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Snow White is actually an ancient fairy tale, which was documented by the Grimm Brothers in 1812. It has variations in other cultures, but the most well-known version today is likely to be the Disney version.
Many fairy tales seem to be a simple children's story on the surface, but there are messages, morals and symbolism contained within the story. A closer look a Snow White will reveal some messages that you may not have noticed before. Much of the symbolism is Christian based and there are several parallels to stories in the Bible. Other aspects of symbolism are tied to common story lines in traditional fairy tales.
The colors White, Red and Black:
The colors presented at the beginning of the story (skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony) provide a direct indication that Snow White is a "coming of age" story. White represents innocence (birth), red represents life and passion, while black represents death. The story of Snow White starts out with Snow White being a young girl in the original versions, and a rather naive young woman in the Disney version (the white phase). She undergoes maturity through the movie (the red phase), and experiences death (in her sleep-like state, the black phase).
The absence of the birth mother makes it possible for storytellers to introduce the role of the evil stepmother. The evil stepmother is a common element of many fairy tales: Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel. The lack of a mother at all is also common, because if a mother were present, the series of events would not unfold as they do in stories where there is no maternal influence. People have often accused Walt Disney as being a proponent of stories without mothers (it is true that many Disney movies do not have mothers) but Disney re-created classic stories where the mother being dead was already a part of the story development. This element of story telling aims to engage the readers sympathy and it does that very well.
The poison apple:
This would seem to point all the way back to the biblical reference of the apple which was offered to Eve by the serpent (evil/Satan). The evil queen offers Snow White the apple in much the same way. Snow White knows she should not be speaking to strangers, but she does it anyway and she pays for that mistake by falling under the spell.
The significance of seven:
The number seven was used many times in the Bible for signifying perfection. The book of Revelation contains numerous groups of sevens such as angels, churches, trumpets, crowns, mountains, stars, and kings. It is one of the most significant numbers in Christianity in the sense that "God created the world in seven days", or rather he created the world in six days and on the seventh he rested.
The names of the dwarfs:
Some people have thought to correlate the seven dwarfs with the seven deadly sins, but that correlation doesn't hold water. In the Grimm version of Snow White, the seven dwarfs do not have names. In Disney's version of Snow White, the dwarfs do have names but those names were chosen out of sixty or so possible names and they do not correspond to the seven deadly sins. The names of the seven dwarfs are: Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Sleepy. These names are more aptly "the seven moods of man" rather than sins.
The Seven Deadly Sins:
The Seven Deadly Sins are represented in the story of Snow White, but not in the form of the seven dwarfs.
Pride/Vanity: Clearly the vanity of the Evil Queen. The mirror is clearly a direct reference to vanity.
Lust/Extravagance: Again, the Queen as royalty is extravagant
Gluttony: The seven dwarfs eating (maybe a stretch). Or in the original tale, the Queen actually eats the heart of Snow White.
Greed: The Queen again
Sloth: Originally meant sadness, melancholy,apathy, depression, and joylessness which would distract from attention to god. This applies to the dwarfs after Snow White dies and sloth in the form of sloppiness certainly applies to the seven dwarfs in their manner of housekeeping.
Wrath: The wrath of the seven dwarfs upon the witch after they discover Snow White dead.
Envy: The Queen (again)
The seven deadly sins have opposites in the seven holy virtues: Humility, Chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patiences, kindness. All of these are characteristics of Snow White.
Snow White "dies" and comes back to life. This certainly parallels the death and resurrection of Jesus from the Bible.
The hand washing:
The part of the story where Snow White demands that the dwarfs wash could be related to the cleansing of baptism. After the dwarfs have washed, they become people that seem to have a new purpose in life, except for Grumpy who protests the most. Grumpy does undergo a transformation throughout the movie though, from a skeptical dwarf into one that is very devoted to Snow White.
The Work Ethic:
Snow White cleans the little house without prompting and cooks without being asked. The seven dwarfs also are hard at work in the mines (Hey Ho...).
These are a few of the symbols that are the most visible in the story of Snow White, and there are probably some more!