Interpretations Of Little Red Riding Hood

Categories: Child

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood has been international adapted, modified, changed and appropriated throughout history according to era and aimed audience. Charles Perrault, the original author of the story wrote during the 17th century, a time of excess, luxury and sexual indiscretions whilst the Grimm brothers, who appropriated the tale in 19th century during post-industrialisation and the rise of the concept of the child. A more modern take on the tale comes from Sarah Norman’s 21st century depiction with the story centralised around the story of a criminal wolf- showing society’s awareness of mental illness and law and order.

The context in which these tales were written influences the themes within that story and the values they promote. Perrault warned women against promiscuity through ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, Grimm advised obedient children to ‘stick to the path’ and Norman reveals the illness of an individual and the vulnerability of women to sexual abuse. All of these versions share common roots- a young girl, walking through a forest, who encounters a wolf.

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The three different outcomes reflect the different moral that the writer intended for the three different demographics, depending on the context at which it was written.

Charles Perrault’s tale of ‘Le Petit Chaperon Rouge’ of 1697 is most commonly known as ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ the story depicts a young, innocent girl walking through a forest in order to see her Grandma, when she is stopped by a wolf. The tale is a staple in all children’s fairy tale collections nowadays, with a warning- directly aimed at teaching young children- about the dangers of speaking to strangers.

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However, after reviewing Perrault’s original version the intended moral and true targeted demographic reveals the tale as more of a sexual parable- mostly warning women against promiscuity, and revealing the dangers of ‘wolves’. Perrault himself was a well-known intellectual who epitomised the crossroads between the worlds of arts and politics. As a distinguished administrator, he was charged with promoting the monarchy’s absolute glory and later joined the expanding royal bureaucracy alongside Louis XIV at the Royal Palaces of Versailles. Here lay the true demographic for which The Little Red Riding Hood’s moral was intended upon- the highest aristocracy in France. Versailles was notorious for its luxury, excess and controversy in French history and it was here that the story of Little Red Riding Hood was directed towards. Versailles was notorious for its indulgence of sexual indiscretions. It was a place of raging debates, mostly concerning women and their roles within society. Modern women were blamed for destroying tradition family life and strict social values. They were free, promiscuous and used seduction in order to climb the social hierarchy. Although 17th century France was a time of great female freedom, they had the ability to be educated, it was still an overly patriarchal system, with father’s having the ability to use their daughters as pawns in the game of marriage. In order to be perfect to trade, you had to be a virgin. In the setting of Versailles, this was difficult as men, for fun, would compete in removing women’s virtue in order for them to be unable to marry others, the ‘wolves’. Perrault’s tales present a portrait of the duties and expectations governing the lives and relationship of men and women of Versailles and the corrupt institutionalised system that united them marriage. Perrault’s original story of Little Red was far more sexually suggestive than the one we are familiar with today, “All the better to hug you with,” says the wolf, before he devours Little Red whole. This line, was later removed in the Grimm version as its sexual connotations were deemed ‘unsuitable for children.’ Also, in an early illustration, the wolf, without disguise, is seen under the sheets with a girl, lying on top of her, paws on either side. According to Perrault’s plot, she has just undressed and slipped into bed with the wolf. The story ends with the wolf devouring her, with salvation nor redemption included, as many modern versions have, “The wolf snapped at Little Red Riding Hood and swallowed her in one single gulp!” Perrault’s original intention of the story was to raise questions about women’s subliminal desires, the fatal nature of succumbing to sexual intrigue, consequently warning women against promiscuity. For when a woman lost her virginity, a common colloquial saying of the time was, ‘elle avoit vû le loup- she’d seen the wolf’. Perrault cloaked the young girl in ‘a red velvet cloak and hood that her grandmother made her,’ red, the colour of scandal and blood, foreshadowing her sin and ominous death. Her hood, or chaperon, suggest the meaning of both a matron who accompanies and protects single girls from men. Whilst, now, we associate Little Red, and fairy tales in general, to be aimed at children, they were not the original intended audience. Perrault’s allegories were elaborate and highly sophisticated creations for the most educated members of society. They were intended for the Royal Courts of Versailles, people that would understand the underlying social message written between the plots. Perrault wanted to capture the concerns of the Court and the social and sexual politics of the seventeenth century of the French upper class- his tales were neither for the nursery nor for children. The French fairy tale genre of the time (conte de fées) increased in popularity amongst adults and to “simmer” or ‘mittoner’ stories between each other became all the rage. Madame de Sévingé wrote the first recorded reference to the fairy tales ‘the stories, they amuse the ladies with at Versailles.’ Overall, Perrault’s main intention was to create a message for young women of society to remain chaste, as reiterated in the final moral of the story, “As one can see by this…especially pretty young girls… of wolves…. who follow young ladies right to their bedsides.” His story was not that of a fairy tale, intended to entertain children but rather, a sexual parable reflecting the attitudes, morals and life of Versailles. Were sexual actions was revolutionising French culture and creating an age of increased sexual desires, promiscuity and indulgence- especially amongst the aristocracy at the one most excessive settings every recorded in history- the Palaces of Versailles.

