The Readings: Fearful Fathers

Yasmina Sarhrouny, Mohamed V University, Rabat, Morocco

[Part 11 of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"

Situated within a patriarchal tradition, the collected tales are supposed to place the father figure, the axis of the family, in a privileged position. Instead, these texts strike the critic by their insistence on marginalizing and undermining the authority of the father, like some insidious revenge on the central pole of culture and the possessor of power. Father-daughter relationships are exposed as either conflictual, within a framework of incestuous desires; or protective, the daughter taking up the role of protection and nurture culturally assumed by the father. This subversion of cultural paradigms is, however, limited to the marginalisation or emasculation of the father figure, while the broader narrative structure still conforms to socio-cultural expectations.

The helplessness of fathers is underlined in most female-centred tales. It is very often hinted at through the father's incapacity to protect his daughter from other males, as in "Rabia Bent El Qadi", whose father, although a judge, a figure of authority, hands her down to his guest and thus to her misery. The helplessness of the father is further stressed by Rabia's refusal to seek refuge in her father's house after her disgrace. She condemns him silently for having forsaken her, while in "The Seven Sisters", the youngest sister repeatedly and ritualistically denounces her father for abandoning his daughters in the woods, even though he was manipulated by his second wife: "we are Seven Sisters and our father took us to the forest of Zaarouri and abandoned us". The act of casting out daughters is perceived to be all the more aberrant since the daughter is supposed to be the repository of the family's honour, closely watched and reared to be delivered to the appropriate groom, and whose motion is narrowly limited by the deterring and protective presence of the father or the brother. In other folktales, like "Smimien'nnda Ould Lehnech", children of both sexes are purposefully left in the forest, thus stress is not laid upon the failure of the father, the girl being with a male protector. In some European tales, as in the case of "Le Petit Poucet" , forsaking boys in the woods is not related as a betrayal, and the seven brothers return to the father's house rich and powerful after an initiatory sequence, while for the seven sisters, no going back to the father's house is envisioned, neither are any gesture of forgiveness or reconciliation. The father's disgrace is irrevocable: there is no love in the father's heart for these sisters.

It is also important to note that these tales are alive with Oedipal conflicts that shape up father-daughter relationships in terms of desire and derision, of ambivalent drives releasing complex feelings of love and hatred combined. For Fatna, the father is not scorned but wanted, and sex-roles are deconstructed and remoulded in significant ways. While the father sets for his trip to Mecca, the daughter is left prey to the lion, the ultimate symbol of masculine power. Indeed, Fatna's first encounter with the lion is related as an euphemised rape; he actually cuts her finger open and blood drops leave a track from his dwellings to her tent, where he regularly visits her to boost up his ego. Fatna's reaction also illustrates a deep sense of abuse and humiliation; she does not call for help, tied up by shame and guilt, but waits masochistically for the lion to come to praise him and earn another day of her life. This sequence echoes Sheherazade's endless endeavours to survive every night through satisfying the king's desires. For Fatna, reconciliation with the lion, the male, requires further quests and sacrifices. At the same time, Fatna's relationship with the lion is an allegory of sexual politics in culture, based on power display, threats, and hostility.

In spite of her plight, the daughter does not blame her father for abandoning her, but rather unites with him against the lion. The father thus betrays his own sex to help his daughter. The consequence of such an act is his symbolic castration; he becomes a bird, a metamorphosis attributed to women in the majority of wonder tales in our culture. To redeem her father, Fatna has to pay allegiance to another, bigger, wiser lion, the supreme patriarchal figure. In her quest, she treads on sterile grounds, meets fruitless trees and unmarried girls, but the knowledge she acquires in the lion's cave sends her back to her father rich and fertile. She therefore saves her father and ensures her ability to support and protect him.

The tale is definitely dominated by the daughter's desire for her father, to save her father, to be with her father. Any other female character is excluded from the start, including the licentious cat, a figure associated with sensual femininity, realizing, thus, the fantasy of overthrowing the mother and espousing the father that psychoanalysts term as the Electra complex, a 'feminised' version of the Freudian Oedipal fantasy. Even the introduction of another male figure, that is the lion, is perceived as a violent intrusion into the perfect father-daughter couple, not as the advent of a hypothetical lover or partner. Indeed, the tale is built on the Oedipal desire of the daughter to possess the father, to dominate him, excluding any other possibility of partnership, either for the father or for the daughter. Her quest down to the king of lions is not only meant to save her father, since she returns from it not only rich, thus materially entitled to support a family, but also fertile, biologically eligible to enter a sexual relationship. Her return thus prepared to her father's house point out to the hidden logic of the tale, an Electra complex story with an ideal powerless loving father.

