Perhaps I have become bitter. I have lived in the Palace now for three weeks, and I have begun to learn all of the Princess things. How to walk (apparently, I have been doing it wrong all of these years), how to talk, how to set flower arrangements, how to organize servants, how to organize a banquet, on and on…Still something feels off about all of it. My living here. I know some of the Maids scoff, Madame even found the idea pitiable to begin with.
A servant becoming a Princess. I have heard them talk.
A Common orphan becoming a Princess.
Well I am learning, and in the end, I think I will be a very good one. Yet, I know that it is only luck that brought me here.
My first day in the Palace was not not eventful. That’s a double negative. Rummi, the librarian, says that one negative word placed next to another negative word gives both words a positive meaning.
I first arrived and Madame was immediately assigned to me. She is my teacher. On first meeting her, her face told me that she did not believe that I am fit to be a Princess; her mouth told me that she was going to teach me how to be one.
Perhaps, I was silly to expect my happily ever after to be a little less stressful. Or, at least a little less lonely. I don’t understand how I could be surrounded by so many people and yet still feel so alone.
The Palace is huge. I have never seen a place so big, or so empty. The rooms are vast enough to hold mountains. It is a wonder that people do not get lost in these rooms with their layered curtains and deep carpet. I feel as though it is all pink or red or blue. Everywhere I look, with gold accent. The colors stick to the walls like old porridge and do nothing to fill the empty spaces they hold in. Sometimes I would like to scream in these empty rooms. I would like to hear my voice echo off their walls, peeling wallpaper. Emptying them of loneliness, forcing it out.
The rooms have few furniture pieces; Madame says it is all the style in Paris.
I miss my home, although it was not much of a home, it was more of a home than these empty corridors. There are servants. So many and scattered around the house at such frequency they often seem to blend in with the furniture. At least those that inhabit this house, the Royals, see them as such.
They are scared to talk to me, and Madame insists it is improper.
The first thing Madame did was make me put on the most awful dress. Pink fabric draped over a giant bird cage that she locks around my waist. This I must wear to “look Royal.” I think it just looks foolish. She gives me shoes, the most awful shoes, they pinch my feet. I would have said something, but the Maids helping dress me kept complimenting me.
“What a pretty Dress.”
“What a gorgeous figure.”
“And, such a pretty little face.”
I do not want to risk hurting their feelings. I feel that it is too close to when I have started this charade to present myself as anything but amiable. I do not want to insult the people who will become my new friends.
I wear the dress. And the shoes. And after my etiquette lessons I put the shoes in my room and explore the Palace, creaking slightly in my bird cage. Madame catches me before I can go too far and says we must have lunch. Madame says that this is to be my routine every day; until I become more like that of a proper Princess, I am not to leave her sight. My only fear is that it is she who says when I am proper enough.
It is funny though: I have gone the rest of my day without the shoes.
Madame says I talk too loud; Madame says I shouldn’t talk to the Maids; Madame says I must learn to walk with a straight spine and wear a corset; Madame says that I should be visiting the Prince’s Bedroom frequently when he is here.
Madame reminds me of my Stepmother: they are both utterly Confined by a Cage of expectations I will never fulfill.
Rummi is tall. His hair is dark and has gray patches. His eyes are a beautiful green color. His skin is soft and brown. His clothes remind me of my friends in the village, yet they are made out of much finer fabrics.
Rummi works in the Library and is a man of many contradictions. That is what he says about himself; I just say that he is my friend.
He gives me the most wonderful books to read. Books about grain prices and how roads are made. He gives me books full of numbers and has started to teach me how to do math. His favorite are the poetry books, he has even added a few of his own to the Palace collection– without permission from the court, of course. So that will just be our secret.
Rummi makes this Palace seem smaller than it was before.
We talk for hours after my lessons and I help him in the library. I believe he is a better teacher to me than Madame is. He tells me about the history of the Royal family. Who hates whom, and who won’t talk to whomever else. He has worked as the Royal librarian for thirty-three years, and he has taught almost all of the current family to read. Including Eric.
