Saturday, April 2, 2011

B is for Beauty and the Beast

by Allen Douglas
The fairy tale Beauty and the Beast (or La Belle et la Bête) is one of the traditional fairy tales that everyone knows.  It has had the mixed blessing of being made into a film by the Walt Disney Co., so while it would be difficult now to find anyone unfamiliar with the story, their imaginations will be dominated by one version of it and by Disney-style animation to the almost exclusion of the rich tellings and imaginings that proceeded it.

The power of the tale lies in its treating themes of duality, a subject already raised in this blog.  But what makes Beauty and the Beast stand out is that it layers duality on top of duality:
  • Beauty vs. Ugliness
  • Humanity vs. Beastliness
  • External Appearance vs. Interior Reality
  • Female vs. Male
  • Revulsion vs. Love
  • Safety vs. Danger
(It wouldn't surprise me if I'm missing one or two, for which I will defer to the aid of the perceptive reader.)  Depending on which retelling of the tale you are reading, the appearance, emphasis, and alignment of these dualities will vary.  In my judgment, the more interesting versions avoid simple and absolute alignments (for example, Beauty always tracks on Appearance always tracks on Female) but explores and plays with them.

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know?
Beauty and the Beast is one of those fairy tales that raises feminist concerns.  I know of no way to satisfactorily quantify this, but I bet we all know far more women who have tried to tame the beast to their sorrow than we know men who can say the curse was lifted from them by the love of a good woman.  First, I would want to urge a truth that is often lost in these kinds of discussions: something that is powerfully destructive is, first of all, powerful.  As long as something is not inherently evil, its power to work harm could just as well be turned to work weal.  Throwing away something that is powerful just because it is powerful is reactionary and short-sighted.  While anything powerful is dangerous, it is equally beneficent, given the right use.  Retrievals and reinterpretations are the way to go.  Further, taking a lesson from the tale itself, layering and opposing these multiple versions are more entertaining and enjoyable, as well as the means to harness its power for good and ameliorate harmful effects.

By Walter Crane

The Power of Friction
Besides subject matter, how do these dualities make for compelling story telling?  By playing with expectations, misleading, and deceiving.  Building on or creating audience expectations allows the story-teller to establish rapport, build comfort, and then question or shock them.  They are an important element of surprise.  Dualities are great also great for ambiguity, which creates mystery and builds tension. In these ways, they make for great drama.  From a structural side, this should not be surprising, since narrative theory tends to reveal story's structures as opposing sets of conflicting parties, problem and solution, rising and falling tension, etc.

I leave much untouched here, of course.  This story is a great way to explore gender anxieties, and if Jung is right, then it is an expression of and magnet for women's animus issues and men's anima issues.  (See the illustration of Jung's view of the Self from below.  For more on the transgendered region of our unconscious, see here and here.)

I'll leave you with an image from my childhood*: the moment that Beauty finds the Beast collapsed.  It has received many touching renditions, for more, start in the Beauty and the Beast illustration gallery at SurLaLune.

by Warwick Goble
*1913, is the date of the illustration, so it was already quite old by then, wise-crackers.


  1. Very interesting post. You raise some good thematic questions. Thank you!

  2. You're welcome, Septembermom, and thanks for the feedback!

  3. Such beautiful artwork! I loved this story when I was a kid too, the castle always seemed so dark and scary, not like that one in Disney with the dancing teapots!

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