Starting from this conclusion, the ending of the tale is quite enigmatic, not to say abnormal. Psychoanalysts like Bettelheim affirm that wonder or fairy tales are meant to exorcise the child's drives that are culturally unacceptable, like oedipal loves for parents, thus conditioning the child's entry into the patriarchal model of human society . However, in Fatna's case, no morale induces daughters to separate from fathers and look at similar figures to live with; on the contrary, the daughter actually reaches the point when she gets the father and accomplishes her primary desire to perfection, obtaining both material and sexual supremacy over her father.

The tale's outset is maybe perfect from other perspectives as well. Taking into account, as noticed before, the wonder tale's power to subvert and destabilise established mode of thoughts concerning gender roles, the text actually undermines itself when it castrates the father, an unconceivable act, taking into account the culture framing the text. How can this narrative, structured under the aegis of the Law of the Father, attempt at destroying the essence of the latter, the symbol of its sexual domination, its phallus? This text is therefore indicative of the discursive turmoil prevalent in female-centred tales that enable women to speak for themselves even when limited by the broader narrative constraints of the genre. The text indeed overthrows male power twice, when it annihilates the lion and avenges the abused girl, and when it feminises the father. The latter becomes the passive object of desire, the aim of a quest, instead of an active element in the text, a position appropriated by the daughter, who takes over the supposedly masculine role of questing for wealth and power. Nevertheless, it would be too hasty to declare "Fatna Bent Elhadj" a feminist tale, even if it disrupts patriarchal modes of thought concerning the father figure. Indeed, the hypothetically feminist gesture the heroine achieves is undermined by her conventional desire for the father figure, or the Oedipal drives which deeply interfere in the girl's socialisation and incorporation into patriarchal society. After all, she is not punished for pursuing and loving the father since the whole community relies on this very element to build itself.

However, sometimes Oedipal settings are brought up in tales in controversial models, exploring the uneasy realm of father-daughter incest fantasies or relationships. The issue of incest in wonder or fairy tales prompts debates fairly similar to those raised by Freud while he was analysing his hysterical female patients. Some of them were relating memories of child sexual abuse carried on by their fathers, and the psychoanalyst fluctuated between considering them as fantasies justified by the Oedipus complex, or as testimonies of actual incest . Approaching wonder tales constructed around incest, the critic also wonders whether stories of father-daughter incest were depositions against a widespread practice or fantasised Electra complexes. The story of "Khoullal El Khadra" is a case in point. From the very first reading the tale appears to be one of the multitudinous versions of the Southern European "Snow White", itself a version within versions of an impossible original story. Basically, the tale starts with the stepmother's hatred for her stepdaughter and her scheming to drive her out of the household, a recurrent theme in wonder tales, to be discussed in the following section. There is, apparently, no specified reason for the stepmother's extreme dislike of her stepdaughter's presence, apart from the culturally recognized animosity the stepmother feels for her stepchildren, an attitude explained as 'natural' by traditional concepts of motherhood.

Nevertheless, this tale's mysterious opening can be explained through the examination of another version of the same story. Indeed, tales from oral literature have an extremely fascinating characteristic: they mirror and complete each other in a mosaic of versions, each one constructed and 'woven' according to the parameters of the culture producing them. Thus, the same elementary story is retold and reshaped to fit within the norms of every tribe and every family, norms that are constantly and continuously reconsidered by historical changes and generational adjustments. Khoullal El Khadra comes therefore in tremendously different silhouettes to tell chunks of the same story in many cultures worldwide, as D.L. Ashliman demonstrates in his essay on incest in Indo-European folktales , together with El Mostafa Chadli , who found more than 7 versions of this tale. One of the most interesting versions to this approach is the one collected by Khallouk and Oucif ; it tells the story of a beautiful woman who is told by a mirror that she would no longer be the prettiest woman on earth because she is to give birth to a girl far more attractive. She decides, once the child is born, to bury it in a chest, but the father hears the daughter's cries and orders the mother to bring him his child. When the daughter grows up, the mother notices that her husband is attracted by his daughter, especially when he declares that he is planning to take his daughter to a journey to deliver her to some hypothetical husband. Actually, as soon as they leave the household, the father expressively asks his daughter to marry him twice. She is turned into a dove out of shame and begins a long journey of metamorphoses and abuses, meeting, on her way, a bunch of seven hunters, until she marries a king and lives happily ever after. In another tale, recovered by Fatima Ahloulay , Aisha is forsaken by her own mother as well, not by a stepmother, because the latter is jealous of her daughter's beauty. Somehow, the father's desire for his daughter that triggers the mother's jealousy is repressed from most versions of the tale, as it represents the uniquely universal taboo , incest. And somehow, some communities dare tell the story in its crudest versions, like Perrault's "Peau d'´┐Żne" or the Grimms' "All-Kinds-of-Fur" . In these two texts, the father's desire for his daughter is not smoothed over but brought to light as the main reason for the daughter's flight, without even the need to refer to a mother's jealousy. in the "Khoullal El Khadra" studied in this paper, the father's incestuous inclinations are so deeply repressed that they could only be considered in the light of the versions cited above. The father's absence is present through the stepmother's determination to get rid of her daughter, together with the latter's hiding under the bushes when she meets her seven hunters, a number curiously reminiscent of other versions, like the seven dwarfs of "Snow White" .

