Blue Beard


THERE was a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold. But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue1 beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him.

One of his neighbors, a lady of quality, had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her choice which of the two she would bestow on him. They would neither of them have him, and sent him backward and forward from one another, not being able to bear the thoughts of marrying a man who had a blue beard,2 and what besides gave them disgust and aversion was his having already been married to several wives, and nobody ever knew what became of them.

Bluebeard,3 to engage their affection, took them, with the lady their mother and three or four ladies of their acquaintance, with other young people of the neighborhood, to one of his country seats,4 where they stayed a whole week.

There was nothing there to be seen but parties of pleasure, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other. In short, everything succeeded so well that the youngest daughter began to think the master of the house not to have a beard so very blue, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman.

As soon as they returned home, the marriage was concluded. About a month afterward, Bluebeard told his wife that he was obliged to take a country journey for six weeks5 at least, about affairs of very great consequence, desiring her to divert herself in his absence, to send for her friends and acquaintances, to carry them into the country, if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.

"Here," said he, "are the keys6 of the two great wardrobes,7 wherein I have my best furniture; these are of my silver and gold plate, which is not every day in use; these open my strong boxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets8 of jewels; and this is the master-key to all my apartments.9 But for this little one here, it is the key of the closet10 at the end of the great gallery11 on the ground floor. Open them all; go into all and every one of them, except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, there's nothing but what you may expect from my just anger and resentment."12

She promised to observe, very exactly, whatever he had ordered; when he, after having embraced her, got into his coach and proceeded on his journey.

Her neighbors and good friends did not stay to be sent for by the new married lady, so great was their impatience to see all the rich furniture of her house, not daring to come while her husband was there, because of his blue beard, which frightened them. They ran through all the rooms, closets, and wardrobes, which were all so fine and rich that they seemed to surpass one another.

After that they went up into the two great rooms, where was the best and richest furniture; they could not sufficiently admire the number and beauty of the tapestry, beds, couches, cabinets, stands, tables, and looking-glasses,13 in which you might see yourself from head to foot; some of them were framed with glass, others with silver, plain and gilded, the finest and most magnificent ever were seen.

They ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend, who in the meantime in no way diverted herself in looking upon all these rich things, because of the impatience she had to go and open the closet on the ground floor. She was so much pressed by her curiosity14 that, without considering that it was very uncivil to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she had twice or thrice like to have broken her neck.15

Coming to the closet-door, she made a stop for some time, thinking upon her husband's orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient;16 but the temptation17 was so strong she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling, but could not at first see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood,18 on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she took up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover herself; but she could not, she was so much frightened. Having observed that the key of the closet was stained with blood,19 she tried two or three times to wipe it off, but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand;20 the blood still remained, for the key was magical21 and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.

Bluebeard returned from his journey the same evening, and said he had received letters upon the road, informing him that the affair he went about was ended to his advantage. His wife did all she could to convince him she was extremely glad of his speedy return.22

Next morning he asked her for the keys, which she gave him, but with such a trembling hand that he easily guessed what had happened.

"What!" said he, "is not the key of my closet among the rest?"

"I must certainly have left it above upon the table," said she.

"Fail not to bring it to me presently," said Bluebeard.

After several goings backward and forward she was forced to bring him the key. Bluebeard, having very attentively considered it, said to his wife, "How comes this blood upon the key?"

"I do not know," cried the poor woman, paler than death.

"You do not know!" replied Bluebeard. "I very well know. You were resolved to go into the closet, were you not? Mighty well, madam; you shall go in, and take your place among the ladies you saw there."

Upon this she threw herself at her husband's feet, and begged his pardon with all the signs of true repentance,23 vowing that she would never more be disobedient. She would have melted a rock, so beautiful and sorrowful was she; but Bluebeard had a heart harder than any rock!24

"You must die, madam," said he, "and that presently."

"Since I must die," answered she (looking upon him with her eyes all bathed in tears), "give me some little time to say my prayers."25

"I give you," replied Bluebeard, "half a quarter of an hour, but not one moment more."

When she was alone she called out to her sister, and said to her:  "Sister Anne"26 (for that was her name), "go up, I beg you, upon the top of the tower, and look if my brothers are not coming over; they promised me that they would come today, and if you see them, give them a sign to make haste."

Her sister Anne went up upon the top of the tower, and the poor afflicted wife cried out from time to time: "Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?"27

And sister Anne said: "I see nothing but the sun, which makes a dust, and the grass, which looks green."

In the meanwhile Bluebeard, holding a great sabre28 in his hand, cried out as loud as he could bawl to his wife: "Come down instantly, or I shall come up to you."

"One moment longer, if you please," said his wife, and then she cried out very softly, "Anne, sister Anne, dost thou see anybody coming?"

