by Alena Gašparovičová
Fairy tales are an innate part of human culture. Originally, many of the well-known “fairy tales were written explicitly for adults” (Zipes 16), and it was only “from 1830 to 1900, during the rise of the middle classes, that the fairy tale came into its own for children” (Zipes 20) which is when the genre came to be associated with children rather than adults. Fairy tales serve not only as entertainment for children, but also as a way to influence them during their upbringing. As the feminist scholar Marcia Lieberman explains in her article “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale”, children learn the “behavioral patterns and associational patterns, value systems, and how to predict the consequences of specific acts or circumstances” (384) through fairy tales. This influence which fairy tales have on children, has become a much-debated issue with the rise of feminism, especially the effect fairy tales have on young girls.
Fairy tales have come under criticism by feminist critics for the way female heroines are presented in them. These critics point out how fairy tales serve to “acculturate women to traditional social roles” (Lieberman 383), which means being passive in most of the well-known tales; “an examination of the best-known stories shows that active resourceful girls are in fact rare; most heroines are passive, submissive, and helpless” (Lieberman 387). When a female character behaves assertively and seeks power or control in her life, she is usually portrayed as the villain in the story; “women who are human, and who have power or seek it, are nearly always portrayed as repulsive” (Lieberman 393). In many fairy tales this type of character archetype appears in the form of the evil stepmothers or ugly stepsisters who are actively trying to win the “prize” (Lieberman 385), be it a rich and powerful husband or simply wealth on its own. The desirable heroines in most well-known fairy tales, on the other hand, are those who are quiet, passive and beautiful.
However, because fairy tales began as part of an oral storytelling tradition, many have more than one version and very frequently there are tales that follow a nearly identical plotline, however, differ in some aspects of the story. Some of the lesser well-known versions would feature more active female heroines. An example of this can be seen in the fairy tales “Bluebeard” as recorded by Charles Perrault and “Mr. Fox” as recorded by Joseph Jacobs. Even though these two tales differ in some details, they are still very similar and, more importantly, share an almost identical storyline – a woman becomes engaged to a mysterious rich man, who kills women. Despite the similarity of the plotline, the female heroines are portrayed in a very different manner with Jacob’s heroine being unusually active for a woman in a traditional fairy tale. In this article the two heroines will be compared in terms of their involvement in achieving their respective happy endings and the way these two heroines are presented in their stories.
The main heroine in Perrault’s version of the Bluebeard tale is, as Lieberman puts it, “prime example of the helpless damsel-victim.” (390) She marries a man no other girl wants to because he is “frightfully ugly” (Perrault) and he had “already been married to several wives, and nobody ever knew what became of them.” (Perrault). Despite her first impression, she is seduced by his wealth and, in the end, agrees to become his wife. When they are married, the bride is given the keys to every door in the house, but is instructed by her husband not to open one small closet in the house. However, overcome by her curiosity she defies her husband’s instructions and opens it anyway just to find the bodies of her husband’s dead previous wives. When her husband finds out that she disobeyed him, he informs her that she will be the next one to join the dead ladies. The only thing she is capable of doing to try to evade this fate is asking for a little time to say her prayers and hope that her brothers, who are supposed to visit her, will come before she is murdered. Fortunately for her, they come just in time to save her from getting killed. Even though the wife manages to evade death, she does very little to achieve this result and it is mainly her brothers’ doing.
The heroine in “Mr. Fox”, Lady Mary, is curious as well. She becomes engaged to Mr. Fox, however, she has never seen his house or estates, even though he describes them to her when they became engaged and knows basically nothing about him or his family. So, she decides to follow her fiancé and find out where he lives. In his castle, Mr Fox has his own version of Bluebeard’s forbidden closet with a warning above the door that reads: “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold,
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold” (Jacobs 110). However, determined to get to know her fiancé as Lady Mary is, she ignores the warning and enters the room anyway. There she finds the same surprise as the wife in “Bluebeard”; dead bodies of “beautiful young ladies all stained with blood” (Jacobs 110). As she is trying to escape the horrible place, she catches her future husband chopping off the hand of a new victim to steal her ring. Lady Mary manages to take the hand with her as proof and goes home. During the course of her wedding day, Lady Mary recounts everything that has happened and shows the hand to her family as a proof that her story is more than just a bad dream and her male relatives then kill Mr. Fox.
In both stories, the main heroines manage to evade death at the hands of men they chose to marry. However, the limit to which they participate in saving their own lives is different. An important component is curiosity. Bluebeard’s wife is overcome by her curiosity, she opens the forbidden room only to find the bodies of his previous wives and is reproached for it by her husband and nearly killed. Perrault’s message in the tale is clear. Female curiosity is a bad thing. Perrault even strengthens this impression by concluding the tale with a moral that reads:
O curiosity, thou mortal bane!
