The story of the Blue Beard written by Charles Perrault in 1695, then edited and published in 1697, inspired many other versions throughout the world. The figure of this blue-bearded man became a major one in popular literature, arts and culture.
The plot focuses on the adventure of a woman who marries an ugly rich man. He ends up leaving the marital home for business purposes, forbidding his new bride to access a room of which he gave her the key. But she succumbs to the temptation, and discovers the bodies of her husband’s previous wives, lying in a pool of their blood. She struggles to remove a bloodstain from the key before the Blue Beard’s return. But the stain keeps coming back. As a result, he discovers her betrayal and condemns her to the same fate as his other wives. However, she escapes from his clutches, thanks to her sister and her brothers, who end up killing the Blue Beard with their swords.
This story has a didactic purpose among others. Charles Perrault himself draws two morals out of it: one of which denounces the consequences of a vain curiosity, another that sarcastically criticises the lack of authority from husbands toward their wives. The original version designates the latter as an ‘Other moral’, which makes us believe that there could be a non-finite number of possible interpretations for this tale. Traditionally, in Perrault’s time, these texts were meant to be read in the evening to adults and children, people of the court, literate people, and young girls, who were then introduced to the knowledge of the outer world. The question that arises, from a woman’s perspective, is how did this text inscribe itself in popular culture and what vision of women could it perpetuate?
To answer this question, it is necessary to set a context. According to a more recent analysis by the anthropologist and researcher Pierre-Emmanuel Moog, the tale of the Blue Beard would not be a fairy tale but rather a tragic story. In the 17th century’s France, it was considered a popular literary genre, which drew its inspiration from bloody events that could tragically happen in everyday life.
Going deeper into the analysis of the linguistics features of the original French text, the movements in space of the Blue Beard – who heads to the ‘country’ or the ‘province’ – makes us think that the story happens in a capital, at the heart of a peripheral neighbourhood from which it is possible to see a ‘flock of sheep’ (Perrault,1697), and where the family and friends of the female protagonist see the Blue Beard departs (since they ‘did not wait to be sent for by the newly married lady’ (Perrault,1697) to arrive at her place). It is important to remember that the female protagonist's family and the Blue Beard were neighbours. Unlike what we could imagine from a fairy tale and at first reading, the story happens in Perrault’s time, in a very specific spatiotemporal context.
Additionally, the main characters are not overdetermined. A fairy tale normally assigns each character a specific role in the narrative, often supported by the social position he or she incurs: a king, a queen, a miller, a magician. Here, the Blue Beard is only depicted as a man who manages his own affairs. This argument confirms the fact that the Blue Beard is not a fairy tale. He seems to be a businessman, living in the city, in a building described with the components of what could be a town house – filled with pieces of furniture of the time (‘tapestries, beds, couches, cabinets, stands, tables, and looking glasses’ [Perrault,1697]) – just like a nouveau riche from a Parisian province by the late 17th century.
Another aspect worth mentioning is Perrault's opinion on women’s place within society. He held a rather progressive point of view for his time. His viewpoint was entirely different from that of writer Boileau who, in his Satire X, Women (1693), referred to women as full of vices (being flirtatious, playful, unfaithful). According to Boileau, a marriage can only fail. As a response to Satire X, Women, Perrault writes in his Advocacy for women (1694) that it is also possible for women to participate in the success of a marriage. He also mentioned that they should build their own social and intellectual life. They should therefore participate in social salons, read, write, without falling into excesses (like gambling, coquetry, exaggerated expenses).
The figure of the Pater familias nevertheless, remains deeply rooted in Perrault’s vision of marriage: the husband holds the legitimate authority of the household. He must protect his wife and show gallantry, a new concept at the time in France. People started thinking that they needed to pay attention to the person they were living with, and to show them regular interest. Wives, on the other hand, manage the servants and must show loyalty to their husband.
Upon inspecting the text from the perspective of Perrault’s first moral, the conclusion reached is that vain curiosity should be condemned. Our unconscious – lulled by the motives of the bad curiosity of women in Western history with stories like Pandora’s, or Eve’s – inclines us to lean toward the idea that he condemns female curiosity only, especially since the protagonist is a woman. Would this be the lesson young girls should remember: not to show too much curiosity?
Perhaps it was this act driven by curiosity that saved her. From a psychological point of view, by choosing to use the key, she refuses to dive even deeper into ignorance. She reconnects with her intuition to discover a whole new truth: she encounters the murderous part of her own psyche, the predator hidden behind the door and unravels the secret of her husband.
Elisabeth Lemirre, French writer specialised in literature for children and fairy tales, sees in the secret room a representation of the woman’s body, of which the husband stands as the only key keeper. (LEMIRRE, 2021). Women put their sexual initiation in the hands of their only husband. The psychological initiation proposed here could then follow a different path: to encourage women to listen to their intuition, to free themselves from naivety to develop their knowledge about their inner and outer predators, to eventually make them stronger.
