Monday, January 19, 2015

More on Perrault and His Views on Women

My reading on Perrault and my last post made me curious enough to consult other sources. From Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales, Jack Zipes writes,

"He [Perrault] had been annoyed by Boileau's satires against women. Thus, we wrote three verse tales, Griselda, The Foolish Wishes, and Donkey Skin along with a long poem, Apologie des femmes, in defense of women, a defense, which is, however, questionable. His poems...stress the necessity of an enlightened attitude of fairness toward women, but fairness on male terms." (emphasis mine)

The satires Zipes references were Nicolas Boileau's "Contre les femmes," or "Against Women," in 1694. According to Encylopaedia Britannica, the main reason for Boileau's beef with women was because they tended to be on the opposite side of the hottest literary debate in France, the Ancients and Moderns (which, as I understand it, boils down to: is old, classic literature innately superior to modern literature?) Women were, supposedly, on the modern side. Perrault was also one of the main supporters of the Modernists.

I've tried looking at what Boileau actually said about women that would have even prompted Perrault's "defense," but I'm having trouble finding any sources that summarize his writings (anybody know?). So far Perrault still looks, overall, like a hero for women's rights.

But just a quick review: the tale "Griselda" is about a prince who falls in love with a woman because she isn't silly and materialistic, like other girls. She is modest and humble, while conveniently being incredibly beautiful anyway. They marry, but after a while, for no reason at all, the Prince becomes annoyed with his wife and starts bossing her around. She bears it all with patience, humility, and grace. But this only prompts him to be more and more cruel, ultimately deciding to take a younger, hotter wife (who is also secretly his daughter, whom he hid and told his wife was dead, just to mess with her) and send his first wife home again. Then to rub it in, he has her come back to be the lady in waiting for his new wife. But through it all, Griselda makes multiple speeches about how it is her life's goal to humbly obey her husband in all things.

Okay. You guys probably know I'm not the type of person to get too riled up about princesses being passive and the other current feminist debates, in fact if anything I get defensive about fairy tales in their historical context, etc. But this story makes me truly angry. How is this, in any way, a defense of women?
Portrait of Perrault by Phillipe Lallemand, 1672

In a sort of twisted way, it looks like he's paying women a compliment by showing how they can be morally superior. But, in this story, in "Bluebeard," and in lots of Victorian literature that would follow, women are expected to be not only morally superior, but perfect, and harshly condemned for falling short in any way. Men can apparently do no wrong, because the Prince in Griselda is not only never punished, but praised for his cruelties because it allowed his wife to show her character. And we're supposed to believe that Griselda will be happy in returning to her twisted and dysfunctional marriage to this guy.

So here's my conclusion: Perrault was being completely serious in his fairy tales, even in his moral to Bluebeard, and yet somehow, in a mind-boggling way, this was actually feminist literature. Although expectations of men and women were vastly different (and completely unfair and unhealthy), Perrault at least shows women who do the right thing (as those at the same defined "the right thing") in the face of great adversity.

11 comments:

  1. Argh! It lost my comment! Something about "gah!" and that this tale has always confused me, thinking I must be missing something with regard to it, because SERIOUSLY?? (And yes, I too don't have a tendency to jump up and down about the same things others do either, but this one... I just, ugh.) I still feel like I'm missing something. Could it have been a metaphor for something (and event/tradition) or someone in particular? (I could really use that cuppa to sit and fume, er, "chat", with you over this one now! lol)

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    1. It would definitely be a relief to know there was some hidden meaning behind this tale! I can't imagine Perrault's female friends loving this story, but the world certainly has changed a lot in the last few hundred years, but still, hard to wrap the mind around...

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  2. This viewpoint kind of got better when the Grimms came along. I remember people being mad that Cinderella just took abuse and didn't fight back or was never shown trying to fight back and was praised for being kind to cruel people.
    It's amazing how worldviews change generation to generation.

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    1. It is interesting to compare Cinderella to Griselda, but there are a few huge differences, like the stepmother being seen as a villain and being punished. But it's definitely more satisfying in the Grimms' Cinderella that she tries to get out of her situation!

      But it really sheds light on more proto-feminist literature that came later. You're a fan of Jane Eyre, have you read Anne Bronte's "Tenant of Wildfell Hall"? It's a lot like this initially, in that it's a marriage with an abusive husband, but in that book the wife does escape (although she has to live in isolation and in fear of being found out again, so it certainly wasn't idealized). It was a huge thing at the time to portray a wife defying a husband like that, but it wouldn't have been so shocking if absolute obedience weren't the norm before. The cruelty described in Wildfell Hall is definitely meant to make you see how husbands abused their power, and *maybe* Perrault was trying to do the same thing, it's just harder to come to that conclusion...

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    2. Exactly.

      It's on my to-read list! (:

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  3. Satire, which is the way I look at much of Perrault, is tough and often purposely takes on the mask of seriousness. I am far from an expert on his original works, but the taste of strong satire--albeit not always successful--runs throughout many of his fairy tales. I read his work and then think of Swift's A Modest Proposal and my own satire I had to write in high school years ago which was one of my best assignments in high school hands down for getting inside the satire genre. Then I am very reluctant to criticize Perrault too much. Griselda is a painful story, yes, but it is SO VERY EXTREME that it is hard to see it as anything but satire. After all, Perrault is often rather jaunty in his language and winks at us. Sleeping Beauty is the original text I have studied the most along with Cinderella. I have not attempted Griselda in the original language and I admit my ability to pick up on satirical nuances in 17th century French is not very strong anyway. But I hesitate to give it a very literal reading any more than I give his Bluebeard moral a literal meaning. The whole story that he wrote previous to that short moral refutes it. Perrault is not a Bluebeard apologist. He was a feminist of his time, but that is also in his time. But I personally doubt he was doing anything but mocking society's expectations for a woman to behave as Griselda does. After all, some of his writing friends left their own husbands for those very reasons that Griselda had to leave her husband behind in the dust.

