Friday, May 9, 2014

The Corpses in the Closet

Hermann Vogel

One of the main issues we have with the story "Bluebeard" is how countless authors, psychologists, and the population at large has managed to see a story with a serial killing husband as a cautionary tale about women's curiosity. It defies logic, frankly, and a great deal has to do with sexist attitudes passed down to us from hundreds and hundreds of years of negative stereotypes.

And this is all assuming we are taking the story literally-of course the evil of multiple murders outweighs a desire to go where you're not supposed to, especially in marriage where there should be trust and honesty. And no matter how many ways we can look into fairy tales, I think it's always important to remember that the literal events of the story should never be ignored. People read into tales an infinite number of ways, but the plot of the story is the glue binding our reading experiences together and is always the most obvious way to read things.
Image from here-artist ???

So while it certainly doesn't explain away baffling and misogynist interpretations of Bluebeard, Maria Tatar points out that there are other ways to look at the corpses discovered by the latest wife. First of all, on a historical level, she cites Marina Warner who reminds us that, before modern medicine, many women died young, often in childbirth. Thus, remarriage was common. This accounts for the plethora of stepmothers featured in fairy tales-they were not uncommon and often did experience friction when dividing a small inheritance among their own children verses former children. And thus it may be that many older men did, in fact, have several dead wives, just not by their own hand (and hopefully, not set on display in a secret closet). Although, if a man's wife were to die in childbirth, I would think he might feel responsible on some level, and it's possible to imagine many men with survivor's guilt as his attempts to extend his line result in taking away someone he loves.

Secondly, the corpses can be seen as symbolic. Most of us have had the negative experience of having to deal with a loved one's exes. We can accept their existence, but that doesn't mean it's fun to be reminded of your partner's previous loves. (If this issue is prevalent in your own life, Baba Yaga has some great advice about that!)
From the George Melies film, 1901

Francoise Gilot, the wife of Pablo Picasso, saw the tale in this way. Picasso had many ex-lovers and he intentionally manipulated them to exploit jealousy. Gilot termed it a "Bluebeard complex"-not only did he have former lovers, but he enjoyed "displaying" them in a twisted way. And he recognized that, in a way, any new romance will in a way "kill" the old one. Being with a new partner wipes away the life you had with an old one, but some people are better at severing ties than others. Gilot had many interactions with Picasso's former wives or mistresses and wasn't able to entirely rid herself from their presence-they did, in a sense, haunt their household the way the corpses did.

It's a reminder of how powerful fairy tales can be even in our modern lives and issues. Tatar says, "By positioning her own marriage in relation to the Bluebeard story Gilot found a tool for thinking through and understanding the powerful emotions evoked by her husband's past."

*Information from Maria Tatar's Secrets Beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives

11 comments:

  1. "One of the main issues we have with the story "Bluebeard" is how countless authors, psychologists, and the population at large has managed to see a story with a serial killing husband as a cautionary tale about women's curiosity." Yeah - what's THAT about?? It's one of the biggest problems I have with the story: not that it's about a man who kills (though that's horrific) but that somehow the women are to blame - at least for part of the horrific circumstances of this tale. The Robber Bridegroom and Fitcher's Bird don't get looked at in quite the same way for some reason. Maybe it's because the imagery of "the stained key" is so very woman-like (blood, menstruation, woman's "doorways" to pleasure - yes I believe I've read that description of our anatomy more than once..) which, in some twisted way means it's her fault.. ?? Is it the "stain" aspect? Maybe. Stain is a negative word and concept for sure. Anyway, I always need to come at Bluebeard via similar tales first because I get so distressed about this commonly quoted summary/analysis. It took me realizing this to understand why it was that Bluebeard bothered me more than so many other similarly horrific tales. It's weird what gets stuck in your head, isn't it?!

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    1. Maybe the stain aspect does help to explain it...although I remember when I first read that interpretation (I think from Bettelheim) it seemed so odd to me, and I don't know that I ever would have connected a stained key to menstruation on my own...and then menstruation to sexual infidelity, as if those are linked?

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  2. It's amazing how many angles you can look at any fairy tale. My favorite version of this tale is Fitcher's Bird. That one has another angle to it still.

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    1. Isn't it though?? That's why I never get tired of reading about tale interpretations, there's always something new to consider! Yes I like Fitchers Bird a lot more...basically ANY variant more than Perrault's Bluebeard :P

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  3. Thanks for this interesting post! Bluebeard has never sat well with me. Even as a little kid, I couldn't understand why the WIFE was blamed for being too curious. I loved reading how Picasso's wife saw the story. It's always interesting to see how different people apply fairy tales to their own lives and beliefs.

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    1. You're welcome! Yes, it's extremely unsettling. This is really one of the first positive (IMO) ways I've read of to interpret this fairy tale!

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  5. I like Clarissa Pinkola Estes' interpretation of the Bluebeard in "Women Who Run with the Wolves". She interprets the story as being about the power of women's intuition and patriarchy's (unsuccessful) attempts to smother it. I recommend having a look.

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    1. Have not read it! Just put it on my "to read" list though ;)

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  6. I second this recommendation! One of my favorite books ever and very influential (at least to me). The way she uses tales as part of every day living.. I just love it. The audio book version is truly wonderful and the best way to "read' this the first time as Prof Estes is an amazing storyteller and slips you into tales even before you realize it. I adore this book and have 3 versions: audio, paperback and hardback. (No idea why really, I just do..)
    Actually all CP Estes work with tales is amazing, Her audiobooks are mesmerizing.

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    1. Officially even more intrigued!!

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