The metamorphosis of Bluebeard

Throughout time and across cultures, fairy tales have been de-historicized and deemed implausible through means of censorship by the elite. Though the plot of these tales remain very much the same, characters and themes have often been distorted to prevent the human imagination from comparing tales to socio-historical conditions. The morals of the story have been emphasized in order to influence conformity in societies worldwide. Since fairy tales had long been associated with the supernatural and make believe and publication of these tales had been controlled by the upper-class, the original material basis of the tales became obfuscated, and it appears that their contents and meaning were derived from bizarre occurrences and irrational minds and not from actual social and political conditions, (Zipes).

Since its first publication in 1697, Bluebeard has crossed time and lands, as tales stemming from the original have appeared throughout the world. Some suggest the figure of the protagonist, Bluebeard, is a portrayal of French politician and occult murderer, Gilles de Rais of the fifteenth century (Gravier). The nineteenth century versions of the tale are often further disguised as impractical fantasy through the use of excessive magic and beasts, masking the reflective interpretation one might find between tale and political movements of their time. As Jack Zipes said, the politics in the folk and fairy tales is integrally tied to the once upon a time and in here and now, (Zipes). Twentieth century writers have broken the magic spell with radical interpretations of the classic fairy tales. In comparing various cultures versions of Bluebeard in connection to the society itself at the time of publication, it is apparent that political power has had significant influence over the evolution of the story.

La Barbe Ble'e

Charles Perrault's La Barbe Ble'e was the first known literary version of Bluebeard. As the story goes, Bluebeard was a wealthy man with a blue beard, making him despicable to the ladies. To add to his trouble was his mysteriously vanishing wives. Desiring the young woman next door, he gave a week long party, and the youngest daughter decided the gentleman wouldn't be so bad to marry. A month into the marriage, Bluebeard left on business. Before he left, he gave his bride a set of keys; telling her to use his property as her own, except for a small closet which he forbid her to enter, and forbid in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment, (Perrault).

Upon his leave, friends and family visited, running throughout the house to observe all its finest d'cor. Intrigued by the forbidden closet, the young wife snuck off to take a look. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women? (Perrault). Horrified, the girl dropped the key into the blood. Later, she found that the key was magical; all the scrubbing in the world would not remove the specks of blood.

Bluebeard returned home the same night and after finding the blood on the key, declared the fate of his newest bride. You went into the closet, did you not Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there, (Perrault). After much pleading, the wife was granted fifteen minutes to prepare for her death. She called to her sister, Anne, who was visiting, and asked if her brothers had come (as they were supposed to have arrived that day). Time ran out and the bellowing of Bluebeard brought his wife to him quickly. At the last moment, her brothers appeared. Bluebeard tried to run, but the brothers were quick to kill him. The young widow inherited her murderous husband's estate, used the money to help her siblings, then married a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Blue Beard, (Perrault).

Perrault's classic tale shows the disposition of curiosity and the regret of its findings. Curiosity is all part of human nature, but quite often, pursuing the curious leads to severe consequences in doing so. Had the young wife not peaked in the closet, she could have lived a happy life with her blue-bearded husband. However, impulse lead her to the findings of his wrongdoings, therefore, either the murderer or the curious must die. Ultimately, vengeance was paid through the death of the evil husband. As the moral goes, curiosity has its consequences and those who do harm will be punished. The story illustrates human impulse as our demise.

It is imperative to note that La Barbe ble'e had been written by a wealthy, politically active, bourgeois, Charles Perrault, (Charles Perrault). Perrault's close association with royalty in France gave him a bias when writing his own version of the oral tale, Bluebeard. Though Perrault's tales have their origins in traditional folklore, the writer changed many aspects of the original stories in order to fit the audience he was aiming at: the aristocracy, (Jean). The strong moral suggestions in the story have been influenced by ideals set about by the upper-class of its time.

In the very late seventeenth century, France was bustling with the age of Enlightenment, and the beginnings of expansionism in other lands, (France). This was a very influential time for the country. In comparing tale to history, one could predict the enormous effects curiosity would cause through the colonization of other lands and the age of learning. Human impulse would make significant changes throughout the country; through the gaining of knowledge, the threat of revolution, and the devastation of wars to come.

