Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast
Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast
by Robin McKinley
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel based on a well-known French fairy tale and set in the mythical past; published in 1978.
Beauty’s father picks a rose from the garden of an enchanted castle whose ruler, the Beast, angrily demands that either he or his daughter return to the castle in one month as payment. The daughter, Beauty, returns and begins a new life with the Beast.
The daughter of a naval officer, Robin McKinley spent much of her early childhood abroad. She attended college in Maine in the early and middle 1970s, during the rise of the women’s rights movement in America. Her novel Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast reflects changing perceptions about fairy-tale heroines during this period, as well as her own personal interests. Set in the mythical past, the story itself is not closely linked to any specific time period. The familiar version of “Beauty and the Beast,” the tale on which the novel is based, appeared in 1757 in France, where it was affected by developments in art and society that spanned more than a century. McKinley’s story takes place in an era that resembles the one evoked by the familiar French version and so bears a relation to some events of that period.
Women, education, and salons
Upper-class French women in the early 1600s generally received a basic education. Often instructed by their nurses, they were tutored in such basic subjects as reading, writing, and geography. Some also learned to dance, sing, or play the clavichord, an early keyboard instrument. In addition, all little girls were taught social etiquette so that they might become courtly ladies. Many girls were sent to convents to further their education, but in general their training was geared toward domestic skills. Women did not attend universities and had little access to public spheres of discourse.
In Robin McKinley’s story, the character Beauty wishes to attend a university, but her longing is scorned by her governesses. Undaunted, Beauty seeks to educate herself despite social constraints. In this regard Beauty’s efforts paralleled those of some upper-class women during the 1630s. These women were well connected socially; in particular, they were associated with the royal court. A number of the more intellectually curious women began meeting at salons (or drawing rooms) in Paris to talk about art, literature, love, marriage, and other subjects of importance to them.
In the salon meetings, women strove to develop their conversational skills. They emphasized particular styles of thinking, speaking, and writing that would distinguish them above others in society, placing special emphasis on wit and innovation. Skillful presentation of oneself in salon gatherings became a means of establishing individual worth.
By the middle of the 1600s, these upper-class French women began inventing parlor games to enhance their salon conversations. Among these games was the telling of stories, the object being to create the most interesting story based on a well-known narrative, such as a folktale. Although many of the tales were familiar to salon audiences, the story was supposed to seem like it was invented on the spot. Great emphasis was placed on the appearance of spontaneity, which led the women to sharpen their thinking and remarks and, at times, to question the male standards by which they lived their lives. At the same time, this type of parlor game allowed a woman to gain a reputation as an intelligent individual. She could, through story telling, demonstrate her knowledge of courtly etiquette, fashionable manners, and proper social relations.
Fairy tales and social criticism
Many people in upper-class French society considered fairy tales vulgar and associated them with the peasant class. It was considered somewhat scandalous that French society women told such stories. Yet by the 1690s, some upper-class writers began to print the fairy tales that were told in salons. In 1690 Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy published one of the first written fairy tales. Increasing numbers of people followed suit, submitting written versions of fairy tales for publication. For the next thirty years, the fairy tale genre became one of the most popular forms of writing. One of the reasons fairy tales became so popular is that they served as a means of social critique.
Just as the salon clientele consisted primarily of women, the majority of the writers and tellers of fairy tales were female. In their tales they sometimes gave female characters more power than women usually had in society at the time. A number of the writers who gave women the upper hand in their tales became well-known authors.
Many fairy tale writers of the seventeenth century opposed the court of Louis XIV. During the 1680s, Louis XIV waged very costly wars that were financed by heavy taxes. These exorbitant taxes left the lower classes impoverished and the higher classes in a state of severe financial distress. The harsh economic situation was further aggravated by several years of bad crops. Because people were not allowed to openly criticize Louis XIV, fairy tales became a covert means of doing so. The fairy tales often served as a protest against the king’s court, illustrating the differences between the possible warmth and richness of a monarchy and the realities endured by people under the reign of Louis XIV. As one authority noted, “there was no splendid paradise in Louis XIV’s court, no genuine love, no reconciliation, no tenderness of feeling. All this could be, however, found in the fairy tales” (Zipes, p. 9). Other tales pointed out faults in behavior by royal characters. The tale by the above-mentioned Madame d’Aulnoy, for example, features Prince Adolph, who puts a higher priority on the quest for glory through war than on his love for a princess. As a result, he fails to find happiness.
