illustration by Gustave Dore
Many fairy tales were meant to teach children good behavior by showing the consequences of disobedience. Many of these, according to Maria Tatar, were sadistic tales in which horrifying things happened to children who were too curious and strong-willed. (3) For example, in the Grimms’ “Mother Trudy,” a girl defies her parents’ warnings by sneaking into the house of a witch, only to be turned into a block of wood and thrown on the fire for her trouble. The ending is one of the creepiest I’ve read:
Then she changed the girl into a block of wood and threw it into the fire. And when the wood was blazing, she sat down next to it, warmed herself, and said, “That really does give off a bright light.” (4)
Red Riding Hood tales, too, at least those of the nineteenth century, were warnings against disobeying one’s parents. (5) The implication was that, had the girl gone directly to Grandmother’s house as Mother instructed her, instead of talking to the wolf and dawdling among the flowers, she could have kept the wolf out and saved two lives.
Then there are the Bluebeard tales. At first, they also look like anti-disobedience and anti-curiosity tales. In one of the Grimm versions, “The Virgin Mary’s Child,” a girl is ejected from Heaven, deprived of her children when she grows up, and nearly burned at the stake because she opened a forbidden door and lied about it. In the other Grimm versions, as well as Perrault’s, curiosity leads the young bride into a horrifying chamber where she sees exactly what happens to disobedient women, and when Bluebeard returns, she is almost murdered herself. Perrault makes his message very clear at the end:
Curiosity’s all very well in its way,
But satisfy it and you risk much remorse,
Examples of which can be seen every day.
The feminine sex will deny it, of course,
But the pleasure you wanted, once taken, is lost,
And the knowledge you looked for is not worth the cost. (6)
On the other hand, it is the bride’s disobedience that reveals Bluebeard as a serial killer, and in the end, her family not only brings him to justice, but inherits his riches as well. In the Grimms’ “Fitcher’s Bird,” the third young woman is characterized as clever for disobeying and deceiving the wizard, and in the end even reincarnates the previous two victims and forces the wizard to carry them home, along with a great sum of gold.
In Angela Carter’s feminist retelling, “The Bloody Chamber,” much good comes from the narrator’s discovery of the marquis’ torture chamber and his subsequent death – not at the hands of her brothers, like in some of the original tales, but by her wild, sharp-shooting mother. The narrator donates her inherited riches to charity, converts the castle into a school for the blind, and opens a music school outside Paris. She even finds a new lover in the marquis’ piano tuner.
Thus, most of the Bluebeard tales actually promote disobedience, and show that some authorities are not meant to be respected.
Then there is Margaret Atwood’s story, “Bluebeard’s Egg.” In this tale, there is no disobedience or secret room full of murder victims; the husband is a heart surgeon, so you could say his operating room is a matter of life and death, but Ed’s priority is upholding life rather than ending it. There is, however, curiosity at the heart of the story. Like the narrator of Carter’s tale, Sally wants to know her husband’s heart and soul. She imagines his “inner world” as a fairy tale forest, their house as the Snow Queen’s ice castle, where Sally forever tries to solve the splintered puzzle of Ed.
Why did his previous marriages end in divorce? Is he unwittingly having affairs with all the women who flock to his operating room and flirt with him at dinner parties? Is he really as stupid as he seems, or is there something sinisterly brilliant about the way he blunders through life?
In Sally’s mind, solving the mystery of Ed will keep her from becoming the next of his ex-wives, even though, according to her best friend, a failed marriage can actually improve a woman’s social standing – just as it did in the original Bluebeard stories.
Carter’s and Atwood’s stories thus flesh out the curiosity at the heart of “Bluebeard.” In the old tales, it was curiosity for its own sake, or for the sake of financial gain (the bride expected to find even greater riches in the forbidden room), but in the more modern adaptations, the motive is a desire to commune more deeply with the husband. By trying to enter his hidden world, the protagonist is attempting to improve her marriage.
Or perhaps it is an expression of that strong will condemned by some fairy tales, the desire to have greater control in the marriage by rejecting the husband’s desire to keep part of himself secret and separate from the wife. In fact, this is not just a modern characteristic; in “Fitcher’s Bird” as well as an old Italian version of the tale (7), the protagonist gains power over Bluebeard by successfully disobeying his command without his knowledge. She uses her power to make a fool of him and take his wealth for herself, behavior that is not condemned, but celebrated.
Thus, while many fairy tales warned children against curiosity and disobedience, many Bluebeard tales at least implicitly encouraged these traits as a way of protecting oneself from false authorities and gaining economic independence.
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(3) Maria Tatar. “‘Teaching Them a Lesson’: The Pedagogy of Fear in Fairy Tales.” Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Pgs. 22-50.
(4) The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam, 1992. Pg. 160.
(5) Tatar. “‘Teaching Them a Lesson.'” Pgs. 38-39.
(6) Perrault. The Complete Fairy Tales. Pg. 113.
(7) Robert Darnton. “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose.” The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Pgs. 45-46. PDF.