- Tales of Bluebeard and His Wives from Late Antiquity to Postmodern Times
This is a subtle and multi-threaded book that will prove interesting to a wide variety of readers. It is not, however, a study of "Bluebeard" in the aural traditions of Europe: it is not concerned with the folk versions that inspired the classical texts by Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, nor does it examine how this particular theme—classified by folklorists as ATU types 311 (Rescue by the Sister) and 312 (Maiden-Killer [Bluebeard])—relates to other themes in the European oral repertoire. Rather, this is primarily a literary study of the Bluebeard theme in a cluster of Victorian novels by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), and Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919), as well as in contemporary revisions by Angela Carter (1940-1992) and Margaret Atwood (born 1939).
Barzilai's sophisticated approach combines intertextual readings with an extratextual viewpoint that explores the interplay between stories using the Bluebeard theme and the story authors' lives. Within this layered perspective, her study examines the repeated uses of the Bluebeard theme in the oeuvres of Dickens and of Thackeray; then it forcefully reevaluates Ritchie as a pivotal author who draws on the seventeenth-century tradition of women fairy-tale writers while influencing the Bluebeard tradition of the twentieth century. Finally, [End Page 358] the examination of Atwood's recent uses of the theme brings up the question of why the appeal of this old story has endured.
But the literary history of "Bluebeard" is arguably the outer shell of an argument that has deeper undercurrents. From the outset, chapter 1 moors the theme to an ancient pillar of Western worldview by pointing out that the fall of Eve has been a model for understanding the behavior of Bluebeard's wives. Barzilai proposes to recognize the first instance of Bluebeard in a folktale contained in Genesis Rabbah (the midrashic commentary on the book of Genesis), which works as a parable for the Fall and its aftermath. According to her, the author of the folktale in Genesis Rabbah was presumably the first author of "Bluebeard"; otherwise put, the Bluebeard theme is a variation on the Fall story. Indeed, Barzilai calls Perrault's "Bluebeard" a late midrash on Genesis. (Shrewdly, Barzilai proposes that Perrault's text internalizes the snake in the woman, which agrees with the age-old notion that Eve herself is a snake.) This stance appears to imply two things. First, that "Bluebeard" transposes up to our time the theme of knowledge acquisition and sexual initiation contained in the Genesis episode. Indeed, in the discussion of Atwood's Bluebeard's Egg the Eve-Adam-Snake pattern comes up again, along with the proposition that the themes of consumption and knowledge may be retraced to Perrault "and yet farther back to the timeless plots played out in the biblical garden of Eden and its midrashic corollaries" (153). The second implication is that Barzilai's book on Bluebeard is an offshoot of midrash studies; that, in other words, this examination of a fairytale theme positions itself within the tradition of pilpul (rabbinical disputation) concerning themes at the very root of the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Even though Barzilai mentions the biblical roots of her theme only in the first and last chapters, another exegetical paradigm supplements the midrashic inspiration in the remainder of the book. Barzilai maintains that creative writing, like daydreaming, bears the imprint of each individual artist. Moreover, she proposes that "Bluebeard" is the tattletale par excellence, for it concurrently camouflages and reveals the inner realities of writers who dabble with it. That is, a fairy-tale theme rife with the ontological enigmas of Genesis also operates as though it were a screen memory as defined by Freud. For example, Barzilai proposes that the Bluebeard theme stems from the triangulated structure of husband-wife-interloper (snake) shown in the story of the Fall. And she shows in Dickens's humorous evocations of Bluebeard, as glossed by the Freudian...