Theodora Goss on the true lesson of Bluebeard, and living as a woman.
When I teach my class on fairy tales, I ask students about the moral of “Bluebeard.” Charles Perrault gives us a moral, clearly marked “moral,” at the end of the tale: “Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. To the displeasure of many a maiden, its enjoyment is short lived. Once satisfied, it ceases to exist, and always costs dearly.” I ask my students, is that really what we learned from the story?
No, they tell me. That moral doesn’t make sense. If Bluebeard’s wife hadn’t been curious, she would never have known that he had killed his previous wives. And although he tells her that he’s going to kill her because of her curiosity, and we can infer that he killed most of his other wives for the same reason, what about the first wife? Why did he kill her? Clearly this is a man who simply likes killing his wives, and will eventually think of a reason to kill again. So, I ask them, what is the moral? And eventually we come up with something like this:
“Make sure you know whom you’re marrying, because your husband may be a serial killer.”
There's an impulse there to laugh – I did – as though this were the punchline to a joke, but it's a joke that's funny only because it is black. Because this happens every day, and it is a truth we recognize all too well.
You cannot tell if a man is dangerous by looking at him
. You have to look in every room there is. Sometimes, you still miss it.
Sometimes, it's just too soon. Sometimes it's not possible for us to see the danger. We are pushed into it too young, before we've learned the necessary skills to defend ourselves. We never knew safety, and so we cannot recognize danger. We leave one abusive environment for another, without spending time in between learning all those ordinary human things that we should have been taught but never were. We are driven to it by desperation, because we lack the means to take care of ourselves. There are many reasons.
Many times, maybe most times, they just hide it very, very well.
In neither case can women – should
women – be blamed for the outcome.
The problem is not that the young bride in the story is too curious, it's that her husband is a murderer. At the very best, if we make a bargain with this sort of man, we lose parts of ourselves. They take it, or we have to cut it off to get away. At worst, we lose our lives – whether that's years stolen, or actual death.
Fairy tales are teaching stories. Without the neat little morals imposed on them by those who cleaned them up and recorded them, they tell a different tale. It is often a warning with just one paw sticking out. Truth concealed in something as harmless as a made-up story so that those who would prevent that truth from being spoken cannot silence it.
The moral of Bluebeard is found in that one key that seems ordinary until it is used to reveal the truth. The key that cries the alarm that is also a warning. The key that bleeds, the guilt that is not ours but is ours to bear. Our fault, somehow, for dragging into the light what should never have been done to us. What has been seen has been seen. What is known is known. That is the stain we cannot wash away.
We are told not to turn that little key; but if we are to survive, we must
. No matter what
the moral says, the torments visited on those lost women in the hidden room leave us with no doubt that we would have joined them, no matter how obedient. It is not idle curiosity that leads to the click of the lock and the creaking door. It is doubt, it is the deep-seated desire for self-preservation. It is that shred of mistrust that is sometimes all that warns us, even when nothing else may, that we are in the presence of a thing that would make of us either a slave or a corpse.
Women must be allowed
not to ignore that warning.
We must not be punished, or even criticized, for asking the questions and opening the doors that might save us.
People (mostly men) tell women that we should trust, because to do otherwise is impolite. To insist on looking in every single chamber is rude, they say. We should believe
them, they say. Give them the benefit of the doubt, they say. Most of us are not like that, they say.
But what about those women in that chamber? What about the cut throats, the guts kicked into the corner, the long bones stripped and ribs empty as birdcages, the skin piled up like rags? What about the warning they present?
Do we ignore them, or do we believe them?
Men tell women not to be rude, that they do not deserve mistrust, when women
fear that they will be raped, beaten, worse. The worst that happens to a man, if a woman is wrong, is a bruised ego. The worst that happens to a woman. . . .
no woman equivalent of H. H. Holmes, of Ed Gein, of Jack the Ripper. Maybe, sometimes, we smother, we poison, we find other ways. We can be brutal and we can be cruel. But we do not eat
them. We do not wear
them. We do not drug, rape, and dismember
them. There simply is no
comparison to be made, none at all.
When we act to protect ourselves by erring on the side of "no," we are supposedly being cruel to those who desire our company. But if we do not, if we fail to protect ourselves by even the slightest margin, we are blamed for what happens to us. Not every person judges women like that, but enough do
that justice for rape is a thing that I have never actually seen.
I do not believe that this violence toward women is an innate part of men that will always exist. I believe there are other explanations for why men do these things at rates that women do not. So I do not believe that we should mistrust all
believe that when we do, we must be allowed that without question. Fear is a useful thing. Fear wants to protect us, teach us. The person who is not at risk doesn't get to define when fear is called for or not called for, when it is fair and unfair. "Don't be afraid, I won't hurt you" is something a hell of a lot of helpless people hear, right before something very painful happens.
We get to decide when we should be afraid, to the extent that we are taught to do so. That teaching has not always been so open, and it does not always need to be so explicit. Fairy tales are a way that women used and still use of passing wisdom to the next generation. At their weakest, they entertain. At their strongest, they lay a foundation for survival so basic we do not see or feel it working.
It is no coincidence that the fairy-tale revival is largely being led by authors and readers who are also women
, re-interpreting these stories for a new generation, while many authors and readers who are men look on and sneer. Children's stories. Told by women. Effortless, harmless, pointless.
As though their birth was bloodless, and no woman's hand ever touched them when they were sleeping, helpless. As though it is not our mothers
who have power over us first and most irrevocably.
As a group, it seems to me that women never lost respect for fairy tales. Women as a group never forgot what fairy tales are for.
So what about Bluebeard's first wife? Why did he kill her? What was her
We need to stop asking. We need to stop asking why women wind up in those rooms, because no woman deserves to be there.
And – I will not footnote this – we must not discount or forget those women whose bodies were labeled "male," and who face higher odds of abuse and murder than women who have always been allowed to live as women. Many of them lie in many bloody chambers, for no crime other than answering a question with a truth. No woman belongs there.
There are many questions the world will ask of you if you are a woman, and most of them boil down to this:
To whom do you belong?
But there is one question women
must be allowed to ask of and answer for themselves
Who do I trust?
For women, the very first answer to the two is and must be always the same:Ourselves.
Ever after.Permission to quote, or link back here, granted.X-posted from Dreamwidth