Exploring archetypes in Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is probably going to be one of my easier tasks. Fairy tales are known for having clear cut archetypal characters, and as a reimagining of Snow White, Boy, Snow, Bird does have characters that fill certain roles. However, unlike the usual fairy tale, the characters in this novel don’t always fit into their roles perfectly and are all the more interesting for it.
The Evil Stepmother
Our first character, Boy, fills the evil stepmother role so common in fairy tales. Instead of an engagement ring, her boyfriend, Arturo, makes her an elaborate snake bracelet. As Boy’s friend Mia says, “could that scream ‘wicked stepmother’ any louder?” It foreshadows later events in the novel, as at the moment, Boy is not actually anywhere near the evil stepmother character. In fact, she adores Arturo’s daughter Snow, to the point that Arturo jokes about Boy dating him to be near Snow. It is not until the birth of Bird, Boy’s daughter, which reveals Arturo and his family as light-skinned African-Americans passing as white, that Boy begins to step into the evil stepmother role. However, this is not done out of jealousy for herself, as this article mentions:
“So Boy, like the wicked queen of the fairy tale, exiles her stepdaughter for being too fair; the twist is that she does it not out of personal vanity (Boy doesn’t seem to care much about her looks), but to protect Bird, who will, by comparison, always seem the inferior, less-lovable child in her in-laws’ eyes.”
Boy steps into the shoes of the evil stepmother as a way of protecting her own daughter. But, unlike the archetypal character in Snow White, she does not hate Snow. On the contrary, she does feel guilty about sending Snow away and distances herself from her stepdaughter as a way of coping with that guilt. When Snow finally returns after years, she and Boy are able to make up, something the usual evil stepmother would never do.
The Princess and The Maiden
Now, in a lot of fairy tales, these archetypes may be interchangeable. Snow White could be described as The Maiden, but she is also a princess. Snow is the only one of our title characters who does not have a section devoted to her point-of-view, though she does exchange letters with Bird in her section. However, we have no way of knowing how truthful Snow is in her letters. There is a distance with Snow, even when she is physically in the story. She is treated as a perfect princess by her family members, who view her as the ultimate proof of how well their passing has worked, considering how light-skinned Snow is. She is The Princess, and she is a little more one-dimensional than Boy and Bird, probably a conscious decision on Oyeyemi’s part.
This makes Bird our Maiden. Bird is an innocent in her mother’s sending away of Snow. But Bird is in no way the passive, shy girl that the maiden so often is in fairy tales. Bird is naturally inquisitive, dreaming of being a reporter like her Aunt Mia. When she begins writing to Snow, she bombards her with questions. She does have a youthful imaginativeness that fits into The Maiden role. Something I really like about Bird and how she fits into the role, is that unlike other fairy tale Maidens who typically talk to cute animals, Bird (according to her) talks to the spiders that live in her room. While spiders are my least favorite things on the entire planet, I like this little detail that both fits Bird into the role of The Maiden and sets her apart from it.
One Last Thought
Here is another blog that collects some of Oyeyemi’s comments about rewriting the evil queen character that I find very interesting. The photo included at the top also comes from that blog. It is an alternate book cover, and I love it. The image of each character as an egg surely is connected to Bird’s name, but it also gives off a fairy tale feel.