In this module, the Board of Studies requires that you undertake a “detailed analysis of the text”. Therefore, by the end of this unit, you need to have knowledge and understanding of every element of this novel; you must know it inside and out, back to front!
These are the elements of the novel you will have analysed in order to Closely Study Briar Rose.
Original definition: great destruction resulting in the extensive loss of life, especially by fire.
20th century definition: Genocide of European Jews and others by the Nazis during World War II.
History: The Holocaust refers to the period from January 30, 1933 to May 8, 1945, when the war in Europe ended. During this time, Jews in Europe ere subjected to increasingly harsh persecution of 6,000,000 million Jews (approx 1.5 million of these were children), and the destruction of at least 5,000 communities. These deaths represented 2/3 of the European Jewry. They were victims of Germany’s deliberate and systematic attempt to eradicate the entire Jewish population of Europe; a plan Hitler called the “Final Solution”.
Fairytales – Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty) – you need to know the fairy tale’s origins and meaning.
Fairy Tales – Briar Rose
Origin: the earliest recorded version of Sleeping Beauty appears as “Troylus and Zellandine” in a 14th century prose narrative called “Perceforest”; the Grimm’s story of “sleeping beauty” is considered a truncated version of Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”. The Grimms’ story has a narrative integrity that has made it more appealing than Perrault’s tale, perpetually re-written and adapted, the story has been retold, most recently as a Holocaust tale by Jane Yolen.
The name Briar Rose is therefore another name for Sleeping Beauty. There have been many versions of the tale, which not many people know about, and they haven’t always been for little children, they were scarier and saucier than Disney-style and were told to a wider audience.
Yolen has taken the story of Sleeping Beauty (Briar Rose) and developed the parallel stories of two women: Becca searching for her grandmother’s story, and Gemma’s story in the extermination camp of Chelmno and afterwards with the partisans of Poland during World War II.
The novel, Briar Rose is about a woman and her promise to her Grandmother to find out where she came from, about the story “Briar Rose” or “Sleeping Beauty”, which is inter-twined throughout the novel, her grandmother’s ‘castle’ and Becca’s encounters whilst trying to find out the truth about the Holocaust and her Grandmother.
There are two plots in the novel, Briar Rose.
The 1st plot = Present Day
This plot follows Becca’s search for the truth of Gemma’s past. 2nd plot = Fairy Tale, Set in the past during Becca’s childhood
This plot follows Gemma’s telling of Briar Rose to her 3 granddaughters.
Parallels between Gemma’s Life and the Fairytale Briar Rose
e.g. briar rose = gemma because:
she is given the nickname ‘princess’
her hair is red – “crown of red hair”
on her death whispering “I am Briar Rose”
The schloss – at Chelmno which the Nazis took over extermination camp.
“she spoke of the castle, the schloss”
“Not the bad fairy. Not the one in black with big black boots and silver eagles on her hat” (pg. 19)
Hitler and his Nazi soldiers
The allied forces OR partisans
“dead from the exhaust piped in” pg 210 (Gassed)
curse was being Jewish and it was to be killed by being gassed in the trucks on the way out of Chelmno
“the final solution”
Jewish, gay, Gypsies
“Uncles, aunties, cousins, family… I curse you Briar Rose, your father, mother, cousins, aunts”
“everyone slept…and all kinds of citizens”
Who do these people represent in reality?
Everybody – all Jewish people
Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals were killed.
“a fog, an exhaust”
“dead from the exhaust piped in”
“a mist covered the entire kingdom”
“keep all thoughts of mist away, I forbid you to think of it”
e.g. pg 43 Gemma describes the mist as “an exhaust” - this directly relates to the way Gemma was gassed, in a truck and a hose was connected from the exhaust pipe of the truck
- gas – the pipe was put into the truck
“it had a tin ceiling and a tin floor covered with latticework”
“Is 100 years a lot?”
