It's kind of amazing to me how internet resources for fairy tales have exploded in the past few years. When I first found out that there was a longer, more intricate version of "Beauty and the Beast" that predated Beaumont's classic, I could only find vague references to the plot online, and even then they usually contradicted each other, which I later found out was because different translations of Villeneuve's French text can lead to significant changes in how the story is interpreted (and some online sources are flat out wrong, no matter which translation you use-see here and here). A big part of the reason I founded this blog was to search for answers in that mysterious and elusive text, and to hope I would find other people who were also curious and/or had answers for me.
In the last 10 years or so, Surlalune has expanded the history section of her Beauty and the Beast page to include more on this monumentally important version of the tale, and now accurate English translations are much more easily accessible through her Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World. Quill and Qwerty recently gave her own summary of the intricate backstories for the main characters-a very helpful resource if you want to know what happens without committing to the full story, which, depending on the edition, can be over 100 pages. I had done my own summaries for Beauty and the Beast's complicated backstories a few years ago, but I'm getting to the point where I'll read old posts from my own archives as if it's new information (isn't it amazing how much the human brain can forget over time?).
Still, there is so much to explore within the text that still remains unknown to the majority of people. When dealing with Beauty and the Beast, we've assigned it many themes, such as loving despite appearances, exploring our animal natures, etc., without consulting what is arguably the "original" text (Villeneuve based her 1740 tale off of earlier Animal Bridegroom tales, but it was definitely the biggest single influence on Beaumont's later shorter version and all consequent versions).
As I reviewed the text, including the backstories that many summaries omit altogether as being boring and unimportant, a repeated theme kept jumping out at me: that of marriage outside of one's social class. The cultural context sheds light on this, but even today, the more general message of loving without discrimination has much application for modern audiences.
Terri Windling provides excellent context: "The story she came up with was uniquely her own, however, and addressed issues of concern to women of her day. Chief among these was a critique of a marriage system in which women had few legal rights — no right to chose their own husband, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right of divorce. Often the brides were fourteen or fifteen years old, given to men who were decades older. Unsatisfactory wives risked being locked up in mental institutions or distant convents. Women fairy tale writers of the 17th & 18th centuries were often sharply critical of such practices, promoting the ideas of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their Animal Bridegroom stories, in particularly, embodied the real–life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed."
Yet the story itself seems, to me, to be as much about critiquing the idea of only marrying within the same social class as female independence (Beauty is incredibly independent, bravely defying the will of her father to go to the Beast, later turning down the Beast's repeated requests for sex, indicating that it is she who has the power to determine the nature of their relations).
The most obvious example is Beauty and the Beast themselves. Initially, although the Beast has magical powers and untold riches at his disposal, his shocking appearance contrasted with Beauty's attractive qualities give her the upper hand (in Villeneuve he has an elephant-like trunk, is enormous, and has scales that rattle as he moves-details that weren't included in any other versions and that no illustrator has seemed to want to tackle). Yet at the breaking of the spell, we find that the Beast is, of course, really a handsome Prince.
The tables are turned and we now find that the Prince, being royalty, is actually considered high above the social status of a merchant's daughter. In fact, the Prince's mother is very emphatic that she does not approve of Beauty to marry her son, simply because she isn't royal. Beauty proves again and again her inner worth, but the Queen cannot relent-"I am more than grateful to her for all she has done. But all the same...I cannot refrain from pointing out to you how unnatural would be the mixture of the blood which runs in my son's veins-the noblest in the world-with that from which this young girl has sprung."
Beauty graciously accepts this rebuff of the Queen, but turns down all counter offers (marriage to any other noble). The good Fairy (read the backstory for a refresher on all the extra characters) emphasizes to the Queen that Beauty's worth comes from her character rather than her rank: "Think you that princesses, who are such only by the caprice of fortune, are any more worthy of the high rank in which their destiny has placed them than this young person? For my part, I think it wrong to hold her responsible for her origin, for which her virtuous conduct is an ample compensation."
The Queen even admits "Beauty is incomparable, her merit is infinite; nothing can surpass it." Yet, even after the Prince confesses he would rather go back to his Beastly form than be separate from Beauty, the Queen is uncomfortable with such a union. She is only happy when she discovers that, all along, Beauty has actually been the daughter of a King and a fairy, without being aware of it.
The Beast himself was cursed because he would not enter into marriage with an evil Fairy; by her rank, she would be above him, but because of her character, he does not desire her. When we delve into Beauty's backstory, we learn that her father was a King who fell in love with a shepherdess. Despite her poor situation, he recognizes beauty and inner worth. The shepherdess/Queen is lauded for her "noble character and her purity of mind."
Yet once again there is an upset in the social status, for the King had no idea this whole time that his beloved wife was actually a Fairy who had gone beneath her station to marry a mere human, again because she recognized his character was worthy and she fell in love with him. When the fairy council found this out she was imprisoned, and the King had assumed her dead, until the good Fairy brought about a happy family reunion.
In that time, most fairy tale authors' response to arranged marriages was to have their characters marry for love (mostly at first sight) and attractiveness. The whole "love at first sight" is one of the most criticized features of fairy tales, and yet we can't pass the writers off as completely shallow-you should be physically attracted to your spouse on some level. It's so hard, when being oppressed under one extreme, not to default to the other (forced love verses ideal, free love).
Which is why Villeneuve's solution is so remarkable; she is able to look beyond her time to the more wise choice, to marry not for social status or for physical attraction alone, but to marry someone you can respect and trust-the best long-term solution. Yet if we completely ignore the whole second half of her story we miss an obvious message she was trying to make, for when we look at the full story, it is clearly a comment on classism among other things-we tend to get hung up on the sexual aspect and ignore the rest as unimportant. In fact I think I've only read about interpreting BATB as a socio-historic tale from Jerry Griswold, but he only looks at Beaumont's version, and concludes that she is endorsing a "backwards-looking endorsement of the nobility," which I hardly see as valid when you consider her full source.
*Illustrations by Eleanor Vere Boyle