Semiotics, Snow White and Mary: A Mystical Rose by Any Other Name?
Sensitivity to ways God speaks via human experience is a major characteristic of Western Christianity in our times. There is precedent for this. David Tracy opines that any ‘classic’ tale that communicates profoundly and powerfully to a broad audience reveals important human truth, essentially, a word from God. Examining modern classics may uncover truths in harmony with religious faith.
For Tracy, the defining characteristics of a classic are widespread popularity, consensus about a profound message, and agreement that its effect is powerful. Designated a "classic film" by the one-hundredth U.S. Congress on July 16, 1987, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is recognized as an inspired, authentic classic. Such work may well contain important human truths and hidden words from God. Let us explore Disney's film for instances of Marian imagery.
There are some caveats. David Tracy's opinion alone has limited authority for theologians. However, his approach to classics has supporters and seems compatible with Christian Tradition. Nevertheless, for Christians, the Gospel is the norm for evaluating deep human truths. Hence, authentic Marian imagery found in secular works will be an illustration or a fuller flowering of previous doctrine.
Still, Disney's film could serve to deepen the faith and devotion of believers or to illustrate truths in a more palatable form. This may gain acceptance by those untouched by other genres. Young children more attentive to cartoons than textbooks exemplify the latter. Also, as during the Counter-Reformation, visual art and music can be effective with adults, even when other means have failed. Free artistic renderings need not be disparaged vis-a-vis doctrinal formulations in all pastoral circumstances:
Images distill the essential: vision, conviction and commitment. There is a cutting and divisive edge in words. Words tend to polarize and oppose because they carry concepts and definitions...Images are known to trigger collective frenzy, but they also reflect common vision and galvanize splintered forces into common thrust toward a same end. Unity and plurality expressed in one breath exist only in the visual form.
These arguments validate my method in general. My specific choice of Snow White requires more comment. That the film is recognized as a classic capable of evoking deep emotions is clear. When first shown, the film drew a:
most receptive, enthusiastic audience ... The critics were equally ecstatic ... At the Academy Award ceremony on February 23, 1939, Walt Disney received a special Oscar ...
Today, as illustrated by Congress declaring a national Snow White Week, "Fifty years on Walt Disney's animated film version of her story is as entrancing as it ever was, as fresh and magical as when it first appeared in 1937."
Another objection is that animated films based on fairy tales seem unsuitable for theology, by nature profound and serious. Venerable Jorge offered a similar argument in The Name of the Rose. The refutation made by Eco's hero, William of Baskerville, echoes Suger’s thought on medieval sculpture:
divine things should be expounded more properly in figures of vile bodies than of noble bodies. First, because the human spirit is more easily freed from error; it is obvious, in fact, that certain properties cannot be attributed to divine things and become uncertain if portrayed by noble corporeal things. In the second place, because this humbler depiction is more suited to the knowledge that we have of God on this earth: He shows himself more in that which is not than in that which is, and therefore the similitudes of those things furthest from God lead us to a more exact notion of Him, for thus we know that He is above what we say and think...
Analogous reasoning shows that cartoon fairy tales are useful for teaching divine truth. In fact, this approach is well suited for ministry to our culture that leans heavily to divine immanence, if not to materialism.
Another objection is the danger of eisegesis, finding meaning that exists in a reader's mind alone. For a postmodern subjectivist, this is irrelevant. For most scholars it is not. For academic use, I suggest a methodology based on Gadamer's 'hermeneutic circle'.
I.) Methodology for Analyzing Classics for Religious Images
Traditional theories of communication derived from essentialist/objectivist philosophical theories. A reality exists to be conveyed. Once known, a person transmits the perceived reality using predetermined symbols. One familiar with the symbol system receives knowledge of the object.
Hans Georg Gadamer's 'hermeneutic circle' uses a subjective personalist basis. In his view, the intent of the communicator, the concrete symbols used in the act of communication, and the perception evoked in recipients all contribute to a full grasp of the reality described. This heuristic seems to offer a good paradigm for interpreting Snow White.
This method need not be limited to that particular work. However, it is well-suited for several reasons. For pastoral facility, a personalist perspective is essential. Also, considering the concrete medium of communication as well as the author’s intention reduces the risk of eisegesis.
