Skazka Out of Context: Petruševskaja’s Defamiliarization of the Fairy Tale

Jenne Powers, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Ljudmila Petruševskaja has a reputation as a writer of disturbing and depressing plays and short prose fiction. Recently she has written several volumes of optimistic wondertales which may signal a need to reevaluate this reputation.

This paper presents one story, “Novye priključenija Eleny Prekrasnoj,” as typical of Petruševskaja’s appropriation of the wondertale genre. She utilizes character types and magical motifs found in traditional Russian wondertales, but she employs an unconventional narrative voice for their presentation. This narrator defamiliarizes both the fairy tale elements in Petruševskaja’s stories and their familiar contemporary settings, disorienting the reader and the reader’s expectations of fairy tales. A series of ironic contemporary stereotypes about the “essence of Femininity” characterizes the title character, Elena Prekrasnaja. The narrative voice ironizes the presentation of these stereotypes while it demonstrates Petruševskaja’s concern with contemporary problems: the media, commercialism and images of women. These issues are certainly present in her other, non-fantastic prose, but their representation and evaluation are different here. The pervasive cruelty and oppressive fate which have characterized Petruševskaja in the past give way to empowerment through magic. Petruševskaja uses magic to make manifest forces of change for the better, forces completely absent in her more realistic prose. Petruševskaja exploits the potential of the wondertale for social commentary, but also, and more importantly, for its unreal possibilities and forthright acceptance of magic and miracle.

In my paper I analyze the relationship between Petruševskaja’s skazka, its traditional models, and her other prose using Propp’s model for the traditional wondertale as well as the work of Jack Zipes on the social functions of the fairy tale. These tales are not skazki in form. “Novye priključenija Eleny Prekrasnoj” takes its title character from traditional tales, and some of its magic, but its plot and characterization stem from authored narrative fiction. What remains fairy tale-like in these stories is the use of magic to transform the hero/heroine and to enable a happy ending. Presenting the contemporary world through the eyes of a fairy-tale character allows Petruševskaja effects unthinkable in her other prose-attractive characters and a belief in the power of the individual to affect change in his or her own life.