Children's Literature Archive

The Plain Princess  

A Modern Princess: Reversal of Cultural and Fairy Tale Norms in The Plain Princess

© 2010, Shaun Ono, Jessica Anderson, Mary Sands, Marshall Jeske

Phyllis McGinley. The Plain Princess. Illustrated by: Helen Stone. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1945.

The Plain Princess by Phyllis McGinley is the coming of age story of Esmeralda, who learns to shed her elitist disposition and becomes a humble and caring princess. Published in 1945, it is a modern take on the conventional fairy tale. McGinley accomplishes this through the reversals of gender roles, cultural perceptions of Suburbia, and fairy tale expectations of beauty. The Illustrations of Helen Stone act as a link between the modern elements of the story and the classic fairy tale structure.

The Plain Princess contains many elements of a classic fairy tale: the structural repetitions of threes, the motif of protagonist separation and a happy ending. However, if we look at the story through a modern point of view, we see elements of a feminist fairy tale.

Feminist rewritings of Fairy Tales were common in the latter half of the 20th century (Ayscue Gupta 3). They are defined as stories that engage in a debate about literary conventions of gender roles. The Plain Princess does not lie directly in this category because its female protagonist is not an empowered character (Farish and Sturm 39). It does however contain feminist aspects that are not found in traditional fairy tales. There is a complete non-reliance on men to resolve the complications that arise. Unlike in many other traditional fairy tales with a female protagonist, the Prince or the Father do not have any impact on the outcome of the protagonist's fate.

One character that does have a strong effect on Esmeralda's fate is Dame Goodwit. She takes the princess away from her family in an effort to cure her plainness. Dame Goodwit seems to fit into the evil stepmother archetype, as she is responsible for distancing the protagonist from her loved ones. However, her role is reversed in this story as she uses her intelligence and wisdom in order to help Esmeralda achieve her goals. In traditional fairy tales, a strong and powerful woman character like Dame Goodwit would either have been evil or have possessed magical powers (Farish and Sturm 39). Instead, McGinley offers the reader a portrayal of a completely independent human woman.

The empowered female role model of Dame Goodwit is a reflection of the author, Phyllis McGinley and her values. McGinley, who wrote The Plain Princess while living in the suburbs of Larchmont, New York, was a firm believer in the suburban way of life. While most artwork of McGinley's era condemned suburbia as oppressive prisons, McGinley's writings glorified these areas. Her poetry is infused with references to the suburbs and the pleasures of her role as a housewife (Bellafante). A perfect example is in her prefatory essay to the poetry collection, "A Short Walk from the Station". She argues, " To condemn Suburbia has long been a literary cliche... But for the best eleven years of my life I have lived in Suburbia and I like it." (Panetta 377).

Like the vast majority of her writing, The Plain Princess is greatly influenced by McGinley's belief in Suburban values. In the story, Esmeralda is thrust from her royal life into a suburban setting. The socialization of the princess within her new environment has a "magical" effect on her, and rids her of her negative qualities. The transformation occurs when she becomes an independent female, both in knowledge and utility. This coincides with McGinley's view that a woman's role is not limited by suburbia but in fact is enhanced by it. While she admits that at times the day-to-day life be monotonous, McGinley maintains that her suburban lifestyle is both fulfilling and liberating.

Esmeralda is a representation of the correlation between beauty and internal goodness in fairy tales. Her plainness is defined only by her facial features which are not flawed aesthetically, but metaphorically. For example, "Her nose went up where it should have gone down..."(McGinley 16) which reflects her snobby attitude and, "...her mouth went down where it should have gone up..." (McGinley 16) which signifies the frown achieved not doing anything fulfilling in her life. It is not until Esmeralda becomes a humble and helpful young lady that her facial features return to their natural positions. Her transformation is not executed by means of magic or physical alteration but simply by changing her attitude on life.

The Plain Princess uses Esmeralda's face as a literal symbol of her selfish disposition. It is often found that beauty is linked with goodness and ugliness with evil (Baker-Sperry 718), hence why Esmeralda is initially described as plain. She lacks proper direction in her life, which is literally reflected in the unnatural direction of her upturned nose and her downturned mouth. Unlike other fairy-tales where beauty is the means of a reward, Esmeralda is rewarded with beauty by becoming a good person. Gifts of beauty often bring little happiness to those that seek them out and receive them without struggle (Moss 49). Esmeralda's potential for beauty was with her the whole time and is revealed naturally as she replaces selfishness with kindness.

