I never encountered the story of Bluebeard growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.

illustration by Beauge Bertall

With horrific images like this, I’m not surprised. (illustration by Beauge Bertall)

As a mental mouthwash, I suggest you read Angela Carter’s feminist version of Bluebeard after reading this much earlier one by the misogynist Perrault. Carter’s story is called The Bloody Chamber.

The original French title is La Barbe bleue.

Disturbing as it is, the Bluebeard story has an influence on many modern stories, so is worth a read for that reason.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BLUEBEARD

WEAKNESS

The woman of the story “his wife” finds the Bluebearded man next door creepy. Not only does he have a blue beard but his wives have kept disappearing without a trace. Her weakness, according to this story, is that after he goes out of his way to groom her by throwing lavish parties, she erroneously decides he’s not that bad after all.

I’d like to point out the contradictory messages contained for young women in Perrault’s stories. In Little Red Riding Hood girls are told not to trust their instincts with strangers, as bad men come in all shapes and sizes.

DESIRE

The young woman desires to get married. Let’s face it, in those days she had no choice.

OPPONENT

Bluebeard, the serial killer who gets some sort of sick thrill out of grooming new wives then using ‘reverse psychology’ as a reason to murder them.

PLAN

She plans to disobey his order not to unlock a certain door while he is away.

BATTLE

The showdown between Bluebeard and the brave brothers, who come to save her with their naked blades.

SELF-REVELATION

She has had a lucky escape. If not for her brothers — a dragoon and a musketeer — she would have been killed. She realises that some men are nasty but can see that others are nice.

By way of the moralistic afterword, young women are warned against being curious. In fact, other versions of this story have added subtitles such as “The Effects of Female Curiosity” or “The Fatal Effects of Female Curiosity”. I wonder if mine is a purely modern interpretation, or if young women of the 1600s read it as Charles Perrault tried hard to enforce — that wives must not pry into the business of their husbands or else they will find out things they don’t want to know.

There’s a bit of Bluebeard storyline that goes down even in the modern story for adults, Mad Men. In season three, Betty Draper finds the key to Don’s office drawer and finds evidence of a secret past life. This leads to the downfall of her current marriage and to a subsequent marriage to the nice(?) man.

"Open this drawer or I will."

“Open this drawer or I will.”

In another very popular AMC TV show we have a plotline which involves a wife’s downfall after she finds out the terrible things her husband is up to. Yes, I’m thinking of Walter White from Breaking Bad. What if writers had kept Skyler completely ignorant of Walt’s doings? One possible reading of that show, particularly in the earlier seasons, is that the less you pry into your husband’s business the happier (and less culpable) you’ll be.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

She is now rich, having inherited Bluebeard’s castle. (He has no children — otherwise the castle would have gone to his sons.) She uses some of her inheritance to marry off her sister, Anne, and then remarries, this time to a nice man, like her brothers.

Trina Schart Hyman Bluebeard

THE TERRIFYING HOUSE OF BLUEBEARD

When the terrifying house is a grand Gothic hulk, an aristocratic family often inhabits it. The inhabitants have lived off the work of others, who typically dwell in the valley below, simply because of their birth. The house is either too empty for its size, which implies that there is no life in the structure, or it is stuffed with expensive but out-of-date furnishings that oppress by their sheer numbers. In these stories, the house feeds on its parasitic inhabitants just as they feed on others. Eventually, the family falls and, when the story is taken to the extreme, the house burns, devours them, or collapses on them.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

Examples Of Stories With Terrifying Big Houses

  • Rebecca (itself inspired by Bluebeard
  • Jane Eyre
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Stories by Chekhov
  • In Cold Blood
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (in a way — we expect the rich to be horrible but McEwan subverts our expectations)
  • Twilight series
  • Rats In The Walls by H.P. Lovecraft

In more modern stories, the terrifying house is a prison because it is not big and diverse. It is small and cramped, with thin walls or no walls at all. The family is jammed in, so there is no community, no separate, cozy corners where each person has the space to become who he uniquely should be. In these houses, the family, as the basic unit of drama, is the unit of never-ending conflict. The house is terrifying because it is a pressure cooker, and with no escape for its members, the pressure cooker explodes.

— John Truby

  • Death Of A Salesman
  • Mad Men
  • American Beauty
  • Carrie
  • Psycho
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • Sisters by Raina Telgemeir

 

FUTHER READING

Symbolism in Bluebeard from Sur La Lune

Bluebeard and Mad Men