To understand this novel, it is necessary to look at its twin real-life contexts.
Context 1: The historical context - the Jewish Holocaust
The word holocaust originally meant a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; now it is most commonly used to mean:
The (period of the) mass murder of the Jews (or of other groups) by the Nazis in the war of l939-45 (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).
During World War II the anti-semitic German government under Chancellor Adolf Hitler decided on a "final solution" to what it saw as "the Jewish problem". This was to set up death and work camps so that this group - which the government saw as a threat to national unity - would be eliminated. Death was to be the final solution. Other groups were also targeted - among them gypsies, homosexuals and political and religious dissidents.
The evidence is that the victims were told only that they were going to work as slave labour. They were taken by train to a network of camps established in Germany and Poland. Most were then gassed to death, although at the work camps many did survive for some time. The word 'holocaust' was appropriate, for the vast majority of bodies were eventually burned, although many ended in mass graves. The best estimate from the evidence is that about six million were killed.
Students in the Sydney region can view a range of evidence displayed at the Sydney Jewish Museum - Museum of Australian Jewish History and the Holocaust, 148 Darlinghurst Road. Video interviews with survivors - many financed by film-maker Steven Spielberg - can be viewed, and documents, artefacts and photographic evidence may be studied (telephone no: 02 9360 7999).
Such appalling and tragic events have inspired a range of movies, fiction and memoirs. Films include the factual Shoah, the fiction Schindler's List and the fantasy Life is Beautiful. Memoirs include If this is a Man by Primo Levi. Australian writers on the holocaust include Lily Brett, The Auschwitz Poems, and Mark Raphael Baker, The Fiftieth Gate. Both Brett and Baker are children of survivors.
Detailed information on the camps, including Chelmno and Majdanek, can be found on The Nizkor Project website.
Context 2: Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty) - the fairy tale's origins and meanings
Briar Rose, the novel, is one of a series of fictions each deliberately based on an old fairy tale (Terri Windling, Introduction - Fairy Tales, pp 1-6). Jane Yolen has chosen to base her story of a Holocaust survivor on the old tale of Sleeping Beauty.
Far from considering fairy tales as simple happy stories for children (as in some modern editions such as Little Golden Books they may seem to be), Windling and other writers show that they were originally written for an adult audience. Many were surprisingly violent (cannibalism features in an early version of Sleeping Beauty). Fairy tales and their successors, fantasy novels, are not social realism, but instead are:
... free to portray the world in bright, primary colours, a dream-world half-remembered from the stories of childhood when all the world was bright and strange, a fiction unembarrassed to tackle the larger themes of Good and Evil, Honor and Betrayal, Love and Hate (p 4).
The fairy tale genre
What are the essential elements of the fairy tale genre?
J R Tolkien, one of the most famous modern writers of such tales, listed the essential elements of a good fairy tale as fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation. Another writer believes an element of threat is also needed.
They need to show, Tolkien wrote, "recovery from deep despair, escape from some great danger, but, most of all, consolation". All complete fairy stories had to have a happy ending, "a sudden joyous turn".
They can also show marvellous events which, in the literal world, would be impossible. Bruno Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment:
The fairy tale clearly does not refer to the outer world, although it may begin realistically enough and have everyday features woven into it. The unrealistic nature of these tales (which narrow-minded rationalists object to) is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner processes taking place in an individual.
We can see Gemma's retelling of Briar Rose, then, as one way she has of looking at a dreadful reality otherwise too appalling to contemplate. She could not communicate such experiences directly to her family - a phenomenon that has been observed in, for example, many ex-soldiers. Through the telling of the story, however, she can make them see the inner horrors of her experiences, and the improbable wonder of her survival (see the section below on Symbolism). The fairy tale also helps her make sense of her own experiences, explaining them to herself. In her retelling, Gemma frequently uses the traditional phrases Once upon a time and lived happily ever after. But it is clear to the reader that she personalises the material in such a way as to link it with the nightmarish events of her wartime life.
The origins of Briar Rose
Briar Rose is a translation of the German title of the Sleeping Beauty tale, as retold in German by the Brothers Grimm.
The story was far older, being known in Europe in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. A French version, Anciennes Chroniques de Perceforest, was printed in 1528, and an Italian version appears in the Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile in 1636. Charles Perrault rewrote it for the French court in 1697, and the brothers Grimm collected popular fairy tales (marchen, in German) in the 19th century.
