Bloody Fairy Tales: Bluebeard

When I mention fairy tales, most people’s eyes glaze over, and I imagine they are thinking ‘Disney Princess’ and Happily Ever After.  Perhaps if people knew Bluebeard they would not jump to the fairy tale = Disney conclusion.

Disney will never be able to Disneyfy Bluebeard.

The most well-known version was written by Charles Perrault in 1697 but it has roots in older tales including that of Pandora and Eve.

In summary, two sisters are being wooed by Bluebeard, but they are not interested. The actual blue beard and all. Not appealing. But Bluebeard invites them to a party and it’s like Gatsby’s house. Champagne flowing, live band, caviar. The younger sister thinks, well maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad, this wealth, and Bluebeard is polite and charming.

They marry, and soon after, Bluebeard must leave town on business.  He gives his wife the run of the house and tells her to invite her friends over. He gives her a key. He says have fun, run amok, but don’t ever, ever use this key.

Now, for some, the moral point of this tale is to warn against the sin of disobedience. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim said the tale warned women to not give in to their sexual curiosity and men not to be carried away by the anger of being betrayed.

I say, victim-blaming.

I say entrapment! It is like saying, here is a pretty dress, don’t wear it, here is a chocolate cake, don’t eat it. Here is a bejewelled box, don’t open it. Don’t eat that apple.

Of course, Bluebeard wanted her to use the key!

Angela Carter hints early in her retelling with some of my favourite lines from The Bloody Chamber

“My husband, who, with so much love, filled my bedroom with lilies until it looked like an embalming parlour”

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber

What happens next? The wife’s friends come over to play. The wife uses the key and finds all of Bluebeard’s former wives’ corpses and lots of blood.  

Disney can’t turn that into a PG rating.

With some devious intuition, Bluebeard returns, (as if he was waiting around the corner for her to use that key!).

He must punish her curious nature with death.

In Perrault’s version, the wife is a blubbering mess, calling to her sister in the tower, for her brothers. And then her brothers turn up and kill Bluebeard.

Ok, I want to vomit, saved by the boys who weren’t even part of the story until now. But, hold on let’s take a Jungian view of Bluebeard.  There are predators within our psyche and fairy tales are like dreams, not to be taken literally. In Jungian language, the prince and princess coming together is the union of the masculine and feminine in our souls. The wife is naive but curious. Opening the door and seeing the truth, facing it, activates her masculine energies, represented in the tale by her brothers. I can live with that.

(Spoiler in this paragraph) I do like Angela Carter’s ending, the girl’s mother in widow’s weeds gallops up and shoots Bluebeard with her dead husband’s revolver. She came because her daughter’s phone call did not seem right, ‘no one cries over gold taps.’

There is a school of thought that says Bluebeard’s tale is a warning against curiosity, hence the association with both Pandora and Eve.  But think this interpretation is narrow. Wasn’t Madame Curie curious? Florence Nightingale? I think the point of the tale is TO BE curious. You grow as a person if you are curious. And more literally, you can save yourself if you discover the worst that can happen.

Bluebeard is a frightening man because he is familiar. He is a narcissist who charms women and when they are in his net, he uses power and control to keep his wife in her place, and if she thinks she can escape, he will kill her. This is the tragedy we see on our news.

Perhaps if the Bluebeard story were more well-known we would not be fooled by charm and caviar and gold taps.

Did you notice the opposite in this story? It starts with marriage instead of ending with one.  What I learned was Jane Eyre and Rebecca are attempts at romanticising Bluebeard.  It is a long time since I read Rebecca, so this is my next book.  I will let you know what I think.

Update: Here is what I think of Rebecca! Misrepresented as a romance.

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