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  • Secrets beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives
  • Gary Schmidt (bio)
Maria Tatar . Secrets beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives. Princeton, Princeton UP, 2004.

The story of "Bluebeard and His Wives" has not achieved the kind of cultural presence that the tale of "Beauty and the Beast" has garnered—perhaps because, as Maria Tatar suggests, in many ways, Bluebeard's [End Page 143] story is the inverse of the Beast's. Where the story of "Beauty and the Beast" suggests that great goodness can exist inside great ugliness, that of "Bluebeard" insists upon the opposite. Where Beauty's story ends with marriage, the story of "Bluebeard" ends with the death of the husband at the hands of the wife's brothers. Where Beauty's love grows and grows as she learns more and more about the Beast, Bluebeard's wife, driven by insatiable curiosity, comes to fear and loathe her husband as she gains knowledge of him.

In short, while "Beauty and the Beast" presents us with a tale promising that true love will bring out true beauty, and that, once revealed, that beauty and love will lead to the eternal happiness of marriage, the tale of "Bluebeard and His Wives" presents us with a tale that warns against marriage, and that holds up the threatening notion that there are secrets that must not be opened—but that will inevitably be opened, and to the destruction of the one who finds them out. Union and love, or fear, emptiness, and death by being hacked to pieces: It is not hard, it would seem, to choose the story more amenable to the larger culture.

And yet, Maria Tatar, while admitting that the story of "Beauty and the Beast" has greater obvious currency, argues the tale of "Bluebeard" has survived and flourished in Western culture precisely because of the kinds of questions that it raises about the nature of wives and husbands, and about the nature of the marriage relationship. Those questions do not necessarily change, but the ways in which they are asked do, and Tatar's fascination with the ways in which the Bluebeard story has been adapted so as to ask those questions appropriately in their cultural contexts is what drives this book. "Understanding how 'Bluebeard' has engaged in shape shifting over the centuries challenges us to think about the ways in which stories that we think of as 'timeless' and 'universal' constantly have to reinvent themselves in order to ensure their survival," Tatar asserts in the book's opening (15), and it is this shifting that will be the subject of much of the book's analysis.

Tatar's analysis moves through many media: folktale, broadsheet, stage play, short story, film, opera, novel, and novella. She also moves through centuries, from Charles Perrault's late seventeenth-century Tales of Mother Goose (1697) through a collection of Hitchcock films in the mid-twentieth century. In this movement through time and genre, Tatar skillfully probes the ways in which the basic structures of the Bluebeard story are adapted. These structures, of course, are the marriage of the somewhat naïve young woman to the mysterious wealthy man, the trip that takes him away from the castle, the subsequent test of the wife's [End Page 144] faithfulness, the giving of the key and the prohibition, the opening of the door and the wife finding on display the remnants of the husband's previous wives, the husband's discovery of her new knowledge, the husband's desire to kill his wife, and the wife's salvation at the hands of her intervening brothers. It is, if only in a narrative sense, a rich and fertile superstructure, as Tatar shows.

It is this fertility, Tatar argues, that allows for rich adaptation. Thus, for example, in the early tellings and retellings of this tale, the story of "Bluebeard and His Wives" was used as a cautionary tale—but not necessarily against marriage, but rather against female curiosity and duplicity. It is, in this sense, a tale about a trial by the husband, and a betrayal by the wife: she disobeys his one injunction, and...


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pp. 143-147
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