‘Cinderella’ by Roald Dahl was published in 1982 in his collection Revolting Rhymes. It is a satire based book of poems for children, and was, as many of his works were, illustrated amusingly. The collection focuses on a retelling of folk or fairy tales, such as The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He presents alternatives to well-established events and alters characters to change the narrative, always with a surprising and pleasing ending.
Dhal chose to use the rhyme scheme of aabbccdd, alternating end sounds as he saw fit. This most basic of rhyming patterns, which is generally ignored by modern and contemporary writers, is wholly appropriate for the subject matter and intended audience. The poem was aimed at children and the clear, pleasing pattern fits perfectly with the retold fairy tales. It gives the text a lighthearted sing song-like tone, even when the subject matter becomes dark.
Summary of Cinderella
The poem begins with the speaker stating that the story which is about to follow is not the one the reader might expect. It is the true story of Cinderella, unedited. In the following stanzas, Cinderella makes her way to the ball via help from a Fairy. She meets the Prince and loses her dress and her shoe. Rather than try to fit their feet into the shoe, the ugly sisters flush it down the toilet and replace it with one of their own.
When the Prince sees that the shoe fits the first ugly sister he beheads her and then proceeds to do the same to the other sister. Cinderella is turned off by the idea of a man who beheads people and wishes to be married to a “lovely feller.” Immediately her wish is granted and she lives happily ever after.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Cinderella
I guess you think you know this story.
You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.
And made to sound all soft and sappy
just to keep the children happy.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by directly addressing the reader. He tells them that he knows what they are thinking. Anyone reading this poem for the first time, having seen the title ‘Cinderella’ will bring some preconceptions in regards to the plot. He makes sure from the first line that these preconceptions are canceled out. The “real” story, the one he is going to tell through the following seven stanzas, is much “more gory” than the fairy tale that has become popular today.
The following lines explain that the original story was hidden from view in order to keep children from getting upset. Those who were in charge of this decision “cooked up” a fake story. This is the “soft and sappy” one that is so familiar. The use of the word “sappy” makes it seem as if the speaker disagrees with the decision. He would rather the reader hear the full truth.
Mind you, they got the first bit right,
The bit where, in the dead of night,
Where rats who wanted things to eat,
Began to nibble at her feet.
The only part of the traditional story that’s true is the “first bit” in which Cinderella is left at home by her stepsister while they attend the ball. Even though the story is the same, Dahl uses the phrase “dead of night,” darkening the overall mood. The “Ugly” sister set out wearing all of their jewels and leave behind “Cindy.” Her name is almost immediately shortened. This is in an effort to separate her further from the girl the reader might be picturing. It also adds an element of realism. She could be a real person. This is a choice made throughout the text as Dahl attempts to humanize a princess and a magic-based world.
He states that Cinderella was locked away inside a “slimy cellar” while the sisters were gone. A reader should be on the lookout for instances of alliteration such as that present in line twelve. The only company she has down under the house is a hoard of rats that try to eat her feet. These details are unthinkable in the original version.
She bellowed ‘Help!’ and ‘Let me out!
The Magic Fairy heard her shout.
And quickly, in no time at all,
Cindy was at the Palace Ball!
The next stanza is longer and mainly consists of the speaker describing how Cinderella demanded the “Magic Fairy” help her. Cinderella’s responses are clipped and blunt. She tells the fairy that the rats are eating her, making her feel “rotten” and she must be removed from the cellar and taken to the “Disco at the Palace.” This humorous line further separates the narrative from what the reader knows.
Rather than act the role of meek, put upon girl, Cinderella specifically tells the fairy to give her “‘earrings and a diamond brooch!”’ She also demands “silver slippers” and “nylon panty hose,” an accessory the traditional princess would never have mentioned.
It is also her intention to make the “handsome Prince” fall for her. She is going to accomplish this with her newly acquired looks and fancy clothes. The fairy does not put up any resistance to this demanding version of Cinderella. She immediately gives her what she asks for and Cinderella appears at the ball.
It made the Ugly Sisters wince
To see her dancing with the Prince.
As Cindy shouted, ‘Let me go!’
The dress was ripped from head to toe.
The “ugly” sisters are turned off by the sight of their sister dancing with the Prince. Again, Cinderella does not act meekly. She embraces the Prince, pulls him to her, and he is “turned to pulp.” The young man falls for “Cindy” and is extremely distressed when midnight comes.
Just like in the original story Cinderella knows she only has till midnight to enjoy the ball and then she must “run to save [her] neck.” She has to get out of the ballroom before her fancy clothes disappear. The Prince does everything he can at that moment to stop her, shouting out words like “Alas!” and “Alack!”
He tears at her clothes, asking her to stay, and her dress is destroyed in the process. An adult reader of this piece might take the time to consider the symbolism surrounding the destruction of the fake dress, the realization of midnight, and her true identity. It becomes even more poignant towards the end of the poem when Cinderella’s most important choice changes.
