On Smallness, Yes-Saying, and Madness in Robert Walser’s Schneewittchen (“Snow White”)


Writing on Snow White, the Freudian thinker and Holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim argues that the “fairy story permits the child to comprehend that not only is he jealous of his parent, but that the parent may have parallel feelings”(195, The Uses of Enchantment).     It can “help to bridge the gap between parent and child” and it “reassures the child that he need not be afraid of parental jealousy….because he will survive successfully”(ibid).    Robert Walser’s rewrite of the story – into a short play – takes on a different task which involves something other than bridging the gap between the parent and child which has been created by jealousy.  Walser’s tale is written for the adult, not the child.  And, if anything, it is interested in a tension between cynicism and trust.   Seen against a Nietzschean backdrop which sees cruelty as fundamental to the will-to-power and appeals to kindness and trust as mere distractions, Walser’s reflections on Snow White make the case for trust and what he calls feeling.  The problem, however, is that, in the face of evil, it may lead to a kind of yes-saying and trust that will lead to madness.   The staging of Snow White’s plea shows the possible fate of a theatrical kind of compassionate activism in the face of power.  What remains is the possibility of smallness that exists somewhere between here (the world of power) and there (where the dwarves and humility live).

The play begins in the wake of death.  Snow White is brought back to life by a kiss of the Prince that Walser doesn’t present (but only refers to it).   Snow White knows that her mother – the Queen –  wanted to kill her.  She is aware of how the Queen is trying to make her forget  what happened by virtue of a number of distractions.   Snow White points out how the hunter – who the Queen coaxed to kill Snow White – has a “good heart full of compassion” while the Queen lacks this kind of heart and can’t be a mother.   The Queen tells Snow White to “trust a parent’s word as your own” but – as the viewer/reader knows – that would requite Snow White to deny the truth.   She can see that while the Queen speaks kindly, her gestures and actions lack kindness:

Those eyes, flashing scornfully, wince at me so threatening, so unmotherly, laugh with menace at the affection of your tongue, with derision. They speak the truth and they alone, those proud eyes, I believe, not the backstabbers’ tongue.

While listening to this back-and-forth, the Prince pipes up.  For the play, Walser notes that he should be small and that he should be dressed awkwardly.  The Queen’s comments bring this out when she calls him “small and weak” and calls him a  “stranger clad in motely clothes.”  The Prince has good intent since he asks that the Queen “admit” her “wickedness” and show her “good conscience.”  But when he tells the Queen that she can lay her head on his shoulder if she is “too weak,” he betrays his passion for her.  He loves Snow White and the Queen.   In response, the Queen shows her power: “Go away, lead weakness away.”   After saying this, she walks away with the hunter who, apparently, is not weak (although he failed to kill Snow White).

When the Prince reveals that he is in love, we learn that Snow White thinks that this kind of talk is small and wants no part of what he means by the term (which, for her, is really passion).  She mocks it:

Yes, let’s make small talk, be merry.  Let us banish from Love’s kingdom melancholy and dolefulness…why worry of the pain of now, which commands us to be silent.

When she asks the Prince to depict what he sees outside the window (of the Queen and Hunter in the grass), he describes a scene of passion.  This turns her off.   She sees it as a “filthy scene” and is disgusted by it.   The Prince, however, is deeply moved by the love scene.   She says, “Woe to me that I must hear” while he says, “Woe to me that I must see.”  Here, as in Walser’s  Tanners, there is a distinction between seeing and hearing.  (Walser may privileged the painter but, ultimately, he is on the side of the one who hears; the reader and the writer.)

Snow White is shocked to hear that, after seeing her in a death bed (in the pathetic “beauty” of death), the Prince started fantasizing about the Queen.   “Look, look! Now that I am alive.  You dump me like a dead body! How strange you men are.”  However, she doesn’t let her anger beset her and does something unprecedented and (perhaps) mad: she tells him to tell the Queen that she forgives her.    The Prince, in confusion, says “I don’t understand you.”  The same can be said for the reader.    How could she forgive her mother who wanted to kill her?  It should be the other way around. And so far all the mother can do is act as if there never was an attempt to kill Snow White.

To exacerbate the question, Walser has Snow White plea for forgiveness: “Please be my merciful mother.  Let me be your good little girl who clasps frightened to your body….My thinking is the only sin here.”  Her plea works.  It prompts the Queen to admit that she tried murdering Snow White.  But the only reason she says this is because she fears that her daughter is going mad: “You’re not thinking right.”  In response, Snow White does something we find in Robert Walser’s novel, Jakob von Gunten; the main character, throughout the novel struggles with what Walser calls “thinking.”  It gets in the way of being true and humble. At the end of the novel, Jakob takes off with his former principal on a Quixotic journey. To go, to move, he must stop thinking and start feeling.

Snow White says something similar:

I just feel! A feeling thinks sharp.  It knows every detail of this matter…So I see nothing in thinking. …Away with the judge who but thinks! If he can’t feel, he must think small.

This is an interesting turn because, now, smallness has two meanings.  On the one hand, the person who is obsessed with judgment is small and the Prince is small (she calls the Prince a “little boy” and says that he is “weak, like the body he’s trapped inside, small, lik eth emind he depends on” in this scene); on the other hand, there is the smallness of the dwarfs which is all about goodness.