More details are in order for each of the three areas in Gadamer's hermeneutic circle. Scientific study starts with the examiner’s perceptions of an issue, in this case, recipients’ perception. Hypotheses are formulated, then tested. The examination of readers' perceptions should also include the perceptions of those with expertise on a topic. Surveys of a broad audience are also appropriate, though beyond the scope of this paper. Though limited to perceptions at this stage, multiple opinions reduce the risk of eisegesis.
Analysis of the concrete media should follow the norms accepted for criticism. Texts are studied for the presence of unusual or precise terms, phrases or events. Also, direct parallels to other works are noted. Finally, when the work derives from an earlier version, as Snow White does, redaction analysis is in order. Changes imply authorial intent.
Finally, the author's specified intent is considered. If practical, both open-ended and specific questions should be asked. Since Disney died in 1966, recorded statements, implicitly open-ended and indirect, must suffice. With a group work, like any film, statements from team members are also important. Similarly, the production process gives useful insights, especially with edited products like feature films.
II.) Audience Perceptions of Meaning in Snow White
My own impressions of Disney's film suggest themes which, not only could be given a Marian interpretation, but seem to show intent. My list is:
There are many published interpretations of this fairy tale. Over fifty matches occurred in the Dissertation Abstracts database, over a dozen in Psychlit. The following is a sample:
These examples show the value of critical interpretations of Disney’s film. Many of the themes I noted are similar to those of others. Brashares showed how these signs might be seen in light of the Gospel. From there it is a short trip to Marian interpretations, for many scripture references have been applied to Mary. Given Disney's "Fundamentalist sensibilities," our presumption should rest in favor of reading biblical conditioning into his work, consciously or not, rather than against it. Though common themes were found, more needs to be done for a rigorous appraisal. Consensus reduces subjectivity, but does not eliminate it. Objective criteria are needed. Hence, we now examine the medium itself, the film and its text.
III.) Critical Appraisal of the [Film] Medium for Marian Images
Using standards normative for literary criticism, each of my impressions will now be scrutinized. Concrete elements of the medium, taken in context, determine interpretive legitimacy at this stage.
My first idea was connotations of the name "Snow White." The film’s opening title states Disney’s work to be "Adapted from Grimm’s Fairy Tales." The brothers’ notes ascribe their source as a peasant named Marie on October 13, 1812. The heroine’s name, at that point, was Schneewittchen, an equally rare German analog for Snow White. Edgar Taylor's popular 1823 English translation of Grimm rendered the name "Snow-drop," a form kept in a 1910 French movie version. Marguerite Clark starred in the 1916 silent film, Snow White that Disney saw as a youth. Hence, we need not see allusive intent behind the choice of the name. The variant used was probably retained from the 1916 film. However, an argument may be made that selecting among variants implies design. The data offers nothing more conclusive. One may suggest the idiom "pure as the driven snow" as influencing Disney's choice. Given Disney's fundamentalist background, Is 1:18, also fits the data. However, neither theory would survive "Occam's razor." Simply put, this criterion assumes, a priori, that the simplest explanation is usually correct.
The 'sleeping death' inflicted on Snow White by the witch/queen could be seen as alluding to Mary's 'falling asleep' in death. However, Disney was not Catholic or Orthodox. Nor was such influence prominent in America at that time. Sleep is a fairly common euphemism for death. It likely made its way into common use in the then-mainly-Christian culture from Scripture passages like 1 Cor 15:18. Such use would have been familiar to Disney. Hence, one may see Scriptural roots for the language.
The concept of death as "falling asleep in the Lord," applicable to all believers, is applied to Mary in the context of her Dormition. The Catholic dogma of Mary's Assumption was defined on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 1950, with the intent of illustrating the general principle of bodily resurrection with the example of Mary.
Snow White's resurrection from death by the Prince’s kiss allows multiple interpretations. In Grimm's version, the Prince dislodges a fragment of poisoned apple by touch and not by a kiss alone. Disney's variant suggests a more supernatural event. However, this approach was already used in a 1913 film version. It is also the vehicle of reanimation in Grimm's Brier Rose. Or Disney may have invented it from familiarity with Song of Songs, in which the King leaves his bride to sleep until he wakens her with a kiss.
Further support for the latter theory comes from two texts in Disney's film. The phrasing of Snow White as "fairest of them all" might be an echo of Song of Songs 1:8. The Prince's 'one song': "One love, I have but one love ..." suggests the famous amicta sole from Song of Songs.  The medieval use of that phrase for Mary provides a link from general Judaeo-Christian to specifically Marian imagery.
