Friday, March 23

Beauty, the Beast, and Great Expectations

When last we left our heroine, she had bargained herself to save her father. Woe unto her, for her life was over! Or is it...
Whether young Beauty went into the castle expecting to be executed is anyone’s guess. She might (reasonably) have expected imprisonment. Without a doubt, she should not have expected to be made mistress of the castle upon her arrival. Unless, of course, she’d heard this story before.
Then, she could expect to be handed the keys immediately, and her reign of terror—you know, hearts, butterflies, and cuppy-cake gumdrops—could commence. The beast would be her eternal slave, and she would never want for anything.
Hmm. Perhaps she didn’t expect the royal treatment she received.
The impression I get from the frame of the story is that Beauty does not enter into the bargain with great expectations. But I do believe she develops some as the story progresses. She does not ask for much initially, though the beast insists on giving her everything he can. Especially his hand in marriage.
Whether or not that offer is much of a bargain is open to debate. As with the prince in the story of Sleeping Beauty, the beast’s rapid attachment and lack of relationship-developing obstacles present the reader with good reason to be suspicious. As Beauty chooses not to capitulate to the inevitable so quickly, she must have some other expectation for her life.
Or else she didn’t get the memo.
Beauty, as is NORMAL for a young girl, does not start out her life expecting to marry a beast. Time and exposure to one do not change that expectation. She still won’t marry him. (In some versions, Beauty has nightly dreams of a handsome prince who wants to know why she doesn’t love him. If that’s not an invitation to psychoanalysis, I will eat my hat.) Even when she begins to realize that she—the beast’s prisoner—can ask for a vacation—or, let’s be honest, anything she wants—she still does not want to marry the beast. “He’s just a friend.”
When she returns from being away (sometimes by magic, sometimes by a hard journey), the beast does manage to get her to say “I love you.” Not an acceptance of his many proposals, but close enough for government work. Or a curse, in this case. But still, Beauty doesn’t agree to marry a beast. She agrees to marry the handsome prince he turns into, once the spell is lifted.
This is always the part that worries me. The part in “fairy tales” where girls agree to marry the handsome princes that the beasts, toads, or other monsters “revert to” once the curse is gone. We see this in a lot of other stories. Robin McKinley likes this story so much she rewrote it twice (Beauty and Rose Daughter). Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth does not agree to marry Darcy until he transforms into a kind, generous man. Don’t get me wrong—there are many, many things I love about Jane Austen—but this aspect of the fairy tale bothers me.
If you give a girl a hero who has to change in order to get that ring on her finger, what is that going to do to the reader’s expectations in her own everyday fairy tales? Will a reader really go around kissing frogs until one just happens to turn into a prince? What if he stays a beast? What if he’s smart enough to pull a bait-and-switch? (A fraudulent method of convincing someone to buy the wrong thing for too much.)
And what will this do to all the Perfectly Normal Beasts out there? (“What’s wrong with them?” “Not a thing. It’s why they’re called Perfectly Normal.” Gotta love Douglas Adams at his most obscure...) Is this a fairy tale that will damage the reader to the point of damaging her future relationships?
Hate to leave you hanging, but that’s a story for another day.
Or, perhaps, one you should write. To correct that wrong...

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