The heroine's will to hide and disfigure herself is a motif directly connected with the incest theme. In all the versions cited above, the daughter's escape is toward the forest or wilderness, away from culture, and is followed by her inhibition of feminine attributes. She either wears furs, or hides in a dead tree, or lives on a palm (like Zazia, since her case includes incest as well), or literally goes underground like our Khoullal El Khadra. All these gestures are metaphorically described as triggered by shame, the shame of being desired by her father, of possessing a body that tempted the holy father, a body the heroine would rather mar, or conceal. To sum up, in "Khoullal El Khadra", as well as in most tales dealing with the issue of the father-daughter incest, the heroine is cast off or runs away from home because of the father's incestuous desire for her, she indulges in shame and self-hatred (a reaction observed even in real-life abused daughters) , until she meets a husband who marries her and replaces the abusive father. What becomes of the father remains a mystery. Most texts cited in general exclude the father after the first sequence, but never punish him as they would an evil stepmother. As Ashliman observes, the father is absolved. In the case of "Khoullal El Khadra", he is not even mentioned, and the whole blame is put on the stepmother. Fathers are seldom chastised or denigrated for violating society's central taboo, but this inconsistency, as Ashliman puts it, is not entirely "a function of gender" . It also hints at mechanisms deeply anchored in the daughter's unconscious.

At this level, the interpretation of a father-daughter's tale might take two different paths. The most common approach is the one Ashliman opts for, as he reads such texts as historical chronicles of sexually abused daughters. For him, a tale like "Khoullal El Khadra" or "Zazia"

Is not an anthropological curiosity, a surviving remnant of primitive customs practiced in some remote savage culture and unknown to all but to professional folklorists. On the contrary, a young woman threatened by the sexual advances of a male relative (usually her father, but sometimes a brother, a brother-in-law, or an uncle) is the leading motif in numerous tales . . . the broad distribution and longevity of these stories provide evidence that they broach all too common problems of real life.

On the other hand, Bettelheim argues that folktales dealing with father-daughter relationships reflect psychological projections of unresolved Electra complexes . Because the daughter cannot openly cope with her desire for her father, she projects her urges into him, thus exorcising her feelings and taking the position of victim and not instigator of the incestuous relationship. Such tales are supposed to help daughters transcend the Oedipal stage and prepare their integration into the marital institution. Of course, the said institution faithfully reproduces the Oedipal structure, as daughters marry father figures in tales as well as in real life; they marry the figures of absolute authority and sexual supremacy that fathers represent in the unconscious of the little girls. In this sense, father-daughter tales are not, as Bettelheim suggests, therapeutic tools for anxious Electras, but rather gendering mechanisms to further reinforce the Law of the Father.

Even so, the father in "Khoullal El Khadra" as well as in most tales studied is marginalized in the narrative, no matter how crucial his presence is to the development of the heroine. The main focus is put on the daughter's torments, while the father is fragmented into hints and textual traces. In ambivalent moves, daughters destroy and reclaim their object of desire, castrating and saving, abhorring and pursuing the same father figure, and ensuring the continuity of the very father-daughter anxious relationships they are trying to criticize. In many ways, then, these tales profane the sacrosanct figure of the Father; nevertheless, the cultural necessities condemn the heroine, or the daughter figure, to reconstruct the same old systems she flees away from, paying allegiance again the Father. The narrative form of the tale itself, which requires an ending only in accordance with the laws governing both the culture and the language, actually entraps every possible trial of rebellion against or break out of the sex-role society delineates for daughters.


Postcolonial OV Morocco literature Gender Matters next Bibliography

Last modified: 14 December 2001