Taken at face value, the Grimm brother’s “Hansel and Gretel” is a tale chronicling the brief adventures of a brother and sister who thwart a stepmother, nature, and a witch on their way to securing the financial stability of their original family unit. Embedded in this story are a variety of important issues that include the voyage to self-awareness, the importance of problem solving, the imperfection of parents, and the reversal of care-taking roles. “Hansel and Gretel” is not a piece about parenting; it is a warning to children of two potential fates: one good and one bad, and an outline of how best to ensure that one follows the correct path while remaining steadfast to the end. After careful inspection, one sees that “Hansel and Gretel” is a coming-of-age piece centered on a series of adventures that is designed to guide children through their transition into adulthood.
The opening sequence of the tale takes place in the evening while everyone is in bed—a time typically feared by younger children who often turn to their parents to comfort them from the imagined monsters under their beds or in their closets. In the case of young Hansel and Gretel, the monster isn’t imagined: she is sleeping in the next room with their father, and she is plotting to “be rid of them” (J. Grimm, and W. Grimm). The warning here is that parents are not perfect and cannot always protect the family. To begin with, there is a stepmother, and by implication, this means something has happened to the children’s biological mother. Obviously, the father has already failed to protect one member of his family: his wife. Whatever the reason for her death, the children have observed that family can be replaced, for their father found a stand-in: their stepmother. Compounded with this, the children’s father, who initially wonders aloud, “how can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest?” is badgered by his wife who “left him no peace until he consented [to abandon them]” (J. Grimm, and W. Grimm). Instead of seeking comfort in the night, the children—specifically Hansel—are forced to act.
The voyage to self-awareness (i.e. the transformation from child to adult) is exemplified by the actions of Hansel and Gretel as they secure their return home from deep in the woods, foiling the plans of their stepmother. Overhearing they will be left to die, Hansel takes action by going outside where he observes the iridescent quality of the pebbles scattered around him. Thinking quickly, “Hansel stooped and stuffed the little pocket of his coat with as many [pebbles] as he could” (J. Grimm, and W. Grimm). Later, he scatters these stones on the trail, and after they are discarded by their father and stepmother, and night has fallen around them, Hansel and Gretel “followed the pebbles which [. . .] showed them the way [home]” (J. Grimm, and W. Grimm). Not only have the children outsmarted the monster in the bedroom, but also they have proven capable of caring for themselves. Unfortunately, their return to the cottage reveals an incomplete transformation to adulthood and a remaining desire to be sheltered by their parents. When the children are again taken into the woods, their only means of leaving a trail is the use of bread crumbs, and these are eaten by the birds in the forest (J. Grimm, and W. Grimm).
This is a clear indication of the poor choice made by the two to return to the comfort of their childhood. Given a second chance to mature, they are faced with an even greater task than before; however, they manage to survive and to find the edible house of the witch—another step in the direction of the discovery of self and the transformation to adulthood. Both the framing of this scene and its obstacle indicate that the children do manage to reach self-awareness and transform. Not only do they defeat the witch who unlike their stepmother had planned and successfully executed a means to trap children, but also where they begin with a focus on sweets, they end with a focus on jewels—a very adult desire: money over candy. It is also of note that in this scene, Gretel, who has previously been of little help to the cause, actually takes the dominant role to save them. This makes clear that both little girls and little boys need to be proactive in their struggle to become self-aware.
Fresh from their victory, Hansel and Gretel stuff pockets and pinafores with all of the “pearls and jewels” they can carry, and set off for home (J. Grimm, and W. Grimm). Having completed their transformations, nothing frightens or impedes their journey. Walking fearlessly through the forest “for two hours, they [come] to a great stretch of water,” and with neither anxiety nor doubt, they elicit the assistance of a white duck who happily and effortlessly helps them across the divide. This previously absent body of water represents the division between worlds: the imaginary and evil world of childhood, and the real world of adulthood. They cross easily, and head for home as new people. Hansel and Gretel have become self-aware, and they return not as children who need care, but as progeny ready to assume their requisite caretaking roles. Bursting “into the parlor [of their home] [. . .]” Hansel and Gretel fill the room with the riches taken from the witch’s treasure chests (J. Grimm, and W. Grimm). They no longer look to their father for protection or care; they have ventured into the world, done battle, and returned victorious. As is the wish for many a parent, Hansel and Gretel have done better than the family from whence they came. Though their father struggled to provide even meager food for his children, they have returned with a bounty of money that will ensure none of them want for anything ever again. The demons have been figuratively and literally slayed, for the stepmother, like the witch, is dead.