Our earliest recording of “Beauty and the Beast” is in the form of a Roman tale by Apuleius. The love story of Cupid and Psyche was published along with other tales in The Golden Ass (Tatar 186). This tale of mysterious suitors and trial for love was seized by the minds and imaginations of many different cultures. Many of the others have been forgotten. The most well known comes from the French.
According to When Dreams came True by Jack Zipes, in France during the early 1600s the fairy tale was looked upon as the droll pass time of the plowboy and house wife. During this time there were no fairytales in print. The fairy tale ranked with the vulgar illiterate. The aristocracy left oral to the common folk and the printing press to more important matters.
In this same time frame there began to be a curious movement amongst woman of high class. Wishing to become an organized force in the sophisticated, intellectual world they began forming clubs. These clubs were called ‘solons’ and were used as a sort of private retreat in which women could express their views on art, freedom, marriage, and literature. In addition to the discussion there were also organized games and entertainment for the group. One popular sport was that everyone told a story which would then be voted on at the end of the tellings. These women drew upon the tales their nurses had taught them in cradles to impress their fellow society women. Each tale was embellished with many fine trappings to give it sufficient appeal. Salons prided themselves on their unique abilities. With every activity great emphasis was placed upon making it the most exotic, using the most modern words, and inventing a new form of aristocracy.
Fairy tales entered the literary circle when, by the 1690s, men and women both began publishing books of fairy tales that had been told first in the salons. Charles Perrault began a reform amongst the tales fashioning them into stories more suitable for children. He often attended salon meetings to hear the stories of the women.
By the 1700s salon fairy tales had gone out of fashion as more and more children’s books were written. However some continued on this tradition. In 1740 Madam de Villeneuve published La Belle et la Bête, Beauty and the Beast. Her version included elaborate dream sequences and a bit more plot detail than what our modern audience is used to. Particulars concerning Beauty’s past and the Beast’s curse are set forth roaming many pages.
Madam Le Prince de Beaumont took up her shears and began the process of making Beauty and the Beast fit for children. In 1757 “Beauty and the Beast” was published in a work with several other stories meant for young women. These stories are filled with domestic virtues, always displaying the traits needed to become the perfect woman (30-47).
It is this ‘perfect woman’ version that readers are most familiar with today. Our story throbs with the simplified but still vibrant brush strokes of the imaginations that lived lives of society and balls. Men become beasts and the beasts live as gentlemen here. Women, like roses, are the elegant heroines, perfect not only to look upon but also beauty of the heart that is able to see a heart of gold under the covering of a beast.
Though written in the male dominant time period of the early 1700’s the tale “Beauty and the Beast” is a story about the woman. The beast plays a minor role in the story in comparison to the depth of Beauty’s character. The heroine in each version is given traits or completes tasks that indicate her worth in the society she was created. The man often stands as a mysterious figure in the shadows, a trophy for the woman in the end.
Madam de Beaumont’s version of this story was written in a book of tales directed to young women. In order to treat the reading as not only entertainment but also for moral education the character ‘Beauty’ was laden with a full host of perfections. She is quiet, meek, and good tempered. Her actions towards her father honor him to the highest degree while also giving the image of self-sacrifice, a desirable trait in a marriage. Her complete submission to the beast is rewarded with a palace to explore and command. Young ladies were taught that though a woman must sacrifice every other worldly desire for the whim of her husband, doing so would make her the center of the home and the true mistress of the affairs of family. Beauty’s beauty is perfect, yet it is not beauty alone that wins her a prince. Although it is important to look your best our story illustrates that pure love is required to make a man into the person you desire him to be.
While the women are portrayed in De Beaumont's story—included in Tartar's anthology—as either perfect or flawed, the men of this story are quite without character. Besides the merchant there are three sons in the family. There are no great feats performed. These are left to the women to struggle through. They stand in the background of our story showing little pain and doing little work. In the final scene Beauty is reunited with her family. Her sisters are sent off to stand as stone statues forever. The kind brothers however are welcomed into the fold. Though few of the characters in this story are graced with names it is more often the sisters that receive the most attention, while the brothers only smile and watch the story unfold. (Tarter 58-78)
“Beauty and the Beast” represents a field of story collectively called the “Beast Tales” or “The Beast Bridegroom.” A beast may come in many shapes and sizes. The traditional tale of “Beauty and the Beast” is never specific about what sort of animal the beast might be. Artists have taken their pick and have chosen from the powerful creatures of night: wolves, bears, lions, and boars. In the Scandinavian rendition East of the Sun, West of the Moon the beast is portrayed as a great white bear. Retellings that stretch across many nations and through time have the girl marrying an entire host of creatures including sheep, snakes, birds, dogs, and leopards. The beast is always a man in disguise waiting for the one person who may break the enchantment. Though the details of the stories may vary a bit, the base structure of a girl and a beast remains a constant. (Zipes 30-47)