The Grimm Brothers in 1812, created a new version of the original tale of Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood in order to appeal to the emerging middle class and their children during the era of the Industrial Revolution. Jacob and Wilheim Grimm were originally scholarly analysts who collected the precious traditions of German folk, the “natural poetry” for the blossoming German cultural revival. However, there life was a hardship and their shift to children demographic gained them English popularity, especially in Victorian England. They popularised the Grimm version, now renamed to the ‘Little Red Cap’, as middle class working families as literary material became more accessible. This story was based on the ideal of a child during the 19th century social structure- disciplined, obedient and innocent, especially young girls. This is shown through the characterisation of Little Red as a ‘sweet little girl’ who ‘everybody loved at first sight.’ The tale follows similar to that of Perrault, where Little Red travels through a forest to deliver goods to her sick grandmother. But instead of being eaten by the wolf, she is saved by passing by lumberjack who saves both her and her grandmother from the wolf. “he pulled out his musket,” the image of the strong male holding a weapon reflects the patriarchal society, one where women were weak and vulnerable and reliant on the protection from men which is shown through Little Red’s , “Oh, I was so terrified!” The presence of a more prominent mother in the Grimm’s version (who orders the heroine not to stray from the path) and character of the ideal male saviour represents the nuclear family and reiterates the need for obedient children within the new ideal. The sense of a nuclear family strengthened as a concept of childhood emerged. After the industrial revolution, the age of maturity shifted, allowing children to work later, marry later and enjoy more ‘child-like’ hobbies. Unlike the days of Perrault, books became relatively inexpensive and literacy rates rose dramatically, allowing for a wider audience to enjoy the tales. Because children were the main focus of the Grimm version, references to sex were excluded, making way for a more violence- which the Grimm brothers kept in order to exaggerate Good and Evil, “[The huntsman] took out a pair of scissors and began cutting open the belly of the sleeping wolf.” This was in order to clarify the lesson to children and promote the overall moral of the story, to obey ones parents and “walk careful… do not stray from the path.” This changed the message from a sexual plea to a family fable and as it spread through Europe, emphasised the Christian message of piety. The Grimm version also changed the image of the red hood to a red cap, a reflection of the common dressage for rural women. The cap became somewhat of an icon during the era and represented the English middle class working women. “She once gave her a little red velvet cap, which looked so beautiful on the girl that she did not want to wear anything else.” The Grimm brothers provided another ending to their tale of the ‘Little Red Cap, where the grandmother and Little Red encounter the wolf again. After the wolf follows the girl back to the grandmother’s home, they lure him through the chimney where ‘he slid right down into the trough and drowned. Little Red Riding Hood walked home cheerfully and no one ever did her any harm.” This ending completely contradicts the prevailing Victorian ideas of femininity, for unlike Perrault’s palaces of Versailles, girls in Victorian households were superfluous. Therefore, this ending was omitted from popular translations of the tale and remains virtually unknown even to this day. Overall, the Grimm’s version serves as an allegory of obedience for the emerging concept of the child as it projected values of strict obedience to the parents in the nuclear family. The tale wanted to exaggerate the plight of the victims and the wickedness of villains in order to create a fable showing the spiritual danger of, not the wolves this time, but rather from straying from the path.

