The story of Cinderella is one of the most well-known fairy tales worldwide, likely because it has been with us the longest. Its roots go back as far as the 6th century BC with some iteration arising in almost every part of the world. There are said to be some 345 versions of the tale in Europe alone.
For most of us, the Disney film of Cinderella is the most recognizable manifestation of this beloved fairy tale. Disney did not invent it, but drew heavily from Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon,” first published in 1697. It included the young girl being reduced to servitude by a wicked stepmother, as well as other elements like the fairy godmother, the rats and mice who become footmen and the pumpkin transformed into a carriage. Here, too, when midnight strikes she must depart or lose her disguise. As she leaves the ball, she loses one of her glass slippers which becomes the vehicle for her ultimate recognition by the prince who has, during the course of the evening, fallen in love with her.
Other versions include shoes as the test of identity beginning with the earliest known version, Rhodopis of ancient Egypt, and her wonderful sandal. Other narratives describe an anklet, ring or bracelet. Some versions have harsh endings which punish the stepmother or stepsisters. Ye Xian, from China describes cruel retribution for the stepmother, and an aptly grim ending punishes the stepsisters in the Brothers Grimm version, titled “Aschenputtel” from 1812. Some narratives focus more on morals, as in the Algonquin “Rough Face Girl.” An early French version, “Le Fresne,” uses a main character as one of a set of twins left at a convent, whose true identity is finally revealed, which allows her to marry a nobleman. It could be inferred that love is tied only to beauty in this timeless tale. Some scholars, though, see the familiar version by Perrault to find that beauty is a treasure but graciousness is the real character trait which sees Cinderella rewarded.
Why would this story come to be so pervasive through time and cultures? Economic realities and the place of women and the restrictions on their freedom have been a constant. Throughout history, women could count on improving their lives namely through a good marriage. A prince or king as described in the fairytale is the ultimate upward mobility. Also, as so many women died in childbirth, stepmothers were very common and were in an naturally adversarial position to the children of a first wife, particularly with regard to inheritance. This conflict would have made perfect sense to readers since its inception.
But does Cinderella always have to be a woman? Male equivalents are found in Tales of 1001 Nights. Several feature young men as the Cinderella archetype. In more contemporary culture, “Cinderfellas” appear in films, music and television.
Though the world looks different from the one in which Perrault introduces Cinderella, it remains a part of our collective consciousness. Novel and film versions of Cinderella-type protagonists continue to evolve, from Pride and Prejudice to Pretty in Pink to Carrie. Even Disney has released a live-action version of the 1950 animated version.
A final example of how pervasive this fairy tale has become in modern culture is the colloquialism “Cinderella story.” It is an instantly recognizable phrase used from business to sports to convey a story of a deserving underdog winning big.