by Terri Windling
In the following century, as women lost the social gains they’d made in the heady days of the salons, tales by L’Héritier and other women (D’Aulnoy, Murat, Bernard, etc.) fell out of fashion, while those by Perrault — with their simpler prose style,their moral endings, their meek and mild princesses — continued to be reprinted and recounted year after year. As the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed, re–tellings of "Bluebeard " increasingly emphasized the "sin" of disobedience as central tothe story — a subsequent version was titled "Bluebeard, or The Effects of Female Curiosity." As fairy tales became an area of scholarly inquiry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, folklorists pounced upon this theme in their analysis of the tale — and took it one step further,suggesting that Bluebeard’s wife’s disobedience was sexual in nature, the blood–stained key symbolizing the act of infidelity. (Never mind the fact that there are no other men in the whole of Perrault’s tale until those convenient brothers come thundering out of nowhere to save her.) Psychologist Bruno Bettlheimwas one of the critics who read "Bluebeard" as a tale of infidelity. In his flawed but influential book of the 1970s, The Uses of Enchantment, he pronounced Bluebeard "a cautionary tale which warns: Women, don’t give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed. "But as novelist Lydia Millet has pointed out in her essay, "The Wife Killer" (published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore The Favorite Fairy Tales):
Blue Beard wanted his new wife to find the corpses of his former wives. He wanted the new bride to discover their mutilated corpses; he wanted her disobedience. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have given her the key to the forbidden closet; he wouldn’t have left town on his so–called business trip;and he wouldn’t have stashed the dead Mrs. Blue Beards in the closet in the first place. Transparently, this was a set–up.
Marina Warner, in her excellent fairy tale study From the Beast to the Blonde, suggests another way to read the tale: as an expression of young girls’ fears about marriage. Perrault was writing at a time, and in a social class, when arranged marriages were commonplace, and divorce out of the question. A young woman could easily find herself married off to an old man withouther consent — or to a monster: a drunkard, a libertine, or an abusive spouse. Further, the mortality rate of women in childbirth was frighteningly high. Remarriage was commonplace for men who’d lost a wife (or wives) in this fashion, and ghosts from previous marriages hung over many a young bride’s wedding. (Perrault and other writers in the fairy tale salons were firmlyagainst arranged marriages, and this concern can be seen in the subtext of many fairy tales of the period.)
Another aspect of the Bluebeard story that we see increasingly emphasized in later re–tellings is xenophobia, with the brutal bridegroom portrayed as an Oriental. There is nothing in the text of Perrault’s tale (except that extraordinary beard) to indicate that Bluebeard is anything but a wealthy, if eccentric, French nobleman — yet illustrations to the story,from eighteenth century woodcuts to the famous Victorian illustrations of Edmund Dulac — depict Bluebeard in Turkish garb, threatening his bride with a scimitar. It must be remembered that "Arabian Nights" style fairy tales were enormously popular in Europe from the eighteenth century onward, yet none of the other tales in Perrault’s collection Histoires ou contes du temps passéwere given this Oriental gloss as persistently as "Bluebeard." Both horrible and sensual (all those wives!), Bluebeard is perhaps a more comfortable figure when he is the Other, the Outsider, the Foreigner, and not one of us. And yet, it’s the fact that he is one of us — the polite, well–mannered gentleman next door — that makes the story so very chilling to this day.While tales like "Beauty and the Beast" serve to remind us that a monstrous visage can hide the heart of a truly good man, "Bluebeard " shows us the reverse: a man’s fine facade might hide a monster.
"Bluebeard" remained well known throughout Europe right up to the twentieth century, in turn inspiring new tales, dramas, operettas, and countless pantomimes. William Makepeace Thackeray published a parody of "Bluebeard" called Bluebeard’s Ghost, in 1843, which chronicles the further romantic adventures of Bluebeard’s widow. Jacques Offenbach wrote a rather burlesqueoperetta titled Barbe–Bleue in 1866. In 1899, the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a libretto entitled Ariane et Barbe–Bleue, set to music by Paul Dukas and performed in Paris in 1907. Maeterlinck’s version, written with the aid of his lover, the singer Georgette Leblanc, combines the Bluebeard story with elements from the myth of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur.In this sad, fatalistic version of the tale, Ariande, the last of Bluebeard’s brides, attempts to rescue his previous wives and finds them bound by chains of their own making to Bluebeard’s castle. The Seven Wives of Bluebeard, by Anatole France, published in 1903, re–tells Perrault’s story from Bluebeard’s point of view, portraying the man as a good–hearted (if somewhat simple–minded)nobleman whose reputation has been sullied by the duplicitous women he’s married. Bela Bartok’s opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), libretto by Bela Balasz, presents a brooding, philosophical Bluebeard, reflecting on the impossibility of lasting love between men and women.
