Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Issue of the "Moral" in Bluebeard

Perrault included "morals" at the end of his fairy tales; little rhyming verses that brought out his interpretation of the point of the tale. Some of them are meant to be more humorous-others, it's hard to interpret the tone, coming from a modern perspective. The most maddening of all of these is the moral attatched to Bluebeard:
"Curiosity, in spite of its charm,
Too often causes a great deal of harm.
A thousand new cases arise each day.
With due respect, ladies, the thrill is slight,
For as soon as you're satisfied, it goes away,
And the price one pays is never right."

It's simply mind-boggling to imagine that Perrault could condemn a woman for opening a room in what is now her own house rather than the serial killer husband. Marina Warner points out that Perrault's tone is tongue-in-cheek throughout the story. I hope this is true for the moral too-not for the sake of defending Perrault, but for the sake of the human race in general...but in his day, would people have caught on to the exaggeration, or taken it literally?

The fact is, though in words he chastises the heroine, in the end it's Bluebeard who is punished and his wife who is rescued. Warner says- " 'Bluebeard' is a version of the Fall in which Eve is allowed to get away with it. in which no one for once heaps the blame on Pandora." (From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, p. 244.) Except that...Perrault does heap the blame on Pandora, at least in the moral. Warner also says that initially, the reader's sympathies lie with the husband. I disagree, although maybe that's because I can't remember hearing this tale for the first time-but unless one is expecting it to be a Beauty and the Beast tale, the blue beard sets him apart as strange. And it may have once been common for men to keep entire rooms hidden away from their wives, but nowdays that's a definite red flag.
Walter Crane's positioning of the wife in front of a painting of Eve in the garden is telling.

Bruno Bettelheim sees the act of opening the forbidden door as evidence of the wife commiting adultery in the absence of her husband. The fact that the chamber is at the end of a long hallway clearly indicates sexual overtones, he claims. He sides with Bluebeard in this tale. Although I certainly agree stories can have hidden meanings, I see this as an example of completely ignoring the words on the page in search of your own meaning.

Other versions of this tale don't glorify the husband as much. In the Grimms' "Fitcher's Bird", and in Italo Calvino's story "Silver Nose," the lover is a demon seeking to trap three sisters. The eldest two fall prey to his schemes, but the youngest uses her wits to rescue herself as well as her sisters. She is not condemned for curiosity, but commended for getting away with it.

Illustrations by Walter Crane

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