A-Z: Ella of Frell

E

Alright, it’s time to talk about Ella, the title character of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted.

Ella is, well, special. She’s been given a gift by a fairy–and not a very good one. The gift is obedience, and so Ella must follow any order given her. She’s protected by her mother, but this is a Cinderella-tale, which means that Ella’s mother dies, leaving her to the care of her father. And then of course Ella ends up at school, plagued by sibling duo Hattie and Olive. . Eventually, of course, Ella’s father marries Hattie’s and Olive’s mother, and the two become her stepsisters. (Remember, this is a Cinderella tale.) Hattie, who has discovered Ella’s gift while at school, tells her mother about it, and Ella is pretty quickly reduced to a household servant.

Meanwhile, Ella meets Prince Charmont at her mother’s funeral, and the two exchange letters for a while. They of course fall in love, but Ella realizes that her “gift” could be used to hurt Char, and she tricks him into believing she doesn’t love him. But when he returns and holds a homecoming ball, Ella can’t resist seeing him, and so she goes in disguise to the ball. Char is of course smitten by Ella-in-disguise, and before she can get away on the last night of the ball, her disguise is revealed. Char orders her to marry him—and everyone around appears to be ordering the marriage, too.

And only then is Ella able to overcome her “gift,” able to tell Char”no.” But of course, as soon as she can do so, she says yes, because she’s overcome the spell.

There are so many things in here that I just don’t know where to begin. Obedience has been a highly conversed-about quality of children—and is often considered to be one of the best qualities of a child. We expect children to do what they’re told in a way that we don’t expect adults to. We can, and do, interrupt children when they’re playing, reading, or doing-whatever-it-is-they’re-doing. Part of this is that we do not place as much value on what children are doing as on what we are doing. They can’t possibly be doing important stuff right? For instance, Little Jedi is just building with Legos, so it’s totally ok for me to ask him to bring me some juice from the fridge, as I’m writing, and that’s Productive. He’s also a child and needs to learn to do what he’s asked in order to prepare himself for the future, when teachers and then bosses will order him to do things.

But I’m fairly sure that we ask our kids to do more, and to do more things we could do for ourselves, than most teachers or bosses are going to ask them. We also expect obedience immediately. We don’t expect to wait 10 minutes while they finish what they’re doing—but we would finish what we were doing in most cases before we moved to do something we were asked to. Now I’m not suggesting we never ask our kids to do things; I do ask Little Jedi to do things, including go get that juice I mentioned. But what I’m saying is that we need to be conscious of what we’re asking them to do and of how we expect them to obey. We need to remember that they’re not going to be children forever–they’re going to be adults, and we don’t want them to be too obedient or to rely so much on getting others’ to do what they want (which they learn when we don’t do things for ourselves, not just when they aren’t made to do things by themselves).

Ella shows us what it’s like to be totally obedient. You say “oh Ella, stop it” when she’s joking, and she does stop. You say “Ella, get me a beer,” and Ella gets you a beer. The 2004 film version (which retains the spirit of the story but is quite different) does a pretty good job of letting us see Ella grow up, watch how frustrated she gets as she’s ordered to practice her music lessons, to “march faster” to what she’s doing, etc. Ella has little choice. And then we see Ella with Char, and she’s more often in his company than in the book, and Char tells Ella “kiss me.” And a whole other dimension. of the sort we get when Char orders Ella to marry him in the book-version, opens up: the idea of Ella having to be sexually obedient, too.

Because Ella’s powerlessness doesn’t just stop at what her parents or friends order her to do. She cannot say “no”—not to a direct order from anyone about anything. She seems to be largely untouched by the possible sexual aspect of her obedience, though. She’s not often around males, especially alone, and it is her denial of sexual appetite through forgoing a marriage with Char that allows her to break the spell.

 

And she is in direct contrast to her stepsisters, both of whom are configured as monstrous, large, and with enormous appetites—and unfeminine. It is Ella, the obedient one, who is most feminine and whose femininity and purity must be protected.  Ella is thin, and she is beautiful. She is graceful. And like the ugly stepsisters in most Cinderella stories, Hattie and Olive stand in opposition to Ella. Hattie is bald. Olive is enormous and cannot stop eating. And they are both punished by Ella in the end of the tale, essentially for never having been made to be obedient enough not to become monsters. Ella dis-enchanted is a model of goodness and purity, as she’s been taught to be—and she’s not willing to excuse those who haven’t been forced to be. The book thus reinforces traditional notions of beauty versus ugliness, feminine consent, and the things we insist our children do.

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14 Comments

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  1. Ella Enchanted has been on my TBR pile for years and years, and although I’ve seen the movie, reading this makes me think the book is faaairly different 😉 It sounds like the author was definitely going for a balanced-is-best moral – you should be obedient *in moderation*, just as you should say ‘no’ *in moderation*, particularly children.

    Even as an adult, I sometimes find myself being blindly obedient to, say, customers at my retail job, putting up with all sorts of crap, because – let’s face it – my boss tells me to. Maybe I’ll adopt a bit of an Ella approach and throw in some ‘no’s with all my nods and fake smiles 😉

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    1. There’s a fair difference between the two, although I think the basic plot is still the same. The film, and this is unusual for movie versions I think, is more complex than the book plot-wise.

      It does seem that the author is going for a medium-ground here, and maybe that’s what we should be teaching kids. I think we can teach them about the consequences of their actions and when they have to do what they’re told without insisting on total and absolute obedience.

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  2. Very interesting analysis especially in regards to what obedience can entails, of good and problematic depending on the situation. I didn’t read the book but saw the movie.

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    1. Thank you!

      I saw the film before I read the book. Some people say there’s a huge difference, but the basic plot is the same. The film has some added complexity—the uncle who wants to kill Char isn’t in the book, for instance—but the gist is the same.

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  3. Interesting take, having escaped an abusive marriage that I believed could be solved by increasing my obedience to my ex husband (possibly the worst idea ever) I watched the film Ella Enchanted during my time of homelessness due to the financial abuse. I thought the “gift” was portrayed a “curse,” perhaps again we are dealing with a difference between book and screen adaptation. Teaching children to obey, and to obey blindly upon fear of punishment and reprisal hurts us all as a society, it raises children that will follow fear mongers. I truly believe you can raise polite, respectful, healthy people without instilling the obey mentality. I am doing it and I cannot be the only one. I like you take on the end of the book and suggestion that even though wrongs may be done to us, two wrongs do not make a right and the urge to take karma and judgement into our own hands should be avoided, another great lesson for children.

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    1. Thanks! I think your’e right about the gift/curse. I often call it a gift in here because that’s what film and book call it, but in both it seems to be understood as more of a curse because Lucinda was too stupid to know what she was giving away. There’s probably something there, too, to deal with—the way this was given to a baby by a grown up fairy.

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      1. Ha Hah! The “gift” was SUCH a curse to me I do not even remember the film referring to it as a gift but then again it was a very stressful time of my life. And that fairy godmother? Obviously the worst fairy godmother EVER and clearly a message to young women to get out there and help yourself and not rely on the promise of those with magic. I thought Vivica A. Fox was hilarious.

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        1. Fair enough. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the film. I think they refer to it as a gift in the beginning, mostly because it falls under the tradition of fairy gifts given to babies–a common enough fairly tale trope. But in this case, yes, that’s sort of the trick, is that Ella’s “gift” is a curse. I remember being angry for her and scared for her at various points because she literally couldn’t say “no.”

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