“Nothing about him reminded me of humanity.”

So, did everyone see Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast?  Any thoughts?  I thought it was an ok remake, though of course the 1991 film was better.  Only Angela Lansbury can sing the title song, amirite?

I did like the very Rococo style going on inside the castle, very fitting for the time period (late 18th century France) in which the original novella by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was published.


And did you notice they called Belle’s village Villeneuve? 😀

As it happens, one of the units in the Rutgers fairy tale course is about the evolution of Beauty and the Beast tales.  As with the Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard units, I read some stories beyond the syllabus, including the original version by Villeneuve and Angela Carter’s two BatB stories.


 Note: Mature topics and SPOILERS ahead for all the stories discussed.


 The origins of “Beauty and the Beast”

I say that Villeneuve’s is the original version of the story called “Beauty and the Beast,” but, in fact, the story (as a literary fairy tale) can be traced back to Apuleius’ 2nd-century “Cupid and Psyche.”  Villeneuve carried over many details and plot points from Apuleius’ story into her novella:

 Apuleius:  To appease the goddess Venus, who is offended by the mortal princess Psyche’s beauty, the god Apollo decrees that Psyche will marry a vicious creature. Venus is later furious with Cupid for marrying Psyche instead because they are not equals.

 Villeneuve:  A cranky fairy decrees that the princess known as Beauty will “become the bride of a monster, to expiate the folly of a mother who had the frailty to let herself be captivated by the fleeting and contemptible beauty of a mortal” – referring to the law that a Fairy can’t marry someone with less power than her own. [1]

 Apuleius:  Psyche’s preparation for her journey to the appointed wedding spot is described in funereal terms — “black torches were lighted, the pleasant songs were turned into pitiful cries, the melody of Hymen was ended with deadly howling, the maiden that should be married did wipe her eyes with her veil …” [2]

 Villeneuve:  The display of fireworks and other lights that greet Beauty when she arrives at the Beast’s palace prompts her to comment, “that the preparations for her death were more brilliant than the bridal pomp of the greatest king in the world.” [3]

 Apuleius: Every night, Psyche is visited by her mysterious husband, who she discovers is not a beast, but is really the god Cupid.

 Villeneuve: Every evening, Beauty dines with the Beast, and every night, she dreams of his true form, which is described as “beautiful as Cupid is painted.” [4]


And so on.

The better-known early version of “Beauty and the Beast” is the one written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, which greatly condenses Villeneuve’s novella – Beauty has five siblings instead of eleven; she visits her family for just over a week instead of two months; and gone are all the details of her life with her family and with the Beast, as well as all the backstories – Beaumont’s story ends very soon after the Beast’s transformation.

Beauty is not a princess in disguise in Beaumont’s tale, but simply a merchant’s daughter, so the story becomes more of a rags-to-riches type, and the Beast asks Beauty to marry him each night instead of to sleep with him, because Beaumont intended her version for a much younger audience. What remains is the main message about choosing inner qualities like kindness and virtue over physical attraction. Overall, Beaumont’s is a simpler story than Villeneuve’s.

Personally, I like Villeneuve’s better, with its fleshed-out descriptions of Beauty’s life with her adoptive family in the city and country, her time in the Beast’s palace, and the backstories of the prince/Beast, as well as of Beauty’s birth family. My favorite part was the forbidden-love story of the Fairy and the king of the Happy Isle, and how it affected the lives of Beauty and the prince/Beast. I liked the details of the Fairy order that lives in the sky and does good deeds around the world, but is supposed to stay detached from human beings, yet can’t help getting tangled up in human lives anyway.

Mixed Messages: Autonomy vs. Obedience

One notable difference between Apuleius’ story and Villeneuve’s is the level of freedom and choice that Beauty seems to have. In Apuleius’ tale, Psyche has no choice in giving herself up to her appointed husband; the gods ordered it, so she must go, whereas Villeneuve’s Beast insists that Beauty come to him of her own free will. And, whereas Cupid consummates his marriage to Psyche whether she wants to or not, the Beast (at least in the Dowson translation) asks Beauty every evening if he may sleep with her, and leaves her alone each time she rejects him.

