Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Bluebeard – symbols, secrets and power in folk tales

The Forbidden City: a natural holiday destination for Bluebeard

Do you know the Bluebeard folk tale? If so, how do you know it? Are you familiar with the whole plot, or is it a collection of images that float in your memory – a castle, a blood-stained key, unusual facial hair, the dismembered bodies of women?

It’s a gruesome story, and laden with symbols ripe for borrowing. The symbols and magic of folk tales are tempting material for writers, because they do so much to us; as Sara Maitland puts it, folk tales are ‘full of the reverberations of everyone’s dreams’. But writers continuously find novel ways of using these dream-meanings, re-using our instinctive responses to tell entirely new tales.

One of my favourite examples of this is Kirsty Logan’s ‘Flinch’ (in A Portable Shelter). In this story, the protagonist has something of the selkie (or seal person) about him, but his seal ancestry becomes the tool he uses to finally connect with someone he secretly cares about. This is very far from traditional selkie stories, of seal-women trapped by men who hide their seal coats in order to keep them in human, wifely form.

But while there are dozens of wonderful and entirely new stories that use folk tale reverberations (see recommended reading below), when it comes to Bluebeard, rare is the writer who can step away from its original plot. In almost every short story I’ve found that draws on, or retells, Bluebeard, the core plot, its tensions and gender dynamics, remain intact. The core story is of a terrible man and disempowered (not to mention dismembered) woman Why is this?

In the old tale, Bluebeard’s new wife is left alone in his castle with a bunch of keys, one of which she is forbidden to use. She gives in to temptation, though, and finds in the secret room the dismembered remains of his previous three wives. The key, which she drops in the blood, will not give up its stain, so Bluebeard finds her out; the new wife is usually rescued by her brothers at the last minute, when Bluebeard is about to kill her too.

I’ve looked at many Bluebeard-inspired stories, including: Margaret Atwood’s ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ (in her collection of the same name); Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Blue-bearded Lover’ (in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me); Donald Barthelme’s ‘Bluebeard’ (in Forty Stories); Francesca Lia Block’s ‘Bones’ (in Roses and Bones); and Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (in her collection of the same name).

These stories do differ marvellously. In Atwood’s, Bluebeard is a heart surgeon in contemporary suburbia, seemingly harmless to the point of stupidity (an illusion), In Lia Block’s, the heroine is a teenage girl impressed by a rich man’s party in a house filled with modern technology. Carter’s story is familiarly gothic, but the doomed wife is rescued by her gun-toting mother. Barthelme makes Bluebeard comically desperate to provoke interest in his secret room. Oates gives her heroine the power to overcome curiosity and survive in her own way, without rescue. The endings also differ – they are happy, or ominous, downright silly (see Barthelme) or sinister. In two of them, the wife does not quite play out her terrified-victim role and has no need of rescue.

But even in these new worlds so far away from the original Bluebeard’s castle, the essential power dynamic between man and woman is in place. The Bluebeard character has power through his secret: while the wife does not know what is in the locked room, she cannot know that she is danger, or at the very least, know what she is up against. The wife does not always come under threat of murder herself, but when doesn’t, there is an equivalent threat that still involves her relinquishing power, as a human and as a woman. Whichever way you look at it, there is entrapment here, and even the retellings by feminists do not alter this.

Power through keeping a secret seems to be a theme in folk tales: selkie stories and swan maiden tales all involve men entrapping women by secreting their fur or feather coats so they cannot return to the water. This might represent a denial of the true self, or full personhood: the woman loses her power to leave or stay as she wishes. These stories look like warnings, given by women to other women and to men. Bluebeard may be worse – he is a murderer as well as a deceiver and manipulator – but the message is similar.

Couldn’t a story giving this warning, whilst also demonstrating the flipside – that refusal to entrap is also possible? Claire Dean’s story ‘Feather Girls’ does just that, and with great poignancy, as opposed to celebration of freedom. The story achieves nuance and complexity that isn’t possible in a straightforward Bluebeard or swan maiden entrapment tale. The warning remains, but we focus instead on a man who has refused to fulfil the role of trapper.

Of course, to defang Bluebeard completely, to change the power relationship, would change the story, but it is still possible to make him pathetic, absurd, a pretender who is no mortal danger to his wife. Interestingly, it is only Barthelme’s story that does this, relying on our knowledge of the original in order to entertain us with this new, silly Bluebeard. But without the original tale in our minds, this man would be simply ridiculous, and the story would not have the impact (and humour) that it does.

Barthelme also gives the wife character her own secrets – she is sanguine, taking advantage of a desperate husband. This means there is still no redemption in this version, and there isn’t meant to be. We might say that a manipulative murderer does not deserve redemption, but it is interesting that in an epoch of looking for reasons behind terrible acts, seeking out explanations of psychological damage or pathology, Bluebeard remains simply demonic in our minds. It is his character, as opposed to the objects and symbols of the story, that brings writers back to Bluebeard time and again.

Some stories that use folk tales but do not simply retell them:

Clare Dean's story ‘Feather Girls’

Lucy Wood's collection Diving Belles

Cassandra Parkin's collection New World Fairy Tales

Angela Carter's collection The Bloody Chamber – some retellings, but some new stories

Sara Maitland's nonfiction and story book Gossip from the Forest - also some retellings, some new stories

Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox