Reading Grimm: Marriage and Emotional Labour

"Singing Soaring Lark" | Art by AndrewRyanArt. Used with permission.
All fairy tales have a lesson, but I’m not sure what the moral in “The Singing, Soaring Lark” is besides “be a good person.” This tale is not actually about a lark; it’s about a young woman (the youngest and favourite daughter) whose father is tricked into trading her to a lion for a lark. This, as you would imagine, radically changes her life.

The lion, it turns out, is a prince cursed to be a lion by day; no light can touch him. He and the young woman marry, and they live happily together sleeping by day and being awake by night. But, one day, the lion is touched by a ray of light “about the breadth of a hair,” and he is transformed into a dove. He tells his wife that he must fly across the world for seven years and that she must follow him, but that every seventh step he will let fall a drop of blood and a white feather.

So here we have our beloved tropes: a favourite child, the contrast of red and white, a curse, and someone transformed into an animal.

For the rest of the story, the young woman is looking for the prince. She receives help from the Sun and the Moon, who give her gifts to use when she needs them most, and the Night Wind and the South Wind, who give her information about where to find her husband. After battling a dragon that turns out to be an enchanted princess and wandering the wilderness some more, she breaks the spell and they ride off on a griffin, living happily ever after until the end of their days.

Emotional labour—the work of managing feelings and expressions—is often considered “woman’s work” and is, therefore, undervalued.

This story heavily implies that the young woman is a virtuous person; the events are triggered because the young woman asked her father to bring her a bird on the way back from his trip, rather than the pearls and diamonds her sisters asked for. Much like Beauty and the Beast, in which the daughter asks for a rose, this young woman is eschewing material goods. She’s also courageous and self-sacrificial, insisting her father keep his promise to give her up when he wants to break it.

She’s also incredibly loyal to her husband even though he’s a lion half the time. Because of the young woman’s devotion, you could say that this story is about how to have a strong marriage and live up to the promise of loving the other person “in sickness and in health;” she is willing to stay with the prince in spite of his illness, the curse.

And yet, I can’t help but notice that she is the only one doing any work in their relationship. In terms of narrative, the prince doesn’t do much to show how invested he is in their marriage. In fact, he gets kidnapped by that enchanted princess and marries her for a time before the spell is broken and he goes back to his original wife.

Devotion and loyalty to one’s spouse are vital to a good marriage, and it should be a team effort. I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the young woman is the only one shouldering the emotional labour of their relationship. Emotional labour—the work of managing feelings and expressions—is often considered “woman’s work” and is, therefore, undervalued. The implication here, then, is that the young woman must be grateful for her happy life with her husband, and continue to work to strengthen their marriage, while he doesn’t have to do anything more because he’s already married to her.

Add the fact that she didn’t ask for this marriage in the first place, and I can’t help but feel that she wound up short. But, every girl wants to marry a prince, so it all works out, right?

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld