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Jack and the Beanstalk

In: English and Literature

Submitted By Metsfan12
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Risk-taking and social mobility in “Jack and the Beanstalk” One of the common themes in most fairy tales is extreme poverty and starvation. This is because these tales were folk traditions told by peasants and poverty was one of the few things that they knew very well. In “Jack and the Beanstalk” poverty is the central theme. Joseph Jacobs and Andrew Lang tell the story of a poverty-stricken boy and his adventure to rise above his childhood poverty and become rich. In both Jacobs and Lang’s version of "Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack is depicted as an ambitious risk-taker and clever boy who steals to overcomes poverty yet the audiences that Jacobs and Lang are writing for is clearly different. Jack takes numerous risks that allow him to get out of poverty in both versions but Jacobs’ version would be much more appealing to peasants while Lang’s version would be more appealing to the middle class who would not favor social mobility of peasants. Jacob’s and Lang’s version of the tale are remarkably similar because they both depict Jack as a risk-taker and resourceful boy who is able to use his cleverness to escape the clutches of poverty. In each tale Jack takes four risks. These risks are selling his cow for magic beans and each of the three times that he goes up the beanstalk to the giant’s/ogre’s castle. The very act of selling the family cow for a few magic beans is an incredibly risky one. This act is risky because the beanstalk has no economic value whatsoever and the family just sold their only economic resource for it. This is significant because with if Jack does not embark on this risk in both these stories he will never overcome poverty. The cow was the only thing of value that the family had and if Jack had listened to his mother and sold the cow for fifteen or twenty British pounds the boy and his mother would have been in poverty for the rest of their life. This is true of both stories. Jack sees the value of the risk that he is taking in Jacob’s version when he returns home extremely proud of the trade that he made. Jack is so happy that he tells his mother that she’ll never guess the great deal that he got. In Lang’s version it isn’t as obvious that Jack sees the value in his deal for the beans but nevertheless he still thinks he made a good deal. This is shown when Lang writes, “At least," he thought, "I will sow the wonderful beans. Mother says that they are just common scarlet runners, and nothing else; but I may as well sow them” (Lang, 133) Even after being scolded by his mother for being duped into selling the cow for less than its perceived value Jack holds out hope for his deal and still thinks the beans are wonderful. He is about to be rewarded handsomely for his risk. The next couple of risks that Jack takes involve Jack stealing from the giant. In both Jacobs’ and Lang’s version Jack could have been content to just harvest the bean crop of the very tall beanstalk but he doesn’t Jack climbs the stalk to see where it leads. It is here where Jack takes three major risks when he steals from the giant. In these risky actions Jack shows off his cleverness and resourcefulness when he succeeds in stealing from the giant. In both stories Jack doesn’t need to return all three times to the giant’s castle to escape from poverty but Jack has and urge to take on the risk and steal once more from the giant. This is evidenced by, “Well, Jack was not content, and it wasn't long before he determined to have another try at his luck up there at the top of the beanstalk” (Jacobs 65). It is also portrayed in Lang’s tale when he writes, “Jack's mother was very glad to get the money, but she did not like him to run any risk for her. But after a time Jack made up his mind to go again to the giant's castle” (Lang 140). These two passages show that Jack has an insatiable need for adventure and danger. This is why the two Jack characters are very similar. Jack in both stories is assuming a large amount of risk to be able to reap the rewards of not having to live in poverty anymore. If Jack does not assume these risks he will not be able to overcome the crushing poverty that Jack and his mother are in. This point can be best seen when the fairy tells Jack "If you had looked at the gigantic beanstalk and only stupidly wondered about it," she said, "I should have left you where misfortune had placed you…But you showed an inquiring mind, and great courage and enterprise, therefore you deserve to rise; and when you mounted the beanstalk you climbed the Ladder of Fortune." (Lang 145). This shows that Jack’s risk-taking nature along with his cleverness and courage were the keys to Jack being to overcome the circumstances that he was born into and still succeed. With each additional risk that Jack makes they are able to not only move out of poverty but are able rise in