Rather than focusing on the present, it is thought that Perrault had a historical figure in mind during his recreation of the blue-bearded husband. Bluebeard's similarity to Gilles de Rais demonstrates the possibility of historical significance in fairytales and further shows how the folk tale can be played down to a magical impossibility in order to prevent imaginatively radical ideas from reaching the minds of lower class civilians.

Gilles de Rais, a Breton Knight and political figure of the 1400's, expanded his fortune by marriages to wealthy women. Commander of the royal army, he fought in the Hundred Years War. Depleting his fortunes, he turned to occult experiments, and sacrificed 150 boys and girls in satanic rituals, (Riding). Similar to Bluebeard, Gilles de Rais was a man of power and fortune, who married women for convenience, and murdered innocent youth for his own trivial satisfaction (Gravier). Often in history, we see that the infamous become villains of supernatural tales, while heroes endure time, living on through records of the past.

The importance of the recognition of Bluebeard as a politician from the fifteenth century is not in Gilles himself, but rather, how history is formed into tales, then diluted through time and power to elude sociological and historical importance. Folk and fairy tales are themselves stamped by their own socio-historical context and could, despite contradictions, serve to disenchant the tales when used to clarify the underlying forces which constitute their own epistemological telos, (Zipes). By reading into social and historical movements at the time these various versions of Bluebeard were produced, one can further understand the implication these tales have on the cultures at hand.

Fitcher's Bird

Over a century later, Bluebeard appeared again in a German fairytale of Brothers Grimm, Fitcher's Bird of 1812. Grimm's version showed Bluebeard as a sorcerer, who changed into an old man in order to lure a young girl to his home. Upon leaving for a trip, Bluebeard gave the young lady an egg, told her to carry it with her everywhere, and a key, warning her: at the risk of your life, do not go into the room that it opens. The curious girl opened the room and found a basin full of dismembered people. In this version, she dropped the egg, which was magical, and was unable to remove the blood.

Bluebeard came home and killed her, and the story was repeated with the kidnapping of the slain woman's sister. The third daughter, who was also captured and taken to Bluebeard's home, was a bit more intelligent than the others. The Grimm's add the impossibility of magic to the story through the awakening of the dead sisters. Fortunately, the last sister had not dropped the egg in blood and Bluebeard believed her to be virtuous. He then asked for her hand in marriage. The clever girl put her two sisters in a basket, covered them in gold, and told Bluebeard that he must take the basket to her parents. Upon his return, the young girl, dressed as a bird, greeted visitors and her husband, telling them the wife had been busy cleaning inside. They went along to his house and the girl, locking them inside, burned it to the ground (Grimm).

The Brothers Grimm did a wonderful job fantasizing the tale with transformations and resurrections. While the theme of curiosity remains, the story shown is even more improbable than that of Perrault's, and the morals of the story come off much stronger. The Brothers Grimm made the first attempt along these lines in the early nineteenth century, and even here, they edited and stylized the tales to improve their quality and they often added Christian motifs and themes (Zipes).

The Brothers Grimm came from a large family, employed by royalty, and became a large influence in the literary world of Europe. Their political ties and family values, along with political movements of the time are reflected through the ethics shown in their tales. In eighteenth and nineteenth century Germany, politicians fought for limited enlightenment through means of censorship (Zipes). While books opposing to upper-class ideals were pulled off shelves, their replacements were books of outstanding morals and guidelines approved by aristocratic power. Grimm's alteration of their tales was meant to steer lower class Germans to the beliefs held by upper-class Germany through fictitious accounts of good and evil.

The idea of imaginative thinking, especially through the use of folk and fairy tales, was the ultimate contradiction in the era of Enlightenment. Stifling ideas, such as the underdog rebelling against his superiors, was necessary to conserve the political ideologies of aristocracy. Since the imaginative motifs and symbolic elements of class conflict and rebellion in the pre-capitalist folk tales ran counter to the principles of rationalism and utilitarianism developed by a bourgeois class, they had to be suppressed or made to appear irrelevant, (Zipes). And so came the appearance of witches, beasts, and magical eggs into the fairytales of the upper classes.

Bluebeard in recent years

Twentieth century writers have explored various themes of Bluebeard, exposing the surreality of today though classic plots. Radical ideas have been brought about by new-aged writers and improved freedom of press. Kurt Vonnegut, a satirical writer, wrote of the infamous figure in his 1988 novel, Bluebeard.