During the 1700s young women from upper-class families had little control over many aspects of their lives. A young woman’s marriage partner was most often dictated by her parents. Generally, the parents chose their daughter’s future husband according to his social rank and fortune; often she was not consulted about their choice. Courtship, if it existed, was brief and often conducted in a businesslike manner. Extremely young when they married, many girls felt they had no choice but to accept their prescribed husbands and hope for the best. Marriage offered them a position in society, a chance to be presented at court, and possibly a life filled with luxuries and amusements such as operas, balls, and plays.
One of the main themes of the Beauty and the Beast tale is the courtship and marriage between Beauty and her monstrous husband. Regarded as serious subjects in French society of the 1700s, love courtship, and marriage dominated many early fairy tales. The authors of these tales included women who had been forced to marry, as well as a few who had declined marriage in order to maintain their independence. Beauty reflects and comments on these traditions in some respects, particularly in its view of the relationship of love, class, and marriage. In McKinley’s version of the tale, Beauty refuses many suitors and chooses, of her own free will, to live her life with the Beast.
Literary changes in eighteenth-century France
During the early 1700s in France, perspectives about literature began to change. As a part of this change, stories became vehicles for conveying morality, social norms, and proper manners. By this time, fairy tales had developed from a rather subversive genre to a more standardized and conventional one. The tales had become completely accepted by the upper classes and emerged as an increasingly visible element of children’s literature.
The familiar plot of the Beauty and the Beast tale was fully developed by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740, well after the salon traditions had waned. Basing her story on de Villeneuve’s version, another writer, Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, published the most familiar version of “Beauty and the Beast” in 1757. One of the first people to set down fairy tales explicitly for children, de Beaumont tended to write tales with a strong moral intent. Her version of the tale appeared in a book designed to educate little girls, and she used Beauty as a model of how to properly raise girls by emphasizing the importance of domestic skills and self-sacrifice for women.
The practice of using fairy tales as models of behavior continued into the 1800s. Due to the strict conservatism of the nineteenth century, the character of Beauty was often portrayed as meek, submissive, and docile. Betsy Hearne noted in a study of the various incarnations of the Beauty and the Beast tale that “every age modifies the traditions it receives from its predecessor,” and that one version of the tale from the early 1800s contained a strong element “of dutiful contentment with one’s lot” (Hearne, p. 36). Another version, in 1843, prompted the observation that English versions of the Beauty and Beast tale were filled with moralizing on such issues as education and marriage.
The book introduces a wealthy merchant who lives in the city with his three daughters. The two older daughters, named Hope and Grace, are very beautiful. The youngest daughter, whose real name is Honour, is nicknamed Beauty despite the fact that she considers herself rather plain-looking in comparison to her sisters. More clever than her sisters, Beauty spends her time reading and dreaming of attending a university.
One day the merchant’s ships are lost at sea, which reduces his family to poverty. His daughter Hope has a suitor named Gervain, who offers to take the family back to his village in the country. There, Gervain can earn a living and the family can start a new life. Everybody agrees to the plan. Before they leave, a friend of the family gives Beauty a horse named Greatheart, which she has secretly admired. The family travels for months before reaching the village.
Country life is very different for the girls. They no longer have the servants they had in the city. Instead, the girls have to wear peasant clothes, do their own cooking, and scrub the floors of their new home, which sits at the edge of the forest. Beauty grows accustomed to the new life more quickly than her sisters. But she, like everyone else in the family, is mystified by the nearby forest. Gervain warns her that the forest is haunted and that she should never wander into it or drink from the forest stream.
One day word arrives that one of the lost ships has been found. The girls’ father returns to the city to take care of business and is gone for several months. Before he leaves, he asks each member of his family what he should bring back as a present. Beauty requests rose seeds. When the father finally returns, he has a strange, frightening story to tell. On his way back to the country, he became lost in the woods and stumbled upon a magical castle. Although the castle seemed empty, food appeared and he found a bed waiting. He had been unable to acquire rose seeds for Beauty in the city, so the next morning he picked a rose to bring her from the castle’s beautiful gardens. Suddenly, a horrible beast appeared and demanded that either Beauty or her father return to the castle as payment for the rose.