social class because of his wealth. Jack is able to marry a princess because of his wealth in Jacobs’ version and is able to reclaim his castle and title of a knight in Lang’s version. In each of the two stories Jack’s being a risk-taker decisions allow him to transcend the class barriers of the day from a poor peasant to become a wealthy noble and a member of the aristocracy. While Jack’s risk-taking nature is extremely similar in these two tales, the audience that the tales would appeal to differs greatly. I believe that Jacobs is writing the historical version of the story the one from the peasant tradition. Jacobs’ message of stealing from the affluent and succeeding without getting caught would have been extremely appealing to poor peasant farmers. It is completely justified that peasants should try to steal whatever they could in order to ascend the social ladder. Social mobility in Jacobs’ Jack in the Beanstalk would appeal to the English peasants much more so than Lang’s message that Jack was merely reclaiming what was his and not rising the social ladder but merely returning to the level in which he was born into. Jack continues to steal in Jacobs’ version even after he has the hen that lays the golden eggs and doesn’t need money anymore because from the peasants perspective the more wealth that they create at the expense of a noble (in this case the ogre) the better off they will be and the greater their social mobility would be. I don’t think that if the peasants heard Lang’s version of Jack and the beanstalk they would like it very much since there is no hope for social mobility. The message is very clear you are in what class that you were born into. While Jacobs’ version is most likely the closest to the historical oral tradition it probably didn’t go over nearly as well as Lang’s version. This is due to the fact that peasants were illiterate. I believe that Lang chooses to modify his version of Jack and the Beanstalk due to the audience that he knew would be reading it. Lang knew that the middle class and the upper classes that would be able to read his story would not like the idea that the hero of the story is someone who steals from a more affluent one and is able to climb up through society and go from a peasant to a prince. This is why Lang has to make up the story that the fairy tells Jack. Lang makes up this story that Jack was born a knight and needs to merely reclaim what is rightfully his. This is shown when the fairy says, “Remember, all the giant possesses is really yours." (Lang 136). Although Jack still has to use cleverness and cunning like in Jacobs’ version in Lang’s version Jack is a hero from the perspective of the middle class. By portraying Jack as reclaiming what is his Lang is able to appeal to the middle and upper class who would not like the idea of peasants stealing from affluent people and then using this newfound wealth to gain social mobility. These classes wanted the status quo and Lang’s version allows them to be comfortable with the message that even if they lose their wealth they can regain it since they were born into a certain class and simply need to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. This message would be popular to a merchant that had some poor luck but through his risk-taking nature and cleverness is able to regain his wealth and return to his former life. The Ogre’s or Giants in each of the tales also represents two distinct classes of people. In Jacobs’ version the ogre represents the lord that rules over the feudal lands. The lord is extremely rich while the peasants that work his lands are extremely poor and starving. I think that this is why the historical version portrays this “lord” in the castle as a vile, disgusting ogre. In Lang’s version the giant is someone who is not of the class of a knight or noble but rather steals from the knight. It is very much looked down upon just the same way that peasants would have been by knights. Lang’s version has Jack the Knight restoring proper order and preserving the harmony of the social class. Jacobs and Lang provide a stark contrast in the audience that the story of overcoming poverty would appeal to in their versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. While they both depict Jack as an ambitious risk-taker, Jacobs depicts Jack in the folkloric tradition as a peasant whose cleverness allows him to escape from the depths of poverty. Lang on the other hand portrays Jack as someone who was born a knight but had to overcome an unfortunate circumstance to return to the social class that he was born into Both Jacobs and Lang are very clear on one point though, if you do not take risks or are not ambitious you will never be able to escape poverty that you find yourself in.

Works Cited
Jacobs, Joseph English Fairy Tales (London: David Nutt, 1890), no. 13, pp. 59-67.
Lang, Andrew The Red Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1895), pp. 133-145. First published 1890.

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