This is one of the interpretations given by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Jungian psychoanalyst, writer and poet. Transgression allows progression. It is an act of courage, necessary if one wishes to become a human being aware of his choices and actions. By disobeying and transgressing the forbidden, she frees herself from the authority of her husband. (PINKOLA ESTES, 1992, p. 43-74)
Everything suggests that the Blue Beard embodies domestic violence. His profile is the one of a serial killer. Several personalities and other stories from oral tradition could have inspired the story of the Blue Beard. Henry VIII is one of them. The English king had two of the six women he married executed. He was endowed with the punitive right and felt like he had the legitimacy to execute his wife if she cheated on him or disappointed him. Gilles de Ray, a child sex criminal and killer, baron of the 15th century, bloodthirsty warrior of the 100-year war, who fought alongside Joan of Arc, could also have inspired Charles Perrault. He justified his crimes at a trial by saying that he drew his influences from ancient Greek literature: Tiberius, Caligula and other Caesars who allegedly told in books how they played with children. As a result, he got nicknamed the Blue Beard within the lands of Brittany in France, but more out of the influence of two writers of the 19th century, who helped shape the legend: Prosper Mérimée and Stendhal.
It is likely that the story of the Blue Beard drew its sources from two stories issued from the French oral tradition: the song of La Maumarié or La Mal mariée, relating the story of a woman who was beaten up; and an oral tale that circulated during the Middle Ages telling the adventures of a white horse who killed his wives. The last of these women discovers the dismembered bodies of sisters in a room of which access is forbidden.
The Blue Beard is a criminal and a murderer that ought to be taken red-handed and is the main actor of villainy. Not his wife. Bettelhein in his Uses of Enchantment sees the Blue Beard’s acts as a sign of oppression and the willingness to kill his wives as a deep act of jealousy. The symbolism behind the key entering the lock of the door of the forbidden room would convey the meaning that the female protagonist cheated on her husband while he was away. Having deceived him, he would therefore be entitled to kill her according to the laws of the time.
However, Perrault’s vision is somewhat more neutral in some aspects: the question of genders remains blurred throughout the text. The French text qualifies the Blue Beard using the feminine article "la": ‘La Barbe Bleue’. Additionally, the wife is unnamed and she is not described neither in her physical appearances, nor in her moral traits (intellectual or ethical). The only time she is mentioned, she is undissociated from her sister: ‘two daughters who were perfect beauties’. (Perrault,1697)
He also seems to advocate a balanced way of life for both spouses. The question of the responsibility of the disobedience of the female protagonist arises. Was she the only one involved in this transgression? The ban issued by the Blue Beard looks more like a test of trust than a real injunction. If he didn’t want her to see what was in the ‘cabinet’, he shouldn’t have given her the key. He gives her several alternatives to resist the temptation: ‘He desired her to divert herself in his absence, to send for her friends and acquaintances, to take them into the country, if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.’ (Perrault,1697) She could also have refused the key or asked him to hide it for her. But she did not. The transgression was, somehow, inevitable and both parties were responsible for it. Thus, the course of events was more driven by the idea of testing each other’s desire to make their marriage work. Unlike the other wives, the female protagonist seems to keep her composure, even after her unfortunate discovery. She resists the stratagem put into place by her husband and may be the first one to get the lesson behind it. The doubt remains on that. At the end of the story, she marries another man, just as rich, and as worthy as the Blue Beard (described as a ‘mighty civil gentleman’ (Perrault,1697) after she forgets about his beard).
These constant ambiguities make it difficult to identify oneself to one of the characters and increase the number of possible interpretations. This is one of the reasons why Perrault, through his story, inspired many adaptations in various artistic fields: operas, plays, movies, novels, etc., raising thoughts on still contemporary issues. In Perrault’s time, his approach could have been perceived as rather feminist and daring. The impact it had on the popular unconscious may have taught many young girls that transgression was sometimes for the best, for them, for their husband – regarding their martial trust – and for developing a sense of freedom within a society of codes. The rather bleak aspect of the story would then incline us to better follow our instinct, rather than acting out of moral only. What could appear as a vice could actually be life-saving and at the foundation of new social constructs.
BETTELHEIM, Bruno, The uses of enchantment, 1976.
CHAULIN, Charlotte, Barbe Bleue : Gilles de Ray, serial killer avant l’heure, Geo magazine, 2021.
LANG, Andrew, The Blue Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, ca. 1889), pp. 290-295. Full English version: https://sites.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault03.html
PINKOLA ESTES, Clarissa, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, 1992.
MOOG, Pierre-Emmanuel, Le bleu de la barbe. Les ressorts du conte dramatique de Perrault, B.N.F (French National Library), lectures of 2021 and 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCwnVzQ_HrM, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mrwEjGrS24.
MOURGUES Elsa, LEMIRRE Élisabeth, Art et création. Barbe Bleue : le féminicide dans la culture populaire, France Culture, 2021. https://www.franceculture.fr/litterature/barbe-bleue-le-feminicide-dans-la-culture-populaire
PERRAULT, Charles, Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités : Contes de ma mère l’Oye – La Barbe Bleue, 1697.
Figure 1: La barbe bleue (1862), wood engraving by Gustave Doré, retrieved from the French National Library, http://expositions.bnf.fr/orsay-gustavedore/grand/dor_245.htm
Figure 2: Paris wie solche Ao. 1620 im wessen gestanden (1655), coloured engraving by Caspar Merian, retrieved from https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Caspar_Merian,_Paris_wie_solche_Ao._1620_im_wessen_gestanden,_1655_-_David_Rumsey.jpg#file
Figure 3: Blue Beard Tableau: Fatima Enters the Forbidden Court; What She Sees There; Disposition of the Bodies (1868), wood engraving by Winslow Homer, in the Harper's Bazar, Vol. I, retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue_Beard_Tableau-_Fatima_Enters_the_Forbidden_Court;_What_She_Sees_There;_Disposition_of_the_Bodies_(Invisible_to_the_Spectators)_(Harper%27s_Bazar,_Vol._I)_MET_DP875299.jpg