The Story of Hansel and Gretel: Summary, Symbolism, and Interpretations - Owlcation - Education
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The Story of Hansel and Gretel: Summary, Symbolism, and Interpretations

The Wolf and Seven Kids can be used an example of a relationship between legends and first fairy tales.

hansel_and_gretel

Hansel and Grethel

Hansel and Gretel (sometimes Grethel) is a famous fairy tale from the collection of brothers Grimm. It has amazing history and offers many astonishing interpretations.

We'll start with short summary and slowly delve into its rich symbolism. Hansel and Gretel is an old story with always fresh messages talking about our deepest fears.

Fill your pockets with some nice white pebbles, take a piece of bread and come with us in the deep deep woods!

(Image credit: Hermann Vogel, all used illustrations are in Public Domain)

image by: Albert Weisgerber

image by: Albert Weisgerber

Short Summary

There is a great famine in the country and woodcutter's family is starving. His wife suggests to take their kids (they are his and his late first wife's children) into the woods, so they would have two hungry mouths less to feed.

After some hesitation he agrees and they leave kids in the wood. Hansel and Gretel heard about the plan and return home thanks to the stones Hansel was using to mark the path. But at the next attempt, Hansel can't load his pocket with stones because the doors were locked. Instead of stones he used bread crumbs, but they are eaten by the birds, so the woodcutter and his wife succeeded and children were lost in the woods.

Image: Albert Weisgerber

Image: Albert Weisgerber

Image: Albert Weisgerber

Image: Albert Weisgerber


They find a mysterious hut made of sweets. There is a witch living inside. She is a cannibal and intends to eat them.

But they are too lean, so she decides to feed Hansel first, using Gretel as a slave and for some time children manage to postpone their tragic end. Witch has very poor sight, so she is checking Hansel's fat by pinching his finger. Instead of the finger he gives her a chicken bone, what postpones his death for a few days.

Finally, the witch prepares an oven and plans to bake both kids. Fortunately, Gretel outsmarts her and throws the witch in her oven where she is burned. Kids search the hut, find gold, jewelry and other valuables and with a help of some birds safely return home.

Their stepmother died in the mean time and together with their regretful father they lived happily ever after.

Image: Albert Weisgerber

Image: Albert Weisgerber

A werewolf in action

A werewolf in action

History and Variations

Although Grimm's version is the most popular one it is far from being the first. Looking at the main theme we can place it in the time of the great famine in 14th century. It was time of despair when people often did terrifying things in order to survive.

Abandoned children and cannibalism were two of the most striking ones. It was time of cannibalism and werewolves. The Children were common victims.

Even in the times of Grimms a child abandonment due extreme poverty was not too rare but they made some important changes through several versions of Grimms' Fairy Tales.

At first their parents were real father and mother and they were equally responsible for their actions. Later mother was transferred into popular role of evil step-mother and father became reluctant at her idea but helpless due circumstances.

Little Thumb by Harry Clarke

Little Thumb by Harry Clarke

Painting by Karl Hartmann: Jenicek a Marenka

Painting by Karl Hartmann: Jenicek a Marenka

We must mention slightly different version of the story of Hansel and Gretel in the collection of Charles Perrault. It's titled Hop O' My Thumb or Little Tom Thumb or Little Thumbling.

There are seven kids (all boys) in this story and we have an ogre instead of the witch, but the plot is essentially the same although the second half of the story starts to resemble the story about the Jack and the Beanstalk.

In Russia, for instance, we have a variation where the girl is sent to step-mother's sister which is really Baba Yaga.

We can easily find more variations all across the Europe with different number of children and even a Devil instead of the witch.

Vignette by Arthur Rackham

Vignette by Arthur Rackham

Where can you buy the book about Hansel and Gretel?

Image by Carl Offterdinger

Image by Carl Offterdinger

Symbolism in Hansel and Gretel

The story about Hansel and Grethel is full of symbols and they offer numerous explanations. We'll try to briefly explain only few of them to give you the clue about the impressive depth in this famous fairy tale. Some other symbols, like the foret setting, are explained in this analysis of Red Riding Hood.

Bread - its representation of life is clear. The scarcity of bread is direct threat of death. Bread crumbles in Hansel and Gretel show how fragile and insecure is our position.

But looking at the connection of bread with wheat and its life cycle bread can also be understood as a symbol of resurrection.

White stones - they represent innocence. Ancient Greeks used the at anonymous voting and the meaning was: not guilty. Analytical psychologists interpret them as children's denial to be changed. They went into the woods to be transformed but white pebbles help them to come back.

When they lost the access to them (step-mother locks the door), there is no way back anymore.

Oven - it is a representation of a womb. It offers a possibility of birth (or in this case rebirth), but also death if an already born person gets back in (refuses to grow up).

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Carl Offterdinger

Illustration by Carl Offterdinger

Birds - there are numerous mentions of the birds in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel.

Boy lies he is looking at the pigeon (can represent home) when they are leaving home, birds eat the crumbs to prevent kids returning home for the second time and a bird leads them to the witch's hut.

A bird's bone is important element helping the kids surviving a few days in captivity.

Finally a bird (it is a duck in some and a swan in other versions) helped Gretel and Hansel to get home. Birds can symbolise freedom, prophecy, joy, immortality and human spirit. This story has all of these.

Needless to add birds have white color (if the color is mentioned) to emphasize their spiritual mission.

Water - after the transformation (Hansel and Gretel actually grow up in the witch's house) kids must pass the water if they want to get home. This alludes death (think about Hades in Greek mythology) but also rebirth (think about baptism in Christianity).

Did you learn something?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. How many kids were lost in the woods in Perrault's version of the story?
    • None.
    • One.
    • Two.
    • Seven.