It is Rummi who says I ought to keep patience; it is Rummi who assures me that these people will be my friends, eventually.
Madame is a very fine talker. It suits someone of her stature. Sometimes, I look at her and see that she could almost be pretty, if her face wasn’t so tightly pulled back into her bun of hair. Her hair has gone almost entirely silver except for a few stubborn dark spots that she seems most embarrassed by. Her skin is pale as winter snow, and wrinkled, aged, withering. I do not think that any Princess brought as the Prince’s bride would have suited Madame, no one so young could ever impress her. I am aware that I am young and naïve.
Curiously, she has embraced this character of hers, and refuses the thought that she is not all bad. I ask her about her husband, if she has any children. She seems reluctant to answer, as though she is horrified by such a thought. Perhaps the issue is not with my question but with sharing intimate details about herself with someone like me.
The garden is beautiful here. There are flowers of every kind. After lessons with Madame I have twenty minutes of free time when I may wander as I please. Often, I will go sit under the trees; it is Spring and there are all sorts of beautiful blossoms hanging from the branches. Some branches are so low they brush my head as I walk under them. Later, a brush against my head will cause small pink or white or purple petals to fall from the branches and rain on me. This thought makes me excited for the future, maybe it will be tolerable.
When Eric is here, I will ask him to walk with me in the garden. I will ask him if our future will be tolerable. I will use my naivety to create conversation.
On the way back to my room, I spotted a mouse. I had not talked to one in so long, I caught it by its tail and hid it behind my book to bring it back to my room with me. Madame does not seem to like mice, and therefore she must not know that I am communicating with one.
I made the mouse a small nest out of a match box and cotton and placed it in it, so that she could be comfortable. I went through all the formalities of introductions. I told her that I would not call in the cat on her, but for some reason, she would not respond.
I took out one of the leftover tunics I had brought with me from home and tried to put it on her, but she bit my thumb and jumped off my dresser. I cannot figure out why. She scampered out my door and I have not seen her since.
Madame introduced me to a new Maid today, she is to replace a girl discharged due to a pregnancy. I curtsied during the introductions, but she looked at me strangely.
All today she avoided my eyes whenever we were in the same room together. I liked the other better, at least she didn’t make me feel so odd. Like I am missing something.
Eric is back today. I have organized a banquet in his honor tonight, it is my duty as a Princess. It will be so much fun. There will be dancing, and food. So. Much. Food. At the first banquet I attended here there was so much food that I did not know how to control myself. I’m afraid I ate everything I could, Eric was terribly embarrassed at my behavior.
I have wheedled Madame to invite the common people as well, my friends from town. I know it will be just wonderful. Eric and I will dance and then walk in the garden under the stars.
The Banquet was not fantastic.
Madame said she made a mistake in mailing the invitations to all of my friends and none of them received them.
After dinner, all Eric wanted to do was go to bed. He insisted that I go with him. I know that I am his wife and that I must perform certain duties, however nobody ever conveyed exactly what those were. If they had, I would have rethought the idea of Marriage. The first time I ever had to, on the Honeymoon, I was positively frightened. I don’t think the world has ever thought about how odd it is that they tell us half our life that we should never do something and then the other half that we must.
I tried to convince Eric to walk with me, he would not budge. He leaves in three days again. Perhaps he will walk with me before that.
Today, I asked the new Maid, she has still not told me her name, why she avoids me like I am Crazy. She insisted that she does not avoid me. I told her she does, whenever I enter a room she exits. She tells me that I am a Princess and that a Maid is not suitable to be in the same room with a Princess. I tell her that that is utter nonsense and from now on she and I are to be thought of as on the same level; I used to be a Maid, too.
That is when Madame came in and told her to get back to work. I have a feeling I know why she feels that she must avoid me.
Rummi asked me where I was from today. We were examining maps and he showed me where he was from, across the ocean. I told him that I am from the town. An old broken-down manor. He did not seem phased by this, however I felt extremely uncomfortable at the thought of my origins in a way that I never have before. He noticed that I was uncomfortable; he is terribly empathetic, and I can never hide a feeling from him. Guessing my reason for feeling so, he told me that it was normal. That no Commoner has ever felt comfortable in the Palace.
