The Red Shoes
This is a powerful story of the importance of a woman's wild and instinctive nature.
There once was a young girl who was without parents and very poor. She lived in the forest and foraged for food to survive. One day, she sewed herself a pair of shoes from scraps of red material. They were very roughly hewn but she was proud of her accomplishment and wore them with much happiness. Not long after, she was walking in the woods when an old lady stopped by and took pity on her, sweeping her away in her gilded carriage to go and live with her. The little girl had everything she needed at the old lady's house - food, warmth, new clothes - but she had to learn manners, speak when spoken to, be seen and not heard. She also lost her old clothes and cherished red shoes which the old lady had thrown on the fire. This saddened her very much. When the time came for the girl's confirmation the old lady took her to the shoemakers to get a new pair of shoes for church. In the shop the girl spotted a beautiful pair of shiny red shoes and, as the old lady's sight was failing her, she chose them. The shoemaker winked at her as he wrapped them up. The next day in church all the girl could think about was her beautiful new red shoes and spent most of the service looking at them, forgetting to sing or pray. The congregation were scandalised that someone would wear such a colour to church, even the statues looked as though they were frowning at her, and once the old lady had been told she confiscated the shoes and told the girl she was never to wear them again. The next Sunday the girl couldn't resist putting on the red shoes again. This time, leaning outside the church was an injured soldier with a little red beard wearing a little red jacket. He asked permission to wipe the dust from the girls shiny red shoes which she accepted and so he wiped away the dust with a little jig-a-jig which made made her feet itch, and winked at her as he said "Remember to stay for the dance!". Again the girl was completely preoccupied by her shoes throughout the service, and the congregation were once more gossiping about her red shoes. On the way out of the church the soldier called out "What beautiful dancing shoes!" which made the girl do a little twirl but before she knew it she couldn't stop twirling, her shoes had taken on a life of their own and the girl danced throughout the fields until the old lady's carriage driver could pin her down and remove the shoes from her feet. The old lady scolded the girl saying "Never, never wear these shoes again!" and she placed them on the highest shelf out of reach. Shortly after, the old lady fell ill and became bed ridden and the girl, looking longingly at the shiny red shoes, felt herself overwhelmed by longing and desire to take them. So she did, and she put them on. Once more the shoes took on a life of their own and the girl twirled and waltzed and danced right out of the house and through the fields, into the woods, past the injured soldier propped up against a tree who called out "What beautiful dancing shoes!". The girl danced on, through the valleys and over the hills becoming increasingly more frightened that she couldn't stop or remove the shoes. She danced back through the village and passed the old lady's house who, by this time, had died but she yet couldn't stop. She just kept dancing and dancing, completely out of control, terrified and exhausted. Finally she danced to the executioners house and asked him to cut off her shoes even though they would be destroyed, and he tried but they just wouldn't come off and so, in a fit of desperation she asked him to cut off her feet. And so he did, and her feet, with the shoes still attached, danced off and away leaving the girl disabled and, once more, destitute and alone. Never again did she wish for red shoes.
NB. I have paraphrased this story from the version Clarissa Pinkola Estés tells in her book "Women Who Run With The Wolves". It is an old fairytale (yes, some of them did have unhappy endings!) which was made popular when rewritten by Hans Christian Andersen.
The symbolism & archetype
The girl represents our femininity. As women we have a deeply instinctive and intuitive nature but when when something which was once wild becomes domesticated, as did the girl in the story, we lose our connection and ability to trust in those instincts and we become prey, succumbing to the various poisons around us until we can eventually, although not always, find our way back to our wild state. This is the very definition of something which is feral. The gilded carriage is archetypal of the 'gilded cage': it looks beautiful on the outside but to be inside brings confinement and loss of freedom. How often in life do we allow ourselves to be entrapped by a situation because it's comfortable and easy, slowly losing ourselves in the process but because we've lost touch with the wild within we stay whilst desperately searching for anything which will fill our soul? In the story it was the shoes that became the poison for the girl - let's take a look at the symbology behind them. Shoes represent the ability to quite literally stand on our own two feet, to protect ourselves, and to move forwards. The handmade shoes that the girl had made represented her ability to design her life, her passion, and her vitality but that was lost when the old lady threw them on the fire. The colour red symbolises both the life giving blood of menstruation, and of sacrifice. The girl participated in a coming of age ceremony and in the version of the story by Hans Christian Andersen it was confirmation - a Catholic ritual - but this was purely representative of the age old tradition of celebrating menarche, a girls first period and entry into womanhood. The sacrifice was the loss of freedom and creativity that the girl made when she allowed the old lady to take her in. She also lost her free spirited nature and self sufficiency - who knows how good her shoemaking abilities might have been if she hadn't been given in to the temptation of a comfortable life? Coveting the shiny red shoes became a compulsion which the girl had no control over, eventually to the point where she lost control and ended up back where she started, alone and destitute. The ending of the story is stark warning of how it is possible to lose everything.
How it relates
Now, you might be wondering how this story could be at all relevant to you. I felt exactly the same. It took me a while to understand why it spoke to me so much and I very nearly changed my mind about sharing it because I wanted to be able to discuss one that I related to and could offer my own personal insight into, but something kept nagging away deep in my psyche so I kept re-reading it and listening to the audiobook until, finally, it clicked. The gilded carriage for me was my relationship. It had rescued me from a previous emotionally abusive relationship and was safe, comfortable, and dependable but it stifled my spirit, starved me of a sense of connection, and left me with very little self-worth despite being full of kindness and affection. I forced myself to be someone I thought I should be, rather than who I knew I truly was. My red shoes were my eating disorder. Not long into the start of this relationship my bulimia started to spiral completely out of control and I couldn't understand why when I seemingly had found the "perfect" man. I was so out of touch with my wild self that I didn't realise that my addiction was what I used to fill a void, to numb out, to try and have some sense of control and to make it possible for me to be able to stay because to leave the security of a love that I had never known before would have been unthinkable, no matter how much I was suffocating. Eventually, I left and now the healing process has begun.
Probably the most poignant thing to remember above everything here is the meaning of feral - something once wild, that became domesticated, which found its way back to the wild. Women have a reservoir of strength and a survival instinct that runs deep. We can cut ourselves off from the poison, like the feet and red shoes in the story, and unlike the girl who lost everything, we can heal, we can re-wild, and we can live the lives we choose to design for ourselves. A life that enables us to thrive. A life filled with joy. A life worth living.
I truly hope that you take something from this story and I would love to hear your thoughts. I would highly recommend the book "Women Who Run With The Wolves" but that recommendation comes with a caveat, a disclaimer that once you've read it you may find that your life changes in unexpected ways and that you can never go back to being the woman you were before.
"If you have ever been captured, if you have ever endured hambre del alma, a starvation of the soul, if you have ever been trapped, and especially if you have a drive to create, it is likely that you have been or are a feral woman. The feral woman is usually extremely hungry for something soulful, and often will take any poison disguised on a pointed stick, believing it to be the thing for which her soul hungers." ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés