Beauty, the Beast, and the Modern Psyche
Madame de Beaumont and Angela Carter each take an age-old story reminiscent of Cupid and Psyche (Apuleius) and change it into a relative story of their time. In Beauty and the Beast (Villeneuve and Lawrence) and The Tiger’s Bride, the narratives delve into the thematic motive of civilisation and the remaining animalistic, wild aspects of humanity. As with Apuleius, the feminine forms the spark leading to civilisation. While Madame de Beaumont has women cure the beastliness that the uncivilised male holds as an atavistic throwback to his uncivilised past, Carter seeks to empower women by expressing the bestial through women who take power.
While the traditional story sees Beauty take her father’s place in the beast’s palace (Beaumont, 35), Carter has Beauty exchanged as payment following a lost card game (Carter, 51). In each instance, the woman has a subservient role. De Beaumont is arguably giving more agency to Beauty than Carter, who has Beauty given as property. Alternatively, De Beaumont’s Beauty is in an exchange for her freedom for concern for her father. While terrified, De Beaumont’s Beauty makes the decision “of her own free will” (Beaumont 37).
De Beaumont’s Beauty is kind and traditionally feminine, leading the beast to act gallantly and to a more civilised relationship over time (Beaumont, 37–38). Carter reverses the roles, introducing a more sardonic and rational Beauty (Carter, 53). The cynicism expressed in Carter’s narrative captures the foolishness Beauty feels for her father, who has gambled her as property and lost. In this story, Beauty is thoroughly modern and forms the foundation of an independent woman who can act of her own volition and who has been restrained against her will.
De Beaumont portrays a more stereotypical concept of a woman, one seen throughout the twentieth century. As with other narratives by the author, there is a domestication of both the male and the female in the stories (Capoferro). Further, in changing the nature of the original from those of the early peasant class captured by Grimm Brothers and others, the changing functions of the story (Zipes) have infantilised the story (Seifert) in a way that was continued in Disney.
While Zipes demonstrates the transmogrification of the original folktale into “high art”, the final result was to remove the cultural discourse concerning the civilising process and the development of manners. The woman in the early stories acts as the civilising agent that transforms the unattached male and societally acceptable husband. The woman maintains power over the man in society before marriage. As Beauty demonstrates a clear friendship towards the beast but rejects the marriage proposals, saying that “it is too bad he is so ugly, for he is so kind” (Beaumont, 38), the power of a woman to choose before marriage is demonstrated.
Carter contrasts such a position with Beauty being transferred as property by her father. Further, Carter’s Beauty is formed through the desire to see Beauty naked (Carter, 58, 61). Carter’s beast knows that he is wealthy and in control (Carter, 53). Unlike De Beaumont’s uncertain beast, Carter portrays a seductive gentleman who knows his power. Beauty is thereby forced to confront her sexuality. Carter has Beauty display her femininity through her sexuality. While Beauty was “unaccustomed to nakedness” (Carter, 66), she embraced her sexuality, opening up to enjoy and control her body and becoming a beast through her desire and sexual passion.
While Carter’s beast is masculine and in charge, he only takes Beauty when she has independently decided to let herself go and embrace her sexual passion. Beauty chooses to enter the visa room, knowing that her virtue will be stripped away with the beast’s tongue stripping the skin from her and turning her into a wild beast. Carter’s Beauty embraces her sexuality, forming a key aspect of her femininity. The loss of innocence transforms Carter’s Beauty into a fully formed woman, which is now represented as the sexual beast replacing the girl.
The more modern outcome may be compared directly with the position of De Beaumont, who presents Beauty as a civilising agent transforming the beast into a human male and prince (Beaumont, 41). When the beast transforms into a noble form, Beauty marries him in what is said to be a relationship “founded on virtue” (Beaumont, 42). While marital relations would expect the couple to produce children, the story ignores sexuality, silently promoting the virtue of chastity and constancy.
De Beaumont has Beauty relinquish control to her husband when they marry, and she becomes passively civil while being dependent on her husband. Conversely, Carter allows the beast to free Beauty, making her independent by gifting her a fortune (Carter, 65). The change in how women are represented and expected to act during the eighteenth and twentieth centuries is amplified through the paradoxically different positions taken by Beauty in each story.
Whereas De Beaumont describes a relatively free girl, who can choose an axe under her own volition first, to decide to swap herself for her father and to later give up her limited freedoms in becoming the beast’s bride and to hence put herself under his power and control, Carter takes a contrary road to womanhood. Carter’s Beauty has become freer and more independent, embracing her femininity and sexuality. Yet, as Carter’s Beauty becomes a woman, she equally revels in her sexuality and becomes a beast. The two authors present the dichotomy between virtue and freedom.
As De Beaumont has Beauty become a woman in place of a girl, the character gives up her independence to become part of the married couple. In becoming part of a married couple, while gaining in perceived virtue, Beauty loses herself and her independence. Conversely, Carter frees the beast within the girl to make the woman. In each instance, the father is replaced, but Carter’s Beauty embraces her bestial sexuality to become a woman.
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Beaumont, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de. Beauty and the Beast. Createspace Independent Pub, 2015.
Capoferro, Riccardo. ‘Penelope Aubin’s The Life of Madam de Beaumont: Domesticating the Heliodoran Plot in 1721’. English Studies, vol. 102, no. 7, Oct. 2021, pp. 937–52. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, https://doi.org/10.1080/0013838X.2021.1995998.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Random House, 2016.
Seifert, Lewis C. Madame Le Prince de Beaumont and the Infantilization of the Fairy Tale. Brill, 2004, pp. 25–39. brill.com, https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004333659_003.
Villeneuve, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de, and Rachel Louise Lawrence. Madame de Villeneuve’s The Story of the Beauty and the Beast: The Original French Fairytale (Unabridged). Blackdown Publications, 2014.
Zipes, Jack. ‘The Changing Function of the Fairy Tale’. The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 12, no. 2, 1988, pp. 7–31. Project MUSE, https://doi.org/10.1353/uni.0.0236.