All three of these hypotheses have support in the data. The most likely seems to be that Disney took the resurrection kiss from the 1913 film. Of course, 'likely' implies Occam's axiomatic razor. Perry Mason fans know that it can err. An argument may be made that choosing this variant over Grimm's, shows communicative intent, specifically, favoring a supernatural reading.
My impression that Snow White images an idealized, universal mother figure is evident from concrete elements in the film. Her maternal care is not even limited to humans. Finding a lost baby bird she asks: "What's the matter? Where's your mama and papa? Why I believe you’re lost. Oh, please don’t cry." Similarly, upon entering the dwarfs’ filthy, empty house, she says,
Seven little chairs. Must be seven little children ... I wonder where their mother is. Maybe they don't have a mother. Maybe they're orphans ...
Insisting gently that the dwarfs wash before eating is a common maternal responsibility. So too, is teaching manners for eating soup, a sequence filmed but dropped, as is the kiss each 'little man' gets on the forehead leaving home in the morning, etc.
The universal aspect of her maternity is seen in the number of dwarfs. Seven is the biblical symbol for totality. Also, Disney innovated on Grimm by inventing distinct names and characteristics for each dwarf, making possible interpersonal relations with Snow White.
That Disney intended to allude to Mary by his maternal (virginal) maiden is speculation. That his film presents an idealized, universal mother figure is clear. Christians have a name for this lovable figure. Here, the film's objective content dovetails into Marian teaching.
Next, one may see parallels between scenes of Snow White with doves and the following:
A large crowd met the plane and was astonished to see fourteen doves surrounding the statue in circular motion as it was taken from the plane. A procession formed on the way to the church and ten more doves joined those that came with the statue...It was most noticeable that three doves remained constantly at the feet of Our Lady ...
However, since the event took place in 1949, the only natural explanation would be that Kaczmarek (consciously or not) modeled his account on memories of Disney's film. Any other explanation would involve the sort of coincidence which Jung called synchronicity.
Considering Disney's motives, we might posit a link to dove imagery in the Old or New Testament. The scene could also have been influenced by the familiar idiom about "doves of peace," derived from Noah's story. Also, the bride in Song of Songs had "the eyes of a dove." Or, it might be an extension of the theme of Snow White's harmony with nature and animals. This last theory seems most likely to me, given Disney's personal love of animals and his frequent use of friendly anthropomorphized animals in animated works prior to Snow White. This suggests pre-lapsarian Eden imagery.
Brashares felt it was clearly in Disney's film. Scripture also uses similar imagery for the Messianic eschatological restoration. Disney, a fundamentalist Christian, was familiar with such texts.
Further, 'The Fall' is suggested by the poisoned "magic wishing apple" created by black magic and offered by the satanic witch/queen. The significance of the apple is heightened when one knows that it is only one of three weapons used against Snow White in the Grimm tale. Disney's choice of this specific element seems to indicate communicative intent. Also, recall that McWhinney rejected mythic breast symbolism for the apple, implying the need for an alternative. A solid case exists for reading these elements as an allusion to pre-lapsarian Eden. Snow White, then, is a figure of Eve before the Fall.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians see Mary as the "New Eve." This theme is, grounded in Scripture; though exegesis to that effect was limited in Disney's time. Nor would we expect a fundamentalist to have been aware of it, especially a layman. Disney apparently intended to evoke images of the original Paradise and, by extension, of the once-innocent Eve.
Typological accommodation, going back at least to Justin Martyr, allows a link to Mary as unfallen New Eve. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church explains Mary's Immaculate Conception along these lines. 'Snow White' could be as an English idiom for "immaculate."
IV.) Intended Message of the Author
Traditionally, the author's intended meaning was considered the primary norm for interpreting a work. Hence, hermeneutics focused on discerning this intent. The 'hermeneutic circle' is a broader approach allowing adequate but not primary weight for this criterion. Methodologies for critically appraising intent include: direct interrogation of the author(s); examination of the author’s unsolicited statements as well as statements made in response to questions not directly related to the work in question; interrogation of indirect witnesses of the author's intention; and examination of the process of the production of the work.
