Angela Carter’s Beauty and the Beast: Building a Feminist Romance
When it comes to fairy tale retellings, no story is perhaps more popular than Beauty and the Beast. Created in seventeenth century France, and later popularized by Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont, the tale continues to be reimagined again and again. Everyone, from French filmmaker Jean Cocteau to Walt Disney, has adapted this particular love story. Even today’s popular literature such as Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, and Of Beast and Beauty seek to emulate it. While undoubtedly popular, Beauty and the Beast is also famous for its treatment of both male and female characters. Some claim that it is not a love story but instead a tale of abuse. Others say it is a story about female empowerment and the healing power of love.
But how are both these readings possible? According to fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, De Beaumont intended Beauty and the Beast to teach self-sacrifice, modesty, virtue, and industriousness. Over time, many writers and creators have forgotten these intentions. Instead of focusing on building the romance itself, they have focused on the sensationalism of the romance. One writer that did get it right however, is British novelist and journalist Angela Carter. Known for feminist and magical realism, Carter published a short fiction collection The Bloody Chamber and other Adult Tales in 1979. This collection features not one, but two Beauty and the Beast retellings.
In writing these retellings, Carter intended to bring out the latent meanings of said fairy tale. By that logic, Beauty and the Beast is a story about a young woman finding her equal, and in doing so, has a sexual awakening. Through comparing De Beaumont’s variant with Carter’s two variants, The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and the Tiger’s Bride, we can understand the “true” meaning of Beauty and the Beast.
At its conception, Beauty and the Beast was first intended for adults and not young children. As stated in Formidable Fairy Tale: A Writer’s Guide, this particular story is a literary fairy tale. Literary fairy tales served as way for aristocratic men and women to take familiar stories and place their own ideas into it. For example, Beauty and the Beast has roots in the Cupid and Psyche myth, written by Apuleis in the second century AD. In that story, a young maiden named Psyche is whisked away into marriage by the god Cupid. Unable to a catch a glimpse of her new husband, Psyche worries she has married a monster. When she discovers his true identity, Cupid disappears on her. Psyche then risks everything to find him once again.
Literary fairy tales took myths, like that of Cupid and Psyche, and rearranged them to suit ideas of love, arranged marriage, and fidelity from the women’s perspective of that time period. Beauty and the Beast, then, is an updated version of the Cupid and Psyche myth for the seventeenth century. Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont used this particular fairy tale to teach young men and women how to achieve happiness. In her mind self-sacrifice, honesty, industriousness, and virtue in both sexes could lead to happy marriage no matter the circumstances.
Here in the twenty-first century, society’s perspective on love, arranged marriage, and fidelity has changed to a certain extent. Angela Carter acknowledges this, and puts her own ideas on those topics from a modern women’s perspective. She still uses common motifs associated with Beauty and the Beast. For example, the rose motif first used by De Beaumont is present in both retellings. The Courtship of Mr. Lyon, in particular, is heavily inspired by De Beaumont’s version.
The Courtship of Mr. Lyon
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories features many fairy tales retold in a women-centered and sexually charged way. The Courtship of Mr. Lyon is but one of her Beauty and the Beast retellings. At the start, Beauty is consistently called “girl,” “child,” and “pet.” Her skin has the same “inner light” as the snow outside. Readers then have a very clear idea who Beauty is. She is childlike, innocent, and above all good. She is “untouched” by wickedness.
The rose motif, which occurs in nearly all retellings, represents Beauty as a character. A single white rose is all Beauty has requested from her father, something that is rare in the cold winter months. The Beast too covets white roses. When Beauty meets the Beast, a lion-esque figure, she considers him terrifying. At the same time, though, she considers him beautiful because lions are, in their own way, beautiful. She is “bewildered” by his otherness and it pressures her. Beauty refers to herself as a lamb in his presence.
The same purity and softness that accompanies Beauty is often attributed to the Beast, but in a different way. He first appears in the white light of the moon, a similar light that bathes Beauty in her introduction. His actions speak volumes about him. The Beast treats Beauty’s father kindly, until he tries to steal the Beast’s roses. Beauty’s father attempts to appease him by referring to him as “my lord,” but the Beast is not fooled. He fully acknowledges that he is a monster. The Beast invites Beauty and her father to come to dinner, where the Beast offers to help them with their money troubles. Beauty’s father is sent to London and the Beast suggests that Beauty stay with him in the meantime.
