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Don’t Open the Closet
The Tale of Bluebeard

Don’t Open the Closet
  • The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault (by )
  • A New History of Blue Beard (by )
  • Blue Beard 
  • Blue Beard and Puss in Boots (by )
  • Blue-Beard (by )
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Men and women who retell myths do so because we are ever in jeopardy of losing our old stories. Not in fear of losing the catalogue of them, but rather in fear of losing the tradition of sharing them with loved ones, of telling them by the campfire, in the cars on long drives, or to one’s children as they fall asleep. So, this monthly myth telling attempts to sift through our ever expanding catalogue for those classic or forgotten myths that have shaped us.

Bluebeard is one of the pillars holding the roof up. I first encountered the story in Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ interpretation of it in Women Who Run With Wolves. Before Estés’ book, I had only heard what had leaked through all the cracks of the stories that resemble it and the pop culture that bore its reverberations.

French fairytale pioneer Charles Perrault told it first in the 15th century. Some historians note the similarities and possible inspiration of a knight from Brittany by the name of Gilles de Rais, a nobleman who became obsessed with both the Elixir of Youth and the Philosopher's Stone. In his quest, he struck on the idea that the blood of maidens and children would supplement this drink of immortality, and thus was born his murderous career (discussed in the introduction to Bluebeard, a Contribution to History and Folklore by Thomas Wilson). 

Whether based on Rais' life or not, the tale of Bluebeard begins near the end of a killer's life. A wealthy nobleman both feared and eschewed due to his ugly, otherworldly blue-colored beard and the mysterious disappearance of previous wives, he decides to to marry yet again. After many civilities and wooing of his neighbor’s family, he convinces their youngest daughter to marry him. A month after their marriage, Bluebeard takes a trip and leaves his new bride the keys to every room in the estate, specifying that she may access all locks, except for one forbidden closet on the ground floor.

Her curiosity is too great. In Bluebeard's absence, she opens the closet door to find the bodies of Bluebeard's previous wives. Bluebeard returns, knowing what she has done for the key to the closet remains stained with blood. He resolves to do away with her as well, after granting her a short reprieve to pray with her sister Anne, who retrieves their brothers. They arrive at the last second to slay Bluebeard.
Some retellings of Bluebeard have the wife saved by her brothers, and others have her slain by Bluebeard's hand. Other retellings and stories based on the myth include: The Seven Wives of Bluebeard by Anatole France, Bluebeard in Grimms’ Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm, Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, and the opera Barbe-bleue by Jacques Offenbach.

In Perrault's original version, the wife is saved just before Bluebeard cuts down. This represents a more interesting reversal of fortunes for the wife, and in turn a moral to be gleaned from the story. Typically in classical literature, a woman’s curiosity releases evil, such as told in the myth of Pandora and the biblical book of Genesis. When Bluebeard’s  wife is left in the castle with the keys to the door that she must not open, that room becomes the common trope of the forbidden fruit that must not be eaten. She is presented with an irresistible temptation. But is her action inherently bad?

Bluebeard's wife, upon entering the forbidden room and thus gaining access to the knowledge of her new husband's evil past, is faced with death. She does in fact pass through death, and one English translation of Perrault’s version has the line written, "The poor wife was almost as dead as her husband, and had not strength enough to rise and welcome her brothers." (1922, 43) After returning from the dead, she comes to own all of Bluebeard's estate, give back to her family, and marry herself to a worthy gentleman, none of which she could have attained without passing through the ordeal with Bluebeard. So in the end, perhaps the moral from the wife’s perspective is to open all the closets and face the skeletons within.

By Thad Higa

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