Beauty and the Beast TalesIn her introduction to the SurLaLune collection of Beauty and the Beast tales, Heidi Anne Heiner argues that the Beast’s question “implies control and choice for Beauty over her own body and sexuality, something that was not legally hers or that of any woman who was handed over as property in marriage to a husband in centuries past.” [5]

On the other hand, just like the stories we discussed in the last post, “Beauty and the Beast” is a tale of obedience – in this case, a woman’s obedience and self-sacrifice to the husband chosen for her. According to Maria Tatar, Beauty and the Beast tales reflect the idea that “the female partner in arranged marriages of an earlier era was … expected to give up any notion of autonomy.” [6] And Beauty’s relationship with the Beast is an arranged marriage in Villeneuve’s version (arranged by the Fairies, in this case), despite the Beast’s insistence that she come to him by choice. “Marriage in general,” says Tatar, “was seen as the ‘absolute surrender’ of woman to man.” When the Beast, upon first meeting Beauty, asks what she thinks he’ll do to her once she’s alone with him, she replies, “Whatever may seem good to you … my life is at your disposal, and I am ready to submit myself blindly to whatever fate you have reserved for me.” [7]

This focus on wifely obedience is coupled with the message that when dealing with a man, a woman should act not according to her own desires, but out of a sense of gratitude. Beauty is pressured, both internally and by other characters, to “[o]bey the impulses of gratitude” (presumably when the Beast asks to sleep with/marry her). [8] She can’t even leave the palace to visit her family without being called ungrateful, especially when her visit lasts longer than expected. Basically, if a guy buys you fancy dinners and clothes and expensive entertainment, you owe him your body and your complete loyalty in return, whether you’re really into him or not :-/

Even Angela Carter, in her more modern collection of fairy tales, gives her Beauty a questionable level of sexual autonomy in “The Tiger’s Bride.” Though the narrator at first shames the tiger-man for asking to see her naked body, he only lets her go after she shows some skin – and after he forces her to look at his own naked body. True, the narrator chooses to stay with him in the end, but where else would she have gone in those times? Her father was happy without her as long as he had his riches, and would probably have gambled her away again the next time he was desperate.

Mixed Messages: You have a great personality

Then there’s the better-known theme of Beauty and the Beast stories – inner vs. outer beauty. Apuleius’ story is all about the dangers of physical beauty (for mortals, at least). Psyche’s problems start because she’s considered more beautiful than Venus, invoking the goddess’ wrath. Then she loses Cupid because she tries to see his physical appearance instead of blindly trusting that the person she sleeps with every night is not, in fact, a vicious monster (even though everyone tells her he’s a vicious monster… :-/ ). And then, circling back to the first problem, she fails the last test in her search for Cupid because she tries to use a gift of divine beauty on herself instead of giving it all to Venus.

The message, though, is not so much “focus on personality instead of appearances” as it is “know your place,” or “mortal beauty should not upstage divine beauty.” And even that’s not so clear, because, in the end, Cupid comes back to Psyche and she’s invited to live with the gods despite Venus’ jealousy. It’s certainly not a tale of choosing virtue over physical beauty, because, as Tatar notes, Psyche’s final test also involves ignoring people who ask her for help. Whereas the Beauty in later stories is encouraged to make her final choice out of pity and compassion, Psyche is encouraged to harden her heart in order to get the gift of divine beauty. [9]

It is Villeneuve and later writers who added the message about choosing inner qualities over physical beauty. In Villeneuve’s version, the characters in Beauty’s dreams constantly tell her not to trust appearances, and in Beaumont’s story, Beauty reminds herself in the end that, “it is neither wit, nor a fine person, in a husband, that makes a woman happy, but virtue, sweetness of temper, and complaisance …” [10] Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” even goes so far as to say that the Beast, a lion in this case instead of an elephant-nosed creature, is more beautiful than a human man.

BatBInterestingly, in Disney’s versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s the prince, rather than Belle, who has to learn the lesson about valuing inner qualities over outer beauty. He rejected a woman based on her appearance, so now he has to find a woman who will look past his appearance. This comes from Villeneuve’s story, in which the prince is cursed because he rejected the marriage proposal of an old Fairy – though it’s actually the prince’s mother who explicitly insulted the Fairy’s appearance.

And yet, despite all these claims that personality is more important than physical appearance, even Carter’s Beauty (in “Mr. Lyon”) still gets a human stud in the end, as an ironic reward for not choosing by physical appearance. In fact, near the end of Villeneuve’s story, Beauty is told that by choosing the Beast, she can have both the husband she feels obligated to choose and the Cupid-like man she’s been dreaming of. On the one hand, this is meant to be a huge clue-by-four to the head that the two men are the same person. On the other hand, it could have also been a nudge-nudge-wink-wink suggestion that a woman can marry one man out of duty, but have a side fling to fulfill her more physical desires.

Villeneuve certainly wasn’t averse to putting risqué elements in her story, including more liberal views on women’s sexuality – she even makes a point that, whenever Beauty dreams of the handsome lover, she is “not restrained by the rigid customs of society, and slumber [leaves] her free to act naturally” [11] – so who’s to say she wasn’t hinting that Beauty could carry on an affair in addition to marrying out of duty?

The prince certainly doesn’t have to learn to ignore people’s physical appearances in the 18th-century stories. Yes, Villeneuve’s prince was cursed for rejecting an old and unattractive Fairy, but the story implies he was justified in doing so. The Fairy is characterized as wicked for cursing the prince because, according to the Fairies’ law, she shouldn’t have pursued a human mate in the first place. Beaumont doesn’t even give the Fairy a backstory; she’s simply a “wicked fairy” who cursed the prince for no reason. In the end, he gets to be an attractive man again, and gets a young and attractive wife to boot.

It is “The Tiger’s Bride” that reverses the transformation in the end. Rather than changing the Beast into a man, Carter pulls a Shrek ending (or, rather, Shrek pulled a Carter ending) and changes Beauty into a beast. As she stands naked before the tiger, he licks her human skin away to reveal “a nascent patina of shining hairs.” [12] The message here is that it’s the human body that’s really the disguise for the more-beautiful creature underneath.

But then, the focus is still on physical beauty rather than personality, isn’t it? What kind of person is the Beast when he only frees his prisoner after she obeys his order to show her body, even partially? What kind of “marriage” can come from that sort of relationship?


 So, what is the message of “Beauty and the Beast”? Is it about choosing a marriage based on feelings and virtues rather than appearances? Or is it about choosing socially valued character traits in order to be rewarded with physical beauty? Is it about a woman who controls her own future and sexuality? Or is it about a woman who’s pressured into an arranged marriage against her own desires? Or is it, even, about Stockholm Syndrome? [13]

What do you think? Do you have a favorite version of “Beauty and the Beast”? Is it one of the older versions or a new twist?


[1] Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Dowson Translation).” Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World. Ed. Heidi Anne Heiner. SurLaLune Press, 2013. Kindle ed. Loc. 3410.

[2] Apuleius. “Cupid and Psyche (Adlington Translation).” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 966.

[3] Villeneuve. Loc. 2088.

[4] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Planché Translation).” Loc. 4182.

[5] Heidi Anne Heiner. “Introduction: Beauties and Their Beasts.” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 727.

[6] Maria Tatar. “Beauties and Beasts: From Blind Obedience to Love at First Sight.” Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Pgs. 141-142.

[7] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Dowson Translation).” Loc. 2113.

 [8] Ibid. Loc. 2193.

[9] Tatar. Pg. 152.

[10] Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. “Beauty and the Beast.” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 5838.

[11] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Planché Translation).” Loc. 4468.

[12] Angela Carter. “The Tiger’s Bride.” The Bloody Chamber. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Pg. 83.

[13] Lindsay Ellis, formerly The Nostalgia Chick, has an interesting video on why she thinks Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast is not a case of Stockholm Syndrome.


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