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Literature / Cinderella

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Lost footwear resonates with us all.

Cinderella is one of the oldest, best known, and most universal stories in the world. The oldest known version is the ancient Greek tale of Rhodopis, a hetaira or courtesan who, according to a legend first recorded in the 1st century B.C., married the Pharaoh of Egypt.

The quintessential Rags to Royalty story, the best known versions in the western world are based on the one written by Charles Perrault in the 17th century (full text here). If, on hearing the name Cinderella, you think of fairy godmothers, glass slippers, and a pumpkin turned into a coach, you're thinking of Perrault. In 1950, Disney's Cinderella adapted Perrault's story into a movie, cementing it in people's minds as the story of Cinderella. Unless, of course, you're Czech, Slovak, German or Norwegian, in which case you're probably thinking of the 1973 Czech/German ''Three Wishes for Cinderella'', notably lacking in pumpkins, glass footwear, and godmothers of any extraction, instead featuring hazelnuts.

In 1957, Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted it into a musical for a television broadcast, starring Broadway royalty Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney, Edie Adams, Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley (as the King and Queen, Fairy Godmother, and stepsisters, respectively) and Jon Cypher (of Hill Street Blues fame) as the Prince. One particular young lady took a week off from her starring role in the most popular play on Broadway at the time to play Cinderella - Julie Andrews in her on-camera debut.

The bare bones of the story are as follows: A young noblewoman's mother dies and her father remarries a woman with daughters of her own, then disappears. The girl's new step-family turns out to be cruel and vindictive, and mistreat her by making her work as a servant. This usually gives rise to a mocking nickname to do with her dirtyness (in English, Cinderella, or Cinder-girl, covered in fireplace cinders). When the local prince holds a kingdom-wide ball, they refuse to let her attend, but she calls on a spirit helper (usually representative of her dead mother) who takes pity on her and outfits her for the ball, allowing her to outshine everyone present and win the heart of the prince. There is, however, a limit to the spirit's help: Cinderella must return by midnight. On the second night of the ball, the prince contrives to keep her past her curfew, and in her rush to get away, she loses one of her slippers. The prince uses the lost slipper to track her down, and, once reunited, they marry. The vindictive step-family may or may not be punished, depending on the variation.

When people want to be a bit Darker and Edgier, they may refer to the Grimms' "Cinderella" instead, in which Cinderella — or Aschenputtel — plants a twig on her mother's grave, and the resultant tree, rather than fairy godmother, helps her, and the stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet to fit into the slipper, and are later blinded by karmic birds.

Presumably, the Grimms' version fits many people's idea of the dark, dangerous world of pre-Disney fairy-tales better than Perrault's, and therefore is sometimes erroneously referred to as the "original 'Cinderella'", despite being written over a hundred years after Perrault's, and about a thousand years after "Yeh-Shen". In general, because of the long oral tradition behind most fairytales, referring to any version as the "original" is problematic and best avoided.

In Britain, it's been a favourite story for pantomime for over a century, where it often adds the parts of Dandini and Buttons.

In 2008, Cinderella Four By Four, a Live-Action Adaptation with Setting Update starring Darya Melnikova, was released.

Gregory Maguire, best known for Wicked, also made a revisionist novel of the story called Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and Stephen Sondheim wove Grimm's version into the wider action of Into the Woods. There's even a retelling set in the Whoniverse, "Cinderella and the Magic Box", in the book Time Lord Fairy Tales.

This story's Aarne-Thompson Number is 510A (510B is the variants where a male figure persecutes her, as in "Tattercoats", "Cap o' Rushes", "Donkeyskin", and "Catskin"; one of the most common is the squick-laden variant in which the princess is on the run because her own father wants to marry her).

