Like every fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” has had to metamorphose throughout the centuries to remain relevant to each succeeding generation. Unlike other popular tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White”, however, “Beauty and the Beast” has seen a profound shift in the character that is the focal point of the story. Beauty, the central character in the original versions, takes the backseat to the Beast in later retellings. In some cases this also heavily changes the moral of the tale, undermining its ultimate effectiveness.
As mentioned earlier in this blog, Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s tale (1756) was heavily inspired by Madame de Villeneuve’s original tale published in 1740. Villeneuve’s version is mainly concerned with sustainment of the period’s social class system: Beauty’s sisters are condemned for aspiring to an upper class into which they were not born, and in Villeneuve’s lengthy epilogue it is revealed that Beauty is not a common merchant’s daughter, but a royal fairy changeling – a proper bride for any enchanted Prince.
In contrast, Beaumont’s version does not concern itself with social castes. Instead, her version focuses on the complications of arranged marriages. In Beaumont’s time, and for many centuries to come, it was standard practice for young women of a certain social status to be married off to wealthy, socially-acceptable mates that, more often than not, were complete strangers to them. Beaumont’s text is sensitive to this issue and its primary objective is to assuage the fears of young women who find themselves in the predicament and offer them hope that eventual romantic love can be a possibility in such a situation. Folklorists have dubbed “Beauty and the Beast” the first “psychological” fairy tale, and the main reason for this is Beauty’s journey in Beaumont’s tale. She holds the primary power in the story. It is only through her own inward transformation that the Beast’s outward transformation can occur. The modern era has seen the claim that the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is an example of Stockholm syndrome, but this argument completely overlooks the historical background of the original tale and the topic of arranged marriages that it makes its central focus.
Because of the eventual denunciation of the practice of arranged marriages in most Western cultures, modern interpretations of the fairy tale have had to work around this issue to varying levels of success. The primary way to do this has been to shift the main spotlight away from Beauty and transfer it to the Beast.
At the end of Beaumont’s story, the Beast of the fairy tale’s title is transformed into a handsome prince:
“A wicked fairy had condemned me to remain under that shape,” the Prince explains to Beauty in the original English translation, “until a beautiful virgin should consent to marry me.” No other reason is given for this strange punishment besides the apparent “wickedness” of the fairy mentioned.
This lack of explanation has proved a creative asset to future retellings of the tale, the most obvious of these being the 1991 Disney Studios film. The enchanted Prince in their version is punished with his beastly visage for turning away an old beggar woman seeking shelter from a storm. It is when he refuses her because of her ugly appearance that she reveals her true self and punishes him to life as a Beast. This provides a powerful, direct link to the story’s theme of looking beyond appearances to find beauty within that most other versions don’t include. However, this strength is undermined by a necessary shift in the Beast’s character because of it.
In both the original Villeneuve and Beaumont versions of the story the Beast acts as the perfect gentleman towards Beauty. He shows her kindness and consideration and provides her anything she desires. She truly is mistress of his castle, her slightest whims becoming the Beast’s command. After dinner every night he asks for her hand in marriage and she politely refuses. He assents to this and never forces her into wedlock or indeed to do anything that displeases her. The only real impediment to a possible relationship with Beauty is the Beast’s alarming exterior.
In contrast, the Disney film makes the Beast/Prince “spoiled, selfish and unkind.” He has a quick and raging temper that is often unleashed upon Belle, the film’s Beauty. Instead of any kind of personal transformation of her own, Belle’s role in the story is changed to that of a “domesticator” of this unruly Beast. This unfortunately reduces the importance of Beauty’s role in the story, making her mostly a mother figure, and works to subvert the original theme of the fairy tale. Instead of the possibility of beauty already lurking behind a beastly exterior, the theme of this version is that beauty can only be found in a Beast if his savage nature is tamed.
Jean Cocteau attempts something similar in his 1946 film and ends up crafting something much more interesting in the process. Instead of a nasty temper, the main problem of Cocteau’s Beast concerns his actual beastliness. He is a full-fledged animal/human hybrid, trying to reconcile these two opposite natures within himself. When dining with Beauty he appears the perfect gentleman – well-dressed and conversant, if admitting that he’s no wit. At night, however, he succumbs to his feral side, hunting animals in the forests outside his castle and startling Beauty several times in her bedchamber after his midnight romps. There is no concrete resolution to this Beast’s dilemma – he does transform into a handsome prince, but he looks exactly like Avenant (a character Disney drew from for their brutish Gaston), a handsome but roguish would-be suitor of Beauty whom she has refused. This physical similarity to Avenant at first throws Beauty off. When asked by the Prince if she is displeased by his resemblance to Avenant, Beauty responds first with “Yes” and then a smiling “No.”
The Prince tells Beauty at the film’s conclusion: “Love can make a Beast of a man. It can also make an ugly man handsome.” This intentional blurring of the morality of the tale runs deeper than Disney’s take and provides a more satisfying modern sensibility to the story: Beauty comes to discover that she can be alternately attracted to and repulsed by a potential domestic partner – she can enjoy both the beast in the man and the man in the beast.
The duel for the main spotlight between contemporary Beauties and Beasts comes to its most happy medium in the 1987 television series created by Ron Koslow. The setting for this version is updated to twentieth century New York City. The Beast, named Vincent, dwells in the tunnels below the city with an entire community of people who have found themselves cast off from the cruel and unforgiving World Above. His Beauty, Catherine Chandler, works as an Assistant District Attorney and through this comes face-to-face with the evils of her metropolitan society. With Vincent’s help she often thwarts them.
Similar to Beaumont’s original envisioning of the Beast, Vincent is a thoughtful and compassionate humanitarian. He is the embodiment of a fully developed, spiritual human being, reading classical literature in his spare time and reciting poetry at the drop of a hat. However, as with Cocteau’s Beast, Vincent also battles the animal side of his nature throughout the run of the show. There is no ultimate transformation for him, though – Vincent’s intangible and unexplained existence as a man/beast is permanent and something both he and Catherine must learn to cope with as the series progresses. But unlike previous Beauties, Catherine has an even footing with her mate: she is not his captor and moves independently between his realm and her own. For the first time since Beaumont, then, the ultimate decision of whether Beauty and the Beast can be a pair is placed once again in Beauty’s hands.
These unique twists provide an even balance between the two characters, resulting in a satisfying drama and romance, one that was unfortunately cut short due to actress Linda Hamilton leaving the show. Perhaps if the show had lasted even a season or two longer we might have a contemporary “Beauty and the Beast” that actually outshines its already impressive origins.
3 thoughts on “The Problem of the Beast”
I wonder if you still have the sources you used when discussing Beauty and the Beast as the first psychological fairy tale – if you don’t I’d be keen to have a read.
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Hmmm…searching through my fairy tale books I can’t seem to find the exact quote I’m looking for. My main sources for everything “Beauty and the Beast” tend to be Betsy Hearne’s “Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale” and Maria Tatar’s “From the Beast to the Blonde”. I know most recently I read Jerry Griswold’s “The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast”, which includes several different psychological readings and is probably the best place to start. Sorry that I can’t be a bit more specific, but hope these reference works help a little.
Thank you so much for such a detailed reply! I’ll have a look at these books.