, , , , , , , , ,

Illustration in The fairy tales of Charles Per...

Illustration in The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), illustrator.  London: Harrap (1922) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charles Perrault‘s (1628-1703) Bluebeard, La Barbe bleue (see Gallica.BnF), is an exceptionally rich source of motifs.  In Aarne-Thompson-UtherBluebeard is classified as ATU 312, ATU 312A: The giant-killer and his dog– BluebeardThe U in ATU stands for Hans-Jörg Uther.[i]  Charles Perrault‘s Barbe bleue, Bluebeard, features a killer, but there is no reference to a dog.  However, Bluebeard is rooted in a popular and largely oral tradition In the more traditional tales, a dog or a bird is sent to warn our heroine’s family, her brothers especially.[ii]  This element has been removed by Perrault.  However, Professor D. L. Alishman specifies that folktales classified as ATU 312 and ATU 312A are stories “about women whose brothers rescue them from their ruthless husbands or abductors.”  Such is the case with Bluebeard.  So, to begin with, the motif of Bluebeard is AT 312 and 312A .

According to Alishman, related tales are:


1. Kay Nielsen (12 March 1886 – 21 June 1957) (Photo credit: Google Images)
2. Gustave Doré (6 January 1832 – 23 January 1883) (Photo credit: Google Images)
3. Arthur Rackham (19 September 1867 – 6 September 1939) (1919) (Photo credit: Google Images)
4. Gustave Doré (Photo credit:  Google Images)
5. Gustave Doré (Photo credit:  Google Images)
(Please click on the small images to enlarge them.)

Bluebeard_Rackham1919Illustration For Charles Perrault's 'Bluebeard'


Setting the Stage: a mystery and Suspense

Bluebeard is feared by most women.  He owns many properties, in town and in the countryside, “gold and silver dishes, beautifully upholstered (embroidered) furniture and golden carriages: de la vaisselle d’or et d’argent, des meubles en broderie, et des carrosses tout dorés.(Gilbert Rouger)[iii]  However, his blue beard makes him so ugly and terrifying that women run away when they see him.  Moreover, despite his blue beard, this colourful but brutal character has married several times, but every wife has disappeared.  The moment Perrault reveals this fact, we enter the realms of mystery and suspense.  What has happened to the former wives?  There will be a moment of revelation. 

Bluebeard’s neighbour, a Lady, has two beautiful daughters and is looking for suitable husbands.  When they first see Bluebeard, the daughters find him repulsive.  However, Bluebeard organizes a feast and invites the young women and a few of their friends (first image).  As they go from pleasure to pleasure, the younger daughter begins to see Bluebeard as a less frightening man and marries him.

Bluebeard marries and goes on a trip: forbidden room

Once he has married the younger daughter, Bluebeard tells her he must go away on a trip, but to invite friends (second image).  He then starts distributing keys and warns his wife not to enter a certain room yet gives her the key to this room.  The telltale key and the forbidden room are motifs dating to the story of Adam and Eve.  Eve is tempted by the serpent and bites into the forbidden apple.  When collecting folktales, the Brothers Grimm were told the story of Marienkind, Mary’s Child, in which a girl enters a forbidden thirteenth room, sees the Trinity and is then burdened with a telltale gold finger.  Marienkind will not confess that she did enter the forbidden room until she is condemned to burn at the stake.  As the flames start engulfing her, she finally tells the truth and is saved.  The motifs of that tale, the forbidden room and the telltale stain, link it to Bluebeard.

Disobedience: the stained key

Like the archetypal Eve, women are considered curious and, despite their fears, they want to unlock forbidden rooms, closets and cabinets.  Again, “folk versions of the tale do not fault the heroine for her curiosity?”[iv]  Bluebeard’s young wife trembles, but she unlocks the hidden cabinet (third image).  Here we think of the deceptive closet that leads to other rooms.  That is another motif.  Next, when the young wife sees the bloodstained floor and the bodies of dead women, she drops the key and it gets stained by the blood on the floor of the room.  This element seems a variation on the “tache [stain] originelle,” or the original sin.  Therefore, our main motif could well be that of the indelible stain.  Babies are born “entachés,” stained with the original sin.  The young wife cannot clean the key.  It is, therefore, an enchanted key.