"Cinderella" and its variations contain the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Badass:
    • In the 1973 Czech/German version, "Three Wishes for Cinderella", Cinderella was trained by her father in horseriding and sharpshooting. During her second meeting with the prince (while she's disguised as a hunter) she impresses him and his hunter friends with shooting a flying hawk with a crossbow, then a pinecone off a tree far away. Her magic help reflects this adaptational badassery as well, with the first of the outfits from the magic hazelnuts being the hunter diguise that allows her to escape her stepmother's ire into the forest, instead of a dress.
    • Then there's the modern book Cinderella: Ninja Warrior, which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Adaptational Ugliness: Cinderella's stepsisters are commonly referred to as the "ugly stepsisters", as various adaptations portray them as being as ugly as they are unpleasant. In the original fairy tale, they are described as having beautiful faces, but wicked personalities.
  • Adaptation Expansion: In the 1973 Czech/German version, Cinderella meets the prince twice before the ball. The first is when she comes across him and his friends hunting in the woods and amuses herself by annoying them and making them chase after her. The second is when she disguises herself as a hunter and impresses them with her aiming skills.
  • Adaptational Heroism: It's fairly common to see works where one of the two stepsisters (usually the youngest) has a Heel–Face Turn, or shows Hidden Depths that lead to a redemption. Ever After, The Fairy Godmother, and even Disney's later Cinderella sequels all do this.
  • Adapted Out: In the 1973 Czech/German version, based not on the Perrault tale but on one recorded by Czech writer Božena Němcová, Cinderella has one (step)sister instead of two, and her father has passed away while in the literary version he is still alive. (There is also no Fairy Godmother and instead, Cinderella is given three magic hazelnuts that each reveal a different outfit for her depending on when she needs them in the story. But those are differences already present in the literary version.) Since it was a Czech-German coproduction, while it was nominally based on Němcová's tale, in several respects it refers back to the Grimm version as well - such as the fact her mother has passed away and Cinderella now has a stepmother, the way her stepmother tries to prevent her from meeting the prince, or the fact she goes to a royal ball where the intention is to marry off the prince, while in the Czech version she only goes to church. In comparison to both versions, the cutting off of parts of feet and the karma punishment by animals was also adapted out (instead, the stepmother and stepsister fall into an icy pond).
  • Beak Attack: At the end of the Grimm version, the bird friends of Cinderella blind the two mean step-sisters with their beaks.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: The step-sisters may be beautiful or ugly, depending on the variation, but Cinderella is always the most attractive. In some instances she has superior physical beauty and this is the reason for her mistreatment; in others she is ordinary-looking or even plain but glowing with kindness, and it's the beauty of her personality that wins the prince.
  • Beautiful All Along: Once she shows up in her Pimped-Out Dress, the "cinder girl" is revealed to be quite a stunner.
  • Big Bad: Cinderella's Wicked Stepmother is the entire conflict, due to just how abusive she is.
  • Blended Family Drama: Ella's father marries her Wicked Stepmother, who (alongside her own abhorrent daughters) treats her abominably.
  • The Cake Is a Lie: In some versions, the Wicked Stepmother says that she'll let Cinderella go to the ball if she completes some Impossible Tasks—for example, in the Grimms' version, cleaning up increasingly large messes of spilled lentils in a limited time. She succeeds because of the doves who act as her Spirit Advisors, but naturally, the family leaves her behind anyway. Disney did a variant of this, with all the extra chores they tried so that she couldn't make a dress.
  • Cinderella Plot: Trope Namer and probably Trope Maker, considering its age. From Egypt to Europe to America there have been mistreated servant girls who dreamed of something more.
  • Clark Kenting: In the source material, Cinderella is able to masquerade as a princess for three nights in a row with no one the wiser, not even her stepfamily. Because of this, Cinderella's stepmother is utterly shocked when her foot fits the glass slipper, and is horrified by her actions. Averted in the Disney adaptations, where the stepmother figures the secret out rather quickly, and conspires to prevent Cinderella from getting her happily ever after.
