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Jane Yolen's Novel Briar Rose

Yolen enlightens and inspires responders through the use of structure, language and other techniques. The novel Briar Rose by Jane Yolen is a heart wrenching story of sleeping beauty intertwined with the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust. The structure of the novel is altered in a way to interweave three stories including Gemma’s Briar Rose fairy tale, Becca’s quest and Josef’s story. The use of language techniques explores the idea of the characters as it gives an understanding of their circumstances and the situations they experience.

Some of the techniques Yolen uses to enlighten responders is the use of other techniques such as allegory and symbolism which acts as a metaphor in which one story represents another. The structure of Briar Rose is interweaved with three main stories: Gemma’s fairytale, Becca’s quest and Josef’s experience of the holocaust. Two parallel stories are developed simultaneously as Becca realises that Gemma’s version of her Briar Rose tale is actually a metaphor for Gemma’s life.

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The placement and segments of the never-completed fairy story at intervals throughout the narrative adds suspense and mystery.

Gemma’s story is told to the readers most through her own unusual retelling of the original briar rose fairy tale. As in all good fairy tales, the older sisters, are at times unsympathetic to hearing this same favourite story repeated countess times. It is the youngest of the three sisters, Becca, who shows the required goodness and empathy. To her, the storytelling is not only the essence of her childhood, but also the nature of her grandmothers past of its mysterious and aristocratic origins.

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The placement of segments of the never-completed fairy tale at intervals through the narrative adds suspense and mystery to the novel.

More importantly the fairy tale references deepen to the story of Gemma’s holocaust sufferings. Yolen also uses intertextuality to structure her novel. The story tells a narrative in the present, but flashbacks are added in the form of a fairytale. In the story, Josef Potocki takes the narrative into his own way of storytelling. He is the witness, the key to the mystery of who Gemma really was and where she had come from. Yet he tells the events in third person as if he were only a storyteller and not one of the characters. He had been in the opposite position of Becca as he knew the beginning of the story but not the end.

The parallelism is satisfying to the reader as both Becca and Josef receive the answers to what they have wanted to know. The narrative is divided into three sections: Home, The Castle and Home Again. At the end, in similarity with all fairy tales, there is a happy ending foretold by Stan (Becca’s prince) after he greets her with a long and very satisfactory kiss “We’ll get to happily ever after eventually. ” The use of language by Yolen also enlightens responders. She adapts her language use to the situations and speakers in different sections of the novel.

For example, spare and heroic language is used by Josef Potocki in the ‘The Castle’ section of the book. Here he recounts the life of the partisans and the Princess’s part in it, her rescue from Chelmno, marriage, pregnancy and escape after the violent death of her young husband Aron, also known as Avenger. Potocki speaks as the well-educated, cosmopolitan (multi-ethnic) observer. A voice inside him said “We rescue one, they kill one thousand. Still, one is enough” and he understood why Henrik and his followers cared more about making a powerful story than life itself (P181).

Repetition and echoing of key motifs reinforce the message of the novel. The one person to one thousand contrasts recalls the death toll of Chelmno camp “One day, one thousand dead (ein tag, ein tausend). The idioms of everyday American speech in a middle-class domestic situation are used in showing the events and relationships of the Berlin family. In contrast to the conversations of Becca and Stan, usually presented as straight dialogue, the discussions among the three sisters are conventionally presented, often with “she said” and other interpolations to give explicitly the emotional level of the sister’s disagreements.

Madga, the Polish student who acts as Becca’s guide to the death camp site speaks fluent English but at times awkward English “Oh, they are much in appreciation” she says when given a pair of jeans. Contrast between the formal, traditional language of the fairy tale and childish, informal chatter is shown when the children comment or question as Gemma proceeds with her Briar Rose fairy tale story telling. Her contrast revisiting of just this one fairy tale shows the reader that while her conscious memory has buries the details of her past horrors, she cannot help returning to the fairy tale allegory.

Contrast is also shown between the warm, happy imagery of life in the Berlin house and the bleak, harsh details of the holocaust. Other techniques such as symbolism and allegory are used to enlighten and inspire responders. Yolen uses many symbolism techniques to convey her ideas throughout the novel. The mist in Gemma/s version of the fairy tale represents the exhaust gas used to kill the holocaust victims at Chelmno. The Briars stand for the walls, fences and even trees the prisoners were enclosed by. They strongly suggest barbed wire. The sleep of the people of the castle if the sleep of death – it goes forever.

However, symbols may have a cluster of connotations. The mist may also represent the imperfect knowledge Gemma and her family has of the events of her past which they only dimly understand. The briars can also represent the difficulties to be overcome by love to reach the desired object. The sleep also perhaps suggests a lack of consciousness about what was going on. The rose of the title is the symbol of beauty and love, which survives through the thorny briars, and is the motivating force of the whole tale, forcing Becca to carry out her promise to find the castle in the sleeping woods (P19).

Her research reveals that Gemma’s survival and her daughter’s existence have both been made possible by the love of Aron and Josef. Yolen is not merely making use of symbols to tell her Holocaust narrative. She has constructed the whole story as an allegory (whole story itself is symbolic to a fairytale). The major idea of the novel is the telling of Gemma’s version of the fairy tale of Briar Rose. Her personal story, with the handsome prince, the kiss of life, the briars, even the hundred years of sleep (death) corresponds with the original narrative.

We need to understand the original fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty to understand what has happened to Gemma and thousands like her. The Briar Rose tale is thus an allegory of Gemma’s life. Although she cannot recall the details of her past (the gas gave her an after-affect of her forgetting her past) she needs to pass this story on to her descendants (Becca, Sylvia and Shana) and uses the fairy tale to do so. Yolen has added strands from the typical fairy tales to enrich the story. For example, Becca is on a quest like many quest heroes and she is the third and youngest child, the one whose heart is the truest.

Finally, the “happily ever after” ending of the fairy tale relates the whole novel back onto distinctive fairy tales as a motif. In conclusion, the novel Briar Rose can enlighten and inspire responders through Jane Yolen’s techniques of structure, language and other techniques such as the use of allegory and symbolism. As it informs the readers of the horrors of the holocaust we as responders can counter the experiences of the victims through the fiction characters of Briar Rose.

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Jane Yolen's Novel Briar Rose. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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