Beauty finally convinces her father that she is the one who must return to the castle. She leaves with her horse, Greatheart, thinking that surely she will be eaten at the castle. Upon arrival, though, she finds herself the beneficiary of wondrous magic. Food serves itself to her, and she finds a giant library stocked with thousands of books. She has a beautiful room filled with gorgeous clothes. Preferring simple clothing, Beauty often quarrels with her invisible servants, who try to make her wear fine garments. She spends most of her days riding and reading. Even the weather around the castle seems magical.
In time Beauty meets the Beast, who frightens her with his horrible appearance. Surprisingly, the Beast proves to be kind, and he explains to Beauty that he wants her company. Eventually the two become good friends. Every night the Beast, who thinks Beauty is lovely, asks her to marry him. Beauty always answers “no”—she does not think that she can love the Beast.
Beauty longs for her family, so she asks the Beast if she can visit them. The Beast agrees to let her go for one week, warning that if she does not return to him he will die. Once home, Beauty recognizes that she has changed during her stay in the castle. Her family does not understand magic, and she has difficulty relating to them. She also discovers that she misses the Beast. When Beauty decides to stay an extra day, she dreams that the Beast has died. Frightened, she leaves for the castle immediately and finds the Beast in a corner, barely alive. Beauty suddenly realizes that she loves the Beast and agrees to marry him. Immediately, the Beast is transformed into a handsome prince. He explains that he had been under an enchantment that could only be broken when somebody agreed to marry him in his hideous form. Beauty marries the prince, and they live happily ever after.
How Beauty thinks
Robin McKinley’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” is considered a feminist story because of Beauty’s character. In many American fairy tales, the heroines are beautiful and sweet, and often these are their most prominent qualities. Beauty, on the other hand, has a strong, temperamental personality. In McKinley’s version, Beauty nicknamed herself when she was five years old. While she is not ugly, she considers herself very plain-looking, and as she matures her nickname makes her uncomfortable because she thinks it unsuitable. While her sisters dress up and go to parties, Beauty rejects such frivolous behavior because other self-perception. In one scene in the Beast’s castle, she fights with her invisible servants over the garments that she should wear. She cries out that “it is a beautiful dress.… And that’s why I won’t wear it; if you put a peacock’s tail on a sparrow, he’s still a brown little, wretched little, drab little sparrow” (McKinley, Beauty, p. 183).
Beauty also has strong opinions and does not hesitate to voice them. When, for example, Gervain warns her to stay away from the forest because it is enchanted, she declares, “I’ve never heard anything about this.… Are you sure you’re not making it all up to scare me into obedience? It won’t work, you know; it’ll only make me mad” (Beauty, p. 43).
Finally, Beauty is smart. While dwelling in the city, she avoids social gatherings, preferring instead to stay home and read. She actively pursues an education, describing to the reader her love for books and her secret desire to attend a university. Beauty notes that her governesses believe that scholarship is not a proper pursuit for a young woman. At the castle, however, her love for books works to her advantage, for she is able to enjoy the large library at her disposal. Her wit and education also enable her to befriend the Beast. Beauty and the Beast spend long hours discussing books and poetry.
Honor in Beauty
McKinley’s story Beauty emphasizes the quality of honor. In McKinley’s tale, Beauty’s real name is Honour, and McKinley considers the concept of honor a central narrative element. Beauty’s father promises that either he or Beauty will return to the Beast’s castle in one month, presumably to be devoured by him. The father believes that since he was the one who angered the Beast, he should go. This portrayal of the father differs from his image in many versions of “Beauty and the Beast.” In other versions, he is portrayed as a weak and selfish person who agrees to sacrifice his daughter because he is a coward. In McKinley’s version, however, the father is willing to accept responsibility for his transgression and recognizes the importance of a vow. Beauty, however, is also honorable, and considerably more strong-willed than her father. She refuses to send him to his death, insisting instead that since the rose is hers, she should go to the castle. She declares in a typically Beauty-like manner:
What will you do then, tie me up?… I will go, and what’s more, if [need be]… I will run off tonight while you’re asleep. I need only get lost in the woods, you said, to find the castle.