Bluebeard returns

Bluebeard returns that very evening and is received with open arms.  His bride hopes to delay the moment when he will ask for the keys to be returned, one of which is the stained key.  The young bride therefore entertains her husband as does Scheherazade, the Persian Queen of the One Thousand and One Nights who has studied sufficiently to know that fiction, entertainment in the form of storytelling, might save her from death, which it does.

However, the next morning, our poor young wife is asked to return all the keys her rich and ruthless husband has entrusted to her.  He sees the stained key and tells her she will join the wives who have died due to their indiscretion.  She, of course, falls to her knees begging for forgiveness.  Bluebeard was testing her and she has failed the test.  She is yet another Eve who has yielded to temptation.

Tests are a common element in fairy tales as are the three requirements that will turn a toad into a prince.  But Bluebeard is a one-test, or trap, narrative that resembles the Pandora’s Box narrative.  Pandora is given a jar named pithos which she is instructed not to open, but curiosity, the villain, is as irresistible as the serpent.  She opens the jar and releases all the bad things in the world.  Evil is born and women are to blameThey are the scapegoats. 

Fortunately, Bluebeard’s young wife inhabits fairyland.  Her sister Anne has not yet returned home.  So the young bride has a stand-in, so to speak, and uses a common a ruse.  She asks to be allowed to pray for one half of a quarter-hour and goes upstairs to alert her sister.  This recourse is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Desdemona‘s (Othello) request This is yet another motif or, possibly, an instance of intertextuality, texts that mirror one another.  Usually, folktales contain motifs, just as music contains themes. Shakespearean theater is otherwise classified, but the stained finger could be designated as a motif in the broader world of fiction.  Our terrified héroïne asks her sister Anne to go to a tower and to watch because their brothers have promised to visit and Bluebeard has returned earlier than expected.  Anne is instructed to alert them from her tower. This is ATU type 312 and 312A.

Anne, ma sœur Anne, ne vois-tu rien venir ?

Bluebeard grows increasingly impatient, but the younger wife keeps asking her sister Anne whether or not she can see the brothers.  This is a summit of suspense:  Anne, ma sœur Anne, ne vois-tu rien venir ? Anne, my sister Anne, can’t you see anything coming?  Anne answers twice.  Je ne vois rien que le Soleil qui poudroie, et l’herbe qui verdoie.  All I see are flurries of the Sun and grass turning green.  The third time, however, Anne reports that she sees men on horseback riding in their direction.  As you know, the number three is a common element of fairy tales.

At his wits end, Bluebeard starts screaming so loudly that the house shakes (fourth image).  He goes upstairs and grabs his young wife by the hair, holding a knife.  Once again, she asks to pray, but he will not let her pray.  At this point, the reader or listener fears that all is lost, except that we are in fairyland.  There has to be a savior, and there is.

Kairos: the opportune moment

At the opportune moment, kairos, the brothers make a racket at the door.  The door is forced open and Bluebeard sees one brother, a dragoon, and the second, a musketeer. Bluebeard runs away from them, but the brothers catch him when he reaches the porch and they drive a sword through his body (fifth image).

The younger sister inherits her husband’s possessions.  She provides her sister with the dowry that will enable her to marry a kind man she has known for a long time.  She buys her brothers appointments as captains and, for her part, she marries a gentleman.

The Morals

There are two moralités.  One is the moral of cautionary tales.  It is an exemplum. The tale tells about the dangers of curiosity:

La curiosité malgré tous ses /attraits,
Coûte souvent bien de regrets
On en voit /tous les jours exemples paraître.
Curiosity, despite all its /appeal /
Often costs many regrets /
One sees /everyday examples appear(literal translation)

However, Perrault uses a second moral that is not altogether a moral, but a form reassurance.  He writes that those who have common sense know that this story happened a long time ago.  There are no longer such terrible husbands, nor husbands who asks for the impossible, even when they are displeased or jealous, etc.

