It's one of the fairy tales that most of us would recognise at once, a staple of popular culture worldwide - no doubt due in part to the many adaptations on screen. Who can forget Belle or Gaston in the Disney version? But I'm trying to go old-school for these posts, so over I pop to my cherished copy of Maria Tartar's The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales.
Beauty and the Beast was written by Madame de Beaumont in 1756. It tells the story of a girl who must ransom her father from a powerful beast by agreeing to stay with the beast in his castle (well, actually, to die in place of her father, if one is being particular about it). But the Beast is not all that he seems, as Beauty soon discovers. She gradually falls in love with the creature, who - if ugly and a little dull -is nevertheless quite kind-hearted and clearly quite smitten with her.
Beauty's good qualities are of course her compassion, virtue and wisdom, not her beauty, something which Beaumont takes pains to point out throughout the story. But I can't quite ignore the fact that the Beast was ugly and dumb, not blind. Hmmm.
Anyway,when Beauty finally declares her feelings for him, an old curse is broken, one which had imprisoned a handsome Prince within the body of the Beast. They live - did you have any doubt? - happily ever after:)
This particular fairy tale was always a problematic one for me. There is a clear romantic subtext to the entire tale; Beauty and the Beast fall in love despite appearances, and triumph over all challenges because of that love. But is that really what the story is saying? I'm never been sure.
It has occured to me (and Tartar points this out as well) that Beauty does not fall in love with the Beast at all, so much as accept his hand in marriage because she respects him and is grateful for his help. Her gratitude binds her to him, as does her very open preference for kindness in her partner as opposed to physical beauty or intelligence or even falling in love.
Don't believe me? Well, Beauty actually spells it out very clearly: "I may not be in love with him, but I feel respect, friendship and gratitude towards him".
Ha that startled you, didn't it?:) I'll admit it startled me too; what can I say, Disney's version has been more on the brain lately than Beaumont's:) Don't fret though, the ending to the tale does imply Beauty feels something warmer than friendship for the Beast, albeit with ambiguous wording.
There was something else that made me go 'hmmmmm' when re-reading the tale. Beauty's sisters ask their father to get them expensive gifts on his way home from port. Beauty asks him only for a rose. It was of course Beauty's humble but unusual request that causes her father to end up in the Beast's castle. I couldn't help thinking at this point: was Beaumont purposefully contrasting the modern, material world of Beauty's sisters with Beast's magical world by use of that innocent rose? A rose to lead to forgotten, natural truths where furs and jewellery would only take one further away from them? Very possible, I think, especially when the Beast declares that his roses are what he loves most in the world ... while he stands very comfortably on the grounds of his lavish castle:)
The other thing that struck me was how issues of privilege and position are littered throughout the tale. As Tartar points out in her commentary, Beauty and the Beast is unusual in that it is a fairy tale that directly features the rise of the bourgeoisie in pre-revolutionary France. We are allowed a glimpse of the choices faced by families where new money creates merely a new brand of snobbery (her sisters) instead of intellectual power and virtue (Beauty), where fortunes of the newly rich could fall or rise with heady unpredictability (as happens when Beauty's merchant father loses his wealth), and where the children of the rich but not noble are becoming increasingly literate despite their lack of high rank.
Beauty is merely the daughter of a merchant, but she reads books. Good books, according to Beaumont:) Not to forget, her father spares no expense in employing tutors for his six children because he is a man of "intelligence and good sense".
Hmmm, doth there be a preachy quality in this piece, Madame Beaumont?
I must confess, Beauty's virtuous nature became a tad annoying after a while, though her practical qualities did make up for it by providing moments of perhaps unintended humour, such as when she wisely quips to the Beast, "You can't be a beast if you know that you lack intelligence. A fool never believes himself to be stupid." Ha truer words were never spoken:)
All right, my intended-to-be-quick post is becoming very long. I apologise for that and will stop right here. I have my teeth sunk firmly into this tale, but there is simply no way that I can do justice to it in a single blog post:) But Beauty and the Beast has fascinated millions for decades, and I am not immune to its charms, so I've no doubt I'll be revisiting aspects of this tale with more detail some time in the future.
In the meanwhile, I hope you've enjoyed reading this post. May it have inspired those who haven't read the original tale to give Beauty and the Beast a try:) It's definitely a beautifully written, romantic fairy tale -with a difference:)