From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"I lingered in the long passage to which this led, separating the front and back rooms of the third storey: narrow, low, and dim, with only one little window at the far end, and looking, with its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard's castle."--Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë
"We open the successive doors in Bluebeard's castle because "they are there," because each leads to the next by a logic of intensification which is that of the mind's own awareness of being"-- In Bluebeard's Castle (1971) by George Steiner
"All tale tellers know that fear is a potent spell. The curiosity which drove Bluebeard's wife to explore the hidden chamber lures us on to know the worst, and as we listen to horrid stories, we snatch a fearful joy. Human nature desires not only to be amused and entertained, but moved to pity and fear."--The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead
"Bluebeard" is a French folktale, the most famous surviving version of which was written by Charles Perrault and first published by Barbin in Paris in 1697 in Histoires ou contes du temps passé. The tale tells the story of a wealthy man in the habit of murdering his wives and the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of her predecessors. "The White Dove", "The Robber Bridegroom" and "Fitcher's Bird" (also called "Fowler's Fowl") are tales similar to "Bluebeard". The notoriety of the tale is such that Merriam-Webster gives the word "Bluebeard" the definition of "a man who marries and kills one wife after another". The verb "bluebearding" has even appeared as a way to describe the crime of either killing a series of women, or seducing and abandoning a series of women.
Bluebeard is a wealthy aristocrat, feared and shunned because of his ugly, blue beard. He has been married several times, but no one knows what became of his wives. He is therefore avoided by the local girls. When Bluebeard visits one of his neighbours and asks to marry one of her two daughters, the girls are terrified, and each tries to pass him on to the other. Eventually he talks the younger daughter into visiting him, and after hosting a wonderful banquet, he persuades her to marry him. After the ceremony, she goes to live with him in his château.
Very shortly after, Bluebeard announces that he must leave the country for a while; he gives all the keys of the château to his new wife, telling her they open the doors to rooms which contain his treasures. He tells her to use the keys freely and enjoy herself whilst he is away. However, he also gives her the key to one small room beneath the castle, stressing to her that she must not enter this room under any circumstances. She vows she will never enter the room. He then goes away and leaves the house in her hands. Immediately, she is overcome with the desire to see what the forbidden room holds; and, despite warnings from her visiting sister, Anne, the girl abandons her guests during a house party and takes the key to the room.
The wife immediately discovers the room's horrible secret: its floor is awash with blood and the murdered bodies of her husband's former wives hang from hooks on the walls. Horrified, she drops the key into the pool of blood. She flees the room, but the blood staining the key will not wash off. She reveals her murderous husband's secret to her sister Anne, and both plan to flee the castle the next day; but, Bluebeard returns home unexpectedly the next morning and, noticing the blood on the key, immediately knows his wife has broken her vow. In a blind rage, he threatens to behead her on the spot, but she implores him to give her a quarter of an hour to say her prayers. He consents, so she locks herself in the highest tower with Anne. While Bluebeard, sword in hand, tries to break down the door, the sisters wait for their two brothers to arrive. At the last moment, as Bluebeard is about to deliver the fatal blow, the brothers break into the castle; and, as he attempts to flee, they kill him. He leaves no heirs but his wife, who inherits all his great fortune. She uses part of it for a dowry to marry off her sister, another part for her brothers' captains' commissions, and the rest to marry a worthy gentleman who makes her forget her horrible encounter with Bluebeard.
Although best known as a folktale, the character of Bluebeard appears to derive from legends related to historical individuals in Brittany. One source is believed to have been the 15th-century Breton nobleman and later self-confessed serial killer Gilles de Rais.
Another possible source stems from the story of the early Breton king Conomor the Accursed and his wife Tryphine. This is recorded in a biography of St. Gildas, written five centuries after his death in the sixth century. It describes how after Conomor married Tryphine, she was warned by the ghosts of his previous wives that he murders them when they become pregnant. Pregnant, she flees; he catches and beheads her, but St. Gildas miraculously restores her to life, and when he brings her to Conomor, the walls of his castle crumble and kill him. Conomor is a historical figure, known locally as a werewolf, and various local churches are dedicated to Saint Tryphine and her son, Saint Tremeur.
The character's blue beard is regarded as a symbol of his otherworldly origins.
For Iona and Peter Opie, the tale reads as a legend imperfectly recollected. For example, a gap occurs in the narrative between the wife's entrance into the forbidden chamber and Bluebeard's unexpected return, a time when her house guests vanish without explanation, and Bluebeard's willingness to wait a quarter of an hour before slaying his wife is out of character and poorly excused. Although no earlier retelling of the story has been discovered, it may be assumed one existed.
The fatal effects of feminine curiosity have long been the subject of story and legend. Lot's wife, Pandora, and Psyche are all examples of patriarchal stories where women's curiosity is punished by dire consequences. In an illustrated account of the Bluebeard story by Walter Crane, when the wife is shown making her way towards the forbidden room, there is behind her a tapestry of the Serpent enticing Eve into eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
In addition, hidden or forbidden chambers were not unknown in pre-Perrault literature. In Basile's Pentamerone, one tale tells of a Princess Marchetta entering a room after being forbidden by an ogress, and in The Arabian Nights Prince Agib is given a hundred keys to a hundred doors but forbidden to enter the golden door, which he does, with terrible consequences. In the story of Prince Agib, the motive is clear: the forbidden door is a test. However, in "Bluebeard", the motive is less clear. It is not explained why Bluebeard would give a key to his wife that will reveal his horrific marital past. In an Indian story, an ogress looks after a prince while disguised as a beautiful woman and tells him not to enter the Tower, Pit or Kitchen, which will reveal her. In the Tower, an old man who has been tied up by her reveals who she is, in the pit are the bones of her victims, and the Kitchen contains three magical balls which the prince uses to escape the Ogress, with the final one a fire is caused which the Ogress runs into and burns to death in.
