I never encountered the story of Bluebeard growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.
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 French title of Perrault’s retelling is La Barbe bleue.
DEATH BY ENGULFMENT STORIES
Disturbing as it is, the Bluebeard story has an influence on many modern tales, so is worth a read for that reason. Cruel as it is towards women, I argue that is a story for women.
Case in point, the covers of these pulp romances. Each features a woman escaping from a big, terrifying house (and presumably a monster of a man within). I believe Bluebeard is popular in the same way Dirty John popular — tales in which the young woman escapes unharmed from monstrous men reassure us that we, too, will be okay. (Even if statistics say otherwise.)
Marina Warner has written that Bluebeard is a story about a woman’s fear of death via childbirth.
The cannibal is a subject in a gendered plot in which cunning and high spirits win the day, and the boy’s own variety has eclipsed the girl’s in such stories’ transmission since the seventeenth century. Tales of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ cycle menace their heroines with death by engulfment, and this obliteration, where a woman’s body is in question, often means sex or childbirth.
— No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner
This suggests that Bluebeard stories were told for women, by women — with childbirth being a peculiarly female fear. There are other tales which threaten death to female characters (and readers) with ‘death by engulfment’. Warner includes the Beauty and the Beast tales in this category.
When it comes to death by engulfment stories, we can go back further in the history of storytelling, to the tale of Psyche. Psyche’s sisters explicitly warn that her mysterious bridegroom is probably a monster who wants to eat her, especially if she becomes pregnant, as such tender meat delights beasts.
These feminine ‘death by engulfment tales’ contrast with the male analogue, in which a male character sets out to defeat an ogre and always wins by fighting his own battle against it. The ogre’s appetite exists to test the hero’s mettle — strength and cunning. These are about social betterment, not of psychosexual anxieties. Sex and marriage has always been more risky — and therefore more scary — for women.
Pixar’s film Brave is a modern, bowdlerised version of the ‘death by engulfment’ story. In that story, Merida is afraid of becoming her mother. She is afraid of being consumed by her mother, too, should the mother turn fully into a bear. This is a different take on the fear of childbirth story and is better tailored to a cohort of girls who will have some (though not full) autonomy over their own reproduction.
STORY STRUCTURE OF BLUEBEARD
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.
Why is Bluebeard’s beard blue? I posit it’s for the same reason the Wicked Witch of the West was green in the Wizard of Oz film. (This has since caught on.) Blue and green are unnatural human colours, signalling illness and bruises, if anything. These colours signify monsters rather than humans. No one can reason with monsters. One can only try to escape.
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.
The young woman desires to get married. Let’s face it, in those days she had no choice.
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.
She plans to disobey his order not to unlock a certain door while he is away.
The showdown between Bluebeard and the brave brothers, who come to save her with their naked blades.
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.
In another very popular AMC TV show we have a plot line 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.
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.
“The Castle Of Murder” is a Bluebeard story from the first collection of Grimm tales. This one has a happy ending which gives the girl more agency than Perrault’s — an old granny in the basement has the job of scraping intestines of the women this psychopath has killed. (For what purpose? No matter. Let’s gloss over that.)
The granny helps the girl escape into a hay cart, which makes me wonder why she didn’t offer the same services all the other maidens who’d been brought to the house. In the end the psycho is brought to justice by the authorities and the escapee inherits his entire castle and marries into the neighbouring family who received her the night she escaped.
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 Anton 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
- The Sixth Sense
- Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
- Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
- Sisters by Raina Telgemeir
Header illustration is by Trina Schart Hyman