  • Dancing Is Serious Business: Cinderella's salvation more or less comes from dancing at a ball.
  • Dance of Romance: This is the Trope Codifier, if not the Trope Maker itself. Cinderella meets the prince at a royal ball.
  • Dances and Balls: This is not the only way that Cinderella gets to meet a prince, but one of the common ones.
    • In Božena Němcová's version, the Cinderella character catches the attention of a prince in church.
  • Death by Adaptation:
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Pre-Perrault versions can seem strange if the Perrault story is what one has known their entire life. For instance, in the very first version, the tale of Rhodopis, there is no abusive family, step or otherwise and no Fairy Godmother equivalent.
  • Easily Forgiven: In Perrault's version, the stepsisters beg Cinderella to forgive them, and she does; they even get to marry handsome gentlemen from the prince's court. They also apologize in the Grimms' version, but only to curry their royal relative's favor. She still buys it, but their ending is... less happy.
  • Either/Or Title: Perrault's title was "Cinderella, or the Glass Slipper".
  • Even Evil Has Standards: In Perrault's version, the youngest stepsister is less bitchy than her sister and mother because she names her stepsister "Cendrillon" ("Cinderella") instead of Cucendron note . Though keep in mind, "Cendrillon" is actually a portmanteau of the French words for "ash" and "scullion", so it is not really that nicer of a name.
  • Eye Scream:
    • In the Grimms' tale, the stepsisters end up blinded by birds.
    • In the Vietnamese version, the loom that Cinderella turned into threatened to gouge the stepsister's eyes out.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: The stepsisters' fate in the Grimms' version.
  • Fairy Godmother: Perrault's version is the Trope Codifier. When anyone after him (and especially after the Disney adaptation) thinks of one of these, they think of kindly old women in robes who say "bibbity-bobbity-boo!"
  • Fairy Tale: A very old tale teaching a moral and involving the supernatural.
  • Gender Flip: A traditional Irish version has Cinderellis, a boy with such enormous feet he steals a giant's shoes. The story plays out fairly similarly to the usual plot line, after he gets his shoes, except for this. Ash-boy stories can also be found in Hungary, Japan, Britain, and even American variants. Hilariously, Cinderella's German name, Aschenputtel, is derived from a male hero from early Germanic folklore.
  • The Girl Who Fits This Slipper: Trope Maker for the first time to use such a device.
  • Glass Slipper: Cinderella's glass slipper is the Ur-Example. The prince gets hold of the slipper Cinderella loses on her way out and starts a journey to find its owner.
  • Gorgeous Garment Generation: The shoes and dress that the Fairy Godmother gives to Cinderella, which disappear at midnight.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: The end of Perrault's version has two aesops: The first is that looks aren't everything and need a nice personality to go with it, the second is that looks, personality, courage etc. are good to have, but you won't get anywhere in life without a godmother or godfather (i.e. Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!).
  • Happily Ever After: At the end of the story, Cinderella marries the prince and leads a much happier life than before.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The stepsisters at the end of Perrault's version drop their nastiness.
  • Impossible Task: In many variants, the stepmother sets such a task either as the price to go to the ball (she's lying) or to do while they are at the ball.
  • Impossibly Cool Clothes:
    • Perrault's version gives Cinderella glass slippers.
    • In the Egyptian version, her slippers are made of pure gold. The Grimms' version gives gold slippers as well.
    • The Yeh-Shen version had her wearing weightless shoes made of golden fish scales.
  • Impoverished Patrician: When Cinderella comes from nobility, her stepfamily have usually spent all the family wealth (or reserved it for themselves), forcing her to work as a servant and denying her any good marriage prospects.
  • Ironic Death: In the dark Vietnamese ending, the stepsister and stepmother undergo this. The stepsister was killed by boiling water, because Cinderella was drowned as a human and roasted as a bird. The stepmother was tricked into eating her daughter's meat, and then died of shock because she lured Cinderella home and murdered her the first time on her father's death day celebration.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Depending on the versions, the stepsisters either redeem themselves or are blinded by Cinderella's birds. However nothing is said about the Stepmother and Cinderella's father (in variants where he's still alive and indifferent to Cinderella's woes).
