Hansel & Gretel: Themes & Analysis

Hansel & Gretel: Themes & Analysis
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  • 0:00 Society
  • 1:37 Family & Marriage
  • 2:30 Greed
  • 3:34 Coming of Age
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

The stories of the Brothers Grimm often present a dark look at humanity. In 'Hansel and Gretel,' the family is affected by greed. As a result, the children must become self-reliant to overcome physical threats and their own fears.

Society

What relevance does the story of Hansel and Gretel have today? It's the story of two kids who are left in the woods, find a candy house owned by a witch, and foil her plot to eat them. However, there's more to the story than child abandonment. In the opening scene of the story, the reader learns quite a bit about the family and their economic situation. Hansel and Gretel have a father who is 'a poor woodcutter.' In addition, he struggles to put food on the table due to a 'great famine in the land.' The family is struggling to survive.

Times are tough. Difficult decisions need to be made so that everyone gets something to eat. Without a steady income or easy access to food sources, the family is faced with finding a solution to impending starvation. The stepmother believes it best to abandon the kids in the woods. When another 'great scarcity (arises) in every corner of the land,' this decision seems even better. The woodcutter reluctantly consents to her plan. This agreement provides a glimpse at their family dynamics.

Despite being left alone in the woods, not once, but twice, the children manage to find a silver lining. When they discover a house made of candy, they begin to fill their stomachs. When the witch, who owns the house, invites them inside, Gretel finds 'caskets full of pearls and precious stones.' These items are likely remnants from the witch's previous victims and provide her with a source of income. With the country facing a famine, the witch seems to have a bountiful accumulation of wealth. The wicked behavior of the witch reminds the reader of the stepmother and the children's family life.

Family and Marriage

The woodcutter is currently married to a woman who has little love for Hansel and Gretel. She presents the idea of abandoning the kids in the woods to fend for themselves. When he objects, she calls him a 'simpleton' and says that if the woodcutter doesn't go along with her plan, 'we must all four die of hunger.' The stepmother disrupts the family, and the father fails to stand up to her wicked demands. This use of a wicked stepmother is a common theme throughout most of the Brothers Grimm stories.

What does this say about the family unit when the biological father is unwilling to stand up for and defend the lives of his children? He is weak and unwilling to defend his family. The stepmother becomes the dominant family member, making all the decisions. She disparages the children, referring to them not only as 'simpletons,' but also calling them' lazy things.' The family doesn't seem like a true family.

Greed

The theme of greed is apparent everywhere in Hansel and Gretel. The stepmother exhibits her greed when she decides to abandon the kids in the woods. She doesn't want them taking food from her mouth. Dividing the food between two rather than four also gives her a better chance of surviving the famine. Her demeanor and outlook coincide nicely with that of the witch.

The greed of the witch borders on gluttony. She looks forward to feeding on a fattened Hansel. When he doesn't fatten up quickly enough, she decides to put Gretel in her oven as well. Despite the famine that has hit the rest of the country, the witch has an abundance of food and precious stones. She hordes these for her own personal use and gratification.

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