Friday, June 1, 2012

Beauty and the Beast (According to Cassie)

Beauty and the Beast (According to Cassie)

You may all think you know the story, but there’s chance that all you know is the Disney version, so let’s get to this.

Basically, there’s a merchant who has a fairly large family. Sometimes it’s just three daughters, sometimes it’s three daughters and two sons, and in one variation, it’s six daughters and six sons, but regardless, there are a lot of kids and no mother in sight. Because, you know, fairy tale.

And regardless of the total number of children, the merchant is successful and wealthy, and life is pretty great for the whole massive family. Until, that is, misfortune befalls. Though it takes many different forms – a warehouse burns down, ships are lost at sea, he’s cheated by foreign agents, and sometimes all three – the end result is the same: destitution.

As a result of this loss of fortune, the merchant has to move his family from their large, impressive home in the city to a tiny, run down home in the country, with not enough money left even for servants. The children have to take care of the house themselves, which goes about as well as you might expect because, of course, the majority of the merchant’s children are spoiled, shallow, and selfish.

All, that is, except for the youngest, a girl who is pure of heart and cheerful and appropriately named Beauty. Beauty does her best to keep the family going, and to remain positive and hard working, even in the midst of their misfortune. She gets little help from her siblings, unfortunately.

But then – good news! The merchant discovers a way that he might be able to get back some of the money he lost. The children besides Beauty all think this means immediately returning to the life they knew before, and so they start clamoring for him to bring back riches and gowns and jewels and such. Beauty, however, being more forward thinking, asks for nothing from her father but his safe return.

This doesn’t go over well with her sisters, and her father begs her to choose some small gift at the very least. So, to appease him, she asks for a rose.

And so the merchant rides off to reclaim his fortune, except that, spoilers, it doesn’t happen. And on the way back home, penniless, with nothing to show for the trip, he gets lost in the forest. A storm comes upon him, and not knowing his way, his life is in peril – until a great mansion appears out of the trees. Desperate for shelter, he makes his way inside, and is surprised to find the place entirely empty. But even more surprising, despite the lack of people, he finds a fire waiting for him with a feast set out and a room prepared.

He stays and recovers, all the while looking around and deciding what he would do with the wealth if it were his. And then, in a brilliant display of selfish entitlement, he decides that the place must be meant for him and his children, so he sets off to bring them back there to live.

On the way out, however, he spots a rose bush, and remembering his promise to Beauty, he picks one. No sooner has he done this than a great, massive, terrifying Beast stands before him. “After all I have given you and provided you,” demands the Beast, “why do you feel you can steal a rose from me? Saving your life was not enough? Your insolence will be punished!”

If this was just in response to picking a rose, I’d say the Beast was overreacting a titch. But give the father’s earlier declaration . . . yeah, kick his ass, Beast.

Anyway, the merchant tries desperately to explain that he picked the flower for his youngest daughter, who asked for so little in comparison to her sisters, and the Beast decides to be merciful. He will spare the merchant’s life, but in exchange for one of his daughters. She must come of her own free will, though, and if none do, the merchant’s life is forfeit. He has one month to make his decision.

So the merchant returns home and tries to keep the truth from his family, but he can’t. He spills the beans, and Beauty steps forward and says that she will go. The family tries to protest, but she is adamant. She asked for the rose; she will go.

And so, at the end of the month, the merchant escorts his daughter back to the home of the Beast. She is terrified, of course, but does her best to hide it and speak politely and respectfully, and that wins her some points. The Beast makes sure that she has come willingly; once he is certain that she has, he sends her to her rooms to pack two trunks with whatever she would like her family to have, enabling her to send gold and gowns and riches back to her family.

The next day, her father leaves, and Beauty begins her time in the palace. The Beast makes no demands on her, save asking that she dine with him each night. And each night, he asks her one question: “Will you marry me?”

On the first night, Beauty immediately says no, because hey, she just met the guy. And each night that he asks, she becomes more and more distressed that her answer must remain no. She is afraid that her constant refusal will anger him, but he takes it in stride, always assuring her that she can answer yes or no, but he has to ask each night regardless.

In some versions, Beauty has a series of dreams each night where she walks with a handsome prince who keeps telling her to see things as they truly are and free him from the Beast. In these versions, Beauty is portrayed as a bit dumb, though, because the hints become heavy-handed after a while, and she comes no closer to solving the mystery.