“100 years is forever”
100 years = death
It felt like it took forever to be found
“100 years is forever”
“a briary hedge began to grow, with thorns as sharp as barbs”
Briar hedge/thorns = barbed wire, fence
“higher and higher the thorny bush grew until it covered…” – this symbolises the spread of concentration camps
“he said when they go in, they come out but its not the same” meaning they are dead, “better not, the peasant said, whoever goes in doesn’t come out”
The peasant was someone who Josef sat with to find out about the camps, literally.
“I am called prince”, “and I shall never forget the dark prince who kissed me awake”,
“I am alive my dear prince, you have given me back the world”
The prince is Josef – ties in with his name where he used to live.
Josef and the partisans – coming out of the woods to save Gemma although they said it could not be done.
White birch trees
“once it was believed birch trees housed souls of the dead”, “on either side of the path white birch trees gleamed like the souls of the new dead”
Refers to people who are dead – their gleaming white – innocent? Souls still living on with them, also their bodies in the pits covered in dew lifeless but so bare and innocent – Birch was a partisan (boy)
The bed part linked to the truck with the floor latticework
When Gemma survives the gassing and is woken by the avenger and Josef
the kiss of life sleeping beauty
“he put his hand right into the thorns”
“and as he did so giving her breath for breath she awoke”
“that he put his mouth on hers and as he did so it was in Josef’s mouth that she, at last spluttered and coughed”
Gemma’s daughter is the baby girl (Becca’s mother)
“I am with child”
Narrative Structure + Intertextuality
Fairytales have come to be regarded as children’s short stories in their modern, sanitised revamping; however, they were originally intended for a more varied audience often including a moralistic overtones more suited to adult readers or designed to frighten children into submissive patterns of behaviour.
In traditional fairy stories one starts with the helpless maiden, especially with Sleeping Beauty. One knows she is going to be rescued, however one interesting pattern that develops in fairytales is that the rescuer of the persecuted or bewitched person has himself or herself been bewitched or persecuted.
Fairytales have always hovered between the fully-grown poetic imagination and the imagination of children. Our present uncertainty about the proper place in lives of children can be explained by their odd history in written literature.
Briar Rose (Novel)
Briar Rose has a complex yet tightly constructed 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 Stashau), of Magda, of Stand and other parents’ recount.
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 (Pg 17). Effects:
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.
The narrative of Becca’s determined quest to make sense of this story after her grandmother’s death
A third stage of Becca’s developing relationship with fellow journalist, Stan is presented more lightly, but suggests that, for Becca, a happy ending is likely. Her own happy ever after tale springs out of her grandmother’s life story, and make the bitter sadness of the Holocaust easier for the readers to bear. Gemma’s story itself was one of a happy ‘normal’ ending with a supportive family.
Above all, it is Gemma’s story. Gemma’s voice reaches the reader most through her unusual retelling of the old Briar Rose fairytale. This is so different in details from the traditional version that visiting children are outraged or terrified after being told the story.
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.
There are three distinct sections of the novel: Home, Castle, and Home Again.
Plot 1 – This includes the growing relationship story of Becca and Stan that hopefully leads her to her own “lived happily ever after”.
Plot 2 – This is a very interesting narrative structure because the reader can hear Gemma’s ‘voice’ and gets to know her character despite the fact that she is dead in present day. The use if italics are a clear sign/device that clearly indicates to the reader the time change from present to the past.
Home (Chapters 1-24) Home follows plot 1 & 2
Home has the two narratives running as alternative chapters – time past running simultaneously with time present. The reader is given glimpses of Becca as a child listening to the story of Sleeping Beauty and each glimpse seems to move ahead in months and years.
Castle (Chapters 25-30) Castle follows aspects of plot 1 + aspects of the past.