Rummi is positive things will turn around soon: Either I will change, or the Palace will.
I am no longer allowed to converse with mice, instead I am watched as though I am a bird in a Cage, night and day.
I wish I was in a Zoo instead. There, at least, people might want to see me fly.
Madame caught me speaking to a mouse the other day. She saw it and screamed. The guard caught it, and no amount of tears convinced him to release the poor thing. Poor Mouse.
Madame says that I am Crazy and must stop talking to mice, and animals, and whatnot. She told me that I am no longer lonely, and if I keep it up, they would have to investigate if there is something seriously wrong with me. “Mice don’t talk.” Madame says that if I continue people will start to call me Crazy.
I don’t know how to explain that everything within me feels alone, so terribly small. I don’t know how to explain that Mice do talk if you listen, and that they are fantastic listeners. They are better listeners than anyone in the Palace.
I don’t know how to explain that there is something crawling up the inside of my throat and it causes tears every time I am forced to speak as a Princess and not allowed to speak as me. And that it cuts deeper every time I sacrifice another part of my personality to fit my role. I don’t know how to explain this to Madame, and I don’t think she would listen. She was out the door before I could start sobbing. And tears are all that came.
I was Confined to my room due to a stomachache.
I feel that I am alone all the world; there is enough pain in my throat to share with all the Kingdom. I do not know how much longer I can do this.
“Is there something wrong with her?”
I overheard one of the Maids talking to another. Madame is right, I should make it a mission to not overhear others’ conversations.
I have a feeling that I have come to the world slowly. It’s not that I grew up dumb, or that I was overly sheltered or underly so, but for some reason I think that the world didn’t take to me until very recently. I can think of no other reason as to why I feel so incredibly out of my depth in these conditions, as though I am drowning.
I suppose at some point I had to learn that not all Princes are charming and that talking to mice is for lonely people. If you feel the need to talk to somebody, you should talk to a Maid who can keep her mouth closed, not to mice. That is what Madame says.
I look around the dinner table and wonder: Who are we outside of this? The rules are so strict here. You cannot breathe without following a royal code, all laid out for me by Madame. Your stomach must not protrude too much from beneath your breasts. You are only allowed one half second to exhale; any longer and it will become a sigh which is a social statement, and social statements are very rarely looked upon as polite.
I wonder the most about Eric, he is a very good husband, from what I have been told, and a very good Prince, as far as my unstudied eye can tell. He is always going off on Princely quests and the common people love him. Yet, he is so stiff.
Not a day goes by when his spine is not as straight or taut as the petrified tree in my mother’s garden at home. When he comes home, he is tired and doesn’t wish to see me. It seems that the only place he can be himself is the bathtub.
I wonder who he would have been if he had been allowed the freedom to explore himself as a young boy. Who he could’ve been if he hadn’t been born into the shoe of Princedom. If he had not been born Royal.
I think he would have been a sailor. He loves the sea; it is almost all he ever talks about. He has a sweet romance with the sea that grew under Confined land locked conditions. He never even saw the sea until he was sixteen years old. That is what Rummi tells me.
What should I know what he sees, though? I have not seen him for well over eighteen days.
Today Rummi gave me a book about a Princess and a Beast. I did not like it. I did not think it was realistic.
Rummi says that I am merely going through growing pains, and everything will fall into place in time. I asked him how long it took him to adjust, but he didn’t answer me. He just looked away and began to talk about birds.
I don’t want to wait until I am adjusted.
I bled today. I have bled consistently every month since I was 12. I am to understand that it is normal, as I have cleaned plenty of bloody rags from my Stepmother and Sisters. I asked Madame if I may have a rag for the blood. She looked horrified that any such thing should come out of my mouth.
The Maids around me began to comfort me immediately. They asked if I was terribly upset and if the Prince knew yet. I confessed that I didn’t understand why I would be upset, and they seemed to find that terribly funny. They thought my ignorance was very humorous. They told me that I bled because I was not pregnant. I did not ask why this was important, I was not trying to be humorous.
