Yay! We’re off to wreck another childhood favorite! The Perrault version is the one Disney based their movie from, and the one most people are familiar with, so we’ll use that.
Mingling of Classes
Cinderella demonstrates very clearly that the various social classes do not interact with one another. Class recognition is based on the external cues of wealth reflected in clothing. Though Cinderella is technically of a higher class, she is relegated to the lower class by way of her clothing. She even knows that she cannot attend the ball because of how she looks. It is only when she can use the external trappings of higher society that she can gain entry.
Outside over Inside
It runs contrary to today’s value set, but Cinderella makes it clear that physical appearance matters more than anything else. Though Cinderella is a paragon of morality in that she wouldn’t “fixed their hair awry” or do any bad thing, she is forever trapped, and this behavior will not earn her a way out. The fairy godmother does recognize the value of Cinderella’s behavior, but society does not. Everyone is impressed by her physical beauty and the wealth of her clothing and trappings of status. Even “the young prince ate not a morsel, so intently was he busied in gazing on her;” she overpowered him not with her wit, charm, or values, but physical beauty.
The problem is exacerbated when it comes to recognizing her. No one can recognize her based on who she really is. With the external measures of beauty (dress, coach, etc.) gone, they rely on a glass slipper to reveal her identity. This is very odd especially since the prince danced with her and stared at her all night long. But the woman he met was the woman dressed up in fine clothes, not the real Cinderella covered in ash. Even the slipper is not enough identification as the godmother must return to work her magic. Only when once again clothed in finery is Cinderella recognized as the same woman from the ball.
Cinderella cannot solve her own problems. She is a weak character relying on others to rescue her in times of crisis rather than find a way to make her own way. This is reflective of the time as much as anything else, but it’s very clear that she is a passive character, which was quite desirous in the time. Magic is required to propel the story forward because Cinderella is not an agent of action.
Rules of Magic
Cinderella demonstrates that the concept of magic spells have clear definitions and rules governing them. The fairy godmother has great power, but it is a power with limits. She cannot create something of permanence. The magic’s power does not last past midnight.
Furthermore, she cannot create something from nothing. She must transform existing items of a given nature to become something of a similar nature. The pumpkin must be hollowed out before it becomes a coach because coaches are empty inside. The horses, coach driver, and footmen must be alive, so the animals they are transformed from must also be alive.
Even though magic is not strictly defined, clearly there are rules governing its power, which limit its usefulness. However, it still operates as a heavy-handed plot device within the story.
Incidentally, the Perrault story is the only one to feature a glass slipper. Many of the other versions feature three successive balls. On each night Cinderella gets a different pair of shoes: copper, silver, and then gold.