Bluebeard Stabbing in the Dead of Night

Not all stories that get lumped under the fairy tale umbrella (didn’t Mary Poppins have one of those?) necessarily contain magic and supernatural happenings. One of the stories in Charles Perrault’s collection, for instance, was a tale of a woman discovering her husband was a serial killer, and having to use her own wits (well, and family connections) to escape. The husband is a rich merchant known as Bluebeard because…well, I think you can figure that one out. When leaving home, supposedly on business, he gives his new bride a key a little room at the end of the gallery, and tells her not to open it. She opens it, obviously (who wouldn’t?), and finds it full of the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives. When the merchant returns, he tries to kill her as well, but she gets away by stalling him until her brothers show up. Perrault’s moral suggests that the wife’s curiosity was a problem, but what husband would set up a treacherous test like that? The obvious comparison to the Garden of Eden story doesn’t tell me that the wife is a second Eve, but rather that Bluebeard has a God complex. If she hadn’t looked, I doubt it would have made any difference in the end. The dude was a serial killer, not a man making a reasonable request! Besides, as I’ve seen pointed out in several places, he obviously had some other excuse for butchering his first wife. Perhaps Perrault even realized this himself, as he offers a second moral saying, basically, “Good thing husbands aren’t like that anymore, huh?”. Perhaps the real lesson to learn is that a husband who blatantly keeps secrets isn’t a good prospect. Sure, it’s probably just a stack of old Hustlers in that locked room, but why take the chance?

As with many figures of folklore, Bluebeard has become somewhat of a household name, albeit perhaps not as much of one as characters in less gruesome tales. Beth, who likes to read about serial killers, told me about a book that used “Bluebeard” as the term for men who murdered their wives (the female equivalent is a Black Widow). And I remember a collection of fairy tales edited by Jack Zipes including a few different variations on the Bluebeard story, including one that presented him as a victim of circumstance unfairly maligned by literature, sort of like Macbeth.

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10 Responses to Bluebeard Stabbing in the Dead of Night

  1. Kit says:

    Very cool, and well told! Creepy as hell. Bluebeard was also referenced in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers film “The Gay Divorcee” when Astaire describes himself as having given joy to hundreds, thousands of shop girls and servant girls, and Ginger Rodgers cuts him off, saying, “You might spare me, Bluebeard!” Nerdy that I know that, but hey. Thanks for the story!

  2. Are you familiar with the story of Lady Mary? I’m not sure where it’s from– I think it might be in Grimm because I’m pretty sure Adam Gidwitz incorporated it into A Tale Dark and Grimm (very fun book)– anyway, it’s a really cool variation on the Bluebeard story with more magic (well, ominous murmurings at least), more blatant suspense, adventure, and gruesomeness, a more proactive heroine and a villain who gets more of a comeuppance, and a sense of rhythm and repetition that comes solidly from the oral tradition and is GREAT for telling aloud. I didn’t hear of it until my AMAZING Storytelling professor at library school (Dr. Maggie Kimmel for those who care– she’s marginally famous among library school nerds. Also, she’s been on Mister Rogers Neighborhood) told it for us, and it was totally awesome, partly because she was such an awesome storyteller but also because it’s just a great story.

  3. Beth says:

    Ah ha. (Part of why) I read this (was) to see if you remembered or would mention my book calling a certain kind of serial killers Bluebeards and Black Widows. Good on you for remembering.

  4. vilajunkie says:

    Wasn’t there some kind of “magic realism” aspect to the Bluebeard fairytale? Like, the brothers being able to see the candle light in the window from their house miles (?) away, the key bleeding after the wife opens the forbidden door, and Bluebeard and the brothers arriving at the house at apparently the speed of light when the signals were given by the key and the candle.

    I don’t remember if it’s in the original tale, but Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” has a Bluebeard motif to it too. Belle can go anywhere she likes in the castle, except the west wing (?). Once she’s in the forbidden room, she sees the Beast’s secret–the enchanted rose–like how the girl in Bluebeard finds the other wives’ corpses. Of course, being an “Animal Bridegroom” tale type, the story has to end with the Beast being transformed instead of Belle being flayed/rescued after finding the rose.

    • Nathan says:

      I do recall there being a magical element in that blood appeared on the key after the wife used it, but that was fairly minor in the grand scheme of things.

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