    • Basile's version also spares them punishment; although at least one translation lampshades that everyone involved thought they got off easy, since no punishment is enough for vanity. At the very least, everyone hates them now...
    • Considering how diverse Cinderella stories are, there are many interesting fates for them in foreign variants. One early French version has them turn into statues; another has them so horrified by Cinderella's good fortune that they randomly all get jaundice and die. One Russian variant has them all burnt to death by a witch's fire. Japanese variants often have the stepmother inexplicably turn into a mole. In a story adaptation by Swedish-speaking Finnish author Zachris Topelius, the stepsisters are almost transformed into birds by the Fairy Godmother as a punishment for their mistreatment of Cinderella. A more civil Hungarian version simply has the prince throw the stepmother in prison and publicly shame the stepsisters; another has him banish them. Filipino versions, which usually involve them trying to kill Cinderella's children, have the stepmother and stepsisters be dragged to death by horses. In Mongolia, they hide in the forest to escape punishment, only to get eaten by wolves. What takes the cake is one early Persian variant where they end up dragged to Hell.
    • In the Chinese version, "Yeh-Shen", the stepmother and stepsister die by "flying stones." Whether this means they died in a cave-in or the king ordered them stoned to death is Lost in Translation. Their tomb becomes a popular site for worship.
    • Many Asian versions have the prince kill the stepsister and send her remains back to her mother, telling her it is some sort of meat; when she realizes what it is, she either kills herself or dies of a broken heart. Usually, this is revenge for trying to kill Cinderella after the marriage; in fact, some versions require this be done to bring Cinderella back to life. Weirdly, the type of meat varies by country. In China, it's salted carp. In Korea, it's shrimp. In Vietnam, it's pork. In India, it's venison. In Japan, the prince just wraps the stepsister's skull and sends it as a present.
    • Then there are the variants where the Cinderella is the Houdini because the reason she was stuck with a Wicked Stepmother was that her governess persuaded her to murder her mother or existing stepmother and then persuade her father to marry the governess instead.
    • The Vietnamese have several endings: a Bowdlerized one has the stepmother and stepsister being struck by lightning after Cinderella forgives them and lets them go; they either die on the spot or are turned into cockroaches. The Darker and Edgier ending, subject to many heated battles in the media over which to include in the high school literature textbook, includes Cinderella tricking the stepsister into being boiled alive, and the stepmother into eating preserved meat made from her daughter. Proponents of the second ending argue that it's a Pay Evil unto Evil scenario, since Cinderella was repeatedly murdered by her stepfamily in this version note . The gruesome ending implies that Cinderella has reached her limits of being able to forgive and forget... or that the girl underwent Sanity Slippage and snapped.
  • Ladyella: The Trope Namer. Any fairy-tale story with "ella" in the protagonist's name is likely to be a reference to this tale.
  • Lost in Translation:
    • In the original French, the elder stepsister calls Cinderella "Culcendron" and the younger stepsister, said to be more civil, calls her "Cendrillon." "Culcendron" loosely means "Cinder-Ass" while "Cendrillon" is probably a portmanteau of "cendre," or ash, and either "haillons," meaning rags, or possibly "scullion," a word for servant. English translations usually translate "Culcendron" as "Cinderwench" and "Cendrillon" as the prettier "Cinderella," making it seem like the younger sister was trying to Pet the Dog...while in the original, it was more that the older sister was less uncouth.
    • In the original French, the line "Elle laissa tomber une de ses pantoufles de verre" implies Cinderella intentionally left her slipper for the prince to find her.note  Losing the slipper is nearly universally portrayed as an accident in media.
    • Not exactly "translation" but changing the ball from multiple nights to one night creates a lot of plot holes. Cinderella attending multiple balls, returning to the palace, clues the prince into that something is keeping her from staying past midnight, which justifies his search for her.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: In most versions, Cinderella famously leaves a slipper behind as she rushes to exit the palace by midnight. This in turn sets up The Girl Who Fits This Slipper plot.
