In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender

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NYU Press, 1995 - Literary Criticism - 388 pages
The swan maiden is a supernatural woman forced to marry, keep house, and bear children for a mortal man who holds the key to her imprisonment. When she manages to regain this key, she escapes to the otherworld, rarely to return. In this book, Barbara Fass Leavy studies the meaning of gender in the stories that cluster around the swan maiden. The author poses questions concerning how the female folk socialize other women in a man's world, how myths of feminine evil attach themselves to widely disseminated folktales, and how ominous meanings are obscured by the traditional happy endings of some fairy tales. By including the swan maiden in a group of folklore characters designated as animal brides, and comparing them to animal grooms, Leavy also offers an alternative to the traditional emphasis by folklorists and other scholars on animal groom narratives, and shows how the commentators' neglect of frog princesses in favor of frog princes, for example, is paralleled by the folklore themes in stories of shapeshifting women. Beautifully written, this book reveals the myriad ways in which the folktales become allegories of gender relations. Barbara Fass Leavy expertly combines literary, gender, and cultural studies to present the swan maiden as the prototypical other. The swan maiden tale has been interpreted as depicting exogamous marriages. Barbara Fass Leavy's argument is a more radical and inclusive variation of this speculation. She believes that, in the societies in which the tale and its variants were told, woman was the other - trapped by marriage in a world never quite her own. Leavy shows how the tale, though rarely explicitly recognized, is frequently replayed in modern literature and life.

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About the author (1995)

Barbara Fass Leavy is Professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York and Adjunct Professor of English in Psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College. She is the author of To Blight with Plague: Studies in a Literary Theme and, with Per Schelde Jacobsen, of Ibsen's Forsaken Merman: Folklore in the Late Plays.

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