(Beauty, p. 78)
Stories of beauties and beasts are common throughout the world. In some of these tales, it is the husband who is enchanted and transformed into an animal; in others, it is the wife. In many such tales, the spell can only be broken by a kiss. Stories of this kind have been collected in India, Africa, central Asia, and the Americas. In Europe, the Beauty and the Beast tale has appeared as an oral story in places as distant as Rome and Russia.
The Roman tale of Cupid and Psyche is considered the earliest predecessor to Beauty and the Beast. In the Roman tale, the character Psyche is so beautiful that men are afraid to court her. The goddess Venus grows jealous and sends her son Cupid on a mission to make Psyche fall in love with the most vile creature on earth. Instead, Cupid himself falls in love with her. Meanwhile, an oracle directs Psyche’s parents to leave her on a mountaintop as a bride for a fierce and terrible serpent. On the mountaintop, Psyche falls asleep and awakens to discover a great palace where she is magically served. Here, her husband, Cupid, visits Psyche at night. She is forbidden to look at him and believes her husband to be some sort of monster. One night she breaks her promise and shines a light from an oil lamp on Cupid. When she discovers his beauty, she kisses him and spills some of the burning oil on him, awakening Cupid. He furiously returns to Venus, who punishes Psyche by assigning her four impossible tasks. Eventually the couple is reunited. Although their tale may be at the root of the Beauty and the Beast story, key differences exist between Beauty and Psyche. Beauty, unlike Psyche, acts of her own accord in going to meet the Beast. Also, whereas Psyche is punished for her disobedience in looking at her lover, Beauty is rewarded for her cleverness and her ability to see through the ugly exterior of the Beast to find the prince within.
The first known printing of a tale about a beautiful young woman whose love for a beast frees him from an evil spell occurred around 1550; the tale appeared in a collection by Gianfracesco Straparòla called The Nights of Straparòla. In 1697 Charles Perrault included the story in his Tales of Mother Goose. In 1740 a version penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve developed the plot line as it is known today. The next decade saw her version simplified by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont. De Beaumont’s 1756 version became the one familiar to modern readers and a major source for versions that followed.
McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was published in 1978, in a decade when the women’s rights movement was at its peak. The movement had its roots in the political unrest of the 1960s, an era when minorities such as African Americans fought for and gained equal rights and social recognition. The involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War further fueled feelings of dissatisfaction with the status quo. As many women participated in minority and antiwar protests, they increasingly recognized ways in which women were oppressed. Efforts were undertaken to change the way that American society treated women. Two important laws of the 1960s helped women gain a stronger and more equitable position in the nation’s work force. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 included a provision that made it illegal to pay people different rates due to gender, while a provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate in hiring and firing practices on the basis of gender.
The 1970s saw the women’s movement in full swing. Women challenged the traditional roles of the subservient wife and mother that had dominated American consciousness for decades. They embraced a number of nontraditional roles, and many took a more active course in seeking jobs outside the home. By 1984 approximately 50 million women were in the labor force; by contrast, only 31 million women had been counted in America’s work force in 1971. The most significant increase in female employment was in the twenty-four to thirty-five-year-old demographic bracket, the age at which most women have children. Though these figures indicate the large strides females made in gaining employment in the 1970s, economic need was also a factor in the change; many families could no longer make ends meet with only one wage earner in the household. It should also be noted that the larger percentage of women in the work force did not end sexual discrimination. Female workers were paid less than men on average and they were less likely to hold powerful positions. For example, less then 3 percent of the top federal jobs were held by women in the 1970s. Nonetheless, the decade marked a period of unprecedented growth for women in the workplace.
Women also attended college in record numbers during this period. The number of women receiving doctorates rose from 14 percent in 1970 to 28 percent in 1980. McKinley herself graduated in 1975. Her love of books and education is reflected in her portrayal of Beauty. At one point in the narrative, Beauty states:
My intellectual abilities gave me a release, and an excuse. I shunned company because I preferred books; and the dreams I confided to my father were of becoming a scholar in good earnest, and going to University. It was unheard-of that a woman should do anything of the sort—as several shocked governesses were only too quick to tell me, when I spoke a little too boldly—but my father nodded and smiled and said, “We’ll see.” Since I believed my father could do anything—except of course make me pretty—I worked and studied with passionate dedication, lived in hope, and avoided society and mirrors.
