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The familiar plot revolves around a girl of a rich family deprived of her rightful station in the family and given the cruel nickname "Cinderella" by her wicked stepmother and two step-sisters. The nickname is given in reference to Cinderella's position of domestic servitude, and her menial work of cleaning the cinders and ashes from fireplaces in the family home. In some versions, her father plays an active role in the humiliation of his daughter; in others, he is secondary to his new wife; in some versions, especially the popular Disney film, the father has died.
Although many variants of Cinderella feature the wicked stepmother, the defining trait of type 510A is a female persecutor: in Fair, Brown and Trembling and Finette Cendron, the stepmother does not appear at all, and it is the older sisters who confine her to the kitchen. In other fairy tales featuring the ball, she was driven from home by the persecutions of her father, usually because he wished to marry her. Of this type (510B) are Cap O' Rushes, Catskin, All-Kinds-of-Fur, and Allerleirauh, and she slaves in the kitchen because she found a job there. In Katie Woodencloak, the stepmother drives her from home, and she likewise finds such a job.
In La Cenerentola, Gioachino Rossini inverted the sex roles: Cenerentola is oppressed by her stepfather. (This makes the opera Aarne-Thompson type 510B.) He also made the economic basis for such hostility unusually clear, in that Don Magnifico wishes to make his own daughters' dowries larger, to attract a grander match, which is impossible if he must provide a third dowry. Folklorists often interpret the hostility between the stepmother and stepdaughter as just such a competition for resources, but seldom does the tale make it clear.
Cinderella accepts magical aid to attend a royal ball, where she attracts the attention of the handsome prince. The number of balls varies, sometimes one, sometimes three balls; in the most familiar version of the story, told by Charles Perrault, Cinderella attends two balls.
In Perrault's version, Cinderella receives the aid of a Fairy Godmother who turns a pumpkin into a coach, mice into a team of horses, lizards into footmen, and a rat into a driver, before transforming Cinderella's clothing into a splendid gown and jewels, with fantastic slippers of some unusual material. The magic all comes to an end at the final stroke of midnight.
The fairy godmother is Perrault's own addition to the tale. The person who aided Cinderella in the Grimms's version is Aschenputtel's dead mother. Aschenputtel requests her aid by praying at her grave, on which a tree is growing. Helpful doves roosting in the tree shake down the clothing she needs for the ball. This motif is found in other variants of the tale as well, such as The Cinder Maid, collected by Joseph Jacobs, and the Finnish The Wonderful Birch. Giambattista Basile's Cenerentola combined them; the Cinderella figure, Zezolla, asks her father to commend her to the Dove of Fairies and ask her to send her something, and she receives a tree that will provide her clothing. Other variants have her helped by talking animals, as in Katie Woodencloak, Rushen Coatie, Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, The Story of Tam and Cam, or The Sharp Grey Sheep -- these animals often having some connection with her dead mother; in The Golden Slipper, a fish aids her after she puts it in water. In "The Anklet", it's a magical alabaster pot the girl purchased with her own money that brings her the gowns and the anklets she wears to the ball. Gioacchino Rossini, having agreed to do an opera based on Cinderella if he could omit all magical elements, wrote La Cenerentola, in which she was added by Alidoro, a philosopher and formerly the Prince's tutor.
The midnight curfew is also absent in many versions; Cinderella leaves the ball to get home before her stepmother and stepsisters, or she is simply tired. In the Grimms' version, Aschenputtel slips away when she is tired, hiding on her father's estate in a tree, and then the pigeon coop, to elude her pursuers; her father tries to catch her by chopping them down, but she escapes.
Furthermore, the gathering need not be a ball; several variants on Cinderella, such as Katie Woodencloak and The Golden Slipper have her attend church.
In the three-ball version, Cinderella keeps a close watch on the time the first two nights and is able to leave without difficulty. However, on the third (or only) night, she loses track of the time and must flee the castle before her disguise vanishes. In her haste, she loses a glass slipper which the prince finds -- or else the prince has carefully had her exit tarred, so as to catch her, and the slipper is caught in it. He declares that he will marry only the girl whose petite foot fits into the slipper.
The glass slipper is unique to Charles Perrault's version; in other versions of the tale it may be made of other materials (in the version recorded by the Brothers Grimm, German: Aschenbroedel and Aschenputtel, for instance, it is gold) and in still other tellings, it is not a slipper but an anklet, a ring, or a bracelet that gives the prince the key to Cinderella's identity. In Rossini's opera "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella"), the slipper is replaced by twin bracelets to prove her identity. In the Finnish variant The Wonderful Birch the prince uses tar to gain something every ball, and so has a ring, a circlet, and a pair of slippers. Interpreters unaware of the value attached to glass in 17th century France and perhaps troubled by sartorial impracticalities, have suggested that Perrault's "glass slipper" (pantoufle de verre) had been a "fur slipper" (pantoufle de vair) in some unidentified earlier version of the tale, and that Perrault or one of his sources confused the words; however, most scholars believe the glass slipper was a deliberate piece of poetic invention on Perrault's part.
The translation of the story into cultures with different standards of beauty has left the significance of Cinderella's shoe size unclear, and resulted in the implausibility of Cinderella's feet being of a unique size for no particular reason. Humorous retellings of the story sometimes use the twist of having the shoes turn out to also fit somebody completely unsuitable, such as an amorous old crone. In Terry Pratchett's Witches Abroad, the witches accuse another witch of manipulating the events because it was a common shoe size, and she could only ensure that the right woman put it on if she already knew where she was and went straight to her. In "When the Clock Strikes" (from Red As Blood), Tanith Lee had the sorcerous shoe alter shape whenever a woman tried to put it on, so it would not fit.
Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters (in some versions just the stepsisters — and, in some other versions, a stepfather and stepsisters) conspire to win the prince's hand for one of them. Perrault's tale says that the sisters did all they could to put on the slipper. In the German telling, the first stepsister fits into the slipper by cutting off a toe, but the doves in the hazel tree alert the prince to the blood dripping from the slipper, and he returns the false bride to her mother. The second stepsister fits into the slipper by cutting off her heel, but the same doves give her away.
In many variants of the tale, the prince is told that Cinderella can not possibly be the one, as she is too dirty and ragged. Often, this is said by the stepmother or stepsisters. In the Grimms' version, both the stepmother and the father urge it. The prince nevertheless insists on her trying. Cinderella arrives and proves her identity by fitting into the slipper or other item (in some cases she has kept the other, as in the Disney retelling).
In the German version of the story, the evil stepsisters are punished for their deception by having their eyes pecked out by birds. In other versions, they are forgiven, and made ladies-in-waiting with marriages to lesser lords.
In The Thousand Nights and A Night, in a tale called "The Anklet" , the stepsisters make a comeback by using twelve magical hairpins to turn the bride into a dove on her wedding night. In The Wonderful Birch, the stepmother, a witch, manages to substitute her daughter for the true bride after she has given birth. Such tales continue the fairy tale into what is in effect a second episode.
In an episode of Jim Henson's The Storyteller, writer Anthony Minghella merged the old folk tale Donkeyskin (also written by Perrault) with Cinderella to tell the tale of Sapsorrow, a girl both cursed and blessed by destiny.