When the Beast converses with Beauty around his fireplace the light from the fire puts halo around his mane. From that visual clue, readers can infer that the Beast is not bad at all. They can picture him as a good companion for Beauty. Another sign comes from Beauty herself, who acknowledges they both must overcome their shyness. At the end of each conversation they have, the Beast falls to Beauty’s feet and kisses her hands before fleeing away from her.
As the “pressure” Beauty feels in the Beast’s presence begins to fade so too does her childishness. She begins to refer to herself as a house cat rather than a lamb. She is no longer called “girl” and her attachment to her father lessens until he phones her to come home. The Beast lets her go, but asks that she visit him some day. Despite Beauty’s feeling for him, she cannot make herself touch him, to give him a proper hug goodbye.
Back home she discovers she is not the same girl she was. She realizes that she is at the end of her adolescence and she can no longer hang back. Beauty returns to the Beast to discover him dying out of loneliness and starvation. She begs him to live and tells him if he’ll have her, she’ll never leave. Before Beauty’s eyes, the Beast transforms into a human man and she can still detect the lion in him. The two now called Mr. and Mrs. Lyon head to the garden and step on fallen rose petals.
Although not overtly sexual, The Courtship of Mr. Lyon is about a sexual awakening. The Beast is not the only one who undergoes a transformation, Beauty transforms from girl to woman. Readers know from the opening passage that Beauty is attached to her father and retains childlike innocence. When she arrives at the Beast’s home and he offers her a place to stay, Beauty reluctantly accepts and hates to see her father go. She feels dominated by him at first and fears him.
But as she spends time with the Beast and she acknowledges that she can see a reflection of herself in him, she gradually begins to give up that part of herself. Her inability to touch the Beast when her father comes calling, shows us the Beauty is not completely ready to give up her innocence. It’s only from the time she spent with Beast and her reflection on that time, that Beauty realizes she would not mind losing her innocence to the him. The fallen petals at the end of story show that Beauty has at last become woman and she found someone “rare” and worthy of her.
Carter’s variation of the tale focuses on Beauty owning her sexuality. Through discovering the Beast mirrors herself, Beauty is able to give herself to him. Much like women in the seventeenth century, modern women want equality in their relationships. Many women today and back then fear that they will enter abusive relationships; relationships where they have no power and are treated as objects and not human beings. Back when Beauty and the Beast was created, women could very easily get in this situation thanks to the popularity of arranged marriages. Carter still touches on the fear but in a modern setting.
Other popular Beauty and the Beast inspired tales, such as Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, look at the sexual implications in the original story. Twilight and 50 Shades use the Beauty and the Beast archetypes as a way to explore sexuality. Those stories are essentially about a dominant male falling in love with a submissive female. These stories allow readers to experience the dominant/submissive lifestyle without having to physically experience it.
It’s the fact that he could hurt her but chooses not to (in most cases) that makes this archetype so popular. Therein lies the criticism many feminists have with the story. Why should Beauty be dominated by the Beast? Why can’t the power be shared between the two? In both Twilight and its carbon copy 50 Shades of Grey there is no equality. The beasts, Edward Cullen and Christian Grey, overstep their boundaries. They stalk their prospective lovers and consistently push them away.
In their minds they are doing the right thing by telling their lovers they are no good. However, despite this thinking they come back for more. They control all sexual aspects to the relationships as well. No matter how many times they tell their lovers they have the power, this so called power is never used. Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele are used and are under the illusion that they have found their soulmate. The danger between the coupling is what the authors are selling and not a healthy romance. Other writers, such as Angela Carter, remedy the power dynamic by turning Beauty into a Beast as well.
The Tiger’s Bride
Angela Carter’s the Tiger’s Bride is narrated by Beauty herself, or what we as readers assume is Beauty. In this tale, Beauty is not the sweet innocent girl we know from other variants. She is tougher and wiser from growing up in the frigid North with her father. This Beauty is angry with her father for trading her away to a masked man after losing a game of cards. The masked man whom Beauty refers to as the Beast offers her a single white rose, for which she destroys immediately. It’s not her choice to become a prisoner of the Beast like in other versions.
