The meaning of one of the oldest fairy tales in the world – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
Iona and Peter Opie, in their The Classic Fairy Tales, call ‘Beauty and the Beast’ the most symbolic fairy tale after Cinderella, and ‘the most intellectually satisfying’. It’s also one of the oldest: we can trace the archetypal versions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ back some 4,000 years, making it over 1,000 years older than Homer. If that doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck a little, what will it take?
Perhaps such an august fairy tale of such fine vintage deserves closer analysis, since it’s clearly spoken to many cultures across a vast time span. What makes ‘Beauty and the Beast’ so intellectually satisfying (to borrow the Opies’ phrase), and why has it endured? Well, first, here’s a quick reminder or summary of the plot of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. A wealthy merchant has three daughters, the youngest of which is admired widely for her beauty, and comes to be known simply as ‘Beauty’. Her older sisters are far prouder than she is, and let it be known that they will only marry an earl or duke. When their father loses his fortune, the two older sisters find it difficult to adjust to a life of penury, but the loyal and modest Beauty sets about finding ways to help out her father around the house.
After a year of this, their merchant-father receives a letter telling him that a ship containing some of his property has arrived in port, so he sets off to meet it. He asks his daughters what gifts they would like him to bring back for them: the two eldest daughters ask for expensive gowns and jewels, but Beauty requests a simple rose. Their father sets off, but after the legal hearing concerning the ship’s property, he leaves with nothing, and begins the despondent journey home. On his way, he gets lost in the woods, and comes upon a house where he takes refuge. This great house appears to be empty, and the merchant falls asleep in it, and wakes to find that breakfast has been prepared for him. Going out into the garden, he remembers his promise to Beauty, and so plucks a single rose from the bush – at which point, a fearsome Beast appears, declaring that he is the owner of the house and that the merchant has insulted his hospitality by stealing a rose like this. The Beast says he will kill the merchant, but the merchant begs for his life, and the Beast says he will allow the merchant to live, as long as he returns home and brings back one of his daughters to be killed in his stead. Failing that, in three months’ time the merchant must return and face his fate.
The merchant, seizing the opportunity to see his daughters again, agrees, and the Beast gives him a bag full of coins to be on his way home. When he arrives home, the merchant keeps the money a secret, but tells his children about his promise to the Beast. When Beauty hears about it, she says she will follow her father back to the Beast’s palace, since she won’t allow him to be killed for her (it was because he plucked a rose for Beauty that the Beast sentenced him to death).
At the palace, the Beast sees that both Beauty and her father have arrived, and so he dismisses the father, who reluctantly and despondently returns home, convinced that the Beast will eat up his daughter at the palace. But the Beast treats Beauty well, who in turn is kind to the Beast: she admits that she finds him physically ugly, but she sees that he has a good heart underneath. He asks her to marry him, and she says no. Not content with this, the Beast continues to ask Beauty every night if she will marry him, but each night she says no. Beauty, learning that her older sisters have married and her father is all alone at home, asks the Beast if she might go and visit him. The Beast agrees, since he cannot bear to see Beauty unhappy, but as long as she agrees to return after a week. Beauty agrees to this, but when she is at home with her father, her sisters – jealous of their sister, who has been given the finest clothes by the Beast, while they have married horrible husbands – return home and conspire to use emotional blackmail to make Beauty stay away from the Beast for longer than a week. They hope that by doing so, the Beast will be enraged and will come and devour Beauty!
But after she has been at home for ten nights, Beauty grows ill at ease. Why did she refuse to marry Beast, just because he is ugly? He is kind and caring and worships her, and wants to make her happy. She would be happier with him than her sisters are with their selfish and cruel husbands. So she resolves to return to the palace. But when she gets there, she finds the Beast on the floor, unconscious; bringing him round, he reveals that when she didn’t return as promised, he resolved to starve himself. Now she has returned, he can die happy. But Beauty says she will marry him, and longs for him to live.
No sooner has Beauty said this than the Beast disappears, and is replaced by a handsome young prince, who tells her that an evil fairy cast a spell over him, transforming him into a hideous creature; he would only be freed from the spell when a young woman agreed to marry him. Beauty has freed him from the wicked spell. A beautiful fairy appears, and uses magic to transport Beauty’s father and her sisters to the palace. The fairy turns Beauty’s two older sisters into statues, so that they must forever look on their younger sister’s happiness: this is the punishment for their malice. Beauty and the Prince Formerly Known as Beast get married and live happily ever after.
Stockholm Syndrome: this has made the tale of Beauty and the Beast unpalatable in some circles. Beauty only comes to love the Beast because she is placed under house arrest at his home; she initially doesn’t want to be there. And the moral of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ seems to be all over the place. Beauty’s reward for prizing virtue above physical good looks is … an attractive husband. It’s not that there’s no way of interpreting or analysing this so that it makes sense, just that the story’s moral is not as straightforward as it is in some other fairy tales. Why did ‘Beauty and the Beast’ become popular when it did? This is difficult to pinpoint for sure, and any analysis of the fairy tale’s popularity must be based partly on conjecture, but it’s possible to see it as a tale promoting the idea of marriage to someone you might not necessarily find attractive: it is significant that Beauty’s father is a merchant, and his daughters either want to marry wealthy and aristocratic men or else it is expected that they will. Arranged marriages were common in France at the time: was ‘Beauty and the Beast’, in the last analysis, a sort of ‘handbook’ for young brides entering into marriages with hideous older men, all hair and bad breath but with a good kind heart underneath (if they were lucky)?
‘Beauty and the Beast’ appeared in Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des enfans, ou dialogues entre une sage Gouvernante et plusieurs de ses Élèves in 1756. But in fact, as already noted, the basic plot of the story dates back far earlier. There was a 1740 version (much longer) also published in French, by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and this is the first version of the tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as we now know it. Before that, Madame d’Aulnoy, French queen of the fairy tale (and originator of the term), had written ‘Mouton’, or ‘The Royal Ram’, which appeared in an English translation in 1721, and shares some similarities with ‘Beauty and the Beast’. But there is also a similar tale in the Pentamerone from the 1630s, involving a monster marrying a beautiful princess. The Opies mention a popular non-western version in which ‘a crocodile changes into a fine man when his bride consents to lick his face.’ Even The Golden Ass, from the 2nd century AD, we get a version of the story involving Cupid and Psyche. In short, we’ve been fascinated by this idea of hideous beasts marrying beautiful women for a long while. Perhaps what that tells us about marriage and the sexes is best left unexplored.
Our book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now in paperback, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.