She comes to be quite happy in the Beast’s home – she has everything she could wish for, and she and the Beast become good friends in time. The only cause for distress in her life is each night at supper, when the Beast asks if she will marry him, and she must again answer “no.”

But in time, she also becomes homesick, and confesses to the Beast that she longs to see her family. The Beast replies that he can deny her nothing, though it may mean his life. But on that cryptic note, he sends her forth to her home with more riches, asking only that she promise to return to the palace in two months. This is the only thing he asks of her.

She makes the promise, and returns to her family, and tells them all about her new life. At first they cannot believe that she is happy and content, but she eventually convinces them of it. And she spends a happy two months at home, but when the time for her to depart approaches, her father and brothers beg her to stay, and so she keeps putting off her return one more day, and one more day, until, oh, oops! She missed the deadline.

Horrified, she immediately returns to the palace, and wandering its halls, finds the Beast lying as if dead. Overcome with guilt for what she has done, she falls to his side, weeping and apologizing and confessing her love for him. And at that moment, he wakes, and asks if she truly loves him, and if she will marry him. This time, she answers “Yes,” and as soon as she has, the Beast transforms into a handsome prince (potentially the prince of her dreams).

And they all live happily ever after.

Thoughts on the original tale:

Yeah, this is one of those rare instances where Disney made the original better. Much as I love the concept driving this fairy tale, it’s execution is a little more . . . uh . . . flawed. First of all, depending on whether or not Beauty has those dreams she can’t figure out, the main character gets turned into a little bit of a simpleton. Also, with the dreams in place, the reason Beauty eventually refuses to marry the Beast is because she’s got this handsome prince in her dreams that she’d much rather hold out hope for. Which . . . kinda negates the whole “learning to see past appearances” thing, and makes her eventual agreement to the marriage feel a lot more like a move made out of guilt and pity. And though it’s never stated this way, apparently love isn’t so much a factor in breaking the curse as just agreeing to marry him. But we don’t know. Because the curse is never explained.

So yeah. This one’s kinda full of holes, and really can only be improved by adaptation.

So what am I looking for in an adaptation? Here’s this month’s checklist:

Stronger protagonist. I don’t want Beauty to be a simpleton. I’d like to see her fleshed out a bit more and made into a stronger, more likeable character. As she stands in the original . . . I kinda want to slap her face. I’d like that feeling to go away.

Backstory for the prince. I know you all think you know it, but again, that’s Disney talking in your ear. In the original tale, we get no explanation for why this prince was turned into a Beast. None. There’s one reference to “terrible enchantment,” but beyond that, nothing. I need exposition, folks!

Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return. Seriously? She just . . . lost track of time? Really? Beast, why do you want to marry this girl again?

The relationship between Beauty and the Beast to be built up a little more. We’re told in the story that “they eventually became friends” – I’d like to see that happen. I’d like to see them become equals and become friends and then eventually fall in love.

For the actual message of the story to be that beauty comes in many different forms. Because in the original, it tries to be. But it isn’t.

Line up for the month:

Week 1 (also known as later today): Belle by Cameron Dokey
Week 2: Beast by Donna Jo Napoli
Week 3: Beauty by Robin McKinley
Week 4: Spirited by Nancy Holder
Week 5: Beastly by Alex Flinn

And expect a guest post this month on Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley!

Feel free to read along, and I’ll see you later today with the first review!


  1. Regarding the prince's backstory, de Villeneuve (the author of the very first version of this tale) actually gave a lengthy one: the prince's governess was an evil fairy who wanted to marry him and cursed him to become a Beast when he rejected her, a curse that would have lasted forever had not a more benevolent fairy given the curse a loophole of "get a girl to agree to marry you in spite of your appearance." It was de Beaumont who removed this explanation and condensed this tale into the more commonly known one...but then again, she also removed parts that are most likely better left out like Beauty literally being a fairy princess and she and the Beast being cousins, so there you go.

    But yeah, I like Disney's backstory for the prince a lot better: it makes him a more dynamic and interesting character by turning him from a generic prince who just happened to piss off the wrong fairy and doesn't actually need to change anything about himself into a deeply flawed man who needs to change and grow along with the heroine.

  2. I was under the impression that du Beaumont's version was one of the originals, so thanks for that edification! :)