Cinderella the sarcastic: ‘Ella’

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Deandra Lieberman, Staff Writer

My Favorite Book

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Before it was contorted into a laughably horrible movie, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted was a fun, fantastic, heartily good children’s novel.

Ella Enchanted relates, in the first person, the story of Ella of Frell, a free-spirited girl unfortunately bound from birth, by a foolish fairy’s “gift” of obedience, to obey any direct order she receives, be it a command to wear a scarf or to cut off her own head.

Burdened by her curse and her money-mongering father, saddened by the loss of her mother and threatened by the selfishness of a clever stepsister-to-be, Ella eventually sets off to find the idiot fairy who doomed her.

Along the way, of course, this forcibly obedient—and therefore perpetually endangered—rebel manages to pick up at least two unpronounceable languages (the incomprehensible “SSyng lahIFFOOn, haZZ IiMMOOn. lahIFFOOn eFFuth wAAth psySSahbuss,” is evidently Ogerese for, “One should eat vegetables, not humans, because vegetables taste more delicious”), outwit ogres and bimbos alike, and also win the heart of possibly the most likeable and least Machiavellian prince imaginable.

One of the book’s greatest assets is Levine’s humorous writing style, surprisingly sarcastic for a children’s story. Ella, her narrator, is funny in her own head, and aloud: “‘I would never embrace a cook.’ Hattie shuddered. ‘No,’ I agreed. ‘What cook would let you?’”

With a justifiable penchant for rebellion, Ella mimics her obnoxious schoolmarms, steals wigs and gleefully slides down the banister of many a staircase. Her witty banter with Prince “Char” staves off the saccharine, while lending some realism to the development of love between the sturdy, honest prince and the funny girl who can’t shrug off her slavery.

When I was 11 years old, I wrote Gail Carson Levine a letter telling her how much I loved her books, and asking her a number of questions in desperate imitation of Dear Mr. Henshaw, one of which was why she chose to write Ella Enchanted. To her very great credit, she responded:

“I wrote Ella Enchanted because I was taking a class on writing for children. I had to write something, and I couldn’t think of a plot! Cinderella already had one, and I love fairytales, so that’s how I decided to do a Cinderella story. But I didn’t like Cinderella, because she’s such a goody-goody, so that’s how I came up with the curse of obedience—she isn’t good because she wants to be, only because she has to be.”

In dodging a two-dimensional “goody-goody” heroine, Levine did much more than put a rebel in her stead. Throughout the book, Ella seeks the fairy Lucinda, desperate to be freed from the obedience that, on multiple occasions, binds her to potentially life-threatening and basically inhuman situations. It is from within a commanded state of bondage to her abhorrent stepfamily that Ella engages in a six-month correspondence with the abroad Char, a correspondence culminating in his declaration of love.

Ella’s utter joy at this declaration is soon obliterated by her realization that marrying Prince Char would doom him. Someone would, unavoidably, find out about Ella’s curse; any observant enemy could casually force her to murder her husband. So she jilts him.

And not just once, either. In the end, Ella’s freedom and consequent joy are won not by fortuitous fairy assistance, but by Ella’s selflessly loving refusal of an order that, had she the freedom to refuse, she never, ever would.

In her epilogue, Ella says that her “contrariness kept Char laughing, and his goodness kept me in love.” Both good-hearted and undeniably funny, Ella Enchanted remains a perfectly enchanted book, even when Ella has ceased to be a perfectly enchanted girl.

 

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