Hello my Fairy Tale Friday Followers!
Ready for a fairy tale that will never, ever, ever appear on a Disney movie shortlist?
Let me introduce you to…
(Artist: Monika Wnęk)
We have ourselves another Charles Perrault story folks! This French tale was written/ published in 1697 but the story itself probably predates 1697 as all things fairy tale are often a result of decades or centuries of oral storytelling and folklore.
I both love and loathe this story in equal measure. I don’t know why I love it (it’s about a serial killer of women after all) but I will explain the bits I loathe and why under the ‘My Thoughts’ section.
For such a macabre story it is pretty straight forward and despite its age there haven’t been a great deal many differing versions over the years.
A wealthy and noble man, Bluebeard (named for his defining facial feature) was known for having had seven marriages to wives that were ‘no longer in the picture.’ For reasons not shared in the story he was looking to marry again and so approached the youngest daughter of his neighbor to obtain her hand in marriage.
Not so surprisingly she was put off by the ugliness of his beard and (more importantly) the mysterious circumstances of all his previous marriages. Unfortunately her family were financially destitute and were desperate for money so our nameless neighbor’s daughter became our nameless Bluebeard’s wife.
Bluebeard allowed her freedom to roam anywhere she pleased within his castle aside from one room which remained locked at all times and to which only he held the key. Bluebeard left his castle for reasons which vary according to the tale (business or war) but what stayed constant in all versions was the handing over of the key to The Room.
Bluebeard’s wife was reminded she could go anywhere she pleased but was strictly forbidden from opening the locked room. When Bluebeard left, unable to keep her curiosity down, his wife unlocked the door only to discover what had become of all of Bluebeard’s previous wives.
Some versions differ at this part; sometimes there are complete dead bodies, sometimes there are just heads, sometimes blood covers the floor and walls and sometimes it’s been collected into basins but what happens in all versions is that Bluebeard’s wife panics (as you would) and drops the key into some blood.
The key happened to be enchanted and so however many times she scrubbed the blood stain wouldn’t wash out. Bluebeard returned and demanded to see all his keys and when his wife finally handed over the key to the locked room it became apparent to Bluebeard that she’d disobeyed him.
Because of this disobedience he attempts to kill her either by cutting off her head or cutting her throat. Some versions have him raise his sword or knife there and then while others add more violence to the tale by having him drag her by the hair towards the locked room.
Ultimately she is saved by her brothers either because they were visiting anyway in a well timed coincidence, because her sister was visiting and managed to get a message to them or just by ‘deus ex machina’ where no one really knows how or why they turn up.
Nonetheless the brothers (never having appeared before in the story) saved the day, killed Bluebeard and Bluebeard’s wife got to inherit everything before marrying a significantly nicer person. At that point really, anyone is a step up.
The moral of this story my darling reader is this (in Perrault’s actual words):-
“Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, may often cost a horrendous deal. A thousand new cases arise each day, with due respect, oh ladies, the thrill is slight; as soon as you quench it, it goes away. In truth, the price one pays is never right.”
To put that into modern terms the moral, from Perrault’s perspective was, ‘Ladies, don’t be curious about anything because you may find things that you wish you hadn’t found and you may suffer because of it. Don’t go looking, do what you’re told instead.’
And this is where I slam my head down onto my keyboard and mouth, “What the actual asdhskdhfsjkhfjdshfhdsfh.”
Much as we like stories where women are imprisoned in tower’s we also seem to enjoy stories where men murder their wives or at least have attempted to. Bluebeard is one version of the ‘bride murderers’ or ‘forbidden chamber’ club which includes Fitcher’s Bird, The Robber Bridegroom, Mr. Fox and The White Dove.
Despite the Western prevalence of these ‘type’ of stories, the Middle East offers a variation of their own in One Thousand and One Nights but in that version we get the resourceful Scheherazade who staves off her own murder night after night in a feat of such skill that has storyteller’s the world over weeping at her genius.
Scheherazade also has a strong degree of agency which is missing in the female character in Bluebeard but I’ll rant on that further below.
Although Bluebeard is a fictional tale and possibly one passed down through oral storytelling tradition there are murmurs that this could be based on two real life historical accounts; Conomor the Accursed, a Breton king who murders his wives when they fall pregnant (with the main focus being on his wife Tryphine) and Gilles de Rais, a French serial killer of children who was supposedly a satanic worshiping pedophile who kept their body parts as trophies.
England have their own ‘milder’ version of Bluebeard which seems to never be connected to the fairy tale in question and that is King Henry VIII. While I appreciate that he wasn’t a serial killer of his wives he is known for being a wealthy and noble man (erm… a king!) with multiple marriages.
He isn’t exactly known for treating any of those wives particularly well and he was indirectly responsible for the suffering and death of two of them and was directly responsible for the death of another two. But as he was king, those latter two deaths technically counts as ‘treason’ and not ‘royalty sanctioned murder.’
My last Fairy Tale Friday was on Beauty and the Beast and I mentioned that I felt it links in with Bluebeard. The reason I say this is because they are two opposing sides of the same coin.
The focus on both fairy tales is that of marriage and the message being delivered, as it often is with fairy tales, is to female readers.
The difference between them both is that Beauty and the Beast serves to provide a ‘choose your married partner well’ message and to look beyond the superficial to the goodness of a person underneath. Marry if you must, but marry well and you are the master of your choices.
