Illustration by Edmund Dulac. From Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur. The Sleeping Beauty and Other Tales From the Old French. New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910.

I had never really thought of “Bluebeard” as a fairy tale, but it does have a bit of magic, and it was included in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, which is the version I read. Lang in turn gives his source as Charles Perrault who first published the story in 1697.

Bluebeard was a very rich man who was considered ugly due to his blue beard, an unnatural color. He has a neighbor with two beautiful daughters, but neither will marry him, not only because of his blue beard, but also because he has been married several times before and no one knew what had become of the women.

Bluebeard takes the two young women, their mother and several of their friends to his country house for a week, where they did nothing but have parties, hunt, fish, dance and eat. It was a delightful week and the younger of the sisters decided that perhaps Bluebeard was nice man and did marry him.

Not long after being married, Bluebeard has to leave home for several weeks to attend to business affairs, but he tells his wife to feel free to invite her friends over to the house and have a good time. He gives her all the keys, keys to the rooms where the best furniture, keys to his strongboxes holding his gold and silver and to his casket of jewels. He also gives her a small key to a closet 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 my just anger and resentment.”

Of course, curiosity gets the better of her and she opens the closet. There she finds several dead women, Bluebeard’s previous wives, against the walls and the floor is covered with blood. In her shock she drops the key in the blood but retrieves it. She quickly shuts the door and rushes upstairs. She tries to wash the blood off the key, but here is the bit of magic. It’s a magical key and will not become entirely clean. The blood remains.

Bluebeard returns home that same evening and the next morning asks for the keys. Once his wife gives them to him, all but the closet key, he knows by her trembling what has happened and sends her for the last one. She gives it to him, and he knows fully well why there is blood on it.

“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.”

Bluebeard is prepared to cut off her head, but the woman stalls long enough for her brother to get there, rescue her, and kill Bluebeard.

Bluebeard had no heirs, 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; another part to buy captains commissions 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.

The room full of dead women makes this a gruesome tale, but I do like that Perrault gives women the power to make their own decisions. The sister wasn’t forced to marry Bluebeard. Granted, he did everything he could to make himself seem to be a desirable husband, and she should have remembered the other wives that had disappeared, but she still chose to marry him of her own free will. It’s also her choice to look into the closet. I’m sure most of us would. There’s nothing like being told not to do something to make you want to do it, especially when you’re sure it holds a secret. It was quite obviously a trap.

There is, I’m sure, all kinds of symbolism in the story. Commentators have seen the key as a phallic symbol, the stained key as proof of sexual infidelity that took place when Bluebeard left, the wife betraying him. I’m not good with symbolism. To me, Bluebeard was a nut job. I don’t care what the women did, killing them was irrational and keeping the bodies was flat out crazy.

I like the ending though. The wife gets everything, controls all the money and the property, which had to be unusual at that time. The money allows her sister to marry for love, a privilege few women got at that time. And it allowed her to marry a man she chose. She got a happily ever after. You can read the tale here.

Friday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.