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Beauty and the Beast: A Bit of History

Beauty and the Beast (Broadway Poster)
Beauty and the Beast (Broadway Poster)


Since we covered the tale of Beauty and the Beast in two columns last week, I thought I would provide a bit of history on the tale’s past incarnations. Beauty and the Beast is a timeless classic.  There is no human being, young or old, who does not know the story of the beautiful young maiden who was able to tame the heart of a beast.  It is considered by many to be the quintessential love story.  Most people only know of the French version released of Beauty and the Beast, though.  The Norse version of the story, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and the very first version of the story, Cupid and Psyche, when compared with the French version that most of today’s world is familiar with give interesting insight into how the story has been related to the society and its purpose throughout the ages.

The three different stories all have the same basic outline.  The story always centers on a beautiful young woman who tends to have at least two sisters and usually both parents, but this sometimes varies.  Something always happens in the story to cause the girl to be sent out as a type of sacrifice to a beast or a monster either in the form of an actual sacrifice or a marriage.

When the girl is forced to live with the beast she is not allowed to see the beast’s true form, and she quickly becomes homesick.  This causes the beast to have to allow her to see her family, which then allows the family to give her bad advice, which she always follows. Because of this bad advice , trouble ensues for the girl and the beast, which then usually forces the girl to go on a sort of quest to get the beast back, although there are variants to the sort of quest.  Once the girl is safely with the beast and the beast is once again a human they then live happily ever after.  Each of the stories changes little things in the plot, however, depending on what they are aiming to show the readers of that particular time.

Cupid and Psyche(oil on canvas) By Jean Baptiste Regnault
Cupid and Psyche(oil on canvas)
By Jean Baptiste Regnault

The original version of Beauty and the Beast, Cupid and Psyche, was written for young women who were being given in arranged marriages in ancient Roman times. The section that comes before the actual tale in the book it is contained in makes this very obvious.  In the novel from which the story comes the story is being told to a recently married young woman, who had just been captured by bandits but was fretting about her marriage, by an old gypsy woman. The tale was supposed to comfort her about her arranged marriage.

In this version there is the typical beautiful daughter, who in this rendition is a princess, but unlike the previous two this girl is forced into the marriage with a beast because the goddess Venus has become jealous of her and asks her son to make her life miserable by having her fall in love with the most wretched creature in the world.  This is a very fitting premise for this story since it is set in Roman times where tales of the gods and goddesses interfering and meddling in mortals lives is very common.  In this version another typical Roman mythic theme is included, which is that the maiden in the story is put out on a cliff to be sacrificed to a monster.  Psyche only finds out she is going to marry this monster after she has thought that she was going to be sacrificed.

One thing that is somewhat different about this story is that there is the element of the son of Venus, Cupid, who is defying his mother in order to marry Psyche, so this version also has the theme of the forbidden lovers somewhat like Romeo and Juliet.  It is one of the rather nice things about this version because it gives more insight into the beast’s, or rather Cupid’s, character. The Beauty and the Beast stories usually do not focus as much on the male characters emotions and characteristics and really mostly only pays attention to the female heroine.

One reason for this might be that it was actually part of a novel so it is a more in depth story rather than just a short tale that does not have as much freedom to elaborate as much on the characters. In this version while Psyche seeing Cupid’s face certainly strengthens her love for him she falls in love with him long before she ever sees his face. This set of main characters seem to be the pair that have the most genuine love since Psyche does not simply respect Cupid, like Beauty in the French version, which I will elucidate later, and she does not fall in love with him solely because of his good looks. They fall in love even though she does not see what he looks like when they are together at night. This is very probably something that would be used to comfort a bride to be since this girl is going into the situation basically blind and it turns out very well for both of them in regards to their mutual affection for each other.

One factor of this version of the tale that is very refreshing is that when Psyche is tricked by her sisters, who are jealous of her, she takes revenge on them herself. This version gives the girl much more spunk and shows her actually gaining some backbone and standing up for herself. She does not become more meek or a better housewife. This version clearly tries to empower the young women that it is being told to.

This is also shown when Psyche is performing the tasks that Venus sets before her. That is yet another interesting factor of this version. Psyche must essentially prove herself to her mother-in-law, which is probably something that many young women had to worry about at the time, and actually have to worry about in today’s world as well.