Although the motifs of pure white snow and roses appear again in this variant, they are not used to the same effect. These innocent symbols are tainted instantly. For example, Beauty’s father asks for a rose so he knows that she forgives him. When she hands it to him her hand is cut by the thorns and she hands him a bloodstained rose, indicating there is blood lost between herself and her father.
On the way to the Beast’s home, Beauty remembers the tale of the tiger man and of a bear child born to a woman in town. She remembers squealing in disgust at these stories when she was young. She is under the impression that she is imprisoned by the real tiger man. Unlike Mr. Lyon, this Beast cannot speak and requires the aid of an inhuman valet. She realizes there are not any humans in her new home.
Soon the valet makes an unexpected request from his master to Beauty. He tells her the Beast wishes to see her unclothed and then will return her to her father. Beauty laughs at him outright and refuses. She tells him she will let him see an ankle and then must immediately be sent to a church to be cleansed. The Beast, unable to respond, cries a single tear. In this instance, Beauty is more beast like, more inhumane then the Beast. She treats him as something less than human.
Beauty discovers that the Beast isn’t comfortable in his clothes. She suspects walking upright causes him pain and he tries to hide his natural scent with perfume. It seems to her that he is hiding something from her, as if he is afraid of rejection. Beauty begins to feel for him, but not enough to accept him. She continues to reject his request until he removes his own mask. When he does, she discovers he is in fact a tiger dressed in human clothing.
Beauty is surprised but not disgusted and finds him beautiful. She says to herself “a tiger will not lay down with lamb but the lamb could learn to run with tigers.” Beauty finally follows his request. The Beast in his natural state begins to lick off Beauty’s skin revealing tiger fur beneath her skin. In this tale, the Beast does not become a prince but Beauty becomes a Beast.
Unlike earlier variants, Beauty is not idealized to perfection. Typically, Beauty is treated as the perfect woman, someone who is kind, forgiving, and honest. Instead the Beast is a far more fragile character. He does not even act beastly. In fact, he is kind to her even when she laughs at his face. In most variants it is Beauty that changes the Beast, but in this case it is Beast that changes Beauty.
The Tiger’s Bride still focuses on building a relationship between equals. After all, it is only when the Beast reveals himself to her that Beauty is comfortable revealing herself. Beauty acknowledges that a tiger will not lay down with lamb, meaning she cannot be with the Beast unless she is a beast herself. When the Beast turns Beauty into a tiger, he is essentially cleansing her. She is giving up her life as human and presented a new life where she can start again. The only way this works is because these beastly qualities, that the Beast can relate to, are already in Beauty. It is their outer differences that keep them apart.
In this variant, Carter again touches on the women’s perspective on love and sexuality. Beauty is again in charge of herself and her body. Again through self-sacrifice and honesty Beauty and Beast are able to fall in love. Until they become equals they cannot be together. Beauty and the Beast works as a feminist romance because Beauty forms a partnership with the Beast. Both parties make sacrifices for one another and in doing so they understand what they mean to each other. These are the decisions that build a lasting and believable romance.
Twelve years after The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales was published, Walt Disney Animation released their version of Beauty and the Beast. Like Angela Carter’s variants, this film too is a feminist love story. Belle, the Beauty, eschews the typical Disney tropes that her fellow Disney princess fall into. She is not dreaming of the day a prince will come to rescue her. Nor is she taken in by the first attractive guy she meets. Belle is independent, intelligent, and intensely loyal to her father. So much so she that is willing to sacrifice her dreams of adventure for his safety.
Twenty years later, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remains the definitive version for many people. But if not for Carter’s variants beforehand, Belle would not have a model to based upon. The loyalty, self sacrifice, and honesty we see in Belle are also present in Carter’s variants. In this way the Courtship of Mr. Lyon and the Tiger’s Bride serve as a guideline for adapting this beloved romance. Hopefully, Disney will keep these elements in their live action remake set for 2017.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales. New York, New York; Penguin Publishing Group. 1980. Print
Zipes, Jack. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Oxford, United Kingdom; Oxford University Press. 2000. Print.
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