Monday, July 18, 2011

Bluebeard the Horrid

"Bluebeard" by Charles Perrault is one of the tales that is the embodiment of an archetype, and besides eminently "horrid." I have never thought that reading lurid things is particularly bad for children, since I think that they enjoy a strong plot before they learn to appreciate other things, and because they can divorce it from reality. But though in that sense I liked reading "Bluebeard" a little, it was never entirely my favourite since there was no friendly romance for the heroine to counterbalance the rather harsh remainder of the tale. When I was much older I read it in Perrault's delightfully lucid 17th century, original French prose. Retelling all of it is unnecessary since it is so well known, so the following is a self-indulgence, and of course I must warn that my understanding of French is not perfect in every detail.


THE story begins a little unsympathetically, when a young woman grudgingly agrees to marry a wealthy man whose matrimonial prospects had been hampered by his azure facial hair and his shady history of disappearing wives. After a month the husband goes off into the countryside for some six weeks, inviting her to ask her friends to the castle and enjoy herself, and leaving her with a bunch of keys to the luxurious furniture and money-trunks, a master key for the splendid apartments, and a tiny key to a little room which she is not to enter. He could have left the tiny key under a flowerpot or something, so as not to endanger his privacy or endanger her integrity; but he is likely either something of a sadist, or a misogynist who likes to reinforce his views of the flightiness of women corresponding to the old chestnut "varium et mutabile semper," or he badly wanted to test his wife on her own merits.

SO she hosts her friends in the country domicile, but while they are elsewhere in the house she is overcome with curiosity and takes the tiny key to the room.

In the French:
D'abord elle ne vit rien, parce que les fenêtres étaient fermées; après quelques moments, elle commença à voir que le plancher était tout couvert de sang caillé, dans lequel se miraient des corps de plusieurs femmes mortes et attachées le long des murs; c'étaient toutes les femmes que la Barbe Bleue avait épousées, et qu'il avait égorgées l'une après l'autre.
In other words, blood and bodies everywhere. The detail of having to wait until her eyes are accustomed to the darkness is a particularly good one; the fact that the bodies are apparently well preserved and not odoriferous enough that she was warned of their presence before entering the room would seem to speak either to an element of magic or of mummification. Besides, though since it's French they might have a different cliché, the use of "caillé" (congealed) rather than "séché" (dried), and the remark that it reflected the dead women like a(n infernal) mirror, feels especially gory. At any rate the key drops on the floor and, in a testament to the real existence of some fateful witchcraft, takes on a bloody stain which it is impossible to remove.

That very evening (the narration wastes no time) the husband returns from his business journey and the wife does her best to pretend that she is happy to see him. The following morning he demands that she fork over the keys, her hand trembles as she does so, and he recognizes what has transpired even before he sees that the tiny key is not among the others. She fetches the key on his request, and he perfunctorily and a little stupidly asks why it looks bloody; the wife, equally perfunctorily, informs him that she does not know — "plus pâle que la mort" all the while, as the narrator says in a macabre pun.

Bluebeard is wroth and invites her to join the women she had seen; she flings herself to the husband's feet and begs for pity "avec toutes les marques d'un vrai repentir" (with all the signs of true repentance) — the story is a little ambiguous on how far a woman's obedience to one's husband is the highest virtue, and how far this particular husband is an ogre whose fate is best left to the law of the land — and she looks so picturesque and afflicted that even the hardest heart might take pity on her. But, the narrator lapidarily intones with little physiological plausibility, "la Barbe Bleue avait un coeur plus dur qu'un rocher."

"Il faut mourir, madame," he declares, "et tout à l'heure" — and at once!

She asks for a little time to pray, and Bluebeard permits it, in what one might term the Antemortal Gap. I guess the idea is not so much that he is pious but that the superstitiousness of religion or the strong selfrighteousness habitual to wrongdoers, or both, have a forceful hold.

He leaves her alone for a quarter of an hour. She calls to her sister Anne and asks her to climb the tower to see if her brothers are coming, since they had promised to visit, and if she sees them to gesture to them to hasten. Every now and then she asks whether they have arrived and Anne, evidently given to ill-timed rhyming loquacity, says,
Je ne vois rien que le soleil qui poudroie et l'herbe qui verdoie.
Then Bluebeard, an enormous cutlass in hand, hollers at the top of his lungs for her to get the hell down there. She begs for another moment, please, and asks her sister twice with another marital summons in between; Anne sees a cloud of dust, then reports that it is only sheep. "Won't you get down from there?" — "Another moment . . ." Then two knights come riding from afar. The lord of the manor bellows again and the entire house shivers, and the wife comes down and casts herself at his feet again, and after a plea for another moment's grace the husband lifts his hand . . .

The door is fiercely beaten, the two brothers stride in with sword in hand, and unfortunately for their brother-in-law are a dragoon and a musketeer respectively (though I suppose that a tailor and a clergyman might have done some harm too), and Bluebeard's attempt to run away doesn't end all that well for him.

Bluebeard has no inheritors (unsurprising for his domestic habits), so the wife gets it all, marries her sister to a deserving young fellow who loves her, purchases a captaincy for each brother, and employs the rest to tie herself to a very good man who effaces the memory of her first nuptials.

There are two moral poemlets at the end; the first enjoins one not to practice curiosity, the second concedes that there are not such brutal men any more who demand the impossible, and this is a tale rather out of the ordinary course of the world.

Anyway, fairy tales are quite conflicted about curiosity; on the one hand the characters find each other out in their hidden beauty or villainy, and on the other hand it is a destructive force which shatters peaceful realities which would better be left intact. So you have Rapunzel encountering the beauties and freedoms of the world beyond the tower on the one hand (though the results are at first not very cheerful because of the witch), and Psyche losing Cupid on the other, for instance. What I think is that truth is a good test of a great many things, and that a relationship which cannot handle essential truths — though one should allow for the time and experience to grow the capacity to handle them well — has a flaw which would become felt sooner or later anyway. [Edited to add: I don't like vulgar snooping, though, and prefer except in cases of wrongdoing to know only those facts about people which they don't mind others knowing.]


TO end on a happy note, the antemortal gap and the superstitious villain remind me of a Grimm brothers tale which I might as well translate (sort of badly) on the spur of the moment here:
Once upon a time a fox stumbled across a meadow where a herd of lovely fat geese sat. He laughed and said, "An engraved invitation, upon my word. You sit so nicely together that I could eat you one after the other." The geese cackled with affright, leapt up, began to complain and pitifully plead for their lives. The fox, however, refused to hear a word and said, "No mercy will be shown; you must die!" Finally one of them took heart and said, "Since we poor geese shall leave our fresh young lives, grant us a single mercy and allow us one more prayer, so that we do not die in sin; hereafter we will stand together in a row so that you can always single out the plumpest." — "Yes," said the fox, "that is simple and a very pious request. Pray; I will wait for that length of time." So the first began a fairly long prayer, a continual "Ga, ga," and since she would not stop, the second did not wait for her turn to come, but also began, "Ga, ga!" The third and fourth followed and soon they were all cackling together. (And when they have finished praying the tale shall be further told, but they are still praying forth.)

From Contes de Fées, Claude Perrault and Mme. d'Aulnoy and Mme. LePrince de Beaumont (Librairie Hachette)
Grimms Märchen (Gondrom Verlag)

The original French and German tales are available here and here, and English translations here and here.

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