Direct interrogation is impossible after the author's death. At other times, it is still not practical or effective. For example, Eco consistently refuses comment on his Name of the Rose. In these cases, questioning of indirect witnesses and examination of the author's statements to other interviewers is called for. Such data elicits uncertitude regarding accuracy, relevancy or, at the very least, completeness. Finally, note that questions may be open-ended or specific. Each type has its own limitations. Open-ended questions may educe answers irrelevant to the examiner’s point. Specific questions may bias a response. With this background in mind, we now examine Disney's intended meaning for Snow White.
My initial hypothesis was that Disney intentionally alluded to certain well-known, but thematically general imagery, which, in some cases, also had been accommodated to Mary. Disney's well-publicized “fundamentalist sensibilities” lent support to this theory. So too, did the situation in Hollywood at that period. The film industry "came under attack for being morally corrupt. ... Among those who correctly perceived Hollywood as dominated by Jews, to many in government and the private sector nothing more than heathens, unable to comprehend, let alone project, the essence of Christian morality." To counter such criticism "the heads of the major film studios formed a self-regulating organization, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America. To head it, they appointed Postmaster General Will Hays ... an Elder of the Presbyterian Church." In such circumstances, producers might seek public support by using biblical allusions, especially one like Disney, who had a Christian background.
We shall now examine the process leading to the production of Snow White in light of earlier hypotheses. Recall that the Prince showed evidence of being a distant, supernatural, archetypal character, traits suitable for God, or a "Christ figure." The effect would have been enhanced had Disney proceeded with the following proposal which was "dropped before it was animated":
The Prince was also involved in an elaborate fantasy sequence in the clouds in earlier Snow White scripts. He and Snow White dance a waltz to "Some Day My Prince Will Come," after which little stars lead them to a swanlike ship. The stars push the ship over the Milky Way, and the wind with chorus accompaniment, carries it into a castle in the clouds.
That Disney abandoned this idea could indicate his desire to avoid presenting the Prince as too supernatural. Further evidence comes from the fact that "in the early drafts of the Disney version the Prince has a great deal to do." This implies that Disney saw him as more than the 'alpha and omega' which bracket the Snow White action. However, "none of the above was used in the later script, and none of it was animated." The early rejection of the celestial scene above seems to indicate that Disney did not want to cast the Prince as too earthly either. This evidence is ambiguous. However, noting viewer response, Margot Dougherty wrote, "Moviegoers cheered as Snow White was whisked away to eternal happiness."
Moving on, examination of the production process tends to weaken analysis likening the poison apple with that of Eve in Eden. Though this weapon was the only one retained of the three in Grimm’s version, "early drafts contained the poisoned comb visit as well." Also, Grimm's language that “whoever tasted it was sure to die,” a clear allusion to Gen 2:17, disappears in the film. Finally, the heroine's demise in the Grimm original occurs because:
she is outright disobedient. Like Eve who "saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired," Snow White "lusts after the apple," the story tells us, and she takes and eats.
Disney changed the episode not only to absolve Snow White of blame, but also to show extraordinary virtue. Though personally imperiled, she leaves her safe house to aid an apparently sick old woman. This act abandons the shield between her and the deadly fruit. Yet, she then accepts it not for desire of the apple but as a means to gain her heart's deepest longing: "one bite and all your dreams will come true. ..." Earlier she had knelt in prayer asking God: "may all my dreams come true. Amen." She eats the apple as Orante, with head bowed and hands in front of her heart. As Brashares noted, in Disney's film: "one does not even need to sin in order to taste of it." These changes blur the link to Eve/Eden imagery. On the other hand, Disney's sinless victim-maiden could illustrate the Christian perspective of Mary as unfallen "New Eve."
That Disney wished to project an aura of virginal innocence around Snow White is easy to show. "The October  cast of characters describes Snow White as 'Janet Gaynor type--fourteen years old'." When auditioning voices "Walt had a girl's voice in mind--high, young and pure." Finally, a scene in which "to make a present for our little Princess, Snow White ... [one of the dwarfs] comes up with the perfect solution ... make her a BED ..." was animated but cut. Most likely this was one way Disney "kept the film tight." But it also avoided sexual innuendo. The fact that it was cut after filming, and over animator protest, emphasizes the decision's importance.
The abundance of scenes of supernatural harmony with animals is explainable by concrete production factors. Prior to this film, Disney studios animated anthropomorphized animals exclusively. In fact, the human characters posed the greatest problems for the animators:
The design of the human characters bothered Disney the most. Although, as in all later features, live models were used ... to achieve realism ... it was for the drawing of the central human characters that Disney was most severely criticized ... The Disney staff was more acutely aware of this problem than many may have guessed. They deliberately brought Prince Charming into the picture for only two brief scenes (at the beginning and the end), because they felt he looked unbearably stiff.
