered by and enjoyed the adoration of her public.  But behind the glamorously garbed woman lurked a terrified and homely child, cowed from the cradle onward, it seemed, by the indifference and cruelties of her world.  Her parents, she was convinced, had not wanted her to be born.  Her sisters, she alleged, competed against and won out over her....

     - Maxine Kumin, Introduction to The Complete Poems, pp. xxi-xxii


In our home, language itself was of prime importance: my mother labored long and hard over each syllable she wrote; my father gloried in crossword puzzles; when my sister or I asked the meaning of a word, we were told to go and look it up in the dictionary that lay conveniently open on the counter in my mother's writing room.....

                             -Linda Gray Sexton, "Bones and Black Puddings: Revisiting 'The Juniper Tree'" in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, p. 309