  • Masquerade Ball: It's frequently used, but not ubiquitous. It explains why the Prince is so insistent on using shoe size to find a girl.
  • Missing Mom: The reason why Cinderella is stuck with the stepmother.
  • Neck Snap: The old Roman variation of Cinderella, by Basile. One day, the governess of Zezolla (Cinderella) wanted to marry her student/care-getter's father. Zezolla went to her governess as she considered her present stepmother to be a very unpleasant and mean lady. Next thing you know, the governess fucking instigated Zezolla to kill her stepmother!
    Cinderella: Mother, in this box is your clothes.
    Stepmother: Well, can't be helped after all.
    Cinderella: * puts lid on her stepmom's neck*
  • Nice Mean And In Between: Some tellings and adaptations use this trope, with Cinderella being nice, one stepsister who is mean, and a slightly nicer stepsister who is in-between.
  • Noble Bird of Prey: The oldest recorded version has the god Horus in his usual guise as a falcon. The Grimm's version has birds ripping off the step-sisters eyes, although their species is not specified.
  • No Name Given:
    • One of the stepsisters is named Javotte but the other characters don't have names. Cinderella's real name is rarely given, though English variants usually imply Ella is her real name. Madame d'Aulnoy used "Finetta" in her early version.
    • Basile's version, which predates Perrault, gives Zezolla as Cinderella's real name, the Wicked Stepmother is Carmosina, and her six daughters are named Imperia, Diamente, Columbina, Pascarella, Calamita, and Fiorella.
    • Božena Němcová, curiously, has one tale named "O Popelce" ("About Cinderella") which actually isn't a Cinderella story; while her Cinderella character in another tale is named Anuška (Anna); her sisters are named Baruška (Barbora) and Dorotka (Dorota / Dorotea).
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Usually a "Cinderella" girl has a normal life in her early years, so she presumably has a real name before people start calling her Cinder-girl. Many stories never mention the protagonist's birth name, and no one who hears the story remembers it anyway. Thus, the real name varies.
  • Opera: There are different musical version of the story: La Cenerentola, opera by Gioachino Rossini; Cinderella, ballet by Sergei Prokofiev; the above mentioned Rodgers and Hammerstein musical; "La gatta Cenerentola", opera by Roberto De Simone; and the musical The Slipper and the Rose.
  • Parental Favoritism: The step-mother's ill-treatment stems from her desire to elevate her daughters above Cinderella.
  • Parental Neglect: While he usually suffers Death by Adaptation, the older versions have Cinderella's father alive throughout the story—he just doesn't seem to care that she's being abused. The Grimms' version even has him introduce her to the prince as their kitchen-maid, not his daughter.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: The dress is always fancy and elaborate; fit for a princess you might say.
  • Princess for a Day: The dress and shoes (and in Perrault's version, other things like a stage coach) allow Cinderella to pretend to be a princess, but only until midnight.
  • Rags to Riches: To be certain her stepmother never gave her any money nor any time to earn it herself.
  • Rags to Royalty:
    • As Jane Yolen has pointed out, this is averted, at least from the way we often think about it: technically, Cinderella was already nobility and/or an heiress, just made to wear rags by her Wicked Stepmother.
      "'Cinderella' is not a story of rags to riches, but rather riches recovered; not poor girl into princess but rather rich girl (or princess) rescued from improper or wicked enslavement."
    • Tam of the Vietnamese version goes from peasant girl to queen.
    • On the other hand, in Němcová's Czech version the prince is not a prince in the sense of royalty, but only in the sense of a high-ranking nobleman - an entirely different word in Czech. Her family are further unspecified burghers and she's maltreated by her own mother and sisters. She does not go to royal balls but simply to church, where she feared to show up before due to the fact she was only allowed workclothes. She still gets to be Princess for a Day in a Pimped-Out Dress (three times), but instead of the strike of midnight, her "curfew" simply results from the fact her family expect her to be at home when they return from church.
  • Rebel Prince: Many adaptations tend to give the Prince a bit of a defiant streak (usually in the form of him being AWOL from the kingdom for some time before the story, or by him simply refusing to get married despite his parent's protests), if only to give him some kind of character trait and keep him from being a Satellite Love Interest.