Esmeralda is white and is born into a wealthy family, which are two of the three commonly associated characteristics with beauty in fairy tales (Baker-Sperry 719). Esmeralda, however, is not virtuous and therefore an incomplete beauty. It is not enough that she is born into royalty; Esmeralda has to grow into being a princess, and learn that true beauty comes from the inside.

Esmeralda calling Dame Goodwit

Helen Stone, the illustrator of The Plain Princess, accentuates the simplicity of beauty through her drawings. Her illustrations create unity between the clashing modern and classic fairy tale elements in the story. Every two-page spread involves at least one illustration whether it is a plant, a scene or a border. On pages 62 and 63 the illustration shows Esmeralda on the phone with the Goodwits. There is a stark contrast between the traditional dress of the characters and the modern technology of the telephone. These conflicting elements make it unclear where or when this story takes place. The depictions of peasant and royal life are certainly not typical to 1945 (when the book was published), but the telephone did not exist in the time of kings and queens. These two conflicting times and life styles, are unified by the illustrations of the story through Art's Principle of Unity. Unity is the sense of belonging a person experiences when viewing a piece of art. It can be achieved with many techniques but the two that are most distinct in The Plain Princess are Line and Colour.

Line is used to create movement. This can be in either: illustrations of things moving, or as a way to guide the eye. Often the lines of a piece will be in the same style consistently. Line is physically used to connect pages 62 and 63 but the wispy nature of all the lines in the book help to unify it as a whole. Since the type of drawing does not change from the palace to the Goodwit's residence, the reader associates the two as not being so different.

Colour is extremely important because it is able to change our emotions and perceptions of the story. The red, yellow and green colour scheme that Helen Stone uses helps to show Esmeralda's transformation from a spoiled brat to a lovely little girl. In the story green represents the good qualities in a person while red is present whenever Esmeralda is complaining or acting spoiled. At the beginning of the story Esmeralda is often shown wearing mostly red and very little yellow or green, while the illustrations of the more virtuous five sisters are completely green. As Esmeralda becomes a better person there is more green in her illustrations. By the end of the story, she is dressed entirely in green.

The virtuous sisters shown wearing green

Though Esmeralda's transformation occurs throughout The Plain Princess in traditional fairy tale fashion, modern elements are infused throughout the story. The modern elements makes The Plain Princess a unique hybrid of a traditional and modern fairy tale.

Select Bibliography

  • Ayscue Gupta, Linda. "An Examination of Feminist Rewrites of the Fairy Tale, Utilizing Robert Coover's The Briar Rose." (2008): 1-16. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
  • Baker-Sperry, Lori. "The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children's Fairy Tales." Gender and Society 17.5 (2003): 711-726.
  • Bellafante, Ginia. "Suburban Rapture." The New York Times. 24 Dec. 2008. Web. 4 Nov. 2010. .
  • Doyle, Kenneth. "Meanings of Wealth in European and Chinese Fairytales." American Behavioural Scientist 45.2 (2001): 191-204.
  • Farish Kuykendal, Leslee, and Brian W. Sturm. "We Said Feminist Fairy Tales, Not Fractured Fairy Tales!" Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 5.3 (2007): 38-41. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
  • Gottschall, Jonathan. "The 'beauty myth' is no myth: Emphasis on male-female attractiveness in world Folktales." Human Nature 19.2 (2008): 174-188.
  • Moss, Anita. "Mothers, Monsters, and Morals in Victorian Fairy Tales." Lion and the Unicorn 12.2 (1988): 47-60.
  • Oates, Joyce Carol. "In olden times, when wishing was having...: Classic and contemporary fairy tales."The Kenyon Review[Gambier] 19.3-4 (1997): 98-110.
  • Panetta, Roger G. Westchester: the American Suburb. New York: Fordham UP, 2006. Print.
  • Turkel, Ruth Ann. "From Victim to Heroine: Children's Stories Revisited." Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis 30. 1 (2002): 71-82.
  • Wagner-Martin, Linda. Phyllis McGinley. New York: Twayne Publ, 1971. Print.
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