Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bluebeard, Revisited

When I was a kid (and I guess now too), my parents were big supporters of books. Pretty much any kind of book I wanted to read or be read, they were happy with, although I'm sure they steered my taste a little. At some point, though (I might have been 5), I got a box-set of Brothers Grimm fairy tales - there were four soft-cover illustrated books, I think, each with four stories in them. And like any kid who grew up with books instead of TV, I loved them. And so did my parents. Well, except the story of Bluebeard, the misogynist who murdered his wives and then kept their bodies stacked in a secret room. In the only act of censorship I have ever encountered on the part of my parents, my dad was so horrified by the story of Bluebeard that he threw that book into the recycle box and refused to even mention what the story was about for years.

So, although I had never actually read the story of Bluebeard, it took on this weird, mythic quality and I became very curious about it. Four years ago, I discovered (through a class) Angela Carter's book The Bloody Chamber. It's a book of short stories that reworks classic fairy tales (such as Little Read Riding Hood, Puss-in-Boots, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) so that the female lead is the one with the agency. Carter takes her heroines and, rather than making them a vessel through which the story and moral develop, makes them proper characters who think, feel, live, etc. The first story in this book, which is by far the longest, is called "The Bloody Chamber" and it's about Bluebeard.

Upon reading the story, I realized a couple of things. First, that the original Bluebeard fairy tale was incredibly violent; and second, that Bluebeard was essentially a psychopathic serial killer who tricked his wives into "allowing" themselves to be murdered. If you aren't familiar with the whole story (as I was not) it plays out like this:
Bluebeard marries some pretty young thing and takes her home to his castle. Things are good for a while and then Bluebeard has to go away (on business? it's never really explained) so he gives her his giant ring of keys and says that she can go into any room in the castle she wants, except the one this specific little key opens. Naturally, her curiosity is piqued and after a couple of days she decides to see what's in that room (he'll never know, right?). Well, in that room are all his previous wives, dead and hanging up. She's disgusted and terrified (naturally), and just as she tries to leave, he returns and kills her. That's the story, in a nutshell, although there are variations on how he discovers she's found his secret wife-stash. I guess the moral is obey your husband or something.
Anyway, Carter was clearly as fascinated by this rather disgusting story as I was. In her version, though, she gives some backstory to the young wife, as well as incredible description and detail about her short life in the castle. Carter's Bluebeard also defies the original story. He does not appear to be a viscous, hate-filled monster, despite the many violent and tortuous murders he has committed. When he discovers his wife has entered his secret room (the key was damaged in the lock), he is upset, but not merciful. He tells her to go bathe, put on a white dress; her fate, he says, will be decapitation.

But she is saved. Not by his supposed grief (he truly is a psychopath), but by her mother. They had spoken on the phone the previous day and she had sensed that something was wrong (the moral of this story might be: never underestimate your mother). So she came to her daughter's rescue, killing Bluebeard before he could swing his sword down on his wife's pretty neck. Although the ending is quite violent, it is also a happy one, in its own way. Celia (the wife who lived) inherited Bluebeard's enormous fortune and she and her mother and her lover live quite comfortably in his castle.

I won't say that I wish I had been allowed to read Bluebeard as a kid, because it really is the stuff nightmares are made of. And, even if you convince yourself that it's just a story, all you have to do is turn on the news to discover that it's a little too close to some realities to be coddled away. As a man with three daughters, I'm not sure my dad could have done anything but throw the story away and hope it never became part of our consciousness. But it did, because horrible things have a way of creeping in. But "The Bloody Chamber" is a reasonable antidote, although the sex might be a little to vividly described for it to ever become a children's story.

Carter has a way of putting words together that makes certain descriptions stick with you. This can be both good and bad. But her real gift is that of a life to previously passive, unanimated characters. Call it what you want, but Carter does an excellent job of both preserving the original stories and turning them completely around, which makes this book both interesting to read once and almost hypnotic to reread.

The Bloody Chamber
by Angela Carter
First published in 1979 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

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