  • Rich Sibling, Poor Sibling: For which different versions provide both the page image and quote. Cinderella is raised alongside her two stepsisters but waits on them and is essentially imprisoned. But the Rags to Riches element occurs with Cinderella and she of course surpasses her stepsisters. She's also a downplayed example because she wasn't always raised by them, but ended up alone with a Wicked Stepmother.
  • Rule of Three: The festival often lasts three nights, and Cinderella wears a different dress in each night. There are three balls in the Grimms' version. Perrault's version has two balls, and many modern versions have only one.
  • Sanity Slippage: The dark Vietnamese version. Tam (Cinderella) goes from a kind, naive, if helpless peasant girl to a beautiful, ruthless queen and avenger. Her increasingly unstable mental state can be neatly chronicled with the threats of her revived selves to Cam (the stepsister). The oriole asks Cam to be gentle washing the king's clothes so as to not tear them. The loom threatens to gouge Cam's eyes out for stealing Tam's royal husband. And then Tam finally makes good on her threat once she's back in human form - see Karma Houdini above.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: As a "cinder girl", the transformation to princess is striking, both for the audience and for the characters in-universe.
  • Spirit Advisor:
    • Representing her dead mother, this might be a fairy godmother, a tree, or an animal. Some are more closely to connect to the mother than others; the tree, for instance, is often planted on her mother's grave. Yeh-Shen actually had a magical fish that was the Reincarnation of her mother.
    • In the 1973 Czech/German "Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella" / "Three Wishes for Cinderella", the spirit advisor is a tawny owl called Rosalie. She looks at Cinderella every time she asks "Should I?" when she is about to get a new costume.
  • Sibling Triangle: The stepsisters seriously try to get the prince.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: She has to ready her stepsisters' dresses.
  • Transformation Horror: In an adaptation of the Cinderella fairy tale written by Swedish-speaking Finnish author Zachris Topelius, The Fairy Godmother named Kerastine tries to turn the wicked stepsisters named Bardbra and Superba along with their servant girl Trilla into birds as a punishment for their mistreatment of Cinderella. Cinderella, however, pleads the Fairy Godmother to stop the transformation, saying that she has already forgiven them. However, the wicked stepsisters are left with eternal bird claws in the place of their hands due to the interrupted spell.
  • Twice-Told Tale: Tellings and retellings and parodies are limitless. As well, variants of the tale have been recorded in a wide array of cultures throughout history, going all the way back to Ancient Egypt and China as well as Europe and North America. The appeal of the story is pretty much universal.
  • The Unfavorite: Possibly the Ur-Example considering its age. Cinderella is treated like a slave while her stepsisters are treated as nobility.
  • Uptown Girl:
    • Being a noblewoman who marries a prince, the distinction is less extreme than other examples, but Cinderella's de facto status is servant.
    • In some versions, her father is just a well-off merchant, playing the trope straighter.
  • Wasted Beauty: The original story of Cinderella describes the title character's stepsisters and stepmother as "beautiful of face, but vile and black of heart." While some interpretations of the tale make them "ugly stepsisters" instead, the majority of adaptations have the stepsisters as genuinely attractive women with absolutely horrible personalities, explaining why they can't find men to marry them. Some versions (such as the 1997 TV musical) take it a step further and dress the stepsisters in Impossibly Tacky Clothes as well, covering up their natural beauty with garish fashions.
  • Wedding Finale: The story usually ends with Cinderella marrying the prince.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: Ur-Example and trope codifier. The oldest use of this trope and the one people think of. "At the stroke of midnight, the spell will be broken).
  • Wicked Stepmother: If not the Ur-Example, certainly the Trope Codifier and Trope Namer (Yes, it codified a lot of these tropes). For ages stepmothers in fiction were thought to be evil and it all started by calling her step-daughter "Cinder girl".
    • Interestingly, in the Czech version by Němcová, it is actually the Cinderella character's real mother and real sisters who treat her badly.