(Beauty, p. 6)
Meanwhile, several major changes in the structure of the American family took place during this time. Birth rates dropped, the age at which people married rose, and the divorce rate doubled. The growing economic opportunities for women had given them new options in life besides those of being a wife and mother.
Women also began to object to the stereotypical depiction of girls and women presented in various media, including fairy tales. A number of articles published in the early 1970s objected to fairy tales presenting women as passive and helpless. Many feminists questioned whether such images hindered women’s effort to achieve equal status with men. Not only did they write academic articles that challenged such stereotypes, but authors like Robin McKinley began to rewrite familiar fairy tales, populating them with strong female heroines. In the case of McKinley’s Beauty, the author paints young Beauty as an intelligent, headstrong, and adventurous woman. She is far from helpless; rather she actively helps both her family and herself and demonstrates that women can have their own adventures.
McKinley and Beauty
There are several parallels between the main character Beauty and McKinley herself. For one thing, both love horses. McKinley recalls that as a child she always played wild-horse games, while Beauty is described as having a special talent for communicating with her horse, Greatheart. At the Beast’s castle, she convinces Greatheart to walk near the Beast, something no other animal had done before,
For both McKinley and Beauty, horses and books were far more interesting than people during their adolescent years. Beauty is a shy and awkward character. As a child, McKinley also found it difficult to make friends. Beauty’s disinterest in boys—at one point she rejects her male friend Ferdy’s advances—reflects a similar disposition held by the author in her youth.
As a child, McKinley told herself stories about girls who do things. She noticed that boys “were the ones who got to have adventures, while we got to—well, not have adventures” (McKinley in Trachtenberg, p. 262). Beauty, however, is active and adventurous throughout the story. When she insists on going to the castle, her sister Grace remarks:
“I see you are very determined,” she said. “I
don’t understand why.”
I shrugged. “Well, I’m turned eighteen. I’m
ready for an adventure.”
(Beauty, p. 78)
Folktales and popular culture
In the 1970s, folklorist Kay Stone documented the impact of Walt Disney’s films on American women’s perception of fairy tales. She found that many women were most familiar with Disney’s versions, and suggested that such widely viewed movies played a role in the socialization of girls. Although this has not been proven directly, Stone noted that Disney’s heroines reached new heights of passive behavior, sweetness, and beauty.
The original versions of many of the tales portrayed their heroines as being strong and intelligent, not just beautiful. These original versions, however, were often violent or sexual in nature, and Disney’s target audience was the family. Thus, Disney “cleaned up” the stories for film production and distribution. Disney was not the first to do so; the Grimm brothers had similarly “cleaned up” fairy tales for audiences of their time (the early 1800s).
In Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, McKinley fights against the passive and often negative portrayal of women in fairy tales. In many versions of the story, Beauty’s sisters are characterized as jealous, materialistic, and cruel. Often, they are turned to stone as punishment for their behavior. Betsy Hearne describes one version: “It is jealousy that drives these... wicked ladies to their fate; none of them has a life of her own, but all are dependent on a miserable bunch of husbands to fulfill their existence” (Hearne, p. 18). In contrast, McKinley’s version portrays Beauty’s sisters as loving and supportive. They are more beautiful than Beauty, but also kind and tender.
The work of writers such as McKinley, coupled with the efforts of the women’s movement, have influenced the film industry. In 1992 Disney released a new film version of the “Beauty and the Beast” tale. Although the heroine, Belle, retains many of the traits associated with American fairy tales, the movie gives her more spirited qualities as well. The film generally portrays her as inquisitive and adventurous rather than victimized.
Gatlin, Rochelle. American Women Since 1945. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
Goncourt, Edmond, and Jules de Goncourt. The Woman of the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1981.
Hearne, Betsy. Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 52. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.
Zipes, Jack. Don’t Bet on the Prince. New York: Routledge, 1987.