It is present day in Poland and Josef is telling his story in 3rd person including dialogue. He is telling his story/experiences of the Holocaust/past that included Gemma. * There are no chapters involving Gemma’s telling of Briar Rose*
Home Again (Chapters 31-33) Home Again follows plots 1&2, in this section, Gemma’s Briar Rose story is completed (chapter 31+32)
Chapter 33 sees the main plot line being resolved too, as Becca returns home and has discovered the truth of Gemma’s story (her journey and the ‘story’ is at an end) and Becca and Stan get together – this is clear from the last line of the novel.
There are 3 main characters in the novel: Gemma, Becca and Josef.
Gemma (Ksiezniczka – meaning Princess)
Gemma is the focal character in the novel. She gives the romantic fairytale of magic and happy-ever-after a greater significance by providing the analogy between the darker concepts of sleeping beauty and the horrors of the Holocaust.
She assumes the traditional role of the story teller as she nurtures the children’s hearts and dreams with the story of sleeping beauty. She appears in the story in her own right only in chapter 2, when she is dying in a nursing home, and in The Castle, the section by Josef. She drifts into consciousness and still attempts to remember the story, distressing her granddaughters. Becca recognises she is purposeful in this attempt, and she eventually 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”. Becca promises to find the castle, Gemma says it’s her legacy which is all she has to give, finally claming she is Briar Rose.
She 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.
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.
For 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. She is created as a journalist, one who has certain skills in discovering facts, in finding contacts and 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 her empathy – not just with her grandmother, but with her father and the nurses – which makes her out as one who understands through her emotions as well as her intellect.
Conveniently constructed to be attractive to men and women, he holds the key to Gemma’s past, which Becca has never been able to open. When Becca locates him she can find the fullness of understanding that she seeks – she can unravel the secrets of her origins.
Josef is careful to debunk any ideas of glamorous, heroic partisans: “you must understand that this is a story of survivors, not heroes”. He remains conscious of his own guilt and presents himself as a drifter, but emerges as a natural thinker and planner when he joins the partisans. He is given the nickname Prince because of his land-owning family. He is introduced by Father Stashau.
Before he was sent to the labour camp, Sachenhausen, Josef had never heard of it. He had paid little attention to persecution of homosexuals in his previous pleasure-seeking life, and as a young man had thought himself immune.
Josef details for Becca 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. His adventures with the partisans enable him to be come a man of honour, a hero. He is the one who persuades the rest to attempt to save some of the Chelmno victims – and is thus responsible for helping save Gemma, the Ksiezniczka. He helps Gemma escape after her husband, Aron has died and she is pregnant.
Shana + Sylvia
The two sisters, at times almost appear to be the proverbial ‘ugly sisters’ in the Cinderella story when they side against Becca and try to impose their attitudes onto her. They are redeemed from this because of Becca’s love for them and thus the reader endures their often petulant and obstructive behaviour. We forgive them ultimately because they have lost the innocence of childhood and grown into cynical adults dressed in designer clothes whose priorities seem to have gone astray. This is most evident in their behaviour at the nursing home and at the funeral. Their role is predominantly to provide a contrast to Becca, who has held onto her innocence in her belief in the fairytale.
Dr Jerold and Mrs Eve Berlin
These two rarely enter the novel although they are Becca’s parents and Eve is Gemma’s daughter, the child she was pregnant with when Josef helped her leave Poland in 1944. Their role in the novel is only as peripheral characters. When Gemma dies, Eve knows very little about her.
Stan is Becca’s love interest, and he helps her search and encourages her to persist. He is her ‘prince’, which is cemented in the final scene of the main narrative, with a happy-ever-after metaphor being maintained until the end.
Magda contains the best traits of her family members when Becca is in Poland. She acts a guardian, guide and mentor facilitating in Becca’s search. She picks up subtleties that Becca does not have access to and provides Becca with the answers.
Partisans (Jewish) – all woodsmen – the women too were “careful, quiet and strong” – couldn’t be tracked in the forests.