And sister Anne answered: "I see nothing but the sun, which makes a dust, and the grass, which is green."

"Come down quickly," cried Bluebeard, "or I will come up to you."

"I am coming," answered his wife; and then she cried, "Anne, sister Anne, dost thou not see anyone coming?"

"I see," replied sister Anne, "a great dust, which comes on this side here."

"Are they my brothers?"

 "Alas! no,29 my dear sister, I see a flock of sheep."

"Will you not come down?" cried Bluebeard.

"One moment longer," said his wife, and then she cried out: "Anne, sister Anne, dost thou see nobody coming?"

"I see," said she, "two horsemen, but they are yet a great way off."

"God be praised," replied the poor wife joyfully; "they are my brothers; I will make them a sign, as well as I can, for them to make haste."

Then Bluebeard bawled out so loud that he made the whole house tremble. The distressed wife came down, and threw herself at his feet, all in tears, with her hair about her shoulders.

"This signifies nothing," says Bluebeard; "you must die"; then, taking hold of her hair with one hand, and lifting up the sword with the other, he was going to take off her head. The poor lady, turning about to him, and looking at him with dying eyes, desired him to afford her one little moment to recollect herself.

"No, no," said he, "recommend thyself to God," and was just ready to strike . . .

At this very instant there was such a loud knocking at the gate that Bluebeard made a sudden stop. The gate was opened, and presently entered two horsemen, who, drawing their swords, ran directly to Bluebeard. He knew them to be his wife's brothers, one a dragoon,30 the other a musketeer,31 so that he ran away immediately to save himself; but the two brothers pursued so close that they overtook him before he could get to the steps of the porch, when they ran their swords through his body and left him dead. The poor wife was almost as dead as her husband, and had not strength enough to rise and welcome her brothers.

Bluebeard had no heirs,32 and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while;33 another part to buy captains commissions34 for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

By Charles Perrault

1.  Blue:  The deepest color, "blue is the most insubstantial color and seldom occurs in the natural world except as a translucency. It is considered empty, or austere, pure, and frosty. It is also the coldest color. Indifferent and unafraid, centered solely upon itself, blue is not of this world: it evokes the idea of eternity, calm, lofty, superhuman, inhuman even" (Chevalier 1982).  Many of these symbolic qualities of blue apply well to Bluebeard who is cold with his murderous nature. His blue beard causes people to fear him as an unnatural color for a beard or most things in the natural world.
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2.  Beard:  A beard or hair has many symbolic meanings. First of all, it is often connected with magical powers. It is also considered a sign of invulnerability, like the Bible figure of Samson. In connection with Bluebeard, hair is "the sign of the animal in the human, and all that means in terms of our tradition of associating the beast with the bestial" (Warner 1994). With all of these meanings in mind, Bluebeard's beard shows that he has great power and is bestial in nature. The fact that the beard is also blue emphasizes his unnatural and magical qualities.
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3.  Bluebeard:  The name of this tale and character varies between both "Bluebeard" or "Blue Beard." I am allowing the majority to rule on which version I use and thus using "Bluebeard." This version is a better translation of the French version "La Barbe-bleu" which connects the two words with a hyphen. Personally, I prefer "Bluebeard" since it implies a given name better than the separated "Blue Beard."
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4.  Seats:  According to Webster's Dictionary, a "seat" is a "country mansion" (Webster's 1990). In his translation, Jack Zipes chooses "country estates" instead (Zipes 1989).
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5.  Six weeks: In the time before cars and airplanes, trips to other towns were often expected to last for months between time for traveling and visiting or performing business at the destination.
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6.  Keys:  The keys in this story have many symbolic meanings. First, a key is a symbol of power and/or wealth. Keys are used to lock away what is valuable. A key provide access to goods which are locked away to anyone who possesses it. Often in folktales, a key symbolizes a mystery to be solved "on the road to enlightenment and revelation" (Chevalier 1982). In this context the key represents a mystery to the bride which must be solved. Bluebeard gives her the key to give her access and power in her new home. The privilege is double-edged for he forbids her access to one room conveying his lack of trust in her. Essentially, the key is a trap in this tale, for use of the forbidden key will bring a death sentence. We must also remember that the wife will use the key to open the forbidden chamber and thus she will receive a revelation about the true nature of her husband. (Warner 1994).
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7.  Wardrobes:  A wardrobe is a piece of furniture or room in which clothing is usually kept (Webster's 1990).
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8.  Caskets:  A casket is a "small box, usually of some valuable material and fine workmanship, especially for holding letters or jewels" (Webster's 1990).
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9.  Apartments:  An apartment is a room in a palace, an appartement in French (Webster's 1990).
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10.  Closet:  A closet is a "recess built into a room and shut off with a door, or a small room for storing things." As an adjective, the word also means "secret or undisclosed" (Webster's 1990). Return to place in story.

