You know a story is good if people write new versions of it over, and over again. Given this metric, Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard must be the grand-daddy of all stories. Or it is at least a really popular uncle. There have been dozens of re-writes and variants over the years. The rich symbolism woven throughout traces the ideas back to the flowering of civilization. Published in Paris in 1697, Bluebeard has everything you could want in a story – sex, money, power and murder. Heavy on the murder.
Let’s read through Maria Tatar’s translation of Bluebeard from the original French. I’ll pepper it with my thoughts along the way and then offer a brief outline of the symbols it contains and two of the deeper stories presented which still have resonance today.
The story of Bluebeard (as translated by Maria Tatar) ….
“There once lived a man who had fine houses, both in the city and in the country, dinner services of gold and silver, chairs covered with tapestries, and coaches covered with gold. But this man had the misfortune of having a blue beard, which made him look so ugly and frightful that women and girls alike fled at the sight of him.”
We start our tale being introduced to Bluebeard, a man who is at once powerful yet repulsive. Despite his great fortune, Bluebeard is despised by the ladies. One might suppose that the matter is perhaps simply some unstylish hair dye, easily remedied. However, if it were simply a matter of style, Bluebeard would have ceased dying his beard and thus been able to win as many suitors as he liked with his impressive wealth. What is implied, is that the blue nature of the beard is natural to its owner, yet unnatural to humanity. Significantly, it is not just any part of this man which is blue, but it is his beard, the symbol of his virility, power, status, and wisdom which is unnatural and not entirely human. Throughout the history of this tale’s interpretation, some have seen this as a hint that the man is a magician. Whatever may be the case, Perrault is making it crystal clear that this man is wealthy and powerful, yet inhumanly and unnaturally so.
“One of his neighbors, a respectable lady, had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He asked for the hand of one, but left it up to the mother to choose which one. Neither of the two girls wanted to marry him, and the offer went back and forth between them, since they could not bring themselves to marry a man with a blue beard. What added even more to their sense of disgust was that he had already married several women, and no one knew what had become of them.”
What a rare find – two perfectly beautiful neighbors who are also of a marriageable age. I will say, everyone in this story keeps fixating on the fact that he has a blue beard which makes him ugly. I find the fact that he has several missing wives to be significantly more concerning.
“In order to cultivate their acquaintance, Bluebeard threw a party for the two girls with their mother, three or four of their closest friends, and a few young men from the neighborhood in one of his country houses. It lasted an entire week. Everyday there were parties of pleasure, hunting, fishing, dancing, and dining. The guests never even slept, but cavorted and caroused all night long. Everything went so well that the younger of the two sisters began to think that the beard of the master of the house was not so blue after all and that he was in fact a fine fellow. As soon as they returned to town, the marriage was celebrated.”
Pleasure and familiarity have dulled the beautiful girl’s perception of the bizarre, abnormal, and inhuman nature of her host. Bluebeard’s generosity and care have eased her into trust and a sense of security.
“After a month had passed, Bluebeard told his wife that he had to travel to take care of some urgent business in the provinces and that he would be away for at least six weeks. He urged her to enjoy herself while he was away, to invite her close friends and to take them out to the country if she wished. Above all, she was to stay in good spirits.
“Here,” he said, “are the keys to my two large store rooms. Here are the ones for the gold and silver china that is too good for everyday use. Here are the ones for my strongboxes, where my gold and silver are kept. Here are the ones for the caskets where my jewels are stored. And finally, this is the passkey to all the rooms in my mansion. As for this particular key, it is the key to the small room at the end of the long passage on the lower floor. Open anything you want. Go anywhere you wish. But I absolutely forbid you to enter that little room, and if you so much as open it a crack, there will be no limit to my anger.”
Bluebeard gives his wife the “keys to the kingdom”. Access to all his wealth and private affairs, or in other words, he has given her absolute power, authority, control, and knowledge. Every door, home, chest, and safe are within her purview. All, that is, except for a single room. One boundary which she is not to cross or move beyond.
“She promised to follow the orders he had just given exactly. After kissing his wife, Bluebeard got into the carriage and embarked on his journey.
Friends and neighbors of the young bride did not wait for an invitation before coming to call, so great was their impatience to see the splendors of the house. They had not dared to call while the husband was there, because of his blue beard, which frightened them. In no time they were darting through the rooms, the closets, and the wardrobes, each of which was more splendid and sumptuous than the next. Then they went upstairs to the storerooms, where they could not find words to describe the number and beauty of the tapestries, beds, sofas, cabinets, stands, and tables. There were looking glasses, in which you could see yourself from head to toe, some of which had frames of glass, others of silver or gilded lacquer, but all of which were more splendid and magnificent than anyone there had ever seen.”
The community comes over and is overwhelmed with the wealth and luxury of Bluebeard’s home. They had stayed away previously because, unlike the protagonist, they had remained repulsed and afraid of Bluebeard’s unnatural state. Once he is out of the way, however, they are free to indulge their curiosity.
“They kept on expressing praise even as they felt envy for the good fortune of their friend who, however, was unable to take any pleasure at all from the sight of these riches because she was so anxious to get into that room on the lower floor. So tormented was she by her curiosity that, without stopping to think about how rude it was to leave her friends, she raced down a little staircase so fast that more than once she thought she was going to break her neck. When she reached the door to the room, she stopped to think for a moment about how her husband had forbidden her to enter, and she reflected on the harm that might come her way for being disobedient. But the temptation was so great that she was unable to resist it. She took the little key and, trembling, opened the door.”
Our lovely protagonist cannot resist. She longs for the forbidden knowledge. The sweet fruit of knowing… if all that she has been given permission for is so wondrous and delightful, what could possibly be behind the door?
“At first she saw nothing, for the windows were closed. After a few moments, she began to realize that the floor was covered with clotted blood and that the blood reflected the bodies of several dead women hung up on the walls (these were all the women Bluebeard had married and then murdered one after another).”
There is no light in this little room, and it takes some time for our beautiful heroine to perceive what is in the darkness. But when she does, she is shocked to find blood everywhere. Before her shocked gaze, lay an image of life spilled out and left to coagulate on the ground, growing cold and shiny. She doesn’t actually see the bodies of Bluebeard’s mysteriously vanished, now suddenly found, wives. No, she sees them reflected in the blood from where they hang on the wall like trophies or dresses in a closet.
“She thought she would die of fright, and the key to the room, which she was about to pull out of the lock, dropped from her hand. When she regained her senses, she picked up the key, closed the door, and went back to her room to compose herself. But she didn’t succeed, for her nerves were too frayed. Having noticed that the key to the room was stained with blood, she wiped it two or three times, but the blood would not come off at all. She tried to wash it off and even to scrub it with sand and grit. The blood stain would not come off because the key was enchanted and nothing could clean it completely. When you cleaned the stain from one side, it just returned on the other.”
Much like the defiled hands of Lady Macbeth, the blood on the key cannot be washed away. It doesn’t matter how hard she tries to purge the filth, our lovely heroine cannot turn back the clock and erase the knowledge she has gained or the path she has chosen.
“That very night, Bluebeard returned unexpectedly from his journey and reported that, on the road, he had received letters informing him that the business upon which he had set forth had just been settled to his satisfaction. His wife did everything that she could to make it appear that she was thrilled with his speedy return. The next day, he asked to have the keys back, and she returned them, but with a hand trembling so much that he knew at once what had happened.
“How is it,” he asked, “that the key to the little room isn’t with the others?”
“I must have left it upstairs on my dressing table,” she replied.
“Don’t forget to bring it to me soon,” Bluebeard told her.
After making one excuse after another, she had to bring him the key. Bluebeard examined it and said to his wife: “Why is there blood on this key?”
“”I have no idea,” answered the poor woman, paler than death.”