Spite of thy charms, thou causest often pain
And sore regret, of which we daily find
A thousand instances attend mankind:
For thou—O may it not displease the fair—
A fleeting pleasure art, but lasting care. (Perrault)
Mr. Fox tale presents the reader with a different message. Lady Mary saves her own life by being curious. Mr. Fox is presented as a very charming man, so even though Lady Mar does not know him very well, she still decides that out of all of her “lovers” (Jacobs), he is the one she wants to marry and her family does not seem to oppose her decision. It is Mary, who finds it strange that she has not seen his castle “so one day […] Lady Mary set out for Mr. Fox’s castle” (Jacobs 109). She is not asked to go to Mr. Fox’s castle by anyone else, she alone decides that it is strange that she still has not seen the place, where her soon-to-be-husband lives and where she should move after their wedding. Lady Mary is the one who is the most active in the tale. Even though the fatal blow to Mr. Fox comes from her “brother and her friends” (Jacobs 111) she is the one who finds out, what kind of man Mr. Fox is, and procures evidence that she later uses to prove to the others what she saw. The nameless wife in this tale manages to avoid death. However, compared to Lady Mary, she is much less responsible for the outcome. While Perrault’s heroine is curious and nearly gets killed because of it, Lady Mary saves her life by being curious and visiting Mr. Foxe’s castle in secret.
An interesting distinction between the main heroines in “Bluebeard” and “Mr. Fox” can be seen also in their names. In “Mr. Fox” the main heroine is revealed to be Lady Mary, while the main heroine in Perrault’s version of “Bluebeard” remains nameless. This alone gives Lady Mary a certain degree of importance compared to the nameless wife.
The way the stories are narrated also put Lady Mary in a much more favourable light than Bluebeard’s wife. At the beginning of the story she is described as “young” and “fair” (Jacobs 109), which are traits that are not unusual for a fairy tale heroine. Later on though, when she is about to enter the “Bloody Chamber” (Jacobs 110) of Mr. Fox, it is also said that she is “a brave one” (Jacobs 110), which is a rather unusual trait for a woman in traditional fairy tales, more frequently reserved for the male heroes. Her bravery and curiosity are presented as an asset, because she actually decides to investigate what does not feel right to her and she directly helps expose Mr. Fox and bring about her happy ending. In Perrault’s “Bluebeard”, the narrative of the story is not nearly as kind to his wife. She is the one who does wrong when she decides to open the forbidden room, because by doing that she defies her husband’s wishes and she is aware that “unhappiness might attend her” (Perrault); for doing that. “Both Perrault and Grimm, in their respective periods, adapted traditional fairy tales considerably so that they would prove acceptable to the middle class, patriarchal households for which they wrote” (Teverson 212). This means that the wife should have done what her husband instructed her to do and left the closet unopened as she was told to.
While it cannot be denied that active heroines are not as frequent in fairy tales as the passive ones, there may be more of them than it would be obvious at first glance. Quite frequently the female heroines in the best-known versions of fairy tales are extremely passive. However, this does not mean that every fairy tale heroine in traditional tales is waiting for a prince to save her. Lady Mary is just one example of a heroine who might not be nearly as famous as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, but capable of taking her life into her own hands and actively help secure her own happy ending.
Alena is a proud student of two Master’s programmes at Masaryk University – English Language and Literature and Upper Secondary School Teacher Training in English Language and Literature. She enjoys the company of books so much that she also spends a lot of her free time reading them. She likes reading books from different parts of the world and then comparing and contrasting them. Ever since she was a child, her biggest dream has been to write a bestseller. She also likes visiting new places, getting to know new people and gaining new experiences in general.
Jacobs, Joseph. “Mr. Fox.” English Fairy Tales and More English Fairy Tales, ABC-CLIO, 2002, pp. 109–112.
Lieberman, Marcia R. “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale.” College English, vol. 34, no. 3, 1972, pp. 383–395. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/375142.
Perrault, Charles. Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. Edited by Fiona Biggs, Teapot Press, 2012.
Teverson, Andrew. “‘MR FOX’ AND ‘THE WHITE CAT’: THE FORGOTTEN VOICES IN ANGELA CARTER’S FICTION.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), vol. 5, no. 2, 1999, pp. 209–222. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41274066.
Zipes, Jack. “The Changing Function of the Fairy Tale.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 12, no. 2, Dec. 1988, pp. 7–31. Project MUSE.