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Gender Power Dynamics in Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg

The Bluebeard tale appeared for the first time in 1695 in the French writer Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé. This collection had a significant impact on the evolution of the fairy tale as it is known today and it is still considered a classic in European short fiction (Davies, 2001). The fairy tale has remained a core cultural text in Renaissance and Contemporary literature and it has been adapted into a wide range of retellings over time, including Bluebeard’s Egg. The retelling is part of Margaret Atwood’s short stories collection of the same title and it focuses on the gender power dynamics of Bluebeard and his wife, Sally (Still, 2002).

Bluebeard. Blackfurya. 2016.

The original story revolves around a bourgeois man called ‘Bluebeard’ because of the color of his beard. He desires to marry a beautiful young girl, who appears to fear him, and he manages to seduce her with his wealth. A month after the wedding, Bluebeard leaves the house and recommends that his wife visit the entire mansion. However, it is forbidden to enter a room whose key is in her possession. Although she tries to fulfill her promise, she cannot contain her curiosity and ends up opening the forbidden room, which is full of blood and corpses from Bluebeard’s prior wives. Faced with the grotesque spectacle, the woman lets the key fall to the ground, which gets soaked with the blood and — as it is magical — is not possible to clean it. Thus Bluebeard discovers the betrayal and threatens to kill his wife until her brothers arrive and murder him. Finally, she inherits his wealth and gets married to an honorable man (Davies, 2001).

What She Sees There. Winslow Homer. 1868.

Bluebeard has a wide range of intertextual connections with other myths and stories that date back from the Bible. The curiosity of Bluebeard’s wife is closely linked to Eve and even with Pandora. In the first place, Eve may remind of Bluebeard’s wife because both are punished for breaking his rules, and even Bluebeard himself could embody a jealous divinity. Secondly, Bluebeard’s wife resembles Pandora because both venture into a new realm by opening a secret room and a forbidden box. These traditional literary echoes are profoundly embedded in the story and are evidence of the rich and complex roots of Bluebeard’s story (Grace, 1984).

Pandora. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1871.

In Bluebeard’s Egg, the author explores the tensions inherent in the conflict of the sexes. The narration follows a day in the life of Sally as she comes to terms with the fact that her husband is not the perfect person he appears to be. Atwood follows a narrative line that focuses on the psychological processes of the main character. Therefore, the inner tension inside Sally is relevant and not her behavior. Atwood addresses the topic of female curiosity, which has always been a source of punishment for women. In this particular instance, Sally’s curiosity is the driving force of the story and leads her to suspect that her husband hides a dark and ambiguous nature. In addition, Atwood manages to get the readers to participate and have an active role in the narration since they also have taken part in the plan to unmask the husband. The reader has to decode the enigma of the story by engaging in the intimate relationship between Sally and Ed seamlessly and by taking in Sally’s testimony. In a way, the reader’s self-awareness about their role in the story increases as the plot unfolds since they have to discern the truth from Sally’s lack of accuracy (Sturgess, 1997).

Sally is a modern heroine since her reality is not straightforward but ambivalent. The traditional patriarchal conventions range from the sexist jokes of her boss at the office to her need of assuring her position as the real wife above the previous ones and the other women that pursue her husband. Atwood presents a relatable heroine that must face harmless social conventions and gender power structures that make her insecure and prevent her from discovering the true self of her husband (Merli, 2007). Sally is immensely curious about her husband and, therefore, she is constantly thinking of him. Nevertheless, the subjectivity of her thoughts challenges their accuracy. The reader indirectly acknowledges Ed, her husband, because they are never first-hand witnesses (Hermansson, 1998).

The key was the plot catalyst in the original version. In Bluebeard’s Egg, the egg plays the same function. This element is a symbol that appears constantly in Sally’s dreams. The egg is a living being since it can hatch in the same way that Ed could show his true self unexpectedly. There is a parallelism between the Ed and the egg: the first one represents the patriarchal values that keep Sally at home with no identity; the second one is a symbol of female biology that makes women servants and erases their identity (Keating, 2013). Sally remains repressed because of cultural standards and, therefore, she is not willing to reveal her true nature and explore her reality. Her silence highlights her faults and weaknesses and is a product of her patriarchal inferiority complex and traditional views on romantic love (Smith, 1994).

Original illustration for Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg. Heather Cooper. 1983.

In the end, she subverts the social standards and frees herself along with the egg. Sally exceeds the initial expectations of her cowardly nature and decides to enter the room to discover the truth that lies behind reality (Keating, 2013). In the last paragraphs, Sally first notices the clues that indicate who her husband is. He starts devoiding other female characters of their identity since he does not acknowledge their names. Paradoxically, while Bluebeard’s wives were murdered, in Atwood’s version they are alive but with no voice of their own. Therefore, women remain passive and devoid of will in both stories. Atwood’s comment on patriarchal repressive mechanisms is implicit. In fact, Sally is the main victim of her husband in terms of submission. She is the embodiment of an apparent stereotypical submissive female character since she has lacked self-assertiveness from the beginning. All her inner thoughts revolved around her husband. Therefore, her desire to discover the true self of her husband — which is Atwood’s analogy of the secret room — is her key to freedom. She is on the verge of opening the symbolic secret room and freeing herself from the social and gender power structures (Merli, 2007).

In conclusion, Bluebeard’s Egg explores the gender power dynamics of modern society and how women are devoid of voice and action. Therefore, they can only turn to their thoughts to challenge patriarchal society passively. In the original tale, opening the room is condemned as any other female action independent of a male counterpart. Paradoxically, Atwood’s heroine also knows that her actions will be punished but can subvert gender expectations through her thoughts to unmask who is the real self of her husband.

Bibliographical references

Atwood, M. (1983). Bluebeard’s Egg. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. Carol, M. (2007). Hatching the posthuman: Margaret Atwood’s ’Bluebeard’s egg’. Journal of the Short Story in English, 48, 81-94. Grace, S. (1984). Courting Bluebeard with Bartók, Atwood, and Fowles: Modern Treatment of the Bluebeard Theme. Journal of Modern Literature, 11(2), 245–262. Hermansson, C.E. (1998). Feminist intertextuality and the Bluebeard story. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Perrault, C. (1697). Histoires, ou Contes du temps passé, avec des moralités. chez C. Barbin (À Paris). Smith, B.L. (1994). The Sleeping Beauty subtext in Rosario Ferre’s “La bella durmiente” and Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg”. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Still, J. (2002). Bluebeards and Bodies: Margaret Atwood’s Men. Ilha Do Desterro, 165–180. Sturgess, C. (1997). Manipulating Clichés: Margaret Atwood’s Romance Narrative “Bluebeard’s Egg”. Presses universitaires François-Rabelais. Keating, C. (2013). Freeing the Feminine Identity: The Egg as Transformative Image in the Magical Realism of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. Making Connections (Slippery Rock, Pa.), 14(2), 19–20.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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