Another thing this story does is that it shows the maturing of the male counterpart, Cupid, as well. At the beginning of the story Cupid is somewhat of a heartbreaker, and by the end of the story he is very much devoted to Psyche and he helps her with the task in the end. They work together to finish it. This certainly is an example of a couple that were originally strangers growing together and supporting each other in the end, which would definitely be something that a young woman being married off would want have hope of happening.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon
East of the Sun and West of the Moon

The Norse version of the Beauty and the Beast tale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which was written by Peter Christen Asbjornsen Jorgen in his book, Fairy Tales of All Nations in 1849,was most likely aiming for the normal Scandinavian people as opposed to the upper class citizens, as the French version does.  The tale is told from a lower class point of view, and the typically lower class dream of being suddenly lifted from poverty is a big factor. This story has the trappings of the more traditional fairytales with its feudal setting.  The setting is mostly near mountains, which relates especially to the Norse society in that many of the people lived near mountains, and mountains were a source of mystery and magic to them.

This story is not at all centered on giving advice on good manners and the virtue of young women like the French version is.  The family is a typical peasant family in this version, and there are no evil sisters. In this version the sacrifice of the girl is not a punishment like it is in the other one either.  The beast, which is a bear in this story, just shows up on the family’s doorstep asking for the youngest daughter’s hand in marriage.

It is the temptation of money that causes the family to want to hand over the daughter.  This really demonstrates the importance of marriage as an economic opportunity to that society.  It gives the example of these types of arranged marriages that were probably very common to those people in which the marriage alliance is made in order to help the family in a financial way.

While this statement is also true for the French society of the other Beauty and the Beast tale, it is much more central to this version because it is the motivation for the girl’s journey with the bear to begin.  As you will see, the French version tries to hide this truth about the typical marriages by focusing on Beauty’s virtue and kindness as the means to her marriage with the beast(more of the moral lessons).  Beauty’s reason for going with the beast in the French tale does not have to do with making an advantageous marriage and helping her family’s financial situation.

In this version the girl’s father is also very keen on her going in contrast to Beauty’s father, who pleads with her to stay.  The reader sees how the lure of money can cause the girl’s family to welcome parting with the girl. This version shows these arranged marriages as a hard truth.  In this version the daughter is also not a giving of herself as the French Beauty.  The girl in this story has to be convinced to go with the bear.

Another difference in this story is that the girl is immediately married to the bear and they sleep together the first night, similar to the Roman version.  The subject of sex was probably not nearly as taboo in this society as it was in the French high society.  It is not shied away from.  Their consummation of the marriage can take place because the girl is with the bear in his human form at night.

It is this temptation to see his true looks that causes the problem in this tale.  However, it is the mother and not the sisters that give the bad advice to the girl in this tale.  The mother is used in this story to symbolize the powerful attachment to home that young girls who have just married often feel.  It is especially prominent in girls who are in arranged marriages. This was probably one of the big issues that young women of that culture had to deal with.  This story serves as a way to comfort them.  The idea of physical attraction is not something that is put down in this tale.  The bear turned prince’s physical attraction actually is the thing that causes the girls love for the bear to truly blossom.

In this version of Beauty and the Beast, the heroine must go on a journey and pass a certain test in order to get the prince back. Her adversary in this tale is not the sisters but the rather the princess whom the prince is being forced to marry. The princess is able to steal the bear/prince because the girl was not able to wait a year until she saw his true form.  It is through the princess that the reader is given an example of the kind of person one should not be like.  The princess is shown to be very greedy and is often willing to put the prince’s safety at risk so that she can get what she wants, which is one reason why she is not the better wife for the prince.

The test in this story is also more in tune with the audience it is being written for.  In this version the girl must prove that she would be the better wife because she can perform a particular domestic task, in this case washing a shirt, well.  The ability to be a good housewife is strongly supported in this version of the tale.

In the French version of Beauty and the Beast, which was published in a magazine for young women called Le Magasin des enfants in 1775 by Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont, the story was being rewritten for the French upperclass in the pre-revolution era.  One of the main aims for the story was to instruct young women on good manners, breeding, behavior, and morals. Because of this, unlike the other two stories there are many examples of the author pointing out the character’s good manners, virtue, etc. or lack thereof.

