Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête in French) written by Madame Leprince Beaumont in 1776, is renowned for its reformist and moralistic character, especially for discoursing feminine ideals. The story was written with the aim of educating young ladies of the virtues of femininity (Zipes 31).
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Beaumont wrote the tale in her magazine as an educational and moralistic story for she strongly believed in reforming the women readers. She wrote her stories in order to reform women within the Christian domain (Walker 61). The discourse of a good woman in her stories was apparent, and the one under study is no exception.
However, these feminine qualities portrayed by Beaumont surpassed the traditional constructs of feminine virtues. The feminine characters that Beaumont stressed on were far greater than just being a kind and self-sacrificing woman. This forward-looking feminine view is apparent in her story Beauty and the Beast. Though she retained many of the traditional feminine virtues of the eighteenth century, she challenged many others that subjugated women.
It has been stated that Beaumont supported female education, and stressed women’s superiority over men (Walker 61). Her stories opine her views on femininity and female superiority. The idealistic world of female superiority painted by Beaumont in her stories was mostly domestic and had a deep sense of religiosity in it. She herself stated that she used her novels as a device to “instill virtue” among “young readers” (Walker 61).
In Beauty and the Beast Beaumont portrays the female with feminine virtue becomes the real hero and saves a man doomed for his ignorant arrogance and feeling of superiority. This essay analyses the portrayal of feminine ideals in the story Beauty and the Beast. This paper argues that de Beaumont’s version of Beauty and the Beast transcended from the traditional feminine ideals, to present women as strong and willful rather than submissive and docile, even when they retained their virtue of kindness and generosity.
The setting of Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast is the world of merchants and nobility (Beaumont 1). The story depicts a class struggle of the merchants and the nobles, where the merchant’s daughters dream of upward mobility. However, the struggle is dealt with only briefly and the story moved on to the good-natured “Little Beauty” in contrast to her arrogant and airy sisters. The story narrates the feminine virtues that all women must embrace through prosperity and poverty.
The story presents a prosperous family in the beginning and shows the selfless, humble, and genteel behavior of Beauty. Beaumont’s Beauty becomes the ideal for feminine virtues. The story clearly demonstrates the feminine virtues that Beaumont wanted to preach among young women – goodness, education, tolerance, and humility. She spins the tale of an ill-fated merchant and his family of six children – three daughters and three sons.
Beaumont emphasizes that all the children of the merchant were educated by stating, “… he spared no cost for their education” (1). The heroine of the story, Beauty, the youngest of the six children, and the most “handsome” of the three sisters wan the one with sweet temperament. Beauty was not just a woman of kindness and of feminine virtues, but also courageous and hard working. The virtues of Beauty were demonstrated through her selfless conduct.
First, when her father was rich, she did not lose her head in arrogance like her elder sisters and treated all with courtesy. Then when their fortunes fell, Beauty remained composed and helped her father and brothers in hard time through her help to do the household chores. Then in the end to prevent, her father going into the clutches of the Beast with whom she falls in love and then marries. Her virtues are hailed and rewarded when the Beast turns out to be a prince under a fairy’s curse and becomes the Queen.
Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast is actually the story of Beauty. Beaumont actually adapted the story of Beauty and the Beast as a moralistic story for the education of young women. The true virtuosity of Beauty is revealed when she learns to keep a household and do the household chores even though she was not accustomed to work like a servant. Beaumont wants to reveal that hard work is another ideal for women, and they should take pride in doing household chores rather than be lazy.
When her father learns of the safe journey of his lost ship, he asks his children what they want from the city. While Beauty’s sisters ask for dresses and jewels, Beauty in her modesty asks for a rose that Beaumont explain, “Not that Beauty cared for a rose, but she asked for something, lest she should seem by her example to condemn her sisters’ conduct, who would have said she did it only to look particular.” (Beaumont 3)
Through this, Beaumont emphasizes that women of ideals would know the financial situation as well as the men and would take care not to squander hard-earned money. Beauty’s virtues are further demonstrated when she decides that it would be she who goes to live with the Beast in order to save her father’s life.
Though Beauty remains visibly scared of the Beast initially, she learns to like the heart within the scary facade, and a friendship between the two evolves. This demonstrates that Beauty had successfully transcended from her fears and prejudice against those who looked ugly even though she truthfully acknowledges it. Here Beaumont imbibes another ideal for women – always speak the truth. An ideal woman is one who speaks the truth, even if it is not endearing to the other’s ears.
Beauty has an unending sense of duty. Beaumont adorns her heroine with a sense of duty that is shown in all course of the story. She worked for the household as she feels it to be her duty to take care of the house – “Beauty rose at four in the morning, and made haste to have the house clean, and dinner ready for the family.” (Beaumont 2) However, it must be noted that Beaumont emphasizes that the female must work within the household, and that is her rightful duty.
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Beauty again becomes the ideal female, unlike her sisters who were lazy. However, it must be noted that the sphere of women’s work, as demarcated by Beaumont is the household. Beauty’s sense of duty is expressed further when she decides to go and live with the Beast in place of her father demonstrating that a daughter must be ready to sacrifice herself for the safety of her family (expressed as her father in the story).
However, it must be noted that Beaumont in her version of the story leaves it as a choice for Beauty to decide for herself if she wanted to do the sacrifice for her father and she viewed it as her duty rather than sacrifice as has been expressed in earlier version of the story by Madame de Villeneuve’s story (153-229). Therefore, Beaumont stresses the feeling of duty towards her parents should be an innate quality of women and should not be confused as a sacrifice.
Beaumont stressed the need to avoid vices in women through the discourse of the evil and conniving elder sisters of Beauty. Through the character of the sisters, Beaumont created an “other” for the genteel Beauty in order to demonstrate the vices that should be present in female character.