The Avenger (Aron)
Aron was 23, he went to medical school, experienced death, wanted to fight evil, his family was burned alive, married Gemma, Becca’s grandfather, loved by Josef and Gemma, “Angel’s face surrounded by a halo of gold curls”, Jewish, died a heroic death
Language + Techniques + Allegory
The language of the novel is interesting in the way Yolen relies heavily on irony and the sustained metaphor of the fairytale even working the metaphor of the fairytale into the main narrative. The whole of Gemma’s version of the fairytale is ironic in its use of parallels. A fairytale should be happy but Gemma uses it as an allegory for the Holocaust. According to tradition, a fairytale is by nature didactic or moralistic. It aims to teach a lesson. This one does so on an internal and external level. Firstly, it teaches children that ultimately good will triumph over evil, and secondly, it celebrates for the reader the triumph of the human heart and spirit over the agony of the Holocaust, that there is a happy-ever-after for those who believe in beauty in its truest sense.
Throughout the main narrative, Yolen reminds the reader that this is, after all, a book that uses a fairytale as its inspiration. There is much use of the language of the fairytale throughout, such as in Becca’s words when Stan meets her at the airport and in the names given to the partisans in Josef’s story. Its use stands as an interesting contrast to the modern idiom especially in the dialogue of the two narratives. This can be seen most markedly in the italicised chapters when the beauty of the fairytale is interrupted by argumentative or cynical children.
There are two extremes of imagery used: the warm, happy images of the Berlin house and the bleak imagery of the fairytale as Gemma tells it and as used in Josef’s story.
Allegory – a narrative where all the way through – you can see another story or interpretation, other than the one being explicitly told – easily apply the story to something other than the subject of the text, it often makes subjects easier to understand
E.g. Fairytale – Briar Rose = metaphor e.g. “I mean, it’s not that I believe it. That she does… it’s like the story is… like… a metaphor” pg 13, Gemma’s holocaust past = literal the fairytale is being used to tell the whole story
* we need to understand the fairytale in order to understand Gemma’s past and learn from it
like all allegorical tales, it tells of good triumphing over evil, survival of dangers, life winning over obstacles i.e. “happily ever after”
You can compare something to something completely un-related
Briar Rose – allegory for the Holocaust. Gemma’s story acts as an allegory/metaphor for her telling of the whole story (real life). The harsh details of her survival are hidden in the magical fairytale – it softens the impact of reality for the reader.
Yolen has constructed the whole story as an allegory – a text whose whole plot is in itself symbolic.
Irony – often used by composers of texts – when the meaning that the audience is to understand differs from what is actually being said or done. It is often used in texts to highlight a contradiction
Josef represents the prince and certainly acted like a prince, but he is in fact homosexual – the stereotypical view of princes in fairytales is that they rescue the female and they kiss, live happily ever after etc. that was never going to be the case with Gemma and Josef.
Makes the reader feel sympathetic towards the victim or defensive if the victim is the reader, can provide humour
Intertextuality – relationship between texts – an allusion. Influencing the reader, can trace author’s researching.
“using one text as an ingredient of another is often called intetextuality”
Stan: “what’s past is prologue” – from Shakespeare’s The Tempest
Sylvia: “The true Belle au Bois Dormant… the sleeping beauty in the wood”
Josef: refers to Dante’s inferno
“…McKinley’s Beauty a book she reread whenever she felt troubled.
Language – writing style changes a lot and is adapted to the speaking character
Josef – well-educated, formal
Becca and family – everyday middle-class America – colloquial, conversational
Magda – awkward, broken-English
Gemma – fairytale
Sisters&Becca as children
Sylvia: “oh right, I forgot we’re back in the boonies”
Magda: “oh they are much in appreciation”
Gemma: “once upon a time”, “from your lips to god’s ears”
Becca & Sisters: “Seepin Boot”, “meddlefur”
Gives different ideas about the people’s backgrounds etc.
Josef – his narrative voice is acknowledged by repeated “he said” in the last chapters “castle”
Gives the audience a different/changing perspective on the story
Repetition of key words, symbols, events
“the child, a finger in her mouth like a stopper” pg 39, “it’s thumb was firmly in its mouth like a stopper” pg 206 – simile
Re-enforces some important parts of the narrative for the audience
Seeping Boot - it indicates to the reader the cycle of life and stories – they will live on and not be forgotten – briar rose will be orally re-told through the generations.