As Gemma does in the novel, each reteller altered the story to make it more appropriate to the moral point they wished to emphasise, and to their contemporary readers. Find and read as many as you can. Sources are given at the end of the novel.
The various versions are discussed in some detail on the Sleeping Beauty website and at more length by Bruno Bettelheim in his book on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment (pp 225-236). He interprets the stories from the viewpoint of psychoanalytical theory.
Briar Rose has a complex narrative structure. Yolen interweaves at least three major strands into her plot, and uses voices of different types to add an interesting variety to the narrative. The voices of Becca and her sisters, of Josef Potocki, of the priest, Father Stashu, of Magda, of Stan and of her parents recount or question parts of the total story.
Two parallel stories are developed simultaneously: Gemma's whole version of the Briar Rose tale which Becca recognises to be a metaphor for Gemma's life (p 17), and the narrative of Becca's determined quest to make sense of this story after her grandmother's death. A third strand, Becca's developing relationship with fellow-journalist Stan, is presented more lightly, but suggests that, for Becca, a happy ending is likely.
Above all, it is Gemma's story. Gemma's voice reaches the reader most through her own unusual retelling of the old Briar Rose fairy tale. This is so different in details from the traditional version that visiting children are outraged. This story comes to the readers at one remove, through the italicised memory segments in which Becca recalls her grandmother's voice.
As in all good fairy tales, the older sisters, if not exactly "wicked", are at times unsympathetic to hearing this same favourite story repeated countless times. It is the youngest of the three sisters who shows the required goodness and empathy. To her the storytelling is not only the essence of her childhood, but also the essence of her grandmother's nature, with its hints at her mysterious and aristocratic origins.
The placement of segments of the never-completed fairy story at intervals through the narrative adds suspense and mystery to the novel. More importantly, the fairy tale references seem to deepen the story of Gemma's Holocaust sufferings and relate them to the whole cultural tradition - of good and evil, of suffering and rescue, and of seeking and eventually finding.
Becca, in her quest to find "the Princess and the castle", suggests to readers all the quest heroes of folklore and fantasy. Because she succeeds in this quest she is rewarded in a contemporary way, with an understanding and supportive partner. Her own happy-ever-after tale springs out of her grandmother's life story, and makes the bitter sadness of the Holocaust details easier for readers to bear. Gemma's story itself was one of a happy 'normal' ending with a supportive family.
Using one text as an ingredient of another is often called intertextuality.
Modern novelists, says British writer David Lodge, tend to freely recycle "old myths and earlier works of literature to shape, and add resonance to, their presentation of contemporary life" (The Art of Fiction, p 99).
Yolen uses the Briar Rose story for both purposes. The shape of her story is to tell a narrative in the present, but insert flashbacks in the form of fairly tale. Gemma's changing of the details to suit her story simply echoes what oral retellers have always done with fairy tales. At the same time the references to traditional mythic texts give the story a universal aspect.
In the story within a story, Josef Potocki takes the narrative into his own hands. He is the witness, the key to the mystery of who Gemma really was, and where she had come from. Yet he tells the events in the third person as if he were only a storyteller and not one of the main characters (p 136). He has been in the opposite situation to Becca: he has known the beginning of the story, but not what happened to Gemma.
The parallelism here is satisfying to the reader, as both Becca and Josef receive the revelation of the part of the puzzle that was missing from their portrait of Gemma. This section, The Castle, is bookended by the longest section, Home, and the brief concluding section, Home Again. At the end, in a parallel with every fairy tale, there is a happy ending foretold by Stan after he has greeted Becca with a long and very satisfactory kiss ... "We'll get to happily ever after eventually."
Yolen adapts her language use to the situations and speakers in different sections of the novel.
Spare and heroic language is used by Josef Potocki in the central section of the book, The Castle. Here he recounts: the life of the partisans and the Princess's part in it; her rescue from Chelmno; marriage; pregnancy; and escape after the violent death of her young husband Aron, the Avenger. Potocki speaks as the well-educated, cosmopolitan observer. He recognises the importance of story, of the creation of legends as a spur to the actions of the partisans:
A voice inside of him said, "We rescue one, they kill one thousand. Still, one is enough" ... And he understood why Henrik and his followers cared more about making a powerful story than life itself (pp 181-82).
