La Barbe bleue or The History of Blue Beard is a centuries-old fairytale. It tells the story of a murderous husband named Blue Beard, and a locked chamber filled with the bodies of his previous wives. This edition, translated from French into English, dates from around 1810.
Where does the story come from?
Originally an oral folktale, the story was first written down and published in 1697 by Charles Perrault. The French author, regarded as the father of the fairytale, was the first to record many of our best loved stories such as Cendrillon (Cinderella) and Le Chat Botte (Puss in Boots). Despite Blue Beard’s grisly plot, the tale remained hugely popular through the centuries.
What happens in the fairytale?
Blue Beard, although notorious for both his cruelty and ugly appearance, uses his wealth to lure women into marriage. Each new wife is presented with the house keys and instructed that she may enter any room except one. We follow the story of his last wife who, like those before her, yields to curiosity and unlocks the forbidden room to discover the gruesome scene. Although the tale has a happy ending – Blue Beard’s last wife narrowly escapes his clutches – its conservative moral teaches the reader to keep curiosity and temptation under control.
How does Blue Beard relate to Jane Eyre?
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë alludes to Blue Beard throughout the novel. Like Blue Beard, Rochester is harbouring an awful matrimonial secret in the locked attic. Before Jane learns of Bertha's existence she imagines the third storey of Thornfield Hall, secretly imprisoning Rochester's wife, as ‘like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle’. Later, Jane calls Rochester a ‘three-tailed bashaw’ (a Turkish official whose high status, equivalent to a British Lord, is signified by three horsetails), an alternative title applied to the Blue Beard character in late 18th century texts.Other, unvocalised parallels exist, too, such as Jane’s night of terror locked in the oppressive 'red-room' at Gateshead. As in Blue Beard, keys are central to Jane Eyre's plot development; in a subversion of the fairytale, however, they present the imprisoned wife (Bertha) with the possibility of escape.
- Article by:
- Carol Atherton
- The novel 1832–1880
Dr Carol Atherton explores how Charlotte Brontë mixes fantasy with realism in Jane Eyre, making use of fairytale and myth and drawing on the imaginary worlds she and her siblings created as children.
- Article by:
- Ruth Richardson
- Popular culture, Reading and print culture
Chapbooks were small, affordable forms of literature for children and adults that were sold on the streets, and covered a range of subjects from fairy tales and ghost stories to news of politics, crime or disaster. Dr Ruth Richardson explains what this literature looked like, its subject matter and the ways in which it was produced.
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