Bluebeard (Blaubart) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812

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BLUEBEARD (Blaubart)
by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812

The fairy-tale motif of the forbidden room has appeared in stories from many different cultures and centuries. The Grimms' "Bluebeard" ("Blaubart") is a mixture of Perrault's tale "La barbe bleue" and the oral rendition of the Hassenpflug sisters, members of a magistrate's family in Kassel with a Huguenot background, who had become close friends and relatives of the Grimms. (Dorothea Grimm married Ludwig Hassenpflug.) The Hassenpflug sisters were among the more than 25 women who contributed the majority of the 86 stories in the first volume of Grimms' 1812 collection. Because of the important precedence of the Perrault tale "La barbe bleue," Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm decided to omit "Bluebeard" from their collection beginning with the second edition in 1819. In spite of the fact that "Bluebeard" is among the 32 tales that were relegated to the section of "omitted tales" in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (translated by Jack Zipes, 1987), the Grimms' "Bluebeard"—a tale of the horribly "beastly" bridegroom and his beautiful young bride—is included in many fairy-tale collections and anthologies. Bluebeard's violent actions against his string of wives and his controlling and misogynist demeanor have frequently been viewed by feminist critics as model representatives of nineteenth-century patriarchal violence in the domestic realm.

Another widely applicable motif in "Bluebeard" is the disobedience of a young curious woman during her passage from girlhood to womanhood. Seen from this vantage point, "Bluebeard" contains implicit allusions to the biblical story of man's fall (Genesis 3:1-7) and suggests a link between Eve and the unnamed female in the tale. The allusion to Eve is particularly evident when the motif of the forbidden room in "Bluebeard" is placed next to its related Grimms' tale "The Virgin Mary's Child." In the latter tale it is the Virgin Mary who holds the key to the forbidden room and who punishes transgressions. In both Grimm tales the female figures evoke images of Eve as scapegoats for the origin of evil in Western civilization. Just as the myth of Eve has been used in Western religious history to rationalize male fear and negation of women, "Bluebeard" can be read as a warning for women not to succumb to sexual curiosity, Eros, and fantasy because it might result in male brutality and anxiety. The female protagonist's unlocking of the forbidden room in the Grimms' tales closely resembles Eve's daring act to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.

That the forbidden room in "Bluebeard" clearly refers to an unlocking of sexual desires is suggested by the Grimms' tale of "Fichter's Bird," another variation of the "Bluebeard" story. Here it is not the key to the forbidden room that is dropped by the woman into the blood flowing out of the room. Instead, an egg, associated with the female role in reproduction, is dropped into the blood in the forbidden room of a sorcerer. Both the egg and the key result in a magic indelible bloodstain. Significantly the female protagonists in "Bluebeard" and in "Fichter's Bird" are terribly frightened of marriage and of having to be dutiful, virtuous wives to husbands that they find repulsive. The young bride in "Bluebeard" asks her brothers several times to protect her from Bluebeard. In order to clarify the Grimms' adaptation of Perrault's tale to nineteenth-century male-dominated German society, a short overview of the story line of Grimms' "Bluebeard" follows.

As in many other Grimm tales, the setting is the enchanted world of the German forest. A beautiful young female resides in a forest surrounded by the protection of her father and three brothers (no mother is mentioned) until a king happens by and asks the father for the hand of his daughter. Because the king's unusual blue beard immediately repulses the daughter, she has no interest in marrying him. Only upon her father's insistent urging and her brothers' promise to come to her aid instantly whenever she would call for their help does she finally agree to leave with the king. Even in the splendor of the castle she continues to feel frightened each time she looks at his beard. After a while the king decides to take a trip (no doubt to provide a testing ground for her curiosity) and forbids the queen to enter a particular room in the castle. Because she is entrusted with a golden key to the room, she cannot resist the temptation to unlock it and finds in it the bodies of the king's former wives.

Upon this discovery the queen recognizes that she is doomed to die just like the wives before her unless she can outsmart the cruel king. The golden key, however, endowed with magic power, becomes the outward sign of her betrayal. After she accidentally drops the key into a stream of blood that flows toward her out of the secret room, the blood sticks to the key resisting her efforts to wipe it off. (One might interpret the clinging power of the blood as a projection of her guilt onto the key.) Upon Bluebeard's return he immediately discovers her disobedience when the blood-stained golden key is missing. He prepares for her to join the other dead wives in the secret room while her screams for the help of her three brothers (who happen to be in a nearby forest drinking wine while guarding her safety) bring them to the palace just in time to prevent her slaughter. Thereupon they kill the king with their sabers and hang him in the bloody room next to the murdered wives. In the end justice has been restored and the queen returns home with the brothers and inherits Bluebeard's treasures.

In Perrault's version, by contrast, the woman is not totally dependent on her brothers for help—she has a sister and two brothers. Thus she is not surrounded solely by males in her family but can also develop bonding with a female. She need not rely helplessly on only the males as rescuers. The brothers in Perrault's story are not idly sitting in a forest close to the king's castle eagerly awaiting their rescue missions; they had already arranged a visit as a guest to her house on that day. And in Perrault's version the sister does not live forever happily in dependency on her brothers and father but remarries and sets out for a life of her own.

It has been widely documented that the Grimm brothers changed details from Perrault's stories and all the other written and oral sources in order to accommodate nineteenth-century values and perceptions of German bourgeois society. Female sexuality was suppressed and women's marginal and dependency-oriented place in society underscored. Whether one applies Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, or feminist perspectives to "Bluebeard," the Grimms' beastly Bluebeard symbolizes the power structures of the era's ossified German patriarchy that still needed the forbidden room to keep women's curiosity and desire for independence in check. As Jack Zipes has shown in his study The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, for the brothers Grimm and the German romantics, old alluring forests harbored cultural heritage, collective history, laws, and customs, and were an arena in which dangerous elements could be overcome. Today we need a double focus when we read stories like the Grimms' version of "Bluebeard": a child's eye that hungrily absorbs the charm, magic, and fantastic elements of the tale and the mature, contemporary eye, exploring traces that break the magic spell of enchanted forests and shed light on social issues and gender questions in the modern world.

—Barbara Mabee