As fairy tales were relegated to the nursery in the twentieth century, "Bluebeard" was seldom included (for obvious reasons) in collections aimed at children. And yet the story did not disappear from popular culture; it moved from the printed page to film. As early as 1901, George Méliès directed a silent film version titled Barbe Bleue, which manages, despite cinematic limitations,to be both comic and horrific. Other film treatments over the years include Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife in 1938; Bluebeard in 1944; Richard Burton’s Bluebeard in 1972, and Bluebeard’s Castle, a film version of Bartok’s opera, in 1992. Maria Tatar makes a case that Bluebeard’s tale can be seen as a precursor of modern cinematic horror."In ‘Bluebeard,’ as in cinematic horror," she writes, "we have not only a killer who is propelled by psychotic rage, but also the abject victims of his serial murders, along with a ‘final girl’ (Bluebeard’s wife), who either saves herself or arranges her own rescue. The ‘terrible place’ of horror, a dark, tomblike site that harbors grisly evidence of the killer’s derangement, manifests itself as Bluebeard’s castle."Marina Warner concurs. "Bluebeard," she notes, "has entered secular mythology alongside Cinderella and Snow White. But his story possesses a characteristic with particular affinity to the present day: seriality. Whereas the violence in the heroines’ lives is considered suitable for children, the ogre has metamorphosed in popular culture for adults, into mass murderer, the kidnapper, the serial killer: a collector,as in John Fowles’s novel The Collector, an obsessive, like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Though cruel women, human or fairy,dominate children’s stories with their powers, the Bluebeard figure, as a generic type of male murderer, has gradually entered material requiring restricted ratings as well."
Indeed, for modern prose versions of "Bluebeard" we must go not to the children’s fairy tale shelves, as we do for other stories by Perrault. We must go to the shelves of adult literature, where we find a number of interesting re–tellings. Foremost among them is Angela Carter’s splendid story, "The Bloody Chamber," published in her short story collection of the same name, in which the author gives full reign to the tale’sinherent sensuality, and expands the role of the bride’s mother to wonderful effect. "Bluebeard’s Daughter, " by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a wry, sly, elegant tale about the daughter of Bluebeard’s third wife, with her own abiding interest in the locked room of her father’s castle. Margaret Atwood’s fine story, "Bluebeard’s Egg," published in her collection Bluebeard’s Egg, is a contemporary, purely realist tale of marriage and infidelity,drawing its symbolism from both "Bluebeard" and "Fitcher’s Bird." Gregory Frost’s inventive new novel, Fitcher’s Brides, also draws liberally from both these tales, setting the story in upstate New York in the nineteenth century, at a time when religious fervor, doomsday cults, and experimental utopian communities were widespread. His Bluebeard figure is a calculating, controlling preacher named Reverend Fitcher. Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegutand The Blue Diary, by Alice Hoffman are contemporary novels that make use of the fairy tale’s symbolism in intriguing ways. Vonnegut’s book is the tale of an artist with a secret in his potato barn; Hoffman’s novel is the study of a seemingly perfect man with a mysterious past. "Bones, " by Francesca Lia Block, is a brief but thoroughly chilling take on the Bluebeard story, concerning a lonely girl and a wealthy young man in the L.A. hills.It was first published in her fairy tale collection, The Rose and the Beast. Neil Gaiman draws upon Robber Bridegroom legends and the English tale of Mr. Fox in his haunting prose–poem "The White Rose," first published in the fairy tale anthology, Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears. Bluebeard poetry ranges from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s "Bluebeard " (Renascence and Other Poems) to Anne Sexton’s "The Gold Key " (Transformations)to Gwen Strauss’s "Bluebeard" (Trail of Stones).
In the "The Wife Killer," Lydia Millet reflects on Bluebeard’s potent, enduring allure. "Blue Beard retains his charm," she writes, "by being what most men and women feel they cannot be: an overt articulator of the private fantasy of egomania. . .he is the subject that takes itself for a god. He is omnipotent because he accepts no social compromise;he acts solely in the pursuit of his own satisfaction." She goes on to comment that "between an egotist with high expectations and a sociopath stretches only the fine thread of empathy and identification." "Bluebeard," Millet reminds us, is a story about illusion, transgression, and the dark side of carnal appetites. It cautions us to beware of strangers in the wood. . .and of gentleman in the front parlor.