“Fairy Tale” and “The Tower” Essay

Argue in an essay any(one) of these critical questions:

  • Compare ideas the authors suggest to you about the gender role of the protagonist?
  • How do various literary elements of each work – plot, character, point of view, setting, tone, diction, images, symbol, archetypes etc. – reinforce its meaning?
  • Compare how psychological matters such as repression, dreams, and desire are presented consciously or unconsciously by each author.
  • Compare what each author suggests about the relationships between men and women? Are these relationships sources of conflict? Do they provide resolutions to conflicts?
  • Compare how you felt when reading the last paragraph of each story. Explain what each story suggests to you about the nature of reality. Was Caroline’s descent beyond the 470th step “real”? Is the typewriter “real”? How are the Tower and Caresse’s “neat pile of typing paper” similar/different? What function do our memories serve in defining who we are? At the end, are Caroline and the “good woman” alive? Are they dead?
  • Compare what the authors are saying about boundaries. We discussed severally the boundary between the known and the unknown in the monomyth pattern.

“Fairie Tale” by Janice Elliott (England)

If many modern and postmodern fictions are about the process of writing stories, Janice Elliott’s “Fairy Tale” is about that process being at once motivated and overwhelmed by the writer’s own desire—a desire she obviously shares with us, her readers—to hear stories. And the story she, and we, really want to hear is not just any story, but our story, the story in which we are hero/heroine, the story in which our dreams come true.

In other words, we want to hear a fairy tale. But if we start out to tell ourselves one (and who else is likely to undertake the task?), we find we have a more demanding audience than we expected—our sophisticated, critical, feet-planted-firmly-on-the ground selves. Unlike children, adults are not content to hear their own names glorified with the title of princess or knight. They want the best of both worlds—the dream career and the knight in shining armour: the perfect house, congenial neighbours, an understanding mate, and a secret lover, a felicitous forest, and children who fall asleep at convenient times. In adult fairy tales, a person can enjoy both the status of “good woman”/”good man” and “boundless ecstasy” beside a bubbling brook. But, like that other fairy-tale character, the old woman in the vinegar bottle who wants to be God, the importunate adult wants safeness that entropy can beseige even perfection. Therefore, like Elliott, the adult must create a fairy tale whose plot is forever deferred by innumerable ironic asides and by countless new beginnings. In adult fairy tales there can be no “happily ever after” because the tale itself never ends, but, like Finnegan, begins again—and again—and again.

Janice Elliott, 1931—

Janice Elliott was born in Derby, England, and was educated at Oxford.  She has written over twenty novels for adults and four for children, and has contributed stories to many anthologies and magazines.  She is also well known as a critic, spending seventeen years as a regular book reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph,  and as a journalist on the editorial staff of House and Garden, House Beautiful, Harper’s Bazaar,  and the Sunday Times.  Her most famous work is probably the novel Secret Places  which earned her the Southern Arts Award for Literature in 1981, was adapted to film in 1984, and re-released by Twentieth Century—Fox/TLC Films in 1985.  She is admired for her talent at creating mood and atmosphere, and her crisp but revealing dialogue.  Her other novels include the post-World War II trilogy A State of Peace, Private Life,  and Heaven on Earth; Summer People,  a futuristic work of social criticism; and the impressionistic Magic.

Exploring the Text

  1. There is a lot of humour in Elliott’s tale, and much of it depends on the element of surprise.  But not all people find this kind of humour effective.  Share your feelings about the humour in this story with one other person, focusing first on the sections you found most amusing and then on those you did not find amusing.
  2. The forest, with its “black heart,” is a pervasive image in this piece.  Working with one other student, collect all the information you can about this forest and the characters’ relationship to it.  Examine your collected materials and speculate on the significance of this image.  Compare your ideas with those of other groups in a whole-class discussion.
  3. Analyze Caresse’s long speech to her guests beginning, “O, we are so lucky” down to and including “I had a silly afternoon in the forest today (p. 115).  Focusing on tone, diction, and sentence structure, write a critique of this passage.  What do these elements suggest about Caresse’s state of mind?

Personal Response

Keep a progressive record of your responses to this short fiction as you read “Fairy Tale” for the first time.  Although the author has divided it into sixteen sections, we can combine some of these to form a total of eight sections:  section one, section two, section three; sections four plus five; six plus seven and eight; section nine; ten plus eleven and twelve: and, finally, sections thirteen plus fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen together.  As you read each of these eight main sections, keep a record of your responses.  Explain how the story makes you feel, why you feel this way, and what you think will happen next.  Take time to explore your feelings.  Let yourself wander through your own responses just as you wander through the story.  Above all, be honest.  When you have finished writing, think back over the story as a whole.  Select three adjectives that you feel best describe this story.  Compare your responses and choices with those of others in your class.


The tone in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is similar in some ways to the tone of this short fiction in that it, too, seems to shift back and forth between a respect for, and a parodying of, the fairy-tale genre. View this film and select three scenes from it to compare with three scenes form “Fairy Tale.” Remember you are focusing on tone, not plot. Look for differences as well as similarities.


The phrase “good woman” is used over and over again throughout the story; indeed, in the first half of the story it almost functions as a refrain.  You’ve probably been advised—over and over again—not to use imprecise diction and not to repeat the same phrase too often.  How, then, can you account for Elliot’s frequent use of this expression?  What does it add to this story?  Before you answer these questions, try the following:

  • Select five possible synonyms for the word good  and clarify the distinctions among them.
  • Reread the first few pages, imagining that the word good  has been replaced with one or the other of your chosen synonyms.  What is lost when the word good  is replaced by a variety of other words?

“Invasion of the Airline Stewardess” and “Fairy Tale” Essay

In Invasion of the Airline Stewardess, Ritter remarks on a group of employees, almost exclusively female, who are at once denatured, defined, and curiously empowered by the ersatz language they speak.  In Fairy Tale, Elliott portrays a writer who builds a world, a family, asocial life, that runs exactly the way she wants it to; but not for long, for even her characters rebel, leave, fade out.  Compare what Ritter and Elliott seem to be saying about women, words, and power.  Do you think either story (or both) would work as well if the stewardesses were stewards, or the “good woman” were a “good man”? Explain.

“The Hobby” and “Fairy Tale” Essay

Write a concise essay agreeing or disagreeing with one or both of the statements below. Be sure to present a balanced account, using quotations from the text to support your ideas.

  • Like The Hobby, Fairy Tale is structured as a story within a story. But whereas in The Hobby it is the fiction’s fiction–that is, the train–that winds up containing all else, including its maker (the author), in Fairy Tale it is the author who, in the last analysis, still contains all her stories. It could be said that the fundamental difference between the two stories is one of perspective.
  • McCormack’s old man is wholly immersed in the completion of his railway plans, whereas Caresse can never finish any of the competing versions of her fairy tale because she is always too aware of herself at the typewriter.