The Queen’s confession doesn’t bring Snow White “to her senses.”  Rather, it makes her more bold in her appeal to “childlike” and “humble” love (which for her, is the best of all):

Hate me so that I can but love more childlike, more wholeheartedly, for no other reason than that love is sweet and ambrosial to one who humbly offers it. Don’t you hate me?

Her love, in affect, is humble and small.

However, the Queen is not appeased. She takes a different tact in response.  She calls the Prince, the Hunter, and Snow White to perform a play that recounts the attempted and failed murder.  When the play is over, she says “I’ll call her my dear child” and that what happened was all “for fun.”  In other words, she didn’t want to murder Snow White, she wanted to play a practical joke!  This is obviously pushing Snow White (and the reader) to protest.

The Question: If one is to come out and say that this is a lie, would one be renouncing love and humility in the name of truth?

The Queen tells the Prince and the Hunter to follow her out of the chamber so that Snow White can think about what is at stake.  What the reader might miss is her appeal to laughter: “Come,” she says to the Prince and the Hunter, “laughter will lead the way.”  This is the kind of laughter that Nietzsche would call cruel. It is the kind of laughter which laughs at pity, humility, and compassion.  It is a challenge.  (It speaks to what I, elsewhere, call the “two bodies of comedy.”)

Walser shows us that Snow White can’t withstand this final (laughing) lie.  Although she gives in, she calls on the memory of the dwarves to make an important distinction: “so long as I live, I cannot get this out of my mind…It darkens every joyful note of my soul and I am so tired….were I but with the dwarfs then…a thousand miles away.”

The distinction between here and there is telling because it shows how smallness is an essential figure in this play:

There sleep lays as quiet as snow.  I would be with them, like brothers, they were so kind; there it sines, having a cheerful cleanliness.

There and here.

There…there is no pain.  Here…there is.    For Walser and for Snow White, the world is a world of pain and selfishness.  People are not generous here.  The Queen, a true cynic, asks how it could be possible that there is no hate where the dwarves are since, after all, there can be no love without hate.

In response, Snow White argues that she lives between both worlds.   Because of what her mother has done, she realizes what the world of the Dwarves is.  After saying this, she hears the disturbing words in her head: “Your mother is not your mother.” And that “the world is never a sweet world,.  Love is a leary, worldless hate.”   After saying this to her mother, the Queen turns away.  Snow White panics and tries her previous tact, but it fails. The Queen – in the most Nietzschean sense –  says “to hell with forgiveness, guilt, shame, going soft.”  And this drives Snow White mad.

In the wake of being trashed by her mother, she ends up saying Yes to everything.   She becomes totally dominated by feeling rather than thought. She asks the hunter to lie to her about what happened (the mother sends the hunter to try to make everything better by acting as if nothing happened) and Snow White acts as if her mother never had any animosity toward her.  At a certain point, she cracks:

No makes me tired.  Yes is lovely.   I like to say: Yes, I believe.  No has long been averse to me.  Thus, yes, yes, I do believe you….Yes, how gladly so. O yes, why not yes to all that you say.  Saying yes feels so good, is so endlessly sweet.  I believe you.  Yes, if you were to lie, to build the fairy tale in the sky, tell me lies….Never has such beautiful faith swelled in me than now, never such a sweet confession than this yes. Say what you want.  I believe you.

Like many a simpleton (like I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool), Snow White trusts the other even though s/he lies to her.  She tells the hunter that – regardless of how much he lies to her – “my confidence makes them into truth as pure as silver.”  The reader – of course – will be frustrated because she wants Snow White to renounce her mother and the lies.   And this trust will be regarded as nothing short of madness.   However, on the other hand, the reader can see that it is the Queen that has driven Snow White to madness. Snow White deserves the world of the dwarfs and she believes that it is here.  She believes in human beings. Regardless of how much they lie, they are true.  This is her “feeling.”

In the least scene of the play, the King shows up on the scene and there is an opportunity to do justice.  But the Queen – once again – explains that it was all just a joke. Snow White goes along with it.  She praises the Queen and asks the Prince to do the same: “O, there is no longer any sin. It’s no longer in our circle. It’s fled from us. The sinner, here, I, as her true child, kiss her hand and ask of her if she might but sin as much in so dear a way.”    She sees herself as “stupid and stubborn” for thinking that she was the one who was hurt.  Justice, she says, is “clemency and clemency is peace enwreathed…Be happy you can be happy.”

Its all a lie.

But everyone is happy.  The twist and final irony is that the fairy tale speaks the truth.   “Hush, O hush,” says Snow White in the final lines, “Just the fairy tale says so, not you and never me.”   After saying this, she walks away – hand-in-hand – with the Queen and King.  It’s a royal family that is bound together by a lie.  It’s a tragic irony that this Fairy Tale discloses.   Its reconciliation – unlike the one that Bettelheim suggests – is false.  Nonetheless, the place of smallness and humility – despite the tragic and cynical conclusion – remains.  The dwarfs may be there but they are also here.  But they co-exist with the cynical conclusion that although something horrible happened, we will act as if it didn’t.   The last laugh seems to belong to the Queen.  But that’s the way it is over here.  Its different….over there….where the Dwarves live.   Walser puts us, along with Snow White, somewhere between here and there.





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