11.  Gallery:   Gallery is a long narrow room or corridor (Zipe's choice) often used for exhibiting pictures in stately homes (Webster's 1990).
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12.  My just anger and resentment:  Bettelheim addresses this aspect of the story in his interpretation of the tale. He considers Bluebeard's anger to be just since his wife betrays him, but the extreme nature of his anger is where Bluebeard's fault is found. He states: "The story tells that although a jealous husband may believe a wife deserves to be severely punished--even killed--for this, he is absolutely wrong in such thoughts" (Bettelheim 1975). This translation from Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book reflects the Victorian attitude towards infidelity and the resulting anger. Zipes' modern translation uses: "My anger will exceed anything you have ever experienced" (Zipes 1989).
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13.  Looking-glasses:  A looking-glass or mirror has many symbolic meanings of truth and representation of a person's heart, but in this case the mirror is most significant as a symbol of wealth. In the past, mirrors were expensive and a luxury reserved for the wealthy. The fact that Bluebeard owns many with intricate and costly frames that are large enough to give a full reflection of a person from head to toe shows that he is extremely wealthy and thus powerful (Chevalier 1982).
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14.  Curiosity:  Curiosity is a common theme in fairy tales and literature. Some critics consider the central theme of this story to be a caution against female curiosity. According to Bettelheim, this story "presents in the most extreme form the motif that as a test of trustworthiness, the female must not inquire into the secrets of the male" (Bettelheim 1975). Although Perrault did not add the subtitle, many later versions of the story have added subtitles such as "The Effects of Female Curiosity" or "The Fatal Effects of Female Curiosity" (Warner 1994). The theme of curiosity's danger is best known in the story of Pandora's box in which all of the evils of the world were released when a box was opened by Pandora or her husband, depending on the version of the story (Murphy 1996). Finally, the classic story of Cupid and Psyche, with which many fairy tales share story elements and themes, contains a cautionary theme against curiosity, too. Your can read more about Cupid and Psyche on the Other Fairy Tales Similar to Bluebeard page.
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15.  Broken her neck:  In The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter describes the different ways in which each wife was killed by torture. The wife is sentenced to be beheaded in her story as will the wife in the traditional tale (Carter 1979). This phrase provides a nice piece of foreshadowing of what may come to the wife for her disobedience. She almost has her neck "broken" immediately before her indiscretion and once again soon after she commits her transgression. You can read more about The Bloody Chamber, on the Bluebeard Themes in Art page.
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16.  Disobedient:  Connected to the curiosity themes, this story warns readers or listeners of the effects of disobedience. The wife will be threatened with death by her husband for her disobedience. She will later repent of her transgression. The positive results of her repentance will be discussed in future notes.
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17.  Temptation:  Temptation is related to the curiosity and disobedience themes in the story. For some critics, the tale is a cautionary one against woman's innate wickedness that leads to the betrayal and ultimate destruction of her husband. This theme is once again present in the story of Pandora's box. It also alludes to the temptation story in the Garden of Eden in which Eve partakes of the forbidden fruit and thus gains knowledge forbidden by God the Father (Warner 1994). Christine Daae contends that in the days when childbearing was a principle cause of death, a husband essentially killed his wife by making her pregnant. In this way, Bluebeard is a story of everyday life (Daae 1998).
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18.  Blood:  Blood is rich with symbolic meanings. Blood is passion and the medium of life. That is has been so carelessly allowed to collect on the floor shows Bluebeard's total disrespect for life. Even in ritual sacrifice great care is taken to keep blood from spilling on the ground (Leach 1949). Bluebeard has no such concerns and the murders he has committed have no resemblance to blood sacrifices or any other ritual. The abundance of blood verifies that the bodies within the chamber are of real women who died as their blood was loosed from their bodies. The image is quite horrific.
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20.  Sand:  Sand was a common abrasive cleaner in past centuries. The fact that not even soap or sand will remove the stain confirms that it is permanent. Some cultures use sand for ritual ablution since it "flows like water and burns like fire" (Chevalier 1982).
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21.  Magical:  The magical key is the only fantastical element of the story, excepting the blue hue of Bluebeard's hair. Some critics state that the story is not a true fairy tale due to its lack of magical or supernatural elements with the sole exception of the key (Bettelheim 1975).
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22.  Speedy return:  The speedy return of Bluebeard confirms that his trip was a ruse to give him the opportunity to test his wife's faithfulness. Undoubtedly the wife has disobeyed her husband, but the extent of her disobedience or betrayal is not apparent beyond the fact that she opened the door to the forbidden room. It is sure that Bluebeard counted on his wife's betrayal and set up the trap to quickly confirm it.