A more modern appropriation from Little Red Riding Hood comes from Sarah Norman’s ‘The Wolf in me Holds Court’ which deals with combination of a traditional tale in a 21st century setting- the urban jungle. Following the testimony of a schizophrenic man who has had the double personality of the wolf his whole life. He is charged with murdering and raping a young girl, but blames it on the ‘wolf’ within him. The fact that the main character suffers from a mental illness shows the increased awareness of psychosis during this era. It is shown through the partnership of the wolf and the man from a young age was disapproved of, reflecting the ideas of society and the uncertainty we place around those suffering from a mental illness, “We were pups together, the wolf and I…. But our partnership was discouraged.” The pathology and notion of a predator is explored through testimony of the wolf. “The wolf in me holds court,” societies ideas about the notion of a predator, how they make excuses and blame the mental illness which controls them. Unlike the Perrault and Grimm version, the little girl is not seen to be uneducated or naïve, she exits from ‘a corner of a concrete playground’ showing the education of girls during this post 70s feminist era and the increasing notion of gender equality. However, the girl is alluded to have been raped by the ‘wolf’ as the ‘brown mud beneath them pulsed and turned red with sweet, stolen blood, a plush red carpet.’ The red of the blood here shows danger and death, highlighting the death of not only the girl, but her innocence. This shows the vulnerability of girls and reveals that, despite the increasing equality between the sexes, there is still a huge disparity between sexual abuse towards women and men. In this case shown as the women being the victims and men being the criminals. Another value of this era shown within Norman’s version is the theme of law and order. The ‘waiting tape recorder’s brittle hum’ shows the need for justice within our moral code and the punishing consequences of wrongdoings under these ideas. Although this version is a more modern take on the fairy tale, there are several allusions to the original script. The ‘crimson bridal veil’ of the little girl is seen as her ‘little red cap’ and the ‘menacing, grey forest’ of the city is similar to the forest within Perrault’s and Grimm’s tail. The inclusion of the beasts ‘impeccable row of china pegs’, is similar to the ‘big teeth’ that were mentioned in Perrault’s, show the danger of these wolves, foreshadowing the actions to come. The audience for this story is not younger but an older more educated reader. This is because of the way it was written and the themes that are developed throughout the story. It is not one of moral warning- rather a social statement on our attitude towards those with mental illnesses and the ever present vulnerability of women in a decreasing patriarchal society.

Overall, the three tales reflect the time periods they were written in. Even though that both Grimm’s and Norman’s appropriations stem from the original Perrault’s tale, they promote very different end morals and show the progression of society’s values through the years. Although women are portrayed through all three tales as being in need of protection- the things they seek protection from has changed. In Perrault’s 17th century France, women protected their social status through their affairs with important men, in Grimm’s 19th Century Victorian era, young daughters were protected through their male saviour and blind obedience and in Sarah Norman’s 21st appropriation, girls were protected by education and the justice system. The audience has changed overtime too, Perrault’s original tale, whilst most commonly associated with children, was actually intended for the high aristocracy of the Versailles- where the excessive palace reflected the laissez- faire attitude of its inhabitants. As a setting, it influenced his original story to become more of a sexual parable, one which highlighted women’s subliminal desires and the danger that succumbing to theses indiscretions could lead to. The revival of Little Red Riding Hood as a children’s classic came from the Brothers Grimm’s translation towards the newly formed concept of the child. The post-industrialisation period lead to an increasingly idea of a nuclear family from the expansion of the middle class. As books became more readily available, so too did the ability to influence the behaviours of children through stories’ morals. Different from this, Sarah Norman rights from the post-feminist movement from an inner city suburb, reflecting general societal views and the ever changing notion gender equality. Finally, through analysing the themes, context and setting of all three stories we see the linking theme- the concept of femineity and apparent vulnerability that simply derives from being a women. For in all three stories, the young, innocent girl is hunted by a ‘wolf,’ which in the dictionary is now defined as, ‘a man given to seducing women’ and a common expression being ‘she was wolf-whistled.’

Works cited

  1. Ashliman, D. L. (2000). The annotated Little Red Riding Hood. University of Pittsburgh.
  2. Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. Knopf.
  3. Briggs, K. M. (1979). Little Red Riding Hood, a casebook. University of Wisconsin Press.
  4. Child, B. J. (1977). The English and Scottish popular ballads: Volume 2. Dover Publications.
  5. Hallett, M., & Karasek, B. (Eds.). (2010). Folklore and the fantastic in nineteenth-century British fiction. Brill.
  6. Johnson, C. L. (2013). Little Red Riding Hood uncloaked: Sex, morality, and the evolution of a fairy tale. Basic Books.
  7. Orenstein, C. (2002). Little Red Riding Hood uncloaked. The New York Times.
  8. Opie, I., & Opie, P. (1974). The classic fairy tales. Oxford University Press.
  9. Zipes, J. (1983). Fairy tales and the art of subversion: The classical genre for children and the process of civilization. Routledge.
  10. Zipes, J. (2000). The irresistible fairy tale: The cultural and social history of a genre. Princeton University Press.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Interpretations Of Little Red Riding Hood. (2024, Feb 09). Retrieved from

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