Symbolism – use of symbols to represent ideas, especially in art and literature
e.g. a white dove = peace/hope
mist = gas
eg. A fog = an exhaust
big black boots and silver eagles on her hat = Nazi uniform
Gives the reader different interpretations of things.
Themes + Symbols
Darkness of humanity and Good vs. evil
Role: In ‘Briar Rose’, Yolen has set out to rewrite the Sleeping Beauty fairytale in a way which is true to its origins. For Yolen, fairytales contain truths and are a way for people to retell the past using metaphors.
Gemma is a survivor of the Holocaust, yet never explicitly tells her family. To deal with the terrible experience and to explain herself to her family, she uses the Briar Rose metaphor and adopts her past to it. Gemma does not want people to forget her past as “past is prologue”, so she uses a fairytale to soften her harsh experience.
What can be learnt: we learn about the history of the holocaust, and we also learn that despite the horrors of the Holocaust, there is some good in humanity too.
How Yolen presents the theme:
the theme of holocaust has been shown through Gemma’s real life – allegory
darkness of humanity = symbolism
simile to enhance description of horrifying experience
Further examples: pgs 126-128 Magda describes her experience as a child when she visited a concentration camp and fully understood the horrors inflicted on Jews in Poland and how dark and evil the Nazis were.
Good Vs Evil – in the end Good won over Evil in real life as it does in the fairytale. The Germans were defeated and Poland was liberated but at a high price in the lives that had already been paid. Gemma is rescued from the “hellish pit”, mass grave by the partisans. Gemma survives and therefore the whole Berlin family is formed, she creates a new and happy life despite the evil in her past she overcomes it.
Past, forgiveness, remembrance and memory
Role: The whole story of Briar Rose is dependent on the remembrance and memory of others to tell the tale/history of Gemma’s unspoken and hidden past. The holocaust is a major theme, that Yolen stresses the importance of memories that must not be forgotten, forgiveness (minor theme), discover the past it shows the importance those who exist in the present. What characters? Gemma, Josef and family. What can the reader learn? Some memories will always be kept in the past – gemma’s name is never discovered, peace and forgiveness can be made from terrible things. How Yolen presents the theme: through her characters – events and consequences of the Holocaust are portrayed to us through different eyes, Gemma has forgotten her past and relives it through a fairytale, and her past was so traumatic that in order to cope Gemma’s memory of the past was always presented in a unique way to her family. Quotes: “I have no memories in my head but one…a fairytale” – Gemma pg 211, “and as god forgives them, they will also be forgiven by the souls of the Jews and the Gypsies and the Communists and priests” – father Stashau pg, “one likes to remember being a hero” – Magda pg 229, “time may heal wounds but it does not erase the scars” – Stan pg 81
Journey/quest for meaning
Yolen uses the motif of a hero’s physical and emotional quest to explore historical concerns of the Holocaust and WW2
The typical hero’s journey ends ‘happily ever after’, many difficulties and obstacles are experienced during the journey before reaching the end. Despite the fact that their stories ended ‘happily ever after’, like man Jews and victims of war, Gemma and Joesf’s ‘happily ever after’ were shadowed by the terrible and painful memories of the Holocaust.
The focus is Becca’s quest for meaning. She is searching for the truth of Gemma’s past in order to give herself and the Berlin family enlightenment as to their family background/history.
Becca makes a deathbed promise to Gemma to seek the truth and thus give meaning to Gemma’s story and life.
The reader follows Becca on her journey and shares in the sadness and joy it brings. The reader can learn why uncovering the past can bring freedom and greater meaning to the individual.