In this story the daughter is very giving and eager to sacrifice herself for her family.  She is also constantly doing very virtuous things such as helping her father with the housework and thinking only the best of everyone including her wicked sisters.  The author is not shy about pointing out all of the sisters’ faults as well, and saying how un-virtuous they are.   This instruction for the readers is demonstrated very obviously when Beauty and the beast eat dinner together and have long discourse on matters such as appearance and a person’s intelligence.  The entire thing is very much like a lesson on what is good for a young lady to believe and what is bad and shallow.

One major difference in this version of the story is that Beauty is not immediately married to the Beast when she goes to live with him and therefore the typical scene where they sleep together but she does not see what he really looks like is not included at all. This deviation makes a lot of sense when one considers the social aim of the story.  Sex was not a proper subject for young ladies at the time that this was written, so the author had to find some way around including it.

The idea of not putting importance on looks and having true love is also strongly pushed in this story.  This version does not have Beauty becoming curious as to what the beast really looks like and wondering if he is handsome.  Beauty is basically expected to be happy with marrying the beast despite his looks and not being concerned with that.  At the very end of the tale Beauty makes the discovery that love is not needed for a good marriage, but respect, gratitude, and friendship are needed. This certainly has the signs of being a lesson for the young upper class ladies of the time that they should be content with their arranged marriages.  The beast, however, seems to have a great appreciation for beauty and is not advised against this.

This version also does not include the typical journey that the girl must go on to get the beast back like the other versions have.  In this tale beauty does not have to work to get the beast back because she is so virtuous and extremely innocent. The author seems to think that is enough for her to get the beast back and feels no need to put the heroine through some arduous task.  Beauty simply appears at the beast’s castle and has to search for a short time before she finds the beast.  Once the beast is located all that is required of Beauty is her consent to marrying the beast, and then they live happily ever after.

This version of Beauty and the Beast also is in a completely different social setting. The family of Beauty is a rich middle class merchant family, which totally changes the original setting of the feudal times. In the story the family becomes poor suddenly at the beginning of the story presumably because of the sisters arrogance at their rich status and their desire to acquire more wealth.

The fathers taking advantage of the beast’s hospitality when he is lost in the woods is what causes the need for Beauty’s sacrifice in the first place. This seems to be a warning made by the story to the emerging bourgeoisie of the time that they were forgetting their place and that if they could not control their ambition they would pay for it. This same theme is repeated many times throughout the story. The beast is always portrayed as kind and misunderstood, whereas the sisters of Beauty are always shown as greedy and conniving. It would not be too far of a stretch to assume that the sisters were intended to symbolize the bourgeois of the time and the beast was intended to portray the aristocracy of the time. The sisters are the ones who give Beauty the bad advice, which puts her relationship with the beast in jeopardy, because they are jealous. The beast may look mean and ugly but inside he is kind and has good manners, while the sisters look good but are evil and greedy. This story really changes the original meaning and turns it into a way to legitimize the aristocracy’s lifestyle in contrast to the emerging bourgeois.

This timeless classic made up of the basic love conquers all skeleton has a lot to say about the societies that it is written for. Each of these three versions of the Beauty and the Beast tale puts their own unique twists on the tale. The differences in each show the cultural differences in these different countries and time periods. One thing that can certainly be said about all of the stories, however, is that they are all there to assist the young women of the time. The main variable of the stories is in what form that assistance is given, whether it is as a sermon or an empowering tale. This tale is clearly the story that all young women looked to when they were scared about going away from home and into the home of a complete stranger, their husband to be.

Well, I hope you feel a bit more enlightened, and have enjoyed reading about the different adaptations of Beauty and the Beast this week.

Do you know another version of Beauty and the Beast that you would like to share? Sound off below…



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By on October 15th, 2013

About Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane grew up in the hot desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona where she decided early on she wanted to write, if only to mentally escape her blistering surroundings. She has always been enamored of the arts and literature. As a child she often wrote short stories, and rewrote the endings of novels that she simply could not abide. She received her Undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was lucky enough to also spend a year studying at Oxford University. While she began her journey dreaming of the day she would sing opera in a large Manhattan theater, she found in the end she could not stand waitressing and simply could not give up books and her hopes of someday writing them. She is currently working as a freelance writer/editor and earning her Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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