Our lovely protagonist is a feeble liar. Although, perhaps she realizes at this point that not even a proper lie would effectively convince Bluebeard that she had not revealed his terrible secret.
“You have no idea,” Bluebeard replied. “But I have an idea. You tried to enter that little room. Well, madam, now that you have opened it, you can go right in and take your place beside the ladies whom you saw there.”
She threw herself at her husband’s feet, weeping and begging his pardon, with all the signs of genuine regret for disobeying him. She looked so beautiful and was so distressed that she would have melted a heart of stone, but Bluebeard had a heart harder than any rock.”
The world is strangely flipped here. Our French belle is clearly in Bluebeards world – though he is the killer (and a super creepy killer, at that) it is she who is weeping and begging for pardon. Bluebeard’s response is cold and indifferent, set firmly against her and all her powers to seduce him.
“”You must die, madam,” he declared, “and it will be right away.”
“Since I must die,” she replied, gazing at him with eyes full of tears, “give me a little time to say my prayers.”
“I will give you a quarter of an hour,” Bluebeard said, “but not a moment more.””
He is oddly lenient and considerate for a violent serial killer. Space for religious observance and final prayers is permitted, but forgiveness is not possible. It’s an odd dichotomy.
“When she was alone, she called her sister and said to her: “Sister Anne”—for that was her name—”I implore you to go up to the top of the tower to see if my brothers are on the way here. They told me that they were coming to visit today. If you catch sight of them, signal them to hurry.””
Our protagonist at last alights upon a plan that might save her – get her brothers involved! Bluebeard is terrifying and inhuman, but perhaps if her brothers outnumber him and are younger and stronger they could still save her!
“Sister Anne went up to the top of the tower, and the poor distressed girl cried out to her from time to time: “Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”
Sister Anne replied: “I see nothing but the sun shining and the green grass growing.”
In the meantime, Bluebeard took an enormous cutlass in hand and cried out at the top of his voice to his wife: “Come down at once or I’ll go up there!”
“Just a moment more, I beg you,” his wife replied and at the same time she called out softly: “Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”
And Sister Anne replied: “I see nothing but the sun shining and the green grass growing.”
“Come down at once,” Bluebeard called, “or I’ll go up there!”
“I’m coming,” his wife replied, and then she called: “Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”
“I can see a great cloud of dust coming this way,” replied Sister Anne.
“Is it my brothers?”
“No, oh no, sister, it’s just a flock of sheep.”
Perrault puts his storytelling skills to work here, drawing us into the tension of our protagonist and her sister. Imagine eager eyes around an evening fire as some weaver of tales draws out the story to its climax. Will she be saved? Will her hopes be dashed by the clattering of hooves which only belong to sheep after all? Or will Bluebeard have his bloody revenge? Our anxiety mounts and our frustration builds.
“ “Are you coming down?” Bluebeard roared.
“Just one moment more,” his wife replied, and then she called: “Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”
“I see two horsemen coming this way, but they’re still far away,” she replied. “Thank God,” she shouted a moment later, “it must be our brothers. I’ll signal to them to hurry up.”
Bluebeard began shouting so loudly that the entire house shook. His poor wife came downstairs, in tears and with disheveled hair. She threw herself at his feet.
“That won’t do you any good,” said Bluebeard. “Prepare to die.” Then, taking her by the hair with one hand and raising his cutlass with the other, he was about to chop off her head. The poor woman turned to him and implored him with a gaze that had death written on it. She begged for one last moment to prepare herself for death. “No, no,” he said, “prepare to meet your maker.” And lifting his arm . . .
Just at that moment there was such a loud pounding at the gate that Bluebeard stopped short. The gate was opened, and two horsemen, swords in hand, dashed in and made straight for Bluebeard. He realized that they were the brothers of his wife: the one a dragoon and the other a musketeer. He fled instantly in an effort to escape. But the two brothers were so hot in pursuit that they trapped him before he could get to the stairs. They plunged their swords through his body and left him for dead. Bluebeard’s wife was as close to death as her husband and barely had the strength to rise and embrace her brothers.”