    And I am also thinking of my own mother who was upset last week by an article sent to her from The Onion. She believed the satirical article was all true, not knowing the nature of The Onion, and was offended by it. That's the danger of satire--it often requires context beyond its own paragraphs to appreciate what it is trying to do.

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    1. When we consider that Perrault's context was several centuries ago, it makes it even harder at times to understand his purpose. I think he would be positively shocked at the longevity and interpretations of his writings centuries later. He was writing satirical, historical fantasy to make some points, deriving from popular tales. He did not have a folkloric preservation intent like the Grimms.

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    2. Thank you for sharing your insights! That was a really good point about some of Perrault's friends having left their husbands too.

      And of course I value your opinion and you're much more informed on the subject than I, but it still seems a little odd to me that the satire would play so much into the expectations people already had for women. Yes, the cruelty is extreme, but to reference "Tenant of Wildfell Hall" again, even a couple hundred years later, it was highly controversial to portray a woman slamming a door in her husband's face and leaving him, even though Mr. Huntingdon was cruel on the lame level as Griselda's Prince. It was obviously a completely different culture by then, but it still reveals that people truly thought abuse was more acceptable than wives leaving abusive situations. It's definitely true what you say about The Onion and satire, but if your extreme situation fits into what people already believe, does it make its point? Again, I don't actually know what the responses were to Perrault's tales. I was just reading some horrifying quotes of older theologians about women, from Martin Luther and St. Augustine, saying things like "I don't see what worth women have other than bearing children" (paraphrase). In that light, since I assume thinking in Perrault's time would have been influenced by those men, maybe just the fact that he portrayed women as good and able to influence good in itself was a huge step forward?

      I could be totally wrong, and I'm pulling examples from all over history here. But it just seems hard even for people today to read these stories as parody, even with how far we've come with women's rights. As you said in the other post, Perrault couldn't control how people interpreted his work, but is satire successful if people don't get that it's satire and it plays right into popular thinking? Maybe people at the time understood the meaning better and over the years its been misconstrued?

      Just some thoughts as I still wrestle with this...your insight is very helpful though!

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    3. I guess I really need to learn more about what the culture was at the time-certain quotes or controversies may have come from extremists and not from popular opinion. It would be a relief to know that lots of people considered those aspects of Perrault's stories extreme and ridiculous

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  4. So I found your blog about a year ago and started to read it from the very beginning and working my way through to the present day when I came across this post. I thought you should know that Perrault didn't create this tale. It was actually a quite older tale that started with Giovanni Boccaccio (at least literary wise), who lived in Italy in the 1300's. At this time women barely had any rights compared to their male contour parts. Very few women (if any at all) owned land, they were consider the property of either their, father, husband, brother, son, or any other living male relative. Also at this point in time in literature women did not have very good representation in stories or histories since for the most part only men could write, (and only a few of them at that). Women had the tendency to be painted as evil in literature, and their was quite a few books written solely about how women were evil and things to be feared, very misogynistic. There where a few exceptions to this like the Virgin Mary, and this story of Griselda. So at this time Griselda was a very pro-woman tale, when consider to other contemporary tales. However by the end of 1300's and through out the 1400's things started to turn for the better for women. Women could now own property, but only if she was a widow. Widows could also make a living by spinning, weaving, and other textile activities, or in some case run the shop their husband use to own. While their husband was living the women would be right along side them working the shop so they would be totally capable of running the shop on their own. This did not help the men's view of women, they feared the power women was gaining, but all they could do was write more misogynistic literature. At this point is where Geoffrey Chaucer comes in Chaucer includes this story as his "Clark's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales which is a bit of a delayed reaction to the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale". The Wife of Bath is everything that men feared, she is a widow whose first two husbands were very wealthy and childless leaving her not only her own free person but also rather well off. On top of that she is bold and as she makes clear has a strong sexual appetite, proof of which is she has had 5 husbands and now looking for her sixth. There is a lot of going on in these sets of tales and prologues which makes some people believe that Chaucer was making fun of this story of Griselda and this view of women while trying to promote a different but positive view of the women. Yes women have an ugly side, but if you look at the whole of Canterbury Tales you see that almost all of his characters have an ugly side, that everyone is a lot more dimensional that you first stereotype idealization. I suggest that you read Canterbury Tales or at least these few tales to get a few of the past history of the story of Griselda. (Also I really think you will like "The Wife of Bath's Tale" it is one of the few stories of where a young man has to marry an 'ugly' women.)

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    1. This is really helpful, thank you! I had actually found out about the tale being included in Canterbury Tales in later research, but don't really know a lot about the tales as a whole/Chaucer. Would you say that Boccaccio was more literal in his tale, or was his a parody of expectations for women as well?

      Very impressed that you went all the way through my archives! Some of those early posts I'm not as proud of...I've definitely learned a lot in the last few years!

      Did you study literature and/or history? I know so little about culture from this era...

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