‘Gretel in Darkness’ is a 1975 poem by Louise Glück. The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by Gretel, the little girl from the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. In the poem, Gretel reflects on how she is haunted psychologically by the memory of the witch she killed, in order to save herself and her brother Hansel.
You can read ‘Gretel in Darkness’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Glück’s poem below.
‘Gretel in Darkness’: summary
The poem begins with Gretel remarking that she and her brother have got the world they wanted. The witch, who tried to kill them, has been vanquished and killed. She can still hear the dying cry of the witch, reminding her that God helps those who help themselves. She imagines the witch’s tongue shrivelling into gas: an allusion to the way the witch dies in the Hansel and Gretel story (by being shoved in the oven and cooked).
The second stanza reflects on the siblings’ present situation. They sleep in their father’s hut and have plenty of food to eat. Gretel wonders why she cannot forget the events involving the witch. After all, it was years ago, and their father bars the door to the house, ensuring nobody can break in and harm them now.
In the poem’s third stanza, Gretel turns to her brother and remarks that he has managed to forget what happened to them. To him, it’s as though their brush with death never happened. Yet (she reminds him) she killed someone to save him. She can see the sturdy and forbidding fir trees around the witch’s house, and the tall spires of the oven inside her house, which she planned to use to cook the two siblings.
In the final stanza, Gretel turns to consider her own feelings. At night, she tells Hansel, she turns to him, wanting him to embrace her to reassure and soothe her. But he is not there. She asks if she is alone. She can hear spies whispering in the stillness of the forest outside, and she is back there in their moment of danger, reliving it, in the depths of the dark forest and the fire in which the witch earnestly meant to cook them.
‘Gretel in Darkness’: analysis
The title of Glück’s poem, ‘Gretel in Darkness’, can be read on both a literal and metaphorical level. The final stanza of the poem sees Gretel describing how alone she feels at night, in the darkness. This darkness is itself double, since she is mentally back in the ‘black forest’ (another phrase fizzing with double meaning, since it also describes the literal Black Forest that was the probable setting for the original
Germanic folktale), in the darkness of the woods, reliving the traumatic experience she and her brother underwent. Indeed, if you’re not familiar with the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, our summary and discussion of the story here is worth reading.
But ‘Gretel in Darkness’ also possesses figurative and symbolic meaning. Gretel is all alone, in the mental and emotional darkness and loneliness that her trauma has created. Although she and her brother both went through the same experience, Hansel appears to have moved on and isn’t haunted by their past. By contrast, Gretel is in a kind of spiritual purgatory, doomed to relive the traumatic encounter with the witch over and over again.
This obviously problematises our relationship with fairy tales, which end happily with all of the dangers suppressed and order restored. But although the outward order has been restored, Gretel’s inner world is still in disarray. She is suffering from trauma, mentally unable to escape from the memories of what happened to her and her brother.
Many of Glück’s early poems fuse autobiography and myth, much as slightly earlier poets, like Sylvia Plath, had used mythical personas as a ‘mask’ through which to explore personal issues and concerns. How autobiographical ‘Gretel in Darkness’ may be is difficult to determine, although it is true that Glück developed anorexia nervosa when she was a teenager and underwent psychoanalytic treatment while she was in high school. Trauma, then, may be a subject close to her heart, and perhaps her own experiences.
But we needn’t look for such biographical ‘clues’ to understand ‘Gretel in Darkness’, and Glück’s poetry is not synonymous with the confessional mode favoured by Plath and others. Instead, the poem is a dramatic monologue which uses a female figure from a well-known fairy tale as a character through which Glück can explore trauma.
But more than this, it is significant that she chooses a child from the world of fairy tales, which are themselves – despite their often harrowing and, indeed, traumatic content – given to children as bedtime stories. In using the figure of Gretel to explore childhood trauma – trauma which lasts beyond childhood and into Gretel’s adulthood in the poem – Glück darkens the story of Hansel and Gretel itself in order to problematise the rosy idea of ‘happy endings’ which are inscribed within fairy tales, or at least the sanitised versions of them which are most familiar to young readers throughout the world.
‘Gretel in Darkness’: form
Glück’s poem is composed of four six-line stanzas. There is no rhyme, and the line lengths are irregular, so the poem approaches free verse. Enjambment or run-on lines are frequent, which gives the poem even greater fluidity. This helps to create a natural, informal tone which is in keeping with the mode of the poem: a dramatic monologue, in which Gretel directly addresses us, and Hansel, and offers her intimate thoughts.