According to the Aarne-Thompson system of classifying folktale plots, the tale of Bluebeard is type 312. Another such tale is The White Dove, an oral French variant. The type is closely related to Aarne-Thompson type 311, the heroine rescues herself and her sisters, in such tales as Fitcher's Bird, The Old Dame and Her Hen, and How the Devil Married Three Sisters. The tales where the youngest daughter rescues herself and the other sisters from the villain is in fact far more common in oral traditions than this type, where the heroine's brother rescues her. Other such tales do exist, however; the brother is sometimes aided in the rescue by marvelous dogs or wild animals.
Some European variants of the ballad Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, Child ballad 4, closely resemble this tale. This is particularly noteworthy among some German variants, where the heroine calls for help, much like the calls to Sister Anne in Bluebeard, and is rescued by her brother.
It is not known why Bluebeard murdered his first bride; she could not have entered the forbidden room and found a dead wife.
Maurice Maeterlinck wrote extensively on Bluebeard and in his plays names at least five former wives: Sélysette from "Aglavaine et Sélysette" (1896), Alladine from "Alladine et Palomides" (1894) and both Ygraine and Bellangère from "La mort de Tintagiles" (1894), Mélisande from "Pelléas et Mélisande" and Ariane from "Ariane et Barbe-bleue" (1907).
In Offenbach's opera (1866), the five previous wives are Héloïse, Eléonore, Isaure, Rosalinde and Blanche, with the sixth and final wife being a peasant girl, Boulotte, who finally reveals his secret when he attempts to have her killed so that he can marry Princess Hermia.
Béla Bartók's opera A Kékszakállú hérceg vára (1911) names "Judith", which places her as wife number four, whereas Ariane would be wife number six, but fails to take Judith into account. Bartók's version does not name any of the wives that appear in it.
Anatole France's short story "The Seven Wives of Bluebeard" names Jeanne as the last wife before Bluebeard's death.
Alfred Savoir wrote in the 1920s a play "La huitième femme de Barbe-Bleue" (Bluebeard's eighth wife) from which Sam Wood and Ernst Lubitsch produced two films, other than starting from the point of being a plus one wife of Bluebeard and that it considers Anatole France's count of his wives, this play or the films share nothing with a description or numbering of the duke's wives.
In Edward Dmytryk's film Bluebeard (1972), Baron von Sepper (Richard Burton) is an Austrian aristocrat known as Bluebeard for his blue-toned beard, and his appetite for beautiful wives. This film names an American beauty named "Anne", who discovers a vault in his castle filled with the frozen bodies of his previous wives.
Other versions of Bluebeard include:
- Pantomime versions of the tale were staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London as early as 1798, and famous editions there were by E. L. Blanchard in 1879 and starred Dan Leno in 1901.
- Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Paul Dukas
- Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartók and Béla Balázs
- Barbe-bleue by Jacques Offenbach
- Captain Murderer by Charles Dickens
- The Awful History of Bluebeard by William Makepeace Thackeray
- Bluebeard's Keys by Anne Thackeray Ritchie
- The Seven Wives of Bluebeard by Anatole France
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
- Bluebeard's Egg by Margaret Atwood
- Bones by Francesca Lia Block.
- Bluebeard (play), an off-Broadway comedy by Charles Ludlam
- Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut
- Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
- The Bloody Chamber the eponymous story of Angela Carter's Collection
In Charles Dickens' short story, the titular character is described as "an offshoot of the Bluebeard family", and is far more bloodthirsty than most Bluebeards: he cannibalises each wife a month after marriage. He meets his demise after his sister-in-law in revenge for the death of her sister, marries him and consumes a deadly poison just before he devours her.
In DC Comics's Fables series, Bluebeard appears as an amoral character, willing to kill and often suspected of being involved in various nefarious deeds.
In the Japanese light novel and recently adapted manga/anime Fate/Zero, Bluebeard appears as the Caster Servant, where his character largely stems from Gilles de Rais as a serial murderer of children.
The most recent adaptation of the Bluebeard story is 'Bluebeard' by Hattie Naylor for Gallivant Theatre Company. Directed by Lee Lyford, this one-man piece updates the story in chilling, tautly written verse. 'Gallivant's 'Bluebeard' was created as part of the Bristol Ferment season in 2012 and has just had a short run at the Bristol Old Vic studio. The piece, performed by Paul Mundell, will be remounted at the Soho theatre in November 2013.
- Bluebeard is featured in Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics as part of its "Grimm Masterpiece Theater" season.
Several film versions of the story exist:
- Barbe Bleue" (1902 film) (Blue Beard), a short film by Georges Méliès
- Bluebeard (1944 film), a film by the cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, starring John Carradine
- Secret Beyond the Door..., a 1948 contemporary adaptation by director Fritz Lang and produced by Walter Wanger, with Michael Redgrave making his Hollywood debut in the Bluebeard-inspired role and Wanger's wife Joan Bennett as Redgrave's new bride.
- Blaubart, released in the United States as Bluebeard, a 1951 German-French film directed by Christian-Jaque, starring Hans Albers
- Landru, released in the United States as Bluebeard, a 1963 French film directed by Claude Chabrol, starring Charles Denner
- Bluebeard (1972 film), a film directed by Edward Dmytryk, starring Richard Burton
- The French film Barbe Bleue, directed by Catherine Breillat, is modeled closely on the work by Charles Perrault.
- Monsieur Verdoux is a 1947 black comedy film directed by and starring Charles Chaplin.
- Bluebeard: an Account of Comorre the Cursed and Gilles De Rais With Summaries of Various Tales and Traditions