Obedience–But With Backbone

Cinderella, in her traditional form, is a character who drives me absolutely up the wall.  Come on, woman—I know you lived in a pre-feminist culture, but don’t you have any backbone at all?  Your life’s awful—so do something about it!  And the fairy godmother—where was she all these years while Ella was being mistreated?  The fairy only shows up when the girl wants to go to a party?  (Because obviously that’s something of paramount importance.)

But, like all great fairy tales, Cinderella does have that spark of eternal appeal.  Who can’t relate to the dream of being lifted out of your ordinary or even unpleasant life, because that one person (the prince, the book editor, the boss for the dream job, the head of the club…fill in your own relevant personality) sees you and says, yes, you’re special above all others.  That’s the core of Cinderella.  But Cinderella herself is irritating.

So when you can take that eternal spark and improve on the character and the plausibility—well, as I said when discussing Wildwood Dancing, then you’ve got something.  And Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is one of the best retellings of Cinderella I’ve ever read.

Ella is cursed at her christening—if anyone gives her a command (from “eat this cake” to “go jump off a roof”) she has to obey it.  And with that one brilliant stroke, Levine has a heroine who, like the traditional Cinderella, does everything her wicked stepfamily tells her to do—but who also has a mind of her own.  No one could accuse Levine’s Ella of lacking backbone.  She obeys, but I don’t think I’d describe her as obedient.  She can think for herself and, as much as she can around the limits of her curse, takes control of her own life.

There’s a good plot, with ogres and adventures and a kind of quest in Ella’s search for a way to overcome her curse, but I think what mostly stands out in my mind are the characters.  Ella, of course.  And her fairy godmothers—both of them—her more-than-usually complex wicked stepfamily, her absentee father, and, of course, Prince Charmont—because what’s a Cinderella story without a true love, right?

Ella Enchanted probably belongs in the juvenile category, rather than young adult.  But, kind of like the original Cinderella, it has a wide appeal, even if you’re not really the target age group.  So don’t be scared off just because it’s shelved in the kids section.

I unfortunately can’t quite just ignore the movie here.  There is one, but let’s all just pretend that there isn’t.  Don’t see it.  Really.  I did, and I think I spent most of it twitching and saying, “No, no, no, that’s wrong.”  Besides getting the details wrong, it got the spirit wrong, and while I can sometimes forgive a movie for changing the facts a little, it’s much harder to forgive a movie for maiming of the spirit of a story.

Because what Ella Enchanted really is is a very practical, plausible (once you accept the existence of magic) retelling of Cinderella.  The movie isn’t.  But the book is, and it’s well-worth the read.

Author’s site: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/

4 thoughts on “Obedience–But With Backbone

  1. ensign_beedrill

    So it occurred to me—a bit too late for this baseball season, I’m afraid—that car trips are much easier and seem to go by much faster with audiobooks. I usually listen to music, but had an idea that stories would be much more entertaining. I’ve picked out a few audio books from the library to take on car trips, and the last time I was there, I saw Ella Enchanted, remembered it being reviewed here, and picked it up for my last baseball trip to College Station this year.

    I enjoyed it and it was really cute, but one thing annoyed me from the very beginning. It seems to me there was a very easy way to undo the curse. If you just told her to ignore it, she’d have to. Tell her to choose for herself using her own judgment weather to obey a command. I don’t know… maybe that wouldn’t work. But I was a little irked at the end when that wasn’t the way she undid the curse, even though what really happened was totally awesome.

    1. Smart move on the audiobooks–I should do that more often!

      Glad you enjoyed Ella Enchanted! Despite the one plot hole that you point out… I’ve heard that point before; I actually stumbled on a fanfiction once with an alternate ending where it was resolved that way. I definitely see your point, although I also feel like if she obeyed an order to ignore her curse, it would sort of still be there, just inoperative… I don’t know, it feels like it could still come back, although I can’t quite figure out how. I like Levine’s ending that Ella had to use her own will to disobey, by finding something that was important enough to her. I feel like that’s a much stronger message. But–I also think Levine should have included some comment to explain why ordering her to make her own decisions wouldn’t have solved it!

      1. ensign_beedrill

        I understand the way you feel with the curse still being there beneath the surface as it were. I feel that way, too. She would in effect still be obeying a command. And I much prefer the ending of her overcoming it on her own; it is much more powerful and, like I said, totally awesome. And sweet. Sometimes there are some things that you have to do yourself and nobody else can do for you. But you’re right… this little loophole should probably have been addressed.

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