Fairy tales often have the power to move us to great emotions, but rarely has a fairy tale been able to hold us in psychological suspense as Bluebeard’s Castle. Bluebeard’s Castle is a Hungarian fairytale is a fantastical story about a young lady who gets married to a man who turns out to be a wife-killer. She finds the dead bodies hanging all in one room, and she attempts to flee the castle and her marriage.
I think this story is noteworthy because it has several different elements than traditional European fairy tales. With stories such as Cinderella and Snow White, the main characters’ personalities and traits remain fixed throughout the story. We are aware of what the personalities are, and the story is centered upon the interactions between those personalities and the scenarios that the characters chances upon. On the other hand, in Bluebeard, as the story progresses, we come to see more fully the individuation and the personality of the heroine: how intelligent she is, how quick-witted she is, and her confidence in handling the situation as she realizes fully the situation she has gotten herself in and how she responds. This is refreshing from a reader’s point of view, and allows the empathy and pathos that the reader feels for the heroine to grow as the story progresses.
Secondly, this story is a departure from the usual woe-is-me feminine archetype who toils and suffers silently as ill treatment befalls her again and again. In those stories, the message that “as you silently wait and respond to the abuses heaped upon you, good things will come into store.” In this story, the heroine is the one who is pushing along the plot, and moving everything along, even her brothers who heed her cries for help. This is certainly an interesting dynamic, and sets up the template that the female protagonist should be given equanimity.
Thirdly, I find it interesting that this story is so unfettered at building suspense and exploring the unknown. In most European fairy tales, the female protagonist doesn’t know much, and doesn’t make an effort to find out more information. Again, she is at the mercy of the other people in her life, and she doesn’t embark on any fact-finding missions. On the other hand, this Hungarian story is not shy about allowing readers to cringe in suspense. “Who is he? What has he done with all those women?” and “WHAT???? He killed all of them, and HANGS THEM IN A ROOM?????” The story lends very little empathy for the horrors we feel as we read the story, and the lack of empathy (as mastered by Alfred Hitchhock and the other great story-tellers) renders our horrors more powerful. I think, given another scenario, this story would be categorized as “horror” next to Edgar Allen Poe’s stories. The story ties up nicely with the female protagonist saving herself, and the spotlight never moves away from her capabilities.
Finally, I find it fascinating that this story highlights the shortcomings of a central male figure who is otherwise a venerable figure. In most European fairy tales, the evil characters are usually female, between the evil stepmother to the evil witch who curses Sleeping Beauty. The shortcomings highlighted in this story are fairly heart-wrenching: this is a serial murder who kills his wives. In stories such as Snow White, the nefarious nature of the evil stepmother are fairly limited to fairly normative human traits such as jealousy, insecurity, pettiness and the like. The behaviors associated with these qualities are fairly magical in Snow White, and most readers would be non-plussed about these behaviors. On the other hand, the shortcomings of Bluebeard are horrendous and concrete; most humans are able to kill, and murder is considered amongst the most heinous of acts.
The Metropolitan Opera is playing this story now. http://www.metopera.org/opera/iolanta-duke-bluebeards-castle-bartok-tchaikovsky-tickets
Bluebeard Wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluebeard’s_Castle
On a personal note, I first came across this story when I was fairly young (8 or 9 years old). I had a penchant for waking up really early and listening to audio tapes in the morning. This was one of the stories on the audio tape. As I grew up, I didn’t hear much of this story as it is not particularly popular in America (as compared to, say, the Little Mermaid and such). I did, however, had the fortune of meeting someone who was an opera singer and was going to play Bluebeard. (Trust me, I had stars in my eyes). He was a big tall man, and had a beautiful baritone voice (duh….). My employer then had access to Hungarian audio tapes that he was going to use to prepare for the play. Fun!
Overall, I think it is fascinating to think about the variety of fairy tales amongst cultures. I also think that from a woman’s perspective, we’ve all had relationships, platonic and romantic, that we enter and then reel in horror asking ourselves what we had gotten ourselves into (!!!!!!). I think this story highlights that experience in a thoughtful and deliberative way. Cheers.