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23.  Repentance:  The first religious allusion in the story, this fairy tale also imparts the message that repentance and forgiveness are dynamic terms. The wife is disobedient, but she repents of her sin (out of fear, perhaps, but the emotion is called repentance all the same). Next she receives mercy, although not from her husband who dies for his inability to forgive her for her transgressions.
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24.  Rock:  The metaphor comparing Blue Beard's heart to a rock is a simple allusion to his impenetrable and unforgiving nature. Ironical comparison also exists with the reference to repentance in the previous lines. Jehovah is called the "Rock of Israel" but he is also capable of forgiveness while Bluebeard is not (Chevalier 1982). The metaphor ultimately shows that Bluebeard is worthy of destruction in his pride and immaleable nature while the wife is capable of repentance and mercy.
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25.  Prayers:  The religious themes in the story cannot be overlooked. The wife has transgressed her husband's orders and repented. Her husband has refused to accept her repentance, but apparently her God does for she is spared the death sentence her unmerciful husband has placed upon her. The prayers are also a common way of making peace before death such as in the Last Rites. The wife does not know if she will be spared, so she prays. We cannot be sure how much she depends on her prayers since she uses the alloted time to seek help from her brothers.
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26.  Anne:  Anne has a name as does Bluebeard, but the wife does not. Anne is the only character to have a name which is not descriptive of her role (wife) or physical appearance (Bluebeard). The greatest significance of the name is the possible allusion to Saint Anne and/or Anne of Austria, Queen of France, mother of Louis XIV. Queen Anne's devotion to Saint Anne, the legendary mother of the Virgin Mary, gave rise to the cult of Saint Anne in the 1600s. Saint Anne was popular and known as a miracle worker among the French. She was declared a patron saint to Brittany as a result and was thus a well-known figure to its inhabitants (Warner 1994).
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27.  "Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?":  This refrain is alluded to in literature on occasion. The line and its variations is the most often quoted line from the fairy tale. Also note the gender bias in the story since the wife does not expect her sister to save her from Bluebeard and may not have informed her sister of the danger she is in. The wife relies on her brothers to arrive and bring about her rescue in time to spare her life.
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28.  Sabre:  The sabre is an interesting element in this translation. (Zipes uses "cutlass" in his translation.) Either weapon leads to the frequent portrayal of Bluebeard as a Turk or other stereotypical "infidel" to explain his terrible behavior. Bluebeard often wears turbans in illustrations, although not in the Dore illustrations seen here, to enhance the image (Warner 1994).
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29.  Alas! no:  The pattern of three often appears in fairy tales. This is Anne's third answer which should be different to fulfill the pattern. The answer is different, but it does not bring relief with a positive reply. More suspense is built instead by having only sheep appear which have no potential capability of rescuing the wife from her fearsome husband.
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30.  Dragoon:  A dragoon is a "mounted infantryman armed with a carbine which is a short, light rifle" (Webster's 1990). However, this soldier also wields a sword to kill Bluebeard.
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31.  Musketeer:  A musketeer is a soldier armed with a musket which was a portable firearm used by infantrymen during the 16th through 19th centuries (Webster's 1990). This soldier, like his brother, wields a sword to kill Bluebeard.
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32.  Heirs:  The fact that Bluebeard has no heirs except his surviving wife suggests that he was incapable of allowing those near him to live long. It also makes it possible for his wife to inherit the estate, since ownership of property was rare and discouraged through primogeniture (estate to the firstborn son) and entailment. These practices were meant to keep wealth, especially lands, within in the family and to keep property from leaving the family through marriage (Pool 1993). In the end, the wife inherits the entire property and is thus able to live happily ever after.
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33.  Loved her a long while:  Perrault and many of his female contemporaries who wrote fairy tales championed women's issues, such as arranged and/or loveless marriages. The fact that Anne is able to marry a man who has loved her a long time implies they were unable to marry due to poor fortune. Now that her sister has money, Anne and her lover are able to marry for love, a rare and appealing idea at the time this story was first recorded. The situation of Anne's marriage emphasizes the happy ending as well as the ideology of Perrault (Zipes 1989). The fact that Anne had a previous lover also suggests why she was not attracted to Bluebeard as her sister was.
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34.  Buy captains commissions:  Buying military commissions was a common practice in past centuries. The price of commissions tended to be high and insured that the wealthy and powerful remained in control of the military. "The purchase system meant that an officer literally had an investment in his regiment. When he left the service the only way he could make some money, especially in prepension days, was to sell the commission to someone else" (Pool 1993).
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