Thursday, August 11, 2011

Madame D'Aulnoy's Green Snake: Beauty, Ugliness, and Curiosity

Green Snake (or "Green Serpent") by Madame D'Aulnoy is a fascinating tale. It reminds me a lot of C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces" (a lesser known but my favorite of all his books) because they are both retellings of the Cupid and Psyche myth, but starring a rarity: an ugly female. There are some versions of Animal Bridegroom tales which are little known today, but Green Serpent features a human female who is cursed with ugliness (note that this is not an authentic folktale, but a fairy tale from the French salon period-I can't think of any actual folktales that have an ugly human female as the protagonist).

This story has dual Beast characters-more like "Beast and the Beast" than "Beauty and the Beast," if you will, because the Prince is also in disguise as the title character. D'Aulnoy explores the themes of beauty vs. ugliness in her tale, just as Lewis did in "Till We Have Faces"-especially the cruel reaction of culture to a person's ugliness, especially a woman's. (This is kind of a soap box of mine-read more here.)

First of all, the heroine, Laidronette (it's been translated as Dorugly, which contrasts her sister Dorabelle) is cursed by an offended evil fairy, not unlike Sleeping Beauty. However, Laidronette's fairy claims that she was not invited to the party because "you only want beauties with fine figures and fine dresses like my sisters here. As for me, I'm too ugly and old. Yet despite it all, I have just as much power as they." Earlier this fairy is defined as malicious, but we already see the theme of someone being judged, possibly, by their appearance. So poor Laidronette is given "perfect ugliness," but the other fairies prophesy that she will one day be very happy. The Queen is still concerned that her daughter become beautiful again, which the fairies can't promise.

When the princess was twelve, she begged her parents to be allowed to be shut up in a castle so that she "will no longer torment them with her ugliness." This was difficult for the Royal couple, because "despite her hideous appearance, they could not help being fond of her," but they allowed her to leave. This language implies an assumption that people's worth is found mainly in their appearance. Later, Laidronette returns to see her sister marry, but was received coldly by the Court and her family. She was glad to return to her forest home "where the trees, flowers, and springs she wandered among did not reproach her for her ugliness."

One day while the Princess was out, she came across a green snake who spoke to her, saying, "Look at my horrible form. And yet at birth I was even handsomer than you." This terrified Laidronette, who ran away. Later she explored a boat which took her out to sea and threatened to capsize. In her hour of terror she mused, "Alas, have I ever enjoyed any of life's pleasures so much that I should now feel regret at dying? My ugliness disgusts even my family...wouldn't it be better for me to perish than to drag out such a miserable existence?"

Hopefully, this whole "ugly people have no point in being alive" message is making you angry. Yet at the same time, it's the other people in Laidronette's life that are making her life so miserable. I think it's safe to assume that any woman today who is considered extremely ugly would also find life to be very difficult because of how she is treated.

Laidronette is offered help from the green snake, but she is still so horrified she would rather die than owe her life to him. Here, sadly, the one person who should have learned not to judge by appearances seems to be just as shallow as anyone else. The boat wrecks on a rock, but Laidronette wakes up to find herself in an enchanted land where she is waited on hand and foot by a hundred strange little creatures called pagods.

Laidronette enjoys the luxuries provided for her, and is shocked to find herself treated honorably with "no longer talk of her ugliness." (In the picture above, she wears a veil, just like Orual in Till We Have Faces...) This is the part that begins to parallel Cupid and Psyche-very intentionally, too, for as her invisible lover begins to win her over, she realizes she's following in Psyche's footsteps. Laidronette can't believe anyone could love someone so ugly, and here we have a refreshing change in attitude, for the invidible prince says that she "has sufficient qualities to merit my affection," for the first time alluding to the fact that people can have positive qualities other than their appearance. Yet Laidronette hasn't quite learned her lesson-she still wants to know from the pagods if their prince is handsome, and can't return the love of someone she cannot see.

Eventually, though, she is won over and agrees to be the bride of the invisible voice. She is told that he has been cursed by the same evil fairy that cursed her, and that two years of his curse remain, and should she succomb to curiosity like Psyche, his sentence will begin all over again.

Yet, even having read the story of Psyche over and over again to avoid making her mistakes, Laidronette once again listens to her mother and sister and decides to look on her husband, only to find he is the Green Snake and she must complete impossible tasks (with the help of a beneficient fairy) before she can earn her happy ending. D'Aulnoy repeats over and over again that Laidronette deserved what she got for her curiosity, it's all her fault, etc., etc., even with a poetic moral at the end about the evils of the womanly sin of curiosity. Keep in mind that D'Aulnoy was a feminist in her day, who, according to Jack Zipes, "did not like the manner in which women were treated and compelled to follow patriarchal codes, and...did not even stop short of aabetting execution or murder of men she considered unworthy or tyrannical." So I don't know if D'Aulnoy was just trying to parallel Cupid and Psyche, or if she really thought curiosity a terrible sin limited to the female race, but Laidronette is continually reprimanded for her act of curiosity.

owever, she apparantly eventually learns her lesson. Sent on an errand by the evil fairy to fetch water from the bottomless spring using a pitcher with a hole in the bottom and with a millstone tied around her neck, Laidronette decides to drink the water to make her wise before washing her face in it to make her beautiful. The good fairy likes this. Later we are introduced to a character who fell in love with a cruel woman only because she was beautiful who suffered for it. So, despite the appearance of the beginning of the tale, women are found to have worth aside from their looks. Of course, Laidronette still becomes beautiful in the end, and the Serpent becomes a handsome prince. Then there's the moral, which informs us that "too oft is curiosity the cause of fatal is a weakness of womankind."

I don't get it, myself. Feminism has come a long way since the late 1600s.

1 comment:

  1. You've mentioned that you couldn't find a folk tale with an ugly female, which made me think of the Russian fairy tale Princess Frog. In the story, young prince Ivan is made to marry a frog, who in the end turns out to be a beautiful princess. Ivan exhibits curiosity and impatience, which is often attributed to female heroines in fairy tales, and suffers as a result of that. The story is more of an Animal Bride narrative. There are several stories where the princess is either a snake or more commonly a swan or some other bird.