After dinner I went immediately to my room, my stomach hurt so and I have never had the pleasure of a comfortable bed to lie on before.
It looks different on silk than on the wool I once had. It is deep and often in small clumps. The silk does not absorb so much, instead letting it ride on the surface, if you are not careful it could all slide off.
On the yellow silk it is almost as though it could be smooth, the potential is there. All one must do is smooth it out. As though you could wash it enough you may be able to smooth it out. Make it silky, and flow. Red and yellow have never looked so beautiful, I must confess.
Madame came to me then, she entered without introduction as always. Some days I wonder if there has not been some mix up, that she is the true Princess after all and I am just a stand in. A project to stave off her boredom.
She sits me on the couch and takes the rag from my hand, wrapping it up carefully so that she is not touching my blood, too dark and Common for her. She tells me that I am never to ask for such a thing as a rag in public again. If I need one, I may write a note to her or a Maid and hand it to them discreetly.
She tells me that she thinks I have not quite understood my role here yet. That as a Princess and a Wife it is my job to create heirs. That I should not let myself bleed again until I have had many children. I ask her, Why?
She tells me that things are different now.
She tells me that if I am not to embrace this role fully there is no way I could ever be a proper Princess or Wife to Eric.
She tells me that I am lucky to be here, in a Palace. When I started off sleeping next to an old fireplace in a dusty, broken-down, cindery old house. She does not think I am Committed enough to be here.
She tells me that I ought to be doing my best to make this work, as I am so lucky to be a part of the Royal family since I came from such a Common background.
She stands, leaving my rag on the couch next to where she was sitting. I seem to not be able to look at anything else. It seems to me that the only real thing in the world is that yellow silk, and the blood on it.
“It is also possible to send you back to your humble home, if it is seen as the best fit for the Palace as a whole. I’m sure the arrangements can be made for your Marriage to be dissolved if this is too much for you, Cinderella.”
She looks at me as though I am sickly, as though I am Crazy. She is expecting an answer, she is expecting me to beg to go home. She looks at me as though I am a stupid Commoner.
I do the only thing I feel I can do, after taking so much from Madame. I rise, grabbing my rag, I look her in the eyes and hold out my rag to her.
“Give this to the Maid on your way out, Madame. Goodnight.”
I turn from her and cross to my dresser, undoing my hair. I panic at the silence, but then I hear Madame exit.
My Conviction has been made clear.
A critical self-reflection on “The ‘C’ Word”
The feeling of shame is present in everybody’s life, it has developed as an intrinsic part of our society’s system of control, a method to control the behavior of those who live in it. Whoever is in control of mainstream society controls what is perceived as shameful. For instance, in our modern day we consider periods, sex, homosexuality, to all have varying levels of shame attached to them.
Stories are a way to examine the topic of shame, as they can bring up uncomfortable issues in manageable ways and are easier to discuss without causing people to take them too personally. Muriel Rukeyser was an author who could bring up touchy issues in a way that does not end with the alienation of the reader. Striking a balance of not causing feelings of shame yet addressing ‘shameful’ topics, Rukeyser’s style brings up these topics while remaining “emotionally neutral” (Wallenstein 53). In The Orgy (1965), Rukeyser visits County Kerry, Ireland on a research mission to observe the Puck festival on behalf of Paul Rotha, a filmmaker. She documents the visit with a stream of consciousness story, tinged with shame but ending with self-empowerment. Rukeyser begins by documenting her own shame and the shame of the native Irish people who accompany her on her three-day journey through Puck Fair.
Throughout the book, it is pointed out by those around her that Rukeyser plays the role of the ignorant American. In fact, she documents the word “ignorant” as a way she labels herself. Rukeyser initially wants to take advantage of being labeled “ignorant”: “I’d like to use my ignorance,” she writes (13). However, she does feel and react to the shame present in such a statement, as is evidence by her refusal to resemble a tourist. Rukeyser refuses to carry a camera, “I am not going to be an American woman carrying a camera” (7). She instead opts for a small notebook to record her experience.