This information not only argues against intentional allusions to biblical Paradise, but also explains why the Prince appears as such a remote figure. The reason was not to convey transcendence or archetypal uniqueness.
Considering the villainess, an outline of character developments from October 22, 1934 proposed she be a "mixture of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf--her beauty is sinister, mature, plenty of curves--Magic fluids transform her into an old witch-like hag."
It seems that the queen was always envisioned in satanic terms. This supports the idea of some intentional Genesis imagery. At the film's conclusion, lightning blasts the fiend into a black abyss. This seems to be a clearer allusion than Grimm's original in which the queen dies dancing in "red-hot shoes" like the fire set at the feet of a convicted witch.
Also, consider that Disney changed Grimm's naturalistic description of the assassin-queen: "She stained her face and dressed like an old peddler woman." In the film she is changed into a deformed hag via black magic. Perhaps the intent was to reflect the American mythos that "Witches are old and ugly," as Dorothy stated in 1939's The Wizard of Oz.
However, other explanations are possible. The fact that Disney's Father would "administer the 'corrective' beatings that became a daily part of the boys' routine ..." makes psychological projection a possibility in this choice.
Minutes from an early planning session indicate how Snow White would pray:
"Have the Queen mend her wicked ways", - we want to show that Snow White doesn't hold any resentment towards the Queen ... [though] she knows that the Queen sent the Huntsman out with her to kill her.
The line was not finally used, perhaps since a staff member felt it "sounds pretty hokum ...". However, the 'Diamond Rule' of love for enemies was still evoked in the filmed prayer sequence when Snow White asked God to "please make Grumpy like me." From this we see that the theme of enmity between the gentle virgin and the wicked witch existed from the film's origins, but hatred was a one-way street.
To sum up, analysis from the production process leaves evidence for a few deductions on meaning. Snow White was to be a manifestly innocent young virgin. The wicked queen was intended as an archetypal evil foe. Such enmity between a good woman and a satanic figure is linked explicitly to Mary and Satan in the final sequence of Fantasia, which began production as Snow White was released. I do not consider it coincidental that William Tytla, who directed the animation for the Mary-Satan sequence in Fantasia, also worked on Snow White. Confirmation of an intentional parallel might require perusal of production notes for Snow White at Disney's archives, though a drawing of 'Madonna Duck' done by a Disney animator around this time is already suggestive.
Disney's own statements concerning his intended meaning(s) are quite sparse. In fact, shortly after the opening of Snow White, Paul Dorsey wrote:
Perhaps no one is less analytical, or cares less, about Walt Disney’s Quality X than Walt Disney himself. He was actually puzzled when pundits discovered social significance in his Three Little Pigs. "It was just another story to us," he says ... nevertheless, when no less a savant than Aldous Huxley went to Hollywood, he tried to find out just what made Walt Disney do the kind of work he does. Mr. Disney was not much help. "Hell, Doc," he said knitting his eloquent brows, "I don’t know. We just try to make a good picture. And then the professors come along and tell us what we did."
However, regarding the basic structure of Snow White, Disney "much later described it as "the perfect plot," featuring as it did a beautiful, threatened princess, an evil witch to give the story menace, a group of dwarfs for comic relief and a handsome prince to provide the romantic interest." Like the enmity theme, the theme of the ideal romance was present from the origins as evidenced by a proposal for the song, "Someday My Prince Will Come" in the 1934 plot outline. Beyond these points, other readings, including mine, are simply professors telling Disney what he did.
We have examined the opinions of several commentators and a number of my own. More could be added. For example, 'feminists' frequently dismiss the Snow White romance as unattainable ideals. One could posit that Disney dropped Grimm's reference to the heroine's parents in order to allude to Eve, etc.
New ideas could be examined using this methodology. Those discussed were examined by critical analysis of the film's final and intermediate versions. Finally, we heard Disney’s own words. This is the hermeneutic circle. By design, it yields no final conclusions, no textbook answers, only insights upon which to reflect in a dialectic dynamic. If nothing else, I offer this study as a model for others that might help correct some of the critically untenable, subjective interpretations of art which are all-too-common in articles published by contemporary scholars.
See Tracy, David. The Analogical Imagination. NY:
Crossroad Publishing. 1981.