Survival of the human spirit (including courage and heroism) Role: it shows how heroic Gemma and Josef’s story is, the power of survival, great empathy, human spirit’s resilience, more from the novel, moral and lesson. Its purpose is to inform people on the effects of such wars and things as the holocaust and destruction of human life. To let people get an insight into this different period in time – nothing like (we hope) anyone could experience in their lifetime. What Characters?: Gemma, Josef, Partisans. What can the reader learn?: Overcoming traumatic truths can be excruciatingly difficult for someone who has experienced the presence of evil. We notice that Gemma slowly reveals a degree of truth in her fairytale story as she told the entire lyrics of a song “look at me: I’m pale and dead. I had already washed and said the blessing when in walked the khapermenshn (kidnapper)…”. We learn about that the resilience of the human spirit is so strong that they were determined to move on with rather than giving up. How does Yolen present the theme?: The theme is mostly evident in Josef’s account of his Holocaust experience. Gemma’s telling of Briar Rose uses a simplistic contrast between the character of the prince and the peasant. Yolen uses a diverse range of characters in the real life story to display different examples of survival of the human spirit and courage. Josef expresses numerous times his survival of the Holocaust and his views on heroism, courage and survival. “this is a story of survivors, not heroes…a man are not a hero if he scrabbles to stay alive, if he struggles for one more crust of bread, one more ragged breath. We were all heroes of the moment”. Josef provides the reader with an interesting idea of courage and the human spirit. Initially, we see a man, who perhaps believes in the ideal of strength and courage, but does not follow it through into his actions, “…started to say something…about being men, about fighting, about dying with honour…” as opposed to, “…he admitted finally not only to homosexuality, but named his past lovers as well.” Finally after escaping Sachenhausen he quotes, “he was not afraid…he had no fear left,” this transition is an example of how the events of the war had influenced Josef’s change in attitude towards survival and courage, resulting in a man who had become numb to the horrors of the Holocaust, yet to an extent, a stronger man than he was before. Quotes: “it is our sacred duty to fight when we can and to die if we must” Henrik, “we have not come here to stay alive. It is our sacred duty to fight when we can and to die if we must, but to avenge what they have done to our Germany” pg 182.
Identity – growth and truth
Role: The theme identity plays a large role in the novel when it comes to discovering Gemma’s past. Gemma’s identity at the start of the novel is hidden; we know very little to almost nothing about her past. Throughout the duration of the book Becca (Gemma’s granddaughter) is on a journey to discover and unveil the truth about Gemma and her past, as well as revealing her identity. During this journey Becca discovers not only her grandmother’s identity, but also her own, Becca grows up and realises that her grandmother chose her to find the truth because she and Becca are so much alike. We also discover Josef’s identity and his past life and what he is today – a hero. What can be learned from the theme: Learn about the identities of each character. The truth and identity of Gemma’s. Identity is important about knowing who we are and giving a sense of where we come from. Becca’s learning of the truth and the finding the family’s identity allowed her to grow. How Yolen presents the theme: Similes, Intertextuality, Repetition, Allegory, Symbolism, Narrative voices, Language, Irony. Quotes:“She had a new baby but no husband and…. That is all I remember” pg 83, ”She carried herself like a princess” pg 84, “You asked where it was, Rebecca, and I answered you. Kulmhof. It was not even a concentration camp. It was simply a place of… extermination.” Pg 96, “This was Gemma” Pg 100 Family, love and loyalty
Role: family love and loyalty in the novel make us aware of what can happen to people in a difficult time. The Holocaust brought together strong groups of people who fought to survive together. Becca’s family are very loving and supporting towards her decision to research Gemma’s history – this shows the importance of family and love. Yolen has used the novel as a way to tell truths about the past and from this, the themes and central ideas have emerged. Characters linked to theme: majority. What can we learn: Importance of family history + love, learning where we came from and who we are as a person. How Yolen presents the theme: loyalty is shown through Becca and Josef. Becca – loyal to Gemma, Josef – partisans. Techniques. Quotes: “I am with child” she said “and I will not let it die” – Gemma.