As if to relay this feeling through an image, Rukeyser describes the crowd on Gathering Day, all staring in awe at the Puck Queen, who is crowning the great Goat. Well, everyone is focused on the main event “but one woman whose face was fastened sideways, staring across all the faces at someone with a camera” (43). This image breaks up the sanctity of what was otherwise described. Rukeyser views this brash documentation by another person, someone wielding a camera, as a dishonor to the festival and people who inhabit County Kerry. The fact that this other person is the typical sort of American tourist only adds to the shame she feels about being from such a culture.
Her new Irish friends also add to this feeling of alienation that leads Rukeyser to take on the role of the passive narrator. Even what she calls the bathroom (“What is the matter with Americans, that they can’t say toilet?”) is picked apart by the locals she has aligned herself with (12). However, this aggression towards Rukeyser about her American nationality also shows the locals’ own weaknesses, since they are reluctant to invite Rukeyser into their festival. “I hate visitors to see it,” they tell her (13). And they seem to question Rukeyser’s motivations as a way to keep her away from the festivities because they are ashamed of their own culture as well.
A good example of this hidden hostility: Rukeyser’s new friend Nicholas asks twice if Rukeyser would not come back to Glenbeigh with them at the end of the first night. “‘Surely not,’ he said, and the crowd for a moment pushed him back and away from me,” she remembers (47). Nicholas’s refusal to believe that she would like to stay at the festival longer created not only an emotional divide between them—later Rukeyser thinks to herself, “What an ass” (48)—but also, quite literally, a physical one.
It is not until the third day of the festival, Scattering Day, and the final pages of The Orgy that Rukeyser first documents somebody directly addressing her by her name. “Muriel! Just a word…” (129). This change, writing herself by name, is indicative of the change in mood in the final pages of the book. As Rukeyser finds her own self-empowerment, she answers a question she has been pondering all along: Will she really be the one to bring a documentary camera to this transformative festival? Her answer is no, and with this Rukeyser begins to speak, making a joke about the usual American way. “Do it the—how shall I say?—the American way. Wish for it clear of rain and cold, no sheep, no petrol drums—wish for an air-conditioned tunnel” (132). She is able to laugh about the stereotypes associated with her nationality, and thus is able to continue her journey home proud of who she is, as an individual, and free of shame.
In 1950, over ten years before The Orgy was published, the Walt Disney Studios was in its golden age and produced Cinderella. In modern America, most people know the story of Cinderella and have consumed some version of it. As a fairytale, “Cinderella” is in the public domain, both in terms of its copyright and in the sense that, once a fairytale has been accepted by a society, individuals start to feel personal ownership of the story. That is why there are hundreds of movies all with the same title, Cinderella, yet you could not say that all of these movies tell the same version of the story.
I have chosen Disney’s 1950 Cinderella, and the 2002 continuation Cinderella II to frame my creative response to The Orgy because it is a well-known fairytale. Although I was inspired by Rukeyser’s “emotionally neutral” writing style, I also wanted to create a story that was outright provocative, by drawing attention to shame and wrongdoings happening in the story itself. Since everyone can feel like they have ‘ownership’ over a fairytale, I thought that the most provocative way to get a response from readers would be to take a beloved fairytale and give it a title like “The ‘C’ Word,” and then use a Disney-style Princess to confront uncomfortable and shameful issues. I wanted to mimic the emotional response that Rukeyser often elicited and received, but I would be more direct.
The movie Cinderella was released by Disney in post-World War II America and laid the foundation for Cinderella II, released in 2002. Cinderella provides a reflection of changes in American culture, especially in the image of American women. The world had begun to shift away from the steadfastness shown by WWII-era icons like Rosie the Riveter and moved towards a more frivolous ideal. As Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell has argued, this reflects cultural changes during the postwar moment. Much like many of Disney’s other movies, its version of the Cinderella story (Cinderella and Cinderella II) does not cover controversial issues in an outright way. Instead, it creates a world that is decidedly neutral, with no real “evil” present, and one where the character of Cinderella is not given any choice about her identity.
