All too often we see fairy tales depicting one-dimensional characters put in difficult situations. This creates an almost eerie continuity between all fairy tales as we see similar situations played out again and again by even more similar characters. Little Red Cap is no exception, especially when looking at gender roles. Sexually innocent and unknowing of the world, Little Red Cap can be unsuitably titled our heroine of the story. Throughout the tale, what seems to be a primarily female driven storyline turns out to be dominated by the more intelligent, resourceful, stronger male characters. The tale teaches that young women should be cautious of smooth talking men when given some freedom of their own because they are vulnerable and at the mercy of strong men who have power over them.
The Story begins with Little Red Cap’s mother lecturing her not to “stray from the path” on her way through the woods (747). While this seems like basic advice its underlying message is that if Red Cap does stray from the path she would be in danger. This parallels what might be told to a young women today going out for the night. Straying from the path is symbolical of remembering what you have been taught growing up or straying from the moral path that you have always known. Red Cap is getting a taste of freedom and her mother seems anxious about this as shown by her lecture.
Red Cap throws all this advice out the window when she encounters the wolf. He asks her “what are you carrying under your apron?” (747). He is alluding to the food Red Cap is delivering to her grandmother, but it could also be perceived as sexually suggestive. It is arguable that the story could be viewed as a chastity tale, preaching the importance of young women staying away from smooth talking men who see them as easy prey. Here we also see the predictably foolish Red Cap pinpoint the location of her destination for the wolf: “About a quarter of an hour from here…under the three big oak trees. You can tell it by the hazel bushes.” (748). The clever wolf is able to gain information from the susceptible Red Cap and at the same time gain her trust. She is so clueless at this point that she is completely the mercy of the wolf.
Right after Red Cap leaves his company, “he wolf thought to himself, this is a good juicy morsel” (748). Two things are evident in this statement. First, the carnal appetite of the wolf (juicy morsel) is shown again in another suggestive remark. Secondly it shows the girl is an unthinking puppet at the direction of first her mother, then the wolf, who is capable of rational thought and devious logic. “Little Red Cap,” he said, “just look at the beautiful flowers that are growing all around you! Why don’t you look around?” (748). Once Red Cap is trapped by desire, it eludes her, and leads her further from the path. Even though her mother told her not to stray from the path she listens to the wolf and goes further and further into the woods off the path to pick flowers. The further she goes off the path, the more she is giving in to her temptation. In this case it is flowers, which are symbolic for sex. And the further she goes, the closer she is to death.
When Red Cap obliviously arrives at her grandmother’s house, the grandmother has already been eaten by the cunning wolf. The wolf has disguised himself as the grandmother to trick Red Cap who is so gullible at this point that it is actually plausible that the girl could mistake a wild animal with four legs for her own grandmother. He wants to appear as a woman because he wants to look weak and unthreatening. He only reveals his identity as a male to eat Red Cap in an assertion of male power.
With Red Cap and her grandmother in serious trouble, only a strong male character can get them out of the mess. Luckily for them, a nearby huntsman decides to check on the old woman and with scissors he cuts the wolf’s belly open and out pop Red Cap and her grandmother! “Oh how frightened I was!” exclaims a grateful Red Cap (750). The huntsman is shown as intuitive and clever by deciding to investigate the old woman’s home as well as strong by being able to rescue the woman from certain death.
This illustrates a movement from a primarily female identified tale to a story ending with an insertion of male power. The huntsman gives new life to the two women who were both foolish enough to be swindled by the wolf’s scheme through a symbolic male birth. When he cuts open the wolf’s belly, he is actually taking over an otherwise female power and making it his own. This is appropriate, seeing as the stereotypical male character in a fairy tale usually saves the day and also shows the emphasis the authour put on presenting the male characters with all the power.
The wolf gets what is coming to him but only at the hands of the huntsman. Neither female character could defeat the wolf as they are portrayed as too helpless and weak to do so. This returns us to the fairy tale’s moral message that young women should be cautious of sly men who will take advantage of their innocence and vulnerability. The idea of being wary of sexual predators is the underlying message but young women should also remember what they are told by their parents who are wiser than them and are only trying to protect them. The wolf represents the smooth talking male that deceives the young girl and also shows how much more strong and intelligent male characters are portrayed in the tale.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Little Red Cap.” The Great Fairytale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, ed. and trans. Jack Zipes (New York: Norton, 2001)