In other words, he tells readers that he has written a fairy tale.


Criticism of Bluebeard

  • There has been criticism of Bluebeard.  For instance, help is so slow in coming that this fairy tale, nearly fails the “happy ending” rule fairy tales.  However, Perrault’s suspense is acceptable in storytelling.  It adds piquancy to the tale.  In seventeenth-century France, one could not mix comedy and tragedy.  Tragedy inspires pity and fear.  Featuring a dog or a bird carrying a message would have lessened the degree of suspense, not to mention pity and fear.  In more traditional tellings of Bluebeard, the heroine “insists on donning bridal clothes, and they prolong the possibility of rescue by recounting each and every item of clothing.”[v]
  • As mentioned above, curiosity is not a factor in more traditional tellings of Bluebeard. 
  • Bruno Bettelheim[vi] situates Bluebeard in the animal-groom cycle (Aarne-Thompson), except that our heroine marries the animal before a curse is lifted that transforms him into a kind and beautiful person, which is usually the case in fairy tales.  In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty learns to love Beast as Beast is, which lifts the curse.  She marries a beautiful man, the appropriate ending of a fairy tale.


Bluebeard is an ATU 312 or ATU 312A type, but it is related to the Brother’s Grimm’s Fitcher’s Bird (number or KHM 46, Grimm), Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 311, and the Robber Bridegroom (KHN 40, Grimm), Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 955.  Marienkind (KHM 3) is ATU 710.  So it seems that Professor Alishman’s above-mentioned list could include Marienkind, Fitcher’s Bird and the Robber Bridegroom, depending on his criteria for selection.  Margaret Atwood is the author of The Robber Bride (1993) and Angela Carter, the author of The Bloody Chamber (1979).  It would appear this story therefore combines many ATU types.  Moreover, this tale and its variants have been told many times.

The Indelible Stain and Intertextualité

The indelible stain seems a particularly important motif.  I have mentioned the Bible.  Curiosity leads to the original sin, called stain in French: la tache.  But it also reminds us of the stain on Lady Macbeth’s hand. It will not wash away: “Out, damn’d spot! out I say!” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1, line 35).  Lady Macbeth has killed and the stain on her hand is as permanent as the original sin.  She must atone.  In this regard, Bluebeard is reminiscent of William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth.  But we are reading a fairy tale. The genre itself demands a happy ending, as do comic texts. Moreover, the indelible stain could be a motif, and the original sin, to which it can be compared, an instance of intertextualité.

The indelible stain motif also appears in Le Roman de Perceforest, a medieval narrative usually associated with Sleeping Beauty. Blanchette’s fairy godmother has asked her not to touch Lyonnel.  But she does, briefly and accidentally.  The finger that has touched Lyonnel turns black.

In the Brother’s Grimm’s Marienkind, Marienkind opens the thirteenth door, or the forbidden door.  It seems the number thirteen has long been an unlucky number, but the more important element, the motif, is that of the telltale stain. 


Let it be short: “All’s well that ends well.”  Tout est bien qui finit bien

Sources and Resources

Perrault fairy tales are the Project Gutenberg [EBook #29021]

[i]  The AT-number system was updated and expanded in 2004, the year Hans-Jörg Uther published his Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Hans-Jörg Uther calls types some of the elements formerly named motifs, but some motifs are types. The telltale stained key is a motif, but brothers saving a sister would be a type.
[ii] Maria Tatar in Jack Zipes, editor, The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000).
[iii] Gilbert Rouger, editor. Les Contes de Perrault (Paris: Editions Garnier, 1967).
[iv] Op. cit. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989 [1975, 1976]), p. 182.
Franz Schubert (31 January 1797 – 19 November 1828; aged 31)
Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960
Alfred BrendelKBE (born 5 January 1931, Wiesenberg)
© Micheline Walker
14 June 2013
La Barbe Bleue, by Kay Nielsen
Photo Credit: Google Images
(Click on the image to enlarge it.)