The Orgy was published later, in a time that was tumultuous for the American Left. Student groups were becoming more popular, and the Civil Rights movement was well underway (Brick and Phelps 88-121). Rukeyser would have been aware of both the Civil Rights movement and the corresponding rise of 2nd wave Feminism happening at the time, and would have known these movements were potential audiences for her work. The Orgy covers many interesting and complex issues that also become controversial, and deal with the political/personal dynamic. The time in which Rukeyser was writing was a time when many people were just beginning to link the personal and political; and many still would have been wary of how activists like Rukeyser fused them together almost seamlessly (Brick and Phelps 118).
Rukeyser’s writing style believes in the inherent connection of the personal to the political. Today we accept this link as an intrinsic fact, and we have become more accepting of previously taboo subjects; however, there are still topics that remain shameful. Shame is likely never to go away completely. Because shame functions as a way to control people’s behavior, there will never be a society that does not some forms of shame to police its values. We all experience variations of shame and embarrassment every day, and this is what will make Rukeyser’s The Orgy relevant far past its time. At its core, it is a story about finding and coming to terms with personal identity, both despite and through feeling ashamed.
So, I ask why do we let Cinderella off so easy? If she is going on her own journey of personal identity after she marries the Prince, why is it not just as messy and shame filled as Rukeyser’s own? The answer is that Cinderella’s journey probably is. We have just been consuming a sanitized version of this fairytale story. If Rukeyser had indeed taken photos on her journey to Puck Fair, that is what we would have seen as well with her story, a sanitized version that removes her shame. It is when we start to feel the story instead of just seeing it when the real transformation happens.
In my version of the fairytale, inspired by Rukeyser’s story and relying on the events of Cinderella II the sequel to Disney’s Cinderella, Cinderella has been thrown into a strange environment with new customs and nobody she knows. She is in the midst of culture shock while trying to scramble to become the Princess and Wife that she is expected to be, a position she has never been prepared for in her life. My heroine is a Commoner wearing a Royal’s clothes, coming from an environment that drove her to the point of talking to mice and birds, as they were the only company she was allowed to keep. She has never had the luxury of having to think about her personal identity before, it has always been assumed of her. It is the difference between telling someone “You are a Maid” and instead asking them “Would you like to be a Princess?”
In the end, Cinderella has the chance to decide what her identity is. Maybe we see this in the movie as well, but the experience of watching something happen, passively, versus actively engaging with and feeling the story is the difference between mindless entertainment and transformation. Fairytales are inherently personal, everyone has their own version of the story of “Cinderella”in their heads already, each tinged with their own personal perspective. Every fairytale, fable, and myth we are exposed to helps make us who we are. By making the story more about the personal and private experience of the character of Cinderella, I have created a world where the building blocks are already familiar. I have created a world where Cinderella can undergo a transformation, and so can the reader. Like what Rukeyser experiences at Puck Fair, such experience can bring us “Out of my old shame—” and “At last gave me / My woman’s name” (Orgy 135).
Brick, Howard, and Christopher Phelps. “A New Left, 1960-1964.” Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since the Second World War. Cambridge UP, 2016, pp. 88–121.
Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. “Cinderella: The Ultimate (Postwar) Makeover Story.” The Atlantic, 9 Mar. 2015. Web. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/03/cinderella-the-ultimate postwar-makeover-story/387229/
Cinderella. Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske, Walt Disney Productions, 1950.
Cinderella II: Dreams Come True. Directed by John Kafka and Darrell Rooney, Walt Disney Company, 2002.
Rukeyser, Muriel. The Orgy: An Irish Journey of Passion and Transformation. 1965. Paris Press, 1997.
Wallenstein, Barry. “Muriel Rukeyser and the Politics of Poetry.” Margins, nos. 24-26, 1975, pp. 52+. Independent Voices.
To cite this creative and critical essay in MLA 8th edition: Buczeksmith, Sam. “The ‘C’ Word.” Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive, http://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/2020/09/09/sam-buczeksmith-the-c-word/