Home > 18th Century, Classics, Fairy tales, French Literature > The Beauty and the Beast

The Beauty and the Beast

 I chose to read The Beauty and the Beast because I was curious. I was convinced that Charles Perrault had written that fairytale and I discovered that Mme de Villeneuve (1685-1755) did. I had never heard of her before and according to the foreword, the cartoon and the film are based on the version written later by Mme Leprince de Beaumont. I was intrigued to find out the original story.

The plot is well-known : a rich merchant has six sons and six daughters, the youngest being The Beauty. He loses all his properties and then lives poorly in the country with his children. Once, as he rides to town for business, his daughters ask him to bring them a present. The five elder daughters ask for gowns and The Beauty asks for a rose. On his way back, he gets lost and arrives in a beautiful castle, which seems unoccupied but in which he finds food and shelter. He is about to leave when he sees roses in the garden and cuts one for The Beauty. The Beast shows up and requires that he gives him one of his daughters against the rose or he would die. The girl should come willingly. The merchant rides back home and The Beauty volunteers to go to The Beast’s castle. Surprisingly, she is not killed. She has everything she wants in the castle and meets The Beast every night. He always asks her the same questions, especially if she would sleep with him at night. In her dreams, she meets a beautiful prince, whom she loves and is warned that she should not be guided by appearances. After some time, she agrees to marry The Beast, which turns out to be the prince of her dreams (in the literal sense). That prince was enchanted in a beast by a witch and only the marriage with a loving bride could break the enchantment. The usual version stops at this moment, but here, there are more details about fairies’ world and laws and the circumstances which leaded the prince to be a beast and the Beauty, a princess, to be hidden in a merchant’s house.

The story is full of details about the Beauty’s life in the Beast’s castle. All the ingredients of fairytale are well cooked, such as prince and princess, witches and fairies, bad spells, greedy sisters. The expected themes are also there : love beyond appearances, duty and gratitude above one’s interest, generosity bringing happiness whereas greed brings misfortunes, sexuality, jealousy… As often, one of the character, here, The Beauty is lead from childhood to adulthood through hardship : poverty, going to the Beast’s castle, sleeping with it.

But I was disappointed, I hoped the psychology of the characters would be more constructed and that there would be philosophical developments. Obviously, Mme de Villeneuve is not Voltaire and the aim of the story was only entertainment. So it should be read for entertainment only.

According to the foreword, The Beauty and The Beast is full of references to “precious novels” and preciosity, which were in style in the 17th century. (Mlle de Scudéry’s Clélie is one of them). I missed that, I’m not educated enough in literature to notice it.

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