Beaumont in the very beginning of the story sates that Beauty was the youngest of the sisters but she was admired the most: “… but everyone admired the youngest one in particular…. [and] called her simply ‘Little Beauty’…. as a result it led to a great deal of envy on the part of her sisters” (Beaumont 1). Beauty relation with her sisters creates her character as a humble female.
Beauty stats that in order to hide her sister’s follies she asks for a rose from her father: “Not that Beauty cared for a rose, but she asked for something, lest she should seem by her example to condemn her sisters’ conduct, who would have said she did it only to look particular.” (Beaumont 3) In another instance, when Beauty returns to visit her family for a week, the evil sisters were unhappy to see Beauty so happy and adorned in riches. This leads them to plot against her:
Beauty’s sisters sickened with envy, when they saw her dressed like a princess, and more beautiful than ever, nor could all her obliging affectionate behavior stifle their jealousy, which was ready to burst when she told them how happy she was.
They went down into the garden to vent it in tears; and said one to the other, in what way is this little creature better than us, that she should be so much happier? “Sister,” said the oldest, “a thought just strikes my mind; let us endeavor to detain her above a week, and perhaps the silly monster will be so enraged at her for breaking her word, that he will devour her.” (Beaumont 12)
They were envious of their little sister’s good fortune and lamented over their misfortunes. They chose their husband unwisely as the elder fell for the love of good looks and the second daughter fell for wit. Bet both their husbands mistreated and neglected them. The otherness Beaumont created through the elder sisters showed the vices that women should not have.
Beauty’s sisters through their envious nature, constant harmful actions against their younger sister, and Beauty’s constant forgiveness outshine her and bring forth her positive qualities. Therefore, beauty’s good qualities set at the backdrop of the conniving evil elder sisters bring forth the former’s good nature. Beauty realised her true self through the unkindness and egocentricity that she did not want her husband to be neither handsome nor witty like her sisters.
On the contrary, she wanted a husband who was caring and warm hearted like the Beast. This self-realization of beauty to ultimately marry the beast was brought forth through the wickedness of her sisters. Thus, beauty’s unwavering kindness was received with wealth and happiness, while the wicked sisters were punished for their treachery and are turned into statues that would constantly witness their sister’s kindness and learn from her warm nature.
Beaumont undoubtedly wanted Beauty to become the ideal feminine role model with all the traditional values of kindness, generosity, humbleness, self-sacrificing, and trustworthy. However, her Beauty digresses from her predecessor’s Beauty in her essence of self-identity. Beauty is the individual in Beaumont’s novel. She is a girl with all the virtues of a true feminine irrespective of her class. Villeneuve recounts that her Beauty was of noble birth, and therefore, her good nature was innate to royalty (220).
However, Beauty of Beaumont was good-natured naturally irrespective of the class she belonged to. Further, in Beaumont’s story beauty assumed the central and maximum attention. In contrast to Villeneuve version of the story, Beaumont clearly omits a few lengthy areas of her predecessor’s novel – the episode of the beast’s early life. The Beast in Beaumont’s story is a character that supports in demonstrating beauty’s graciousness.
Beaumont creates allegorical beauty who loves books and she derives some of her good nature from her love of good books. Therefore, she stresses that beauty was a reading woman to emphasize the importance of education in young women. Therefore, many believe Beaumont’s Beauty was created in the middle class background, and not in the noble class, with the specific desire to create a new kind of heroine “specifically to reinforce the goals of the meritocracy for the young women who were the intended audience” (Cummins 23-5).
Beaumont’s Beauty is scholarly and has an intellectual element in her stature. Beauty amused herself with reading even when she did all the household chores. When at the Beast’s palace, Beauty explored the house, discovered “Beauty’s Apartment”, and found there a large library:
She opened it hastily, and was quite dazzled with the magnificence that reigned throughout; but what chiefly took up her attention, was a large library, a harpsichord, and several music books. (Beaumont 8)
Beaumont stressed that even when beauty was alone and afraid she found courage in her books, again stressing on the importance of education for women. Therefore, need for education for reformation of women formed an important discourse in Beaumont’s story.
So, was Beaumont creating a heroine who was educated and well read, full of virtue, but was docile, submissive like the traditional women, and feminine? Was Beaumont trying to show that the true mark of a woman was in her obedience, humility, and patience? On reading the story from the point of view of a modern feminist, Beaumont’s Beauty emerges as a submissive character that shows women to be self-sacrificing at the cost of drowning their won desires, and subjugating to the marriages that are arranged by their family in depicting beauty’s situation at the Beast’s castle is concerned.
Further, the aristocratic girl in Beaumont’s story is shown that one should be wise enough to marry a man who may appear as a beast at first appearance, but a true woman can transform even a beast to a beautiful prince (Griswold 63). Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that it was written in the eighteenth century and from the point of view of the then prevalent social orders, Beaumont appears to be a radical feminist.
One of the most radical views presented in the book was equal education for both boys and girls, when the then prevalent social norm was to school only boys. Beaumont’s Beauty is not always submissive as her beauty may recoil with horror at the first sight of the Beast but that does not prevent her from speaking her mind. This shows the willpower in the heroine. Then her decision to save her father was taken as she felt that she had equal responsibility to save her father like her brothers, and not as an act of sacrifice.
Further, when Beauty returns to meet her father, she indulges in her own wishes and does not submit to the Beast’s orders. Therefore, from the context of eighteenth century, the book upholds female independence and education that may seem trivial from today’s context but then, assumed great importance. Thus, Beaumont’s Beauty emerges not as a heroine but as a female hero in her Beauty and the Beast.
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