She ran out in her underwear,
And lost one slipper on the stair.
Then rather carelessly, I fear,
He placed it on a crate of beer.
The princess has lost all of her clothes, except for her underwear. The scene is something out of a nightmare. She even loses one of her shoes as she goes down the stairs. Her constructed identity is falling apart and her real status comes to the forefront on the back of what could be a great embarrassment.
The Prince sees the lost shoe and immediately grasps it. He is sure in that moment that he will be able to find the missing woman and make her his “bride!” His plan does not go as well in this telling of the story as it does in the original. It is his goal to visit everyone in town until he has found the “maiden,” or young, unmarried woman, that he fell in love with.
Then, in humorous contrast to his own words, he places the shoe on a ”crate of beer.” This gesture should lessen one’s opinion of the Prince. It also foreshadows his true, less than gallant nature. The presence of beer in the scene of what has become a children’s story is also striking. It once again takes the narrative into the real world.
At once, one of the Ugly Sisters,
(The one whose face was blotched with blisters)
Ah ha, you see, the plot grows thicker,
And Cindy’s luck starts looking sicker.
In the fifth stanza the “Ugly Sisters” do what they can take the place of Cinderella. One of the sisters grabs the shoe and flushes it down the toilet. She then replaces it with the “slipper from her own left foot.” This clever manipulation of the original storyline shows a true cunning on the part of the sisters.
The speaker comes back into the narrative and takes note of the fact that this change makes it less likely that Cinderella will end up with the Prince. Her luck is looking “sicker” or poorer. Dahl’s choice to allow the narrator to pass judgement on the scene makes the reader connect with a very human part of the story. He, just as the reader does, sees the situation for what it is. The narrator is not taken in by the allure of the folk or fairy tale.
Next day, the Prince went charging down
To knock on all the doors in town.
‘Oh no you don’t! You made a vow!
‘There’s no way you can back out now!’
The sixth stanza is the longest of the poem. This choice was made strategically as it contains the most action, and the greatest deviation from the original text. The lengthy nature of the stanza allows a reader to move quickly through the events and discover for themselves the changed nature of the Prince.
After the ball is over and everyone has returned home, a new day dawns. The Prince sets out just as said he would to “knock on all the doors in town.” The tension in the town grew, just as it does in the thirty-eight lines of the stanza. He is questioning his own ability to find the woman he fell in love with. He takes note of the shoe itself. It is “long and very wide,” not a very attractive shape. The smell is no better. It is a “wee bit icky.” This phrase makes it seems as if the Prince is attempting to hold back judgement on his true love. Rather than call it disgusting or smelly, it is a “wee bit icky.”
Many citizens, thousands, come forward to try on the shoe. Finally one of the sisters tries it on and of course, it fits. The Prince immediacy shouts out ‘“No!’” He is horrified at the thought of having this ugly woman for his bride, even though he made a promise to marry the owner of the shoe.
The ugly sister is not deterred. She yells back that he must stay true to the “vow” he made. The Prince does not let the situation progress any further and in the next lines makes a decision that changes the entire outcome of the story.
‘Off with her head!’ The Prince roared back.
They chopped it off with one big whack.
How could I marry anyone
Who does that sort of thing for fun?
Rather than marry the ugly sister, the Prince decides that he wants her head chopped off. His guards immediately do as he says and it comes off with “one big whack.” These lines, and the surprise twist in the story, come quickly. A reader will not be expecting this brutal action in the midst of a fairytale. In true sociopathic form, the Prince states that the ugly sister looks “‘prettier without her head.’”
Seemingly unbothered by the death of her sister, the other comes up and decides to try on the shoe. The Prince learned his lesson and immediately beheads her rather than allowing her a chance to try it on. The second sister’s head rolls fro the scene and ends up in the kitchen where Cinderella is working.
It is due to her seclusion that she was not directly present at this bloody scene. This fact may very well have saved her life. She takes this into consideration and decides that she does not want to marry a prince who “chops off heads!” Her heart is broken but luckily she makes the right decision.
The Prince cried, ‘Who’s this dirty slut?
‘Off with her nut! Off with her nut!’
Their house was filled with smiles and laughter
And they were happy ever after.
The seventh stanza is also quite long, at a total of twenty lines. Here, Cinderella seals her own fate. After seeing and hearing Cinderella speak the Prince decides that she too needs to lose her head. He calls her a “dirty slut” and prepares to kill her. Just in time though there is a “blaze of light” and the fairy appears. She tells Cinderella, or “Cindy,” that she can make another wish.
Cinderella also seems to have learned a lesson from the entire traumatizing afternoon and tells the fairy that she does not want any “more Princes” or money. Instead, what she is looking for is a “decent man,” one who does not chop off heads.
Just as before, the wish is granted instantaneously. She gets “married to a lovely feller,” or fellow. This man is a “simple jam maker” who filled the house with “smiles and laughter.” This is the happily ever after that Cinderella was truly looking for.