We began the class by reading Perrault’s earlier intellectual writing on the great literary questions vexing the late 17th-century: the fight among authors about whether to imitate authors from antiquity or create new types of literature, known as the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns” and the gender debate known as the “Quarrel about Women.” Perrault’s publications on these questions—in part a response to a famous partisan of the Ancients, Nicolas Boileau—place him squarely in the camp of a modern in favor of talking in new ways about women. We attempted to read the fairy tales in these terms.

Our fairy tales readings consisted of “Grisélidis” from the 1694 Verse Tales­ (condemned as Perrault’s most misogynist story) and the 8 stories in the 1697 Stories, or Tales of Times Past. By mid-semester each student had to adopt one of these tales and spend the remainder of our time researching its fate in the contemporary public sphere. Two students tackled the whole corpus of the Stories looking for repeated tropes that seem simple—the forest, the funny made-up names of characters like Cendrillon (Cinderella)—but have specific meanings within each story that only emerge through comparison across the corpus. In both cases, the students’ task was to mine the texts for juicy and overlooked details, draw out their meanings, and present them in a critical essay.