Bluebeard serves as a horror story for those entering marriage in the 17th century. I can’t imagine how many terrified young women there must have been. It’s easy to forget but freedom on choosing your own husband wasn’t exactly on ‘trend’ and this is even highlighted in Bluebeard as the wife has no choice but to marry the titular character.
The other major difference between the stories (aside from the extremely opposing natures of the male main characters) is the agency and importance placed on Beauty versus Bluebeard’s wife. Again, I’ll rant on this below but the first detail to note – Beauty is named. Bluebeard’s wife is not. Bluebeard’s wife is known solely by what relation and worth she has to a murderer.
Why is his beard blue? It serves to set him apart as something ‘otherworldly’ but was this a deliberate fashion choice on his part or does this hint to us that he is something of an ‘other?’ The key was enchanted after all and the why and the how is never given to us.
As mentioned in the outline of the story some versions have a scale of violence, whether this is to the wife at the end of the tale (does Bluebeard attempt a clean killing blow or does he drag her by her hair to the locked room?) or to the seven previous wives.
Those wives bodies are either fully intact or in pieces, not only murdered but mutilated. Sometimes blood is on the floor and walls (as would be expected by such grisly deaths) but in others the blood is being collected into basins.
The collection of the blood into the basins could link back to Gilles de Rais and the rumours of him being a devil worshiper and practicing black magic. Another theory is that Bluebeard could have been trying to cure himself of leprosy.
Why, exactly, did the first wife die? Even if Perrault’s dodgy moral is ‘ladies don’t be nosy’ what possibly could his first wife have done?
And this, this right here, is where I despise the moral of the story.
There was nothing, nothing, that any of these women could have done or not done to save their lives – they were getting murdered. Why? Because the true villain of the piece is Bluebeard himself, not someone’s natural inclination to search for answers.
If you have a human being who would punish someone for ‘disobedience’ by murdering them, mutilating their body and then keeping it as a trophy then that person is not right in the head.
It doesn’t matter whether one of Bluebeard’s wives went looking into a forbidden room, disobeyed him on some other matter or was the unfortunate first victim of a hideous, previously quashed compulsion – the wife is not to blame here. Also, Bluebeard set her up.
Perrault genuinely seems to believe that ladies shouldn’t go looking for trouble lest they find it (but then this is the person who sought to blame a young girl in red for being eaten by a wolf, rather than the wolf for eating her), however the moral seems to directly contradict the narrative.
As I said, I don’t think it comes down to anything these wives did or didn’t do. They were getting murdered because of something in Bluebeard’s nature, not their own. The difference is (either through a spot of luck or, in modern retelling’s, her own ingenuity) this final wife manages to discover the truth and break free from her fate.
The reason why this moral bothers me so much is because of the real life implications that it has. Whilst I love Bluebeard as a fairy tale I think it resonates with me because it has worked to inspire me to write a retelling which places more focus on the women of the tale and give them their agency back.
Stories don’t exist in isolation. They can provide inspiration and hope, perhaps something for someone to relate to. They can act as warnings or guides, perhaps to prevent situations occurring in real life or to advise of the dark side of human nature. They can also normalize certain behaviors and when those behaviors are harmful, then it’s a problem.
It’s all about the narrative. Bluebeard is a violent and horrific story about domestic abuse and violence against women. If this tale is presented in a certain way that condemns and not condones the actions of Bluebeard then it’s a different message than Perrault’s which is, ‘women be nosy and probably deserve their outcomes.’
Everyone in this story knew that Bluebeard had a shady past and missing wives but ignored it because he has money.
This story was written in 1697. It’s now 2019. The above point hasn’t gone away. Doesn’t that just make you want to cry?
My final point is this:
Agency, agency, agency, agency. Where the heck is it??
Female agency in this story is a massive problem. Even if we ignore the awful moral of this story we still have stuffed all the female characters into a room. Literally!
The moral is shifty, the story is one of grotesque violence against women (see my note on narrative) but the previous wives have no detail about them. Who were they? How long were they married to Bluebeard? Did they go through the same process or was it different each time? Did they suffer? Why aren’t they missed?
The main character in this tale, Bluebeard’s final wife, is as I’ve mentioned – nameless. She is known as Bluebeard’s ‘neighbour’s daughter’ before becoming Bluebeard’s wife indicating that women are seen as property not people.
She is forced into marriage and her only act of agency – to open the locked door – is heavily rebuked. In The White Dove, the character takes some initiative and delays her murder but even in that version as in all versions she is rescued, not by her own cunning, but by brothers that miraculous appear for the first time in the story.
Ultimately at the end she comes full circle and re-marries yet again being passed to another man.
Sadly, she is a conduit for the story and a cautionary tale and that is all.
Sure I’ve ranted about the original Bluebeard but I’m not alone in realizing there are some *cough* issues and a lot of retelling’s have tried to rectify what they don’t like about the fairy tale.
- The Bloody Chamber in The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (short story in collection)
- Bluebeard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood
- Sister Anne by Beatrix Potter
- Blue Bearded Lover by Joyce Carol Oates (short story)
- Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
- Ex Machina (movie)
- Crimson Peak (movie)
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (more allusion to certain elements)
As I have mentioned above I have been inspired to do a Bluebeard retelling because I just want to change the bits I don’t like.
I already have a rough outline which requires some massive tweaking but it’s an adult retelling which contains murder (obviously), sex and um, satan worship with a whole ton of female agency!
Look, I enjoy the colour pink, cats, cakes and afternoon teas and wear a ton of floral dresses but it doesn’t mean I can’t have layers.
Until next time when I hope to do Vasilisa the Beautiful!