Fairy Tale Tropes

Fairy tales have not only received attention from authors, composers, and movie producers, who have created endless adaptations of the tales, but also literary critics and even psychologists, who have subjected them to analysis. In 1977, the literary critic and scholar Northrop Frye suggested that fairy tales serve as “secular scriptures,” or non-religious texts that deeply influence a society’s sense of morality, understanding of romance, and construction of gender roles.

These studies have resulted in many attempts to identify and index stories from around the globe, classifying folk tales by the various plot elements and motifs they have in common. The following elements are among the most common tropes of classic fairy tales, and they also appear in “Cinderella.”

The absent or deceased mother
Many fairy tales feature young women who are, for a variety of reasons, motherless.

The wicked older woman
Be it a controlling stepmother or malicious witch, fairy tales also often include an older female figure who torments the young protagonist out of jealousy.

Marriage as conclusion
Almost all of today’s best-known fairy tales end with a happy marriage.

A supernatural or magical helper
Many stories feature a magical figure who aids and protects the young protagonist. This character may take the form of a fairy godmother, a deceased ancestor or spirit, a magical animal, or an enchanted tree.

Many fairy tales follow protagonists who have been reduced to lowly circumstances, are held in some sort of captivity, or have been exiled and/or denied their rightful inheritance. The narrative arc of these stories often concludes with the hero reclaiming or even exceeding the social status and material wealth that was rightfully theirs.