Repetition and echoing of key motifs reinforce the message of the novel. The one/one thousand contrast recalls the death toll of Chelmno camp - one day, one thousand dead (ein tag - ein tausend).
The idioms of everyday American speech in a middle-class domestic situation are used in showing the events and relationships of the Berlin family. In contrast to the conversations of Becca and Stan, usually presented as straight dialogue, the discussions among the three sisters are conventionally presented, often with "she said" and other interpolations to give explicitly the emotional temperature of the sisters' disagreements.
Magda, the Polish student who acts as Becca's guide to the death camp site, speaks in fluent but at times awkward English: "Oh, they are much in appreciation", she says when given a pair of jeans.
Contrast between the formal, traditional language of the fairy tale and childish, informal chatter is shown when the children comment, question or bicker as Gemma proceeds with her storytelling. Her constant revisiting of just this one fairy tale shows the reader that while her conscious memory has buried the details of her past horrors, she cannot help returning to the fairy tale allegory.
Contrast is shown between the warm, happy imagery of life in the Berlin household, and the bleak, harsh details of wartime life.
Yolen uses many symbols as she tells herstory.
(A literary symbol is the use of some object or event to stand for or represent something else; for example, a description of dawn, or a scene of it in a film, might stand for the concept of hope, or indicate a fresh beginning.)
The mist in Gemma's version of the fairy tale stands, in the first place, for the exhaust gas used to kill the Holocaust victims at Chelmno.
The briars stand for the walls, fences and even trees the prisoners were enclosed by. They strongly suggest barbed wire, an impassable thicket.
The sleep of the people of the castle is the sleep of death - it is forever.
But symbols often have a cluster of connotations. The mist may also stand for the imperfect knowledge Gemma and her family has of the events of her past, which they only dimly understand. The briars can also represent the difficulties to be overcome by love to reach the desired object. The sleep also perhaps suggests a lack of consciousness about what was going on.
The rose of the title is the symbol of love, which survives through the thorny briars, and is the motivating force of the whole tale, forcing Becca to carry out her promise to find the castle in the sleeping woods (p 19). Her research reveals that Gemma's survival and her daughter's existence have both been made possible by the love of Aron and of Josef. The very existence of Becca and her sisters is owed to the selfless love the briar rose symbolises.
Yolen is not merely making use of symbols to tell her Holocaust narrative. She has constructed the whole story as an allegory - a text whose whole plot is in itself symbolic.
An allegory is defined as:
a specialised form of symbolic narrative, which does not merely suggest something beyond its literal meaning, but insists on being decoded in terms of another meaning (David Lodge, The Art of Fiction).
At the heart of this novel is Gemma's version of the fairy tale of Briar Rose. Her personal story, with the handsome prince, the kiss of life, the briars, even the hundred years' sleep (death, but also echoing Hitler's hundred-year reich) corresponds with the traditional narrative. We need to understand the fairy story to understand what has happened to Gemma and thousands like her.
The Briar Rose tale is thus an allegory of Gemma's life. Although she cannot recall the details of her past - an amnesia that had made her survival possible - she needs to pass this story on to her descendants, and uses the fairy tale to do so. Like many allegorical tales, it tells of good triumphing over evil, of a contented life won only after life-threatening difficulties and dangers have been overcome.
Yolen has added strands from other traditional tales to enrich the story:
Some commentators have seen the novel as ironic in viewpoint. The ‘happily ever after’ ending of the conventional fairy tale is, they think, an ironic contrast to the horrific suffering of camp victims such as Gemma, and to the deaths of millions. As for Josef Potocki, he is gay - not the expected heterosexual lover Becca was ready to cast as her unknown grandfather. In fact Gemma is saved by twin heroes - Josef, who gives her the kiss of life, and Aron, who pulls her from the mass grave and soon after marries her. Josef's presence is more than justified in the story, as homosexuals were victims of the Holocaust.
It is not altogether clear that Yolen has intended such irony. The reality of such old folk tales is often brutal and harsh. The original Sleeping Beauty included such ingredients as rape, cannibalism and attempted murder, inspired by almost insane jealousy. It is only the sanitised versions produced for consumption by contemporary children that avoid dealing with horrifying evil.
It is possible to view Gemma's life in America as indeed a "happy ending" where the ghosts of a bitter past are being exorcised by family support and the ability to speak of the mercifully obliterated past only in terms of fairy tale. Readers will have differing views.
