The Women of the 17th Century in Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales
First published in 1697, the eight stories in the collection Histoires ou contes du temps (or The Tales of Mother Goose) by the French Charles Perrault are still titans of the fairy tale canon, the stories modernly perpetuated by their Disney adaptations. Scholars have analyzed the fairy tales for centuries, their allure withstanding the test of time; what has not is the apparent misogyny embedded within each tale. This analysis will center on Perrault’s portrayal of female characters and female values in the 17th century, underlining the erroneous ways they have been countlessly written in fiction.
The most notable female protagonists in Perrault’s tales are, undoubtedly, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty. While being different characters, all three share a major commonality in which they are expendable to their stories, by default having no agency. The fairy tales bear their names, but the females are subjugated to the male gaze through which they must be lacrymogène, embodying the modern stereotype of “the damsel in distress”: Cinderella’s happily-ever-after is contingent on her marrying a Prince; Red Riding Hood is preyed upon by a proxy of male bestiality, which terminates her life; Sleeping Beauty is saved once by true love’s kiss (which has been imposed on her without consent) and a second time by a butler when she does not bear enough power (in this case, acumen) to defeat her evil mother-in-law. As such, these three female protagonists lose agency from the moment the tales introduce them, their ‘journey’ enabling the century’s status quo of women sticking to the domestic and not fighting against it as in male-centered stories. While these portrayals of women are certainly problematic from a post-modern perspective, one Perrault fairy tale seems to contradict everything else.
“Bluebeard” is a story infused with symbolism, depicting a young woman marrying a man with a blue beard who has murdered all his previous wives and hid them in a secret chamber. There are elements of this tale that contradict the earlier overt misogyny. One such element is the key the husband gives his wife to the chamber but forbids her to use; however, she opens the door out of curiosity and learns the horrible truth. For Estés, then, that is “the key of knowing” (50): it helps the wife gain consciousness by choosing to open the door of truth and going against her husband’s rule, which would have otherwise kept her in naïveté. With the symbol of the bleeding key and the opening of the secret chamber the wife transgresses, actively rejecting domestic passivity and the patriarchy embodied by Bluebeard: “And I forbid you so seriously that if you were indeed to open the door, I should be so angry that I might do anything” (35). Still, the tale does not entirely support the women’s capacity to save themselves since the wife is, again, saved by her brothers; notable here is also the female protagonist’s lack of a name, which nullifies her life outside of her marriage. In juxtaposition, the act of killing Bluebeard (even by males from her lineage) gives the wife freedom to retake control of her life and achieve her goals by using the usurper: “[…] his wife became mistress of all his wealth. […] The rest formed a dowry for her own marriage with a very worthy man […]” (42). In the end, the better female-centered elements outweigh the bad in this tale.
There are many problems with Charles Perrault’s portrayal of women in his fairy tales, most of them embodying the archaic and misogynistic values of 17th-century France spotted in protagonists such as Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty. However, the transgression of such norms in Bluebeard’s nameless wife leaves room for an incipient strong woman who finally acquires knowledge to overturn some of the outdated views of the time. While “it is difficult to determine the ideological intention of the narrator” (Zipes 6), it is also clear that most of Charles Perrault’s stories remain shackled in outdated patriarchal views all too common for his time.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women who run with the wolves. Ballantine Books, 1995.
Perrault, Charles. Perrault’s Fairy Tales. Translated by A. E. Johnson and illustrated by Gustave Doré, Dover Publication, 2012.
Zipes, Jack. When dreams came true: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition. Routledge, 2007.