As a follow-up to my popular post “Why Didn’t Cinderella Just Leave?” [her abusive stepmother’s household], today I’m answering another popular fairy tale question: Why did Snow White eat the poisoned apple?
As always, there are many versions of “Snow White,” as well as many modern retellings, and some authors might try to tackle the question more directly by offering reasons or justifications why Snow White would do something that seems so obviously dangerous to readers. My post is based on the Brothers Grimm version of the story, “Little Snow-White.”
Snow White Is Just a Child
The first thing to note about the Grimms’ version of “Snow White” is that Snow White is seven years old, which itself might provide an answer as to why she would do something that seems incredibly naive. She’s a very young child! In the Disney adaptation, which more people may be familiar with, Snow White is fourteen, but still relatively young, barely a high schooler in the modern age. However, I think the fact Snow White has faced direct danger (the huntsman trying to kill her) and knows her stepmother is out to get her but still is trusting enough to take food from a stranger means there’s something going on besides her young age.
…But She Never Seems to Learn Her Lesson
Snow White’s apparent naivete is actually worse in the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale than in the Disney adaptation. While viewers watching Disney are likely frustrated Snow White takes an apple after literally just being warned not to let any strangers in the house because her stepmother is out to kill her, her choice to eat the poisoned apple seems even more absurd in the traditional fairy tale–because she only takes the apple after being tricked/harmed by her stepmother two previous times!
In the Brothers Grimm story, the evil queen first disguises herself as an old woman pedaling wares who offers to let Snow White try on a beautiful corset–then laces it so tightly Snow White can no longer breathe and passes out. Again, Snow White was just warned by the dwarves not to let anyone in, but she she goes with her gut instead of her brain and thinks that someone who looks so honest (and innocently elderly?) must be trustworthy:
“I can let that honest woman in,” thought Snow-White, then unbolted the door and bought the pretty bodice lace.
Nearly dying and learning that even people who look honest might not be honest does not teach Snow White a lesson, however. The dwarves need to leave the house again, and they remind her not to let anyone in a again:
When the dwarfs heard what had happened they said, “The old peddler woman was no one else but the godless queen. Take care and let no one in when we are not with you.”
When a different kindly old woman shows up with more pretty baubles to sell, Snow White remembers what happened last time only for a moment before relenting and letting the stranger in:
Snow-White looked out and said, “Go on your way. I am not allowed to let anyone in.”
“You surely may take a look,” said the old woman, pulling out the poisoned comb and holding it up. The child liked it so much that she let herself be deceived, and she opened the door.
She’s practically dead until the dwarves come back and take the comb out of her hair. So with these two new near-death experiences under her belt, one really does wonder, Why does she eat the apple?
Is the Apple Different?
When the evil stepmother comes to the dwarves’ cottage a third time, this time as a old woman selling apples, Snow White seems ready to stick to her guns (though she oddly phrases her reason for not letting the woman in as being based on instructions from the dwarves, not her own reservations about trusting strangers after having been nearly killed twice quite recently):
Snow-White stuck her head out the window and said, “I am not allowed to let anyone in. The dwarfs have forbidden me to do so.”
“That is all right with me,” answered the peasant woman. “I’ll easily get rid of my apples. Here, I’ll give you one of them.”
“No,” said Snow-White, “I cannot accept anything.”
The stepmother does try to eliminate some possible objections. First, in the quote above, she offers to give Snow White an apple instead of selling it to her (though money never appears to be an issue). When Snow White still refuses, she points out the obvious and laughs, suggesting it would be absurd to think that the apple is dangerous:
“Are you afraid of poison?” asked the old woman. “Look, I’ll cut the apple in two. You eat the red half, and I shall eat the white half.
Eating half of the apple does seem like a good way to demonstrate that it is safe and not poisoned. Snow White didn’t have any assurances that the bodice or the comb were safe, but in this case she does seem to get some proof the apple is safe. However, I still don’t think rational reasoning has anything to do with Snow White’s choice here; obviously it would be safest to not eat the apple or to take it, say it will be saved for later, and then throw it away.
Personally, I think the difference between the apple and the first two tricks is that the apple is more obviously magical. The evil queen goes into a special, secret room of her castle to create the apple, which she did not do for the bodice or comb, and the narrator says that “anyone who saw it would want it.” That might not be a throwaway line about how lovely and delicious it looks, but rather an indication that it’s magically tempting.
That temptation seems to be the key (and, of course, apples have been a symbol temptation since the Garden of Eden). Snow White’s ability to resist the lure of the apple lessens the longer she looks at it. She is said to “long” for it, whereas she seemed to have simply thought the bodice and comb were pretty:
Now the apple had been so artfully made that only the red half was poisoned. Snow-White longed for the beautiful apple, and when she saw that the peasant woman was eating part of it she could no longer resist, and she stuck her hand out and took the poisoned half. She barely had a bite in her mouth when she fell to the ground dead.
While I think it’s fair to say Snow White was tricked the first two times because she’s absurdly trusting for someone who knows her stepmother is out to murder her, I do think she is less at fault in the case of the apple. She eats it because there is strong magic attached to it that makes her want to eat it.
What Do You Think?
Does Snow White eat the apple because she’s too trusting? Just stupid? Or overwhelmed by powerful magic?