Tea and a Story: Caught Red “Handed”

Today’s story is going to be the story of “Blue Beard” from Charles Perrault, along with a related story from the Brothers Grimm called “Fitcher’s Bird.” I’ve been catching up on back episodes of Myths and Legends and recently listened to the episode where he talks about “Blue Beard,” in addition to just having finished a Korean drama in which a play based (loosely) on the story features in the plot. But I found myself somewhat unsatisfied with the podcast’s analysis of the story, and I happen to have written a paper on this story when I was in school.

The story of Blue Beard is a story of a man with a blue beard who cannot find a wife who will stay with him, due to his strange facial hair. He visits a neighbor who has two beautiful daughters and chooses one of them to be his latest bride. About a month after they’re married, he leaves on a long journey and leaves his bride a ring of keys, but warns her not to go into one room in the house. She, of course, eventually falls victim to curiosity and looks in the room, only to find the dismembered corpses of all of his previous wives. In a fright from seeing this, she drops the key in the blood, and when her husband returns, he sees this and knows she has disobeyed him. Upon discovering her “crime,” he tells her he now has to kill her, too. She begs that he give her enough time to say her prayers before death, and in the time he gives her, she calls to her sister to looks for her brothers, who were supposed to be coming to visit, and manages to stall until her brothers are nearly there. They arrive in the nick of time and save her from her husband, who is killed, and all his lands passed to her.

One peculiarity of Charles Perrault is that he likes to include a little moral at the end of his stories, and this one is no different. But the moral, despite most modern readers’ assessment of the story as being about a cruel murderer who gets his just deserts, speaks to the crime of the wife as being to curious and being justly punished for it (although he does also admonish husbands not to punish their wives too viciously). But upon reading it more closely, it becomes painfully obvious that the “curiosity” he is condemning is not about going through your husband’s rooms. The line “For thou … A fleeting pleasure art, but lasting care, alas! too dear the prize, Which in the moment of possession, dies” doesn’t really seem to just be about curiosity. Indeed, the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim suggests that this story is about female infidelity and loss of virginity to someone other than her husband. The moral certainly seems to me to agree with this assessment, particularly when it brings in the husband’s “wicked jealousy” when describing how modern husbands shouldn’t be as brutal as the husband in this story.

The main aspect of the story that Bettelheim points to as support for his theory that it is about virginity and infidelity is the key, which gets blood on it that cannot be washed off. His analysis says that this represents the virgin blood, which, once spilled, cannot be unspilled. Add onto that the fact that Blue Beard is considered hideous to others in this story’s world, and the fact that he leaves his young and beautiful wife merely a month after their marriage, at which time she invites all of her neighbors and good friends to the empty house, and it’s not a stretch to see the opportunity presented to the young wife. The admonishment from her husband that she can go in all of the room, except one, echos the stricture to indulge in life’s pleasures, except that which breaks the vows of marriage.

The other story, “Fitcher’s Bird” comes from the Brothers Grimm and is very similar in structure, except that the husband is an evil sorcerer, and he uses the forbidden room as a test to find a trustworthy wife. Another telling difference is that he gives each girl he tests a key to the room and an egg, and he inspects both for blood. Upon testing two daughters of a local man, they fail and are dismembered, but the third daughter brilliantly leaves the egg somewhere else when she goes to search the forbidden room. She is able to reconnect her sisters’ body parts and bring them back to life, all while keeping her precious egg free of damning blood. Then, when the sorcerer is making preparations for their wedding, she is able to disguise herself until her brothers can come to rescue her.

Now, of course I like this version better because the woman, though ultimately rescued by a deus ex machina in the form of her brothers, manages to avoid death through her own ingenuity. But even more than that is the addition of elements that support the idea that this story of a bloody husband and bloody retribution against a wife who breaks her husband’s command is actually about a husband who overreacts to the revelation of a wife’s infidelity. First, in this story, the man leaves the girls alone in his house as a test before marrying them. Only upon finding a “trustworthy” girl does he think he’s found a suitable bride. It’s no secret that virginity is highly prized in a society that decides lineage through the male line, so it’s less of a stretch to consider this a virginity test. Add to that the fact that the damning bloody object is not a key, but an egg, which is a common symbol of female fertility, and Bettelheim’s analysis starts to make even more sense.

Taking this into account, it now makes a bit more sense why Perrault’s moral focused almost entirely on what the bride had done wrong rather than condemning the obvious brutality of Blue Beard himself.

Sources:

“Blue Beard” from The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault [link]

“Fitcher’s Bird” from The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales [link]

Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim [link]

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2 thoughts on “Tea and a Story: Caught Red “Handed”

    • Yeah, some of Bettelheim’s analyses seem a bit quick to bring sexuality into it, but when you actually read the original “moral” from the Perrault tale, coupled with the more heavy-handed imagery in the later Grimm story, it doesn’t really seem like a stretch!

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