Answer Key

  1. Seven.

Do you identify with Hansel or Gretel? Or maybe a witch?

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 12, 2020:

Thanks for your input, Alucard.

Alucard on July 08, 2020:

was hoping there was a different ending to it, been playing a game called "Sin No Alice" and there were some disturbing mentions about gretel in there. So I thought the "original story" would be even better, but guess is just as I remembered it since I was a kid.

Kinda disappointed, honestly. But thx for the elucidation.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 31, 2020:

All the best to you, Bradley.

bradley maguire on March 25, 2020:

going to prade today i had to go to learn maths today because i got some things today iwill text you torrow the duck in youti go to home cuting the houses reaxterio just finshed my lunch because i want to learn to spelling she too i wil read hensel and greatel today you brought do e

bradley

walter on September 27, 2019:

i like fire truck and moster truck

prince on February 02, 2019:

thanks

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on December 02, 2018:

Thanks, Eileen Catanzariti, for this comment. I think each one of us can feel like Hansel or Gretel at least for some time in one's life. This is one of the main reasons why classic fairy tales stick.

Eileen Catanzariti on November 28, 2018:

I identify with Hansel and Gretel. Children having being abandoned by the ones that they love. How they grow up and are transformed over the time that they are in the witches cottage. How they leave a trail to find their way home and the bird as a spiritual symbol shows them the way home.

Sayan De Rozario on November 14, 2018:

Very good.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 26, 2018:

Fairy tales are all about surprises, YiSag.

YiSasig on June 27, 2018:

Thanks, really helpful for my assignment. Gabby or Gabrielle, that was weird, not something i would think to see on a chat site about original fairy tales

Spiritual Master Ayleen of the New Age Enlightenment on May 04, 2018:

“Gretel and Hansel” – the fairy tale of the new consciousness

"Hansel and Gretel" is an obstacle to personal development, whereas "Gretel and Hansel" promotes personality development.

http://www.bewusstseinsexpertin.de/gretel-and-hans...

gabby or gabrielle on May 02, 2018:

i was just kidding

gabby or gabrielle on May 02, 2018:

sexy and love to have sex with anyone who agrees and i relate to the kids because i am very smart

jjnn on March 14, 2018:

gucci

hlep on March 11, 2018:

what is the purpose of this story of hansel and gretal grim brothers

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on February 28, 2018:

Good to hear that, perez!

perez on February 09, 2018:

i have read the book because i am doing a research project really helpful

Don John on October 26, 2017:

what is the significance and motive of the story

Seric on September 26, 2017:

I think that interpretation can go further with analysing the extraordinary events in the tale. For example, the witch's house made out of sweets can be viewed as an effect of hallucinations: the children were too hungry or, maybe, ate some mushrooms or poisonous berries in the woods so they got hallucinations. This interpretation is not so uncommon. In some analyses of fairy tales and classical religious or magical visions, including flying witches or lycantropism, there are suggested the same basic explanations. Then, the way in which the children percieved the inhabitant of that house in the forest, as a cannibal witch, and the following events in the tale, including the return back home on the neck of birds, may be seen, as well, as effects of the same hallucinations. The symbolism of this interpretation can be largely seen as initiation, rite of passage into puberty or adulthood and the like, even illumination, in an alchemic sense (see the gold and jewelries that the children bring back home).

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on August 27, 2017:

Thank Ilana, glad to help you at remembering:)

Ilana kekst on August 23, 2017:

This is great - I couldn't remember the story it's been about 45 years and I couldn't remember the end nor did I know the meaning. Thank you

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 30, 2017:

Hansel and Gretel is written by brothers Grimm. Thanks, laxhotshot8995, for stopping by.

laxhotshot8995@aol.com on March 28, 2017:

Who wrote this piece?

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 04, 2013:

@webmavern: My pleasure!

webmavern on July 04, 2013:

Thanks for an interesting and informative lens!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on June 15, 2013:

@othellos: I appreciate that!

othellos on June 14, 2013:

Another excellent analysis of a fairy tale. Now I understand why I liked Hansel & Gretel so much. I bookmarked it to send it later to a couple of teachers that I know. It's the least I can do. Thanks a lot:=)

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 17, 2013:

@WriterJanis2: :)

WriterJanis2 on May 16, 2013:

Pinned!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 11, 2013:

@OneSavvyMama: Well, life is never really simple and great stories are always reflection of life, right? Thanks for your comment!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 11, 2013:

@Aunt-Mollie: Great to hear that!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 11, 2013:

@aesta1: It can be scary, I suppose.

OneSavvyMama on May 10, 2013:

Wow, what an interesting lens! Who knew all of these symbolic details were packed into a simple children's story! I guess it's not so simple after all. There's definitely more than meets the eye with this one. Cool lens for sure ;o)

Aunt-Mollie on May 10, 2013:

Another great article! I really enjoyed your insight on the classic tale.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 09, 2013:

I used to love this story when I was a child. It scared me.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 09, 2013:

@WriterJanis2: Certainly hope so:)

WriterJanis2 on May 09, 2013:

You give people much to think about.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 08, 2013:

@LiteraryMind: Great to hear that:)

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on May 08, 2013:

Luckily I don't identify with any of these characters. I was never abandoned, nor have I have tried to bake children. Interesting concepts, ideas and analogies.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 07, 2013:

@anonymous: Great to hear that;)

anonymous on May 07, 2013:

I like the entire story. Pretty sure I don't identify with the witch :)

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 07, 2013:

@Mix Mafra: Makes two of us!

Michelle Mafra from Corona CA on May 07, 2013:

Great lens. Love the symbolism.

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