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  • Beauty And The Beast:Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale: 1950-1985
  • Betsy Hearne (bio)

The story of "Beauty and the Beast" emerged, during the eighteenth century, from folk and literary sources that were combined into a literary fairy tale by French writers Madame Gabrielle Susanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve (1740) and Madame Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1756). Printed versions subsequently varied almost as much as oral narratives, which have included diversely active heroines and gender-reversed roles with the female as beast. An examination of the story's development reveals an organic shaping and reshaping around a core of basic elements in response to historical and cultural influences. Eighteenth-century versions are affected by the forging of folk narratives with a new literary tradition; the nineteenth century, by innovations in book-marking and printing; and the twentieth century, by the influence of psychological interpretations, new media techniques, and mass market distribution. The following is a comparative analysis of contemporary English and American versions, based on a more complete study of the story's recreations, through several hundred years, in the form of folklore, drama, poetry, novel, film, and picture book.1 The examination of variously successful versions defines which elements of the story are crucial to its survival and shows that its resilience lies in a metaphorical strength more flexible than most interpretations suggest.

In the story of "Beauty and the Beast," a wealthy merchant with three beautiful daughters, the youngest incomparably lovely and good-hearted, loses everything through misfortune. Hearing of one cargo ship's safe return, the merchant sets out to straighten out his finances. His older girls clamor for rich gifts, but Beauty requests only a rose. After a fruitless journey, the merchant turns homeward, gets lost in a storm, and discovers a magic palace, where he plucks from the garden a rose. This theft arouses the wrath of a terrible Beast, who demands he either forfeit his life or give up a daughter. Beauty insists on sacrificing herself but becomes instead mistress of a palace and develops an esteem for the Beast. In spite of her growing attachment to him, however, she misses her ailing father and requests leave to care for him. Once home, she is diverted by her two sisters from returning to the palace until nearly too late. She [End Page 74]

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Beauty and the Beast. Pictures by E. V. B. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Low, and sale, c. 1905.

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Beauty and the Beast. Vol. II, Hewet's Household Stories for Little Folks. Illustrator: W. H. Thwaite. New York, Hewet, 1855.

misses the Beast, arrives to find him almost dead with grief, and declares her love, thereby transforming him into a prince who makes her his bride.

From 1950 to 1985, the publications and media productions of "Beauty and the Beast" have multiplied dramatically but ephemerally. Of the scores of picture book versions, only a dozen are now in print. Eight are of mediocre quality and published by small houses that cannot sustain backlists long; the other four are fine editions but still threatened by an economy that forces books out of print as soon as immediate post-publication sales drop. Mass media productions, by their very nature, are often limited to one airing. The one-act opera by Vittorio Giannini, with a moving libretto ("Beauty was a girl who lived in dreams") by Robert Simon, was broadcast on the radio in 1951; the recording is inaccessible if it exists at all, and the score almost impossible to find. An elaborate television production viewed by millions in 1977 has never been rerun.

It is tempting to speculate whether the effect of so many versions of such varied quality duplicates oral folk dissemination. Both children and adults are exposed to the story periodically and ubiquitously, with divergence expected around the given themes despite a seeming permanence or authority of printed words and celluloid images. The pattern of adaptations available to any given individual must be random when a comprehensive search over several years has found so many versions, even [End Page 76...


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pp. 74-111
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