Beauty and the Beast is a strongly mythic tale: A girl goes on a journey and ultimately finds her true self.
“The Beauty and the Beast” is a tale featuring multiple levels of misogyny and much has already been said about that. For example, Was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Re-Tooled Because Belle Wasn’t Enough Of A Feminist? Angela Carter has rewritten the tale in a way that feminists may find cathartic. One of Carter’s revisionings is called “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and can be found in Carter’s collection of feminist fairytales retold: The Bloody Chamber.
WHO FIRST WROTE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST?
In a picture book version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition. It was written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740 in La Jeune Américaine et les contes marins (The Young American and Marine Tales).
The story was then bowdlerised (rewritten for children) in 1756 by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name. It almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
BEAUTY AND PSYCHE
Anne Carter explains in the afterword of the Carter/Schroder version that “Beauty and the Beast” is similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called “The Golden Ass”. This myth dates from the second century C.E. Both stories feature:
- the palace
- nasty sisters
- the return home
The main differences:
- In the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
- Psyche’s journey is towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.
The main differences between the original literary tale and many modern retellings is that the original author:
- Wrote the tale for adults, not children
- Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.
Perhaps surprising to a modern audience, Villeneuve’s novel doesn’t force the character of Beauty into anything. When we think of women in antiquity, we tend to think of them owned by men as chattels, and this is certainly true in some eras and some parts of the world, but the original “Beauty and the Beast” reflects the 1700s emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. The story is suggesting to its audience that even women might be afforded this right. Subsequent retellings lost this early feminist message. 1800s and 1900s retellings took Beauty’s agency away from her.
The ideas of Sigmund Freud had an impact on how “Beauty and the Beast” was retold. These are the retellings which go into themes of self-awareness and psychological development, in line with what Freud had to say about adolescent development.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”
(the Carter/Schroder version)
With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.
It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.
Beauty wants to stay with her father and be his loyal companion.
Beauty’s opponents are her older sisters.
Below, we see how psychologically separate the sisters are from the heroine. There are not one but two frames (doorways) between them; the sisters are from another world entirely.
The Beast appears to be an opponent but we find out he is a false-enemy ally. (Or he’s meant to be. I code him as a coercively controlling menace.)
When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.
It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.
The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of “The Little Match Girl“, in which the eponymous main character dies from hypothermia (I guess) and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.
The Battle is a Christian-like test. The Beast (in god-like fashion) is testing Beauty when he allows her to go home to visit her natal family. Will she come back or not?
It is the Beast who goes to the edge of death rather than the beautiful and noble Beauty.
As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.
Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.
Why is this fairy tale so resonant? No one seems to know why. It may have appealed to a middle class wish fulfilment fantasy in which a middle-class girl can become a member of the aristocracy, elevating her entire family. (We just need to teach her to settle for someone she’s not personally attracted to, I guess.)
Today you can find this story adapted as plays, operas, film, picture books and in works of fine art. Disney adapted the tale for film in 1991. Contemporary re-visionings tend to be more feminist. Sometimes the genre of science fiction is chosen to tell a more feminist Beauty and the Beast tale e.g. “Beauty” by Tanith Lee (1983). This is an intersectionally feminist tale which also challenges homophobia and racism.
Angela Carter wrote a famous feminist re-visioning of The Beauty and the Beast in “The Tiger’s Bride” (1979). A man loses his daughter and everything else he owns in a card game. The beautiful daughter is also the narrator. She is taken to the Beast’s run-down palazzo in Northern Italy where it is, symbolically, winter. Horses live in the ruined dining room and the Beast sleeps in the den. In this story, it’s not the beast who undergoes a transformation but the virgin daughter. She takes off her clothes and even her skin and turns into a tiger.
Some modern revisionings convey the message that fear comes from resisting knowledge and difference. This is a tale which is especially prone to reinterpretation, according to the politics of the day.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Exogamy is the word we use to describe the practice of marrying daughters out. This still happens in some cultures today. Daughters are expected to adapt to a completely new family, and sometimes these new families speak an entirely different language.
My own revisioning of Beauty and the Beast is called Winter Rose.
Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […]A Theory That Will Change How You See Beauty And The Beast
Honest Movie Trailer for the Emma Watson adaptation
Beauty and the Beast taught me that I can be just an awful shitmongrel and still expect a beautiful woman to find and save me if I accidentally start doing the least. Am I doing this rightStudio Glibly
Stockholm syndrome is often mentioned in relation to Beauty of Beauty and the Beast, but Pop Culture Detective makes an argument in favour of avoiding that term, because it heaps undue blame on the female victim, assuming she has been brainwashed. In fact, these characters show great resilience in the face of extreme abuse.