Brothers, trained in war, dispatched the wicked and cold-hearted Bluebeard. It was not our beautiful protagonists’ wisdom, cleverness, looks or might that ultimately saved her, but her family.
“It turned out that Bluebeard had left no heirs, and so his wife took possession of the entire estate. She devoted a portion of it to arranging a marriage between her sister Anne and a young gentleman with whom she had been in love for a long time. Another portion of it was used to buy commissions for her two brothers. She used the rest to marry herself to a very worthy man, who banished the memory of the miserable days she had spent with Bluebeard.”
In return for her family’s love and care, our protagonist sets up her siblings with wealth, good careers, and what is needed for a joyful life. She also finds herself another man, a better man, and enjoys Bluebeard’s wealth with him. Bluebeard ends up forgotten, except in fairy tales, and our protagonist and her family move on and live happily ever after.
Bluebeard, however, is not so easily forgotten. The tale lives on in myth and lore, having been re-written dozens of times. The character of Bluebeard continues to pop up in modern board games as an evil magician and in literature as a quick and easy touch-stone reference when looking to describe someone who is secretive, wicked, and ominous. He is something of a literary spider – laying out his net and baiting it with pleasure and wealth to trap unsuspecting (and lovely) passersby. He falls easily into the company of other monsters such as Dracula and King Kong- beasts which are best seen by the foil of a lovely woman.
The symbols in Bluebeard are primeval:
- There is a wealthy and powerful man with an odious and unnatural beard. Bluebeard is a troll, and ogre, a dragon – the beast who guards wealth and all the pleasures and comforts that wealth could gain you. His beard connotes his power, his animal nature, and his lack of true humanity. He personifies the Unnatural Beast.
- There is a beautiful woman. She isn’t even given a name (which has made writing about the tale somewhat more cumbersome) but is solely identified by her dominant feature – her beauty. We also discover that she is the youngest sister of at least four siblings with a living mother. By watching this girl, we see she is rather naïve. This is a secondary but important feature since she appears to represent Innocent or Unmarred Beauty.
- There is a magical key. This key unlocks forbidden knowledge and, once used, cannot be returned to its uncorrupted state. The Key is an image of insight, enlightenment, and power.
- There is a little room, a lightless closet, filled with the secret corpses of murdered beautiful women and their congealed blood. Their blood, their life, has not disappeared. Rather, it remains to corrupt and defile anything that touches it as well as to reveal the decaying state of their former vessels. This is the Profane.
- There are friends and neighbors who are afraid of the Unnatural Beast, but want to enjoy his wealth. This is the faceless crowd, the Mob.
- There are heroic siblings who rescue the damsel in distress. Their chivalry is what destroys the monster. This is the Good Family.
Popular explanations of Bluebeard offer brief morals – “Curiosity Kills”, “Patriarchy punishes Female Empowerment”, and “Sex is Dangerous”. These brief summaries of the meaning behind Bluebeard’s tale miss the point entirely. There are at least two rich and valuable stories embedded within this lore.
First, the story of a beautiful woman who is lulled into a trusting distraction by the pleasures of this world. She knows that Bluebeard is a figure she should run from and avoid, but his generous gifts and easy company lull her into such acquiescence that she ceases to acknowledge the danger for what it is. She chooses the risky path of wedding herself to the powerful and mysterious for all the pleasures of this life. But there is a catch. She must not plumb the depths of the mystery. She must not enter the forbidden space. Just one door out of thousands. Yet, the quest for knowledge, the burning ache to know and understand everything drove her to explore the most secret depths. And in those forbidden depths, she found death, decay, and defilement. Innocent Beauty was turned into Corrupted Beauty because she did not respect the danger of the Unnatural Beast she had married, and the boundaries required to make such a union survivable.
This story echoes Pandora’s Box. In this tale Pandora is the first woman created by the Greek gods. She was utterly beautiful and the gods gave her countless gifts. She is the primordial woman – offering up life and substance to the essences of the gods above. However, she was given one limit – a jar (or box) which should not be opened. The heroine in this story and Pandora alike open the forbidden space and evil and decay emerge.
