When I was nine years old you could find me in the corner of the B&N Children’s Section in the “L” section—for Levine—reading the same copy of Ella Enchanted. I never bought the book. I just read a little bit every time I came, until I finished it. Then I started it over again. Finally, I borrowed a copy from the library—and kept it for three years. When I finally gave it back (and somehow avoided paying the exorbitant fee) I was left bereft. It was my favorite book, and well-thumbed. Thankfully, for something like my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday my sisters bought me a brand-new hardcover copy. The rest is history.
Ella Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella, tells the story of a young Ella in the imaginary and magical kingdom of Frell. Her mother passes away suddenly and her greedy merchant father marries a rich woman with two young, doltish, and cruel daughters. So far we’ve got all the major ingredients of the classic tale, but Ella Enchanted has a twist: Ella is under a curse bestowed upon her by the fairy, Lucinda.
The curse Lucinda bestows upon her is a “gift” of obedience. “Ella will always be obedient,” she says. (3) This curse is an excellent plot device as it is responsible for nearly all of Ella’s hardships. Had she not been cursed, she wouldn’t have been exploited by her stepfamily or forced to give up her possessions, and her “happily ever after” would have come easily.
But Ella does not succumb to the effects of the curse without a fight. “Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me,” she says. (5) Ella describes how she evaded the curse by finding loopholes in the commands she’s issued. For example, when her godmother Mandy tells her to “hold the bowl while I beat the eggs,” Ella resents being ordered to do anything, and while holding the bowl, she’d move around the kitchen so Mandy would have to follow her, making it more difficult. (5) Despite her curse, Ella shows strong sense of self and a large measure of mischievousness that is apparent throughout the novel.
The curse, of course, is a metaphor for the expectations of obedience and docility that society places upon women and girls. It may also be interpreted as the feminine ideal that many fairy tales of the past and even of the last fifty years of movies and television have enforced. But what is most notable about Ella’s curse is how she finds liberties within the confines of the curse to exercise her will. Her free will, to be exact.
What is interesting about how the curse operates is that it does not strip away Ella’s free will. One of the biggest reasons why I hated the movie (there are many, the least including Anne Hathaway’s parody of a strong-willed woman) is because the curse forces Ella’s actions. Movie-Ella had no control over her actions; the spell simply took over her body and acted for her as if she were a puppet. The oversimplification of the curse robbed it of its allegorical power.
Contrarily, in the novel, the curse includes symptoms of dizziness, concentrated pain, buzzing of the ears, vertigo, and nausea if she does not obey. But ultimately, the decision to obey is Ella’s. She has free will but forces of nature and of society, metaphorically, work against her. If she does not obey, she runs the very real risk of bodily harm and it is suggested, even death. This metaphor of the curse calls attention to all the societal pressures that are packaged with the female identity and how difficult it is to resist gender norms and establish one’s identity outside of societal expectations and the feminine ideal.
Ella excels at gaining small areas of ground by disobeying while obeying the curse, as described. She’s an example of a free-thinking woman living in a patriarchal system, doing what she can to make herself happy. However, she also knows that the curse may be broken and that it can only be broken by herself, and by no one else. The scene in which she breaks the curse is poignant, powerful, and my favorite passage of the novel:
Then I lost sense of it all. I went on rocking and crying, but my thought burrowed within, concentrated in a point deep in my chest, where there was room for only one truth: I must save Char. For a moment I rested inside myself, safe, secure, certain, gaining strength. In that moment I found a power beyond any I’d had before, a will and a determination I would never have needed if not for Lucinda, a fortitude I hadn’t been able to find for a lesser cause. (226) (emphasis mine)
Ella displays such formidable strength and finds that strength wholly within herself. It is that strength which was always at her fingertips, the strength she always possessed that would have allowed her to break the curse, but she needed reason enough. For Ella, saving the man she loves is enough for her to be able to break the curse. In Levine’s estimation, love—equal, honest love—transcends social boundaries and expectations and can result in uncommon happiness despite societal norms. Stepsisters still exist, there is still a king and queen and a patriarchy, but Levine suggests that with personal strength any girl can overcome these forces. Every girl can break her “curse.”
Also notable is that Ella “refused to become a princess” even though she marries a prince. (231) Instead she opts for the titles “Court Linguist” and “Cook’s Helper,” titles that call attention to her skills and knowledge rather than to her status as a royal’s wife. (231)
One last thing:
Now it was over. Ended forever. I was made anew. Ella. Just Ella. Not Ella, the slave. Not a scullery maid. Not Lela. Not Eleanor. Ella. Myself unto myself. One Me. (228)
And now I must affirm the influence of that passage above upon my nine-year-old psyche. Strange as it sounds, ridiculous as it sounds, Ella Enchanted may have turned the pre-preteen me into a tiny little feminist.
Levine, G.C. (1997) Ella Enchanted. New York, NY: HarperCollins