Vonnegut wrote his tale through the eyes of Rabo Karabekian, who was writing his autobiography. The WWII veteran had suffered from the loss of an eye in battle and was an unsuccessful American abstract painter who traveled between past and present in search of personal reconciliation. Reflecting on his life, the narrator was taken back in time to the genocide his family had faced during the Turkish-Armenian wars, his struggle during the Great Depression, and the horrors of World War Two. Amongst his place as survivor of multiple traumatic historical events, were his stories of relations with friends, family, and women. Later in his life, he met a successful lady novelist, Circle Berman, who came to live with him. Circle, a controlling and loud woman, turned his world upside down with her criticism of his art and personality, and was constantly trying to get a peek into Rabo's secret potato barn.

As Circle was about to leave, he revealed to her his long kept secret; a gigantic painting detailing a scene at the end of WWII, where Rabo stood with people of every culture and race. It is only then, through the writing of his autobiography, and his exposure of his painting, Now It's The Women's Turn, that he was able to come to terms with himself. The whole magical thing about our painting, [is that] it was pure essence of human wonder, and wholly apart from food, from sex, from clothes, from houses, from drugs, from cars, from news, from money, from crime, from punishment, from games, from war, from peace- and surely apart from the universal human impulse among painters and plumbers alike toward inexplicable despair and self-destruction! (Vonnegut).

While other cultures have masked meanings by showing tales as extremely irrational, Vonnegut unveiled explications through his narrator's life story self-reconciliation, and the wonders of human inclination to our downfall. Rabo rejected both his teacher's art style and interpretation, to instruct the public in mortality, as well as the abstract expressionism, which pressed the idea that art was about absolutely nothing but the painting itself. Vonnegut concluded with the idea that art, whether painting or story, allows for more than one interpretation; leaving finality to the onlooker and reader to consider.

In Bluebeard's secret chamber is death; in Rabo's, a painting that depicts life and death, the survivors of a six-year nightmare of bloodletting caused by people who make Bluebeard look like Mr. Rogers, (Rampton). Vonnegut's imaginative play in the ending of Bluebeard demonstrates the very reason we need imaginative thinking in society. It is the livelihood of humanity and without it, we are simply beings of conformity. A society with no imagination is one with no criticism of traditions, beliefs, and politics. The necessity for a variety of views is often suppressed through censorship, as we have seen with the variations of Bluebeard. The ability of these tales, however altered they may be, to open our imaginations to the themes they suggest, and the historical value they have, is vital in stimulating minds of all classes in society. Hence, imagination is historical and changes; it can be used not only to compensate for what is lacking in reality but can be used in reality to supply practical criticism of oppressive conditions and the hope for surmounting them, (Zipes). The story is a necessity in societies worldwide and should be cherished not only for the entertainment value but for the historical content that lies beneath. By applying the concept of myth (something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time, (Karen Armstrong)) to the fairytale, we can acquire a deeper understanding of humankind.

Zipes notes that: by relocating the historical origins of the folk and fairy tales in politics and class struggle, the essence of their durability and vitality will become more clear, and their magic will be seen as part of humankind's own imaginative and rational drive to create new worlds that allow for total autonomous development of human qualities. By studying classic tales in comparison to their historical counterparts, we can advance our understanding of humanity. We must explore the possibility of the folk, and fairy tales as bearing socio-historical importance. Perhaps this gaining of knowledge will lead to the application of our findings in events of our time; furthering humanities growth, rather than its containment.

Works Cited

  • "Britannica." 6 December 2009 <>.
  • Gravier, Faust. "Historical Serial Killers." Helium. 6 December 2009 <>.
  • Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. "Fitcher's Bird." 1812. University of Pittsburgh . 5 December 2009 <>.
  • Harris, Joel Chandler. "The Little Boy and His Dogs." 1889. University of Pittsburgh . 5 December 2009 <>.
  • Perrault, Charles. "Bluebeard." 1697. Surlalunefairytales. 5 December 2009 <>.
  • Rampton, David. "nto the secret chamber: Art and the artist in Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard." Critique 1993.
  • Riding, Alan. "Bluebeard Has His Day in Court: Not Guilty." New York Times 17 November 1992.
  • Sastri, Kingscote. Folklore of Southern India. London: W.H. Allen and Company, 1890.
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Bluebeard. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1988.
  • Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk & Fairy Tales. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1979.

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