The Christian origin story of Adam and Eve’s creation and fall run along a similar vein. Adam and Eve are given all of creation to enjoy and delight themselves within. They are given authority as sub-regents to do what they will – the keys to the kingdom. But there was a limit. They could not eat the fruit of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, Eve eats the fruit and entices Adam to do the same. Once they eat the fruit, they are immediately stained. God knows what they’ve done. Judgement is certain. Innocent Beauty defiantly turns the Key of knowledge and opens the door to lightless horrors and death itself. What can be done?
In the tale of Bluebeard the chivalrous brothers heroically ride in to dispatch the heartless and Unnatural Beast who would not forgive. This pulls away somewhat from the Christian narrative (as this would cast God as Bluebeard, the onerous gift giver who keeps evil lurking in a closet) but not entirely, as the solution rests in Sister Anne calling for the brothers to come and rescue her. Sister Anne is the only named character in the story beside Bluebeard and casts a nod toward Saint Anne, the mother of Mary.
The mother of the Mother, Anne may be the wiser and stronger feminine face in the story. She is not lured in by Bluebeard’s wealth nor does she run when his wrath is unleashed. Rather, she calls for the brothers to come and rescue her sister. The brothers in this tale take the role of Christ in the Christian story. The first brother among many, Christ took the stain, the guilt and corruption, that was incurred by opening the door to the knowledge of good and evil and he defeated it, turning death upon itself. In the Christian story the full defeat of the unnatural beast is not complete, but once it is, all the wealth and joy which was previously offered will once more be available for the Good Family to enjoy.
Today we may see the same story playing itself out. The SARS-CoV-2, 2019 Novel Coronavirus sits easily in this narrative. As nations in this world, all the wealth and pleasure available was ours to enjoy. Yet, a thirst for knowledge led some to explore forbidden knowledge. Whether or not the Coronavirus was actually manufactured, why are people fabricating new deadly diseases which could wipe life as we know it off our planet? Why would labs exist where people play god, splicing diseases together to form uncontrollable futures beyond even their own imagining? Certainly, it is this same drive… the desire to know what is behind the closed door. It is the hunger for forbidden knowledge. And, as with Pandora, Eve, and the tale of Bluebeard – death and horrors may have been unleashed.
But there is one more story still waiting for us here. Might this whole tale be played out within a single mind? We know ourselves to be other- unnatural, dissimilar. We are Bluebeard, loved by the Mob only when we can offer them our wealth but rejected as unsuitable, ugly and repulsive for some trait we feel sets us apart. Perhaps our unnamed traumas, our mental illness, ennui, social awkwardness, or simply the vast chasms we feel separate our conscious experience of the world with that of others. We long for beauty to come in and know us, for the acceptance, delight, and transcendence that beauty can bring. But once she is welcomed in, she exposes our ugliest parts. Perhaps the truth is that beauty exposes our darkness, despite our requests that she only examine what we wish to offer. We ask her just to look at the résumé we created, not the one which lists the firings or the failures. We ask her to look at our put-together Friday-night best, not our mid-week depression. Nonetheless, beauty will expose our shame, failures, and our deepest most profane secrets. Perhaps we will find that we have chosen to kill beauty in our lives over, and over again rather than bear the pain of self-knowledge. We may have an entire closet of beautiful experiences, beautiful people, and beautiful thoughts that we have chosen to slaughter rather than be exposed in the face of their purity and transcendence.
Perhaps, though, one day we will let beauty stay a little longer. We will let it live on while we wrestle with our desire to kill this latest of its exposing manifestations. While we tarry, perhaps she may summon her equally beautiful and noble siblings and by that battalion of glory and transcendent truth we may be at last overcome by the light in the world. Perhaps we will find that we have become an entirely new man and that the old man has been forgotten while this new man lives on, still enjoying the riches he had but now with a new Good Family.