Because this novel is essentially an allegorical narrative of a Holocaust survivor's story, plot dominates the storytelling. Briar Rose does not have the depth and richness of characterisation expected in a modern literary novel. The two 'wicked' sisters and the characters met on the way - who assist Gemma in her quest to unravel the mystery of her grandmother's past - are all relatively 'flat'. Like the partisans, they are there for their usefulness in developing the story.
Three characters are, however, presented more fully: Becca, Josef and Gemma herself.
or most of its length, the novel is told through Becca's point of view. It is her quest, her promise to her dying grandmother to be fulfilled. Realistically, she is created as a journalist, one who has certain skills in discovering facts, in finding contacts and in articulating what she finds.
Love, loyalty and tenacity - these are her defining characteristics. Readers are shown these through her actions, her thought and her words, particularly in the way she relates to her parents. She is shrewd and quick to understand and learn, but it is her empathy - not just with her grandmother, but with her father and the nurses - which marks her out as one who understands through her emotions and as well as her intellect.
A fairy tale needs a Josef: a mysterious, good-looking, courteous, aristocratic figure to be admired by readers. Josef, conveniently, is constructed to be attractive to both men and women. In the presentation of the narrative, he fulfils a vital function. He holds the key to Gemma's past, which she has never been able to open. When she locates Josef, Becca can find the fullness of understanding that she seeks. Through him, she can unravel the secrets of her own origins.
At the same time, Josef is careful to debunk any ideas of glamorous, heroic partisans: You must understand (he said) that this is a story of survivors, not heroes (p 139). He remains conscious of his own guilt. He presents himself as a drifter, but emerges as a natural thinker and planner when he joins the partisans. They give him the nickname Prince, because of his land-owning family.
He is introduced by Father Stashu, who devotes himself to the spiritual needs of the Chelmno people. Their guilt makes them hostile to all recognition of the evil times many of them took part in, or at the very least permitted. Stashu understands why Josef lives near Chelmno: Like me, he is drawn back by the souls of the dead (p 126).
These souls included the lovers Josef had betrayed, under beatings, to the Gestapo. Before he was sent to the labour camp, Sachenhausen, Josef had never heard of it. In his pleasure-seeking life, he had paid little attention to the persecution of homosexuals, and as an aristocratic young man had thought himself immune. He typifies those who did not even try to leave Germany, even though they were in the persecuted categories. Josef details for Becca (and the reader) the situation in Germany and in the labour camps. He is shown as an accidental hero, who links with the partisans when he finds and joins some prisoners planning an escape. They are betrayed but, as the lookout, Josef is the only one not listed, and so is able to escape. His adventures with the partisans - first a mixed group, later a Jewish group - enable him to become a man of honour, a hero. He is the one who persuades the rest to attempt to save some of the Chelmno victims - and thus is responsible for helping save Gemma, the Ksiezniczka. Eventually, when Gemma's young husband Aron has died and she is pregnant, Josef helps her escape.
Readers know Gemma on the surface, but because she and her past are the mystery at the heart of the story, her inner nature is revealed only gradually.
At first she appears as the loving, nurturing grandmother to the girls, always available for storytelling. In the italicised passages of Becca's flashbacks, the girls gradually grow older and understand more, but the story she tells is always the same, Sleeping Beauty.
She appears in the story in her own right only in Chapter 2, when her life is closing in the nursing home, and in The Castle, the section of narrative told by Josef. In her last days, she drifts into consciousness and still attempts to remember the story, distressing her granddaughters. Becca, who sees her more frequently, recognises that she is purposeful in this attempt. Eventually Gemma makes the central claim of her life:
"I was the princess in the castle in the sleeping woods. And there came a great dark mist and we all fell asleep. But the prince kissed me awake. Only me."
She makes Becca promise to find the castle, and says it is her legacy, all she has to give. Finally she claims she is Briar Rose.
Gemma shows much love and determination, but her life story is shown only in a handful of photographs, artefacts and papers in her wooden box. From these clues Becca leads the reader to a fuller understanding. By the nature of the story it can never be complete. Her own account of her early years is never given to us, nor are her thoughts revealed, except in her actions. The Chelmno camp is not revealed by her words, but by those of the woman who survived for only a day, but told her rescuers the details of its workings.
Gemma essentially represents the hidden millions whose